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Know Your Neighborhood

February 8, 2013

By Steve Wright

Identifying and buying homes in walkable communities

 

Since the dawn of time, buying or selling a home has been about “location, location, location,” as the old saying goes. Buyers want to know a home’s proximity to good schools and commercial districts. Sellers want to utilize every possible plus available to market their homes and attract interested buyers.

But in a time of economic downturn and a new era in environmental awareness, a home’s location takes on a whole new dimension. More and more buyers are asking for — even demanding — homes in walkable neighborhoods. Sellers are crafting sales pitches about the ease of a stroll to the local patisserie. And REALTORS® are looking for new tools with which to showcase a home’s walkable location.

How can a REALTOR® or home buyer know when a neighborhood is truly walkable? Is there an empirical way to prove walkability? Why would someone selling or buying a home even care?

“To me, walkability is a quality of life issue,” said Kirsten Kaufman, a REALTOR ®with Prudential Northwest Properties in Portland, Ore.

“When people can walk or bike their kids to school, walk or bike to the store, etc., they get to know their neighbors and their neighborhoods. This instills a sense of community that has an intrinsic value and makes people want to live there,” said Kaufman, who calls herself “Portland’s Bicycle REALTOR®.”

“In my own experience in Portland, my clients are willing to pay more for a home — or accept less in terms of square footage and amenities — in exchange for proximity to shopping, entertainment, work and school.”

When asked how she determines and demonstrates a neighborhood’s walkability for a home, she is quick to mention WalkScore.com, a free Web site that utilizes Google maps to show the walkability of any address.

Visitors to the Walk Score site simply type in their address — or the address of a house they are considering buying — and the site lists the distance to the nearest restaurants, stores, post offices, libraries, movie theaters and other destinations. The address is then assigned a score of its walkability on a scale of 1 to 100.

“There are so many benefits to walkable neighborhoods: they lower your environmental impact, improve your health and are better investments than less walkable neighborhoods,” said Matt Lerner, chief technology officer for Front Seat, the software company that developed Walk Score.”

According to an NAR survey, 55 percent of Americans prefer mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. We built Walk Score to help people find walkable neighborhoods, and having a Walk Score lets people easily compare the walkability of different properties,” said Lerner, who served as lead program manager for Windows Vista during a six-year stint at Microsoft.

Lerner encourages REALTORS® as well as buyers and sellers to get familiar with Walk Score and green concepts like walkability.

“A green real estate agent understands that the best investment in a home is also the most sustainable. For example, if you aren’t dependent on your car you are less likely to be the victim of another gas price spike. If your home has a high Walk Score, is near transit and is near your work place, you are going to save a ton of money on transportation while protecting the environment,” Lerner said.

Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, a Portland consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis and innovation, said that “a walkable neighborhood has lots of commonly frequented destinations nearby within walking distance.”

“People are more concerned than ever about gas prices, about fitness issues and about the environment. Families are looking for neighborhoods where the kids can walk to places so mom and dad don’t have to play chauffeur all the time. And people want more interesting walkable destinations,” said Cortright, who is also a senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities, a national organization of urban leaders.

Cortright believes Walk Score to be a useful tool in evaluating walkability and its relationship to home values, and he has data to prove it. He recently completed a report for CEOs for Cities, looking at the connection between walkability and housing values. He used Walk Score as the measure of walkability, and constructed a model of housing prices in 15 markets around the country, using data from 95,000 property sales. The study controlled both for the characteristics of individual houses (size, number of bedrooms and baths, age) as well as neighborhood characteristics (proximity to the central business district, income and accessibility to jobs).

“We found that walkability had a statistically significant, positive impact on housing values in 13 of the 15 markets we examined,” said Cortright.

“For the typical metropolitan area, each additional point of Walk Score was associated with a $700- to $3,000- increase in home values, after controlling for other observable factors. To give you an idea of what kind of difference that makes in the marketplace, we looked at the difference in home values between a typical house that had the 50th percentile Walk Score, compared to an otherwise identical house that had the 75th percentile Walk Score. Going from the average level of walkability to the 75th percentile raised the value of the median house by between $4,000 and about $34,000, depending on the market.”

“The biggest gains in value associated with walkability were in the large cities with the highest densities — and best transit systems — like San Francisco and Chicago,” Cortright said.

Jim Duncan, a REALTOR ®and partner with Nest Real Estate Group in the greater Charlottesville, Va., area believes Walk Score is a good starting point when researching walkability.

“Certainly, a house with a score of 80 is in a more walkable area than a house with a score of 20. But to know for certain you need to actually walk it. Walk the neighborhood and talk to the neighbors. Ask them what they walk to. You also need to determine what walkability means to your buyer. For Europeans, walkability includes longer distances: a mile and a half to two miles. Americans don’t want to walk as far,” said Duncan.

Duncan said his clients are focusing more and more on walkability.

“Really and truly, many are looking for this when they go to buy. The way I define this with my clients is ‘being close to stuff, close to the things of civilization:’ coffee shops and a grocery store, as well as restaurants. Parks are huge for many of my clients. They want green spaces they can go to with kids.”

“I have young clients without kids who came from about 25 minutes outside of Charlottesville. They don’t want to drive as much anymore. They want to walk or ride their bikes to work. It’s a huge lifestyle choice on their part. Some clients are motivated by gas prices or they desire to be environmentally conscious. Others want an urban environment,” Duncan said.

“And often it’s about quality of life. They don’t want to be in the car so much. They also want to save money.”

As REALTORS® are catching on to marketing walkability, they are blogging about it and spotlighting it in advertising materials. This is true for Diane Brooks, a REALTOR ®with F.C. Tucker Company, in the greater Indianapolis area.

Regarding a sale for which Brooks represented the sellers, Brooks found out after the offer was accepted that walkability was very important to the buyers.

“It was one of their top criteria. They had lived in [the village] before and are now returning as empty nesters. They wanted to be in the village and have the ability to walk to the library, five blocks from this home. I had included a Walk Score in my marketing on that home,” said Brooks.

“I will check the Walk Score Web site for any home that I have listed that is close to restaurants and shopping and post that score. We have taken photos of some of the retail establishments, shops and coffee spots nearby and have them on a Walkability Flyer for the home. We also plan to upload them to Realtor.com for this new listing. If a destination is within 1.5 miles, we consider that walkable and will include it in our list.”

“Frequently, I will ask a seller to write a letter to a potential buyer that expresses ‘Why We Love Our Home.’ More often than not, the attractions of the home include the people nearby and the home’s surroundings. Even though most sellers are not yet familiar with the term ‘walkability,’ they understand it inherently and recognize its importance to quality of life,” Brooks said.

Kirsten Kaufman echoes similar sentiments.

“The goal of my business is to help people who want to drive less and enjoy life more, and I have to say that message has really struck a chord with my clients. My business has almost doubled since I identified this niche, and I find it personally rewarding on many levels. It’s inspiring to work with people who would trade a big private yard or a gourmet kitchen in exchange for a farmer’s market or community garden around the corner. These are people who would gladly pay extra to spend their evenings visiting with neighbors or sitting on their porches than stuck in a car fighting traffic for hours. Walkability just seems naturally desirable to me.”

 

Steve Wright frequently writes about Smart Growth and sustainable communities. He and his wife live in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Contact him at: stevewright64@yahoo.com