Carolyn Castro-Donlan needed a school in the Washington, D.C., area that would provide adequate services for her autistic fifth-grader.
Her family’s experience with a Fairfax County, Va., public elementary school was bad enough that they sold their house and moved to another area with better schools.
To find their new home, the Castro-Donlan family took advantage of a relatively new option in real estate search — the ability to search for homes for sale within a specific school’s attendance boundary.
While for-sale listings often provide information about which school district a property is in, finding out the specific schools that serve a particular home often involves additional research. To choose a school first, and then search for a home online — as the Castro-Donlan family did — was all but impossible.
The Castro-Donlan family found an elementary school in Loudoun County, Va., that they felt would be perfect for their special-needs child. To find a home that would put them in that school’s attendance zone, they used a school boundary search tool from Century 21 Redwood Realty, a brokerage serving the metro Washington, D.C., area.
"The search tool allows you to back into whatever you’re looking for," Castro-Donlan said.
Screen shot of Trulia’s school zone attendance-based map search. All homes within the highlighted area above, activated by clicking on the school’s icon on the map, are in the selected elementary school’s attendance zone.
The Castro-Donlan family is currently under contract for a house that falls within the attendance zone of the school they want their child to attend. They sold their previous home in August, and are renting a home that’s in the attendance boundary of the school they’ve chosen.
For families with school-aged children, the ability to search for homes by school attendance boundary is an obvious attraction.
Real estate marketplace Trulia has offered the capability since July. In March, national franchisor Century 21 Real Estate LLC rolled out school attendance boundary search on its national website.
As of Nov. 1, all Realtors now have access to school boundary information through Realtors Property Resource (RPR), the national parcel-based property information database backed by the National Association of Realtors.
Trulia, Century 21, Estately, RPR and many other websites that offer school boundary search license data from Maponics LLC, a Vermont-based provider of geographic information system (GIS) data including school, neighborhood and ZIP code boundaries (Redfin says it gets data from an unnamed third party, and enhances it with input from its local real estate agents).
Screen shot of Century 21 Redwood Realty’s hand-built, school attendance boundary-based home search. The outlines areas delineate the different middle school attendance zones in Loudoun County, Va. Clicking on one of the tiles will show all of the homes for sale in that school attendance boundary.
Century 21 Redwood Realty hand-built its school boundary search tool without Maponics data, using "an extremely time-intensive process," said Edward Berenbaum, principal broker and owner of the brokerage.
The tool, available for Loudoun and Arlington counties in Virginia, lets users see elementary, middle or high school attendance boundaries overlaid on a map in both counties. By clicking within one of the boundaries on the county maps, homes for sale within that school’s attendance zone show up on the map.
Berenbaum said the school boundary search tool has been "wildly successful," and the brokerage has plans to expand its coverage area to include the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas.
Paul Gallagher, vice president of marketing and product development at Maponics, said Realtor.com and Zillow have licensed Maponics’ school boundary data. But the portals haven’t added school boundary search capabilities yet, and it’s not certain if they will.
Realtor.com operator Move Inc. announced in July 2010 that it was licensing Maponics’ school boundary data, and that users would soon be able to view attendance zones and district boundaries in relation to homes and apartments of interest.
Realtor.com users can currently see the distance to nearby schools from individual properties, and GreatSchools ratings for those that are public, but they cannot see school attendance zones or search for properties within them.
Zillow displays school attendance boundaries. While site users can search for homes by neighborhood, they cannot search by school attendance boundary.
(Neither Realtor.com nor Zillow would comment on if or when they might make school boundary property search available.)
Most of the Maponics data is licensed in a straightforward GIS format, Gallagher said. So, licensees develop different ways to incorporate the data into search, he said.
Maponics also has an application interface that presents the data in a more ready-made form, but that hasn’t been utilized by many real estate sites yet, Gallagher said.
Maponics’ school attendance zone data currently covers about 72 percent of the U.S. student population.
Sites using Maponics data allow users to find schools designated for a certain home on the home’s listing page, by overlaying the school’s attendance boundary on a map of area listings after a user click’s on a school’s icon on a map and by entering the school’s name in the search bar and showing the results as a list or on a map.
School attendance information on a home’s listing page on Estately.
Estately and Redfin’s tool also lets homebuyers set up listing alerts that notifies them via email as soon as a new listing shows up in a school attendance zone they’re interested in. Users can select "instant" email alerts and Redfin users have the option of a daily email alert, as well.
"Millions of users have used our school search since we released it over a year ago," said Estately co-founder and CEO Galen Ward.
The ability to searching for homes by school attendance boundary is not just useful for families with children. A home that falls within the attendance zone of a good school may be more desirable than similar homes served by a less prestigious school, said residential home appraiser Richard Hagar of American Home Appraisals, an appraisal firm serving the Seattle area.
Hagar said he’s seen similar houses on either side of a street that fall into different school attendance zones have as much as a $15,000 to $20,000 difference in appraisal price.
When appraising a home, Hagar says he tries to find comparable properties that are within the same school attendance zones, because that can have such a big effect on the home’s price relative to that of others in the area.