When Realtor Laurie Murphy listed the quaint, almost cottage-like, house in Ardmore for sale on May 31, she had no hesitation in believing the property would fly off the market.
After all, the number of homes for sale across the Philadelphia region, and across the nation overall, has reached astonishingly low levels. Demand remains high. And with three bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms, more than 1,200 square feet, and a park just down the street, Murphy believed, her listing, priced at $289,000, would be considered a steal.
Yet despite the new backyard deck, the stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and a driveway that accommodates two cars, there was one thing Murphy thought might prevent the property from selling for more than $300,000: Located on the 2800 block of Oakford Road, it's in the Delaware County section of Ardmore, not in Montgomery County. Meaning that whoever purchases it will miss out on the highly coveted Lower Merion School District — by merely a few blocks.
"It's so crazy what a difference it makes," said Murphy, based in Bryn Mawr with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. "If this was in Lower Merion, it would probably be going for at least $350,000. I've already gotten a million calls asking, is this home in Haverford or Lower Merion?"
To be sure, the Haverford Township School District is nothing to knock. According to the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile prepared by the state Department of Education, Haverford High School has an academic score of 94 out of 100 and a graduation rate of more than 97 percent.
But it can be hard to beat the school districts that have long ranked among the foremost in the region when it comes to home buyers' preferences.
Demand for homes in top districts is nothing new, here or nationally, and is long considered the quintessential "chicken and egg" situation. Observers have frequently asked whether school quality influences home prices, or whether home prices influence school districts.
In the last few years, however, market observers say, the scramble to find homes in top-tier districts has become a full-out frenzy. With interest rates at historic lows and inventories down, bidding wars have become almost normal, they say. To secure properties, many buyers are offering more than asking price — sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars. Even bolder, Realtors say, many buyers are waiving standard contingencies, such as appraisals or financing conditions, to coax sellers to accept their bids.
(In typical home-purchase transactions, contingencies are established to protect the buyer. An appraisal contingency, for example, enables a buyer to renegotiate or even walk away from an offer if the appraisal for the home is lower than the buyer's bid.)
House-hunting hysteria has boosted prices in some zip codes in the region higher — especially those along the Main Line, where trendy downtowns and highly rated school districts predominate. Meanwhile, observers say, such sharp price spikes are posing a massive problem for typical middle-class families, many of whom want to send their children to the best public schools but are increasingly finding that such homes in a price range they can afford are nearly unattainable.
"It's really tough," said Linda Theuer, a Delaware and Chester County-based Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. For $300,000 to $400,000, she noted, "there's not a lot that you can buy for the Wayne area."
To see what was available across the region during the week following Memorial Day, the Inquirer scoured listings in the top school districts of suburban Pennsylvania and South Jersey to find houses listed in or close to the $300,000-to-$400,000 range. That range is much higher than the median price of a house in the Philadelphia suburbs — in the first quarter of 2017, about $216,000 — but represents an entry point for some of the top districts.
The school districts were selected using data from the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile and other third-party websites that release regular rankings based on test scores, graduation rates, teacher quality, and more.
In these sought-after districts, the Inquirer found, houses listed in that price range were often snatched up within days, if not hours. Properties were off the market before weekend open houses even rolled around. Some of the houses progressed from "for sale" to "under agreement" as this article was being written.
For the most part, Realtors said, it's rare to find homes at this price point in the school districts chosen. Many of the houses were no bigger or more grandiose than those in other parts of the region, but the appeal of the school districts, and the communities that comprise them, drove the prices up. According to Realtor.com, a national study last year revealed that, on average, homes within higher-rated public school districts are 49 percent more expensive.
Many buyers in the region see those prices as more than worth it.
School quality was Dionne Dent-Lockett's number-one priority when she and her husband were looking for a home for their two children, she said. Ultimately, after months of searching, her family last year settled in Ardmore — in the Haverford Township School District.
"We pounced on our house in Ardmore immediately," Dent-Lockett said, paying about $305,000. "I literally had a couple of hours to think it over."
"But for the next 12 years, I would have lived in a trailer park just to get my kids to a good school district, to get them a good footing in life."
Here are some the houses the Inquirer considered from May 30 through June 2. (Median prices are based on Trend Multiple Listing Service data; median income, on U.S. Census data.)
Tredyffrin/Easttown School District
Bedrooms: 3 Bathrooms: 2 Home size: 1,302 square feet Built: 1950
List price: $410,000
Median price for zip code in first-quarter 2017: $567,000
Median household income in zip code: $115,473
Realtor Susan DeCurtis listed this quaint home on a private drive, and it went under agreement within six days, she said. "People make decisions on real estate based on the school system," said DeCurtis, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach in Devon. "When you are in a good school system, you know your property is going to retain its value and that if you need to sell, it will be in a desirable area."
Radnor Township School District
Bedrooms: 4 Bathrooms: 1.5 Home size: 1,438 square feet Built: 1925
List price: $342,800
Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $445.000
Median household income in zip code: $118,801
Realtor Linda Theuer said she put this twin house, on the 400 block of St. Davids Avenue in Wayne, on the market about 11 a.m. on Friday, May 26. By the end of the day, she had two offers. "It was under contract by Saturday morning," said Theuer, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. "So I canceled the open house for it, but close to 30 people still showed up.
"In a market like this, where there's so little inventory, it's very, very difficult to find a home in a good school district," Theuer said. "With the internet and young people being so savvy, they are watching this stuff, and they arrive with checkbook in hand — it doesn't give you a lot of options."
Moorestown Township School District
Bedrooms: 4 Bathrooms: 2.5 Home size: 1,736 square feet Built: 1960
List price: $355,000
Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $406,250
Median household income for zip code: $120,625
"The $300,000-to-$500,000 range tends to be a very hot price point in Moorestown," said Realtor Lorna Kaim of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. This house, however, has been on the market for more than 50 days. It has "great bones," Kaim said, and is at a "good price point for people to get into the Moorestown area."
"A little elbow grease would go a long way here," she said.
In 2005, Money magazine named Moorestown as the best town to live in in the United States, a distinction Kaim was quick to point out. With a top-notch school district and taxes lower than in some zip codes in nearby Camden County, this Burlington County township, she said, has seen bidding wars break out for homes in both high- and low-end price ranges.
Central Bucks School District
Bedrooms: 4 Bathrooms: 1.5 Home size: 2,342 square feet Built: 1978
List price: $350,000
Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $432,350
Median household income in zip code: $125,563
This house in Buckingham was the largest of the ones looked at and was priced at $350,000. Liz Schaefer, a broker at Realty One Group Legacy, said she listed the home $20,000 higher than the most recent sale on the block. It sold within a week.
"This price range is on the lower end for Central Bucks," Schaefer said. "Everything here is selling quickly these days — just at a higher price range."
And not all the buyers are parents of schoolchildren, Schaefer said: Many are empty-nesters or retirees. "They know it'll resell faster and higher."
Lower Merion School District
Bedrooms: 3 Bathrooms: 1 Home size: 1,172 square feet Built: 1915
List price: $430,000
Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $434,500
Median household income in zip code: $112,229
Realtor Pamela Cloud of Coldwell Banker Preferred in Media said there's much more to Narberth than just the Lower Merion School District: "It has a cute downtown that is becoming more popular, it is walkable."