House hunters: know your school boundaries

February 18th, 2011 3:00am
Software helps buyers pinpoint which school a particular home is assigned to

Steve Bergsman
Inman News™

Sometime this summer, my son and his family will be moving to Charlotte, N.C., and they have already begun the process of looking for a home. One of the key determinations as to where they eventually will settle down is the quality of the local elementary school because they have one daughter who will be entering kindergarten within the next year.

Decades before, when my kids were about to enter elementary school, we moved from one location in Mesa, Ariz., to another because we not only found a bigger house we liked, but the school district we were heading to had a very good reputation all the way through high school.

Schools and school districts are so important to homebuying decisions that I was surprised to learn that no one had created efficient software for delineating school districts until last year, when Maponics unleashed to the real estate community a new tool set called Maponics School Boundaries.

I've mentioned Maponics before in one of my columns and it was no surprise to me that it was the first out-of-the-gate with school boundary software, as this small company based in White River Junction, Vt., is one the leading providers of location-based information, including neighborhood and ZIP code data.

When I saw something called Maponics School Boundaries had hit the market, I called Mark Friend, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. One of my first questions to him was, "What the heck took so long?" for a product like this.

He, in fine humor, responded, "It wasn't easy to create."

The problem was simply that of logistics. There are about 14,000 school districts across the country and Maponics had to go to each and every one, extrapolating the data, which sometimes was digital but more often than not was just descriptions scratched out on paper.

"Some school districts were very savvy," said Friend. "Some were more rudimentary."

There are probably other school district software products in the market, but Friend said the Maponics product was the first to market that delineated each school boundary within the school district. "Our project shows where the school is located," he said.

"We geocode that latitude and longitude right to the rooftop of the school and then we show the residences that -- if they have children living there -- which schools they would be attending."

Maponics School Boundaries also highlights school district boundaries.

That's all great, but I wondered about the proliferation of private and charter schools.

"Private schools, charter schools (and) magnet schools operate under a different set of standards, as there are no formal boundaries associated with them," Friend told me. "So, what we do is include them in the database and show where they are located. We also include some information related to these schools."

For Realtors, the big question is: Is this information available and accessible?

And the answer is: yes.

One of the organizations using the Maponics School Boundaries is Realtors Property Resource, a subsidiary of the National Association of Realtors. Basically, anyone who has membership in the NAR can get this information.

"We've been working with Maponics for a long time and we license a variety of the company's other data," said Marty Frame, RPR's president. "One of the challenges has always been school attendance zones, which is something we have been asking for. Maponics really invested the time in going out and creating these boundaries. We tested them out and it was something we really wanted to have here."

Maponics also has multiple listing service clients that license the data directly. If, as a Realtor, you own a real estate brokerage company, you can license the data for your website and allow customers and prospects to interface with the software -- that's a pretty good marketing tool.

RPR was hot for the product because it knew the software created information consumers really wanted.

"If you think about it, the proximity to high-quality schools is one of the most important factors in homebuying decisions," Frame said. "If prospective buyers have kids, selecting a property where they will be going to school is critical. This is especially so in urban neighborhoods, where one school to the next can be quite different in quality."

Even for homebuyers without children, the placement of a good school can also be important because living in a district where the schools are considered high quality makes it easier to market your home when the time comes to sell.

As ZIP code and school boundaries change, "The 'currentcy' of the product is key," Friend said. "That's a core competency. You always want current data and this is especially true with schools. We are committed to updating each school district annually. There is no silver bullet; we are going to have to go back and touch each one of these districts at least once a year."

Being current is extremely important because the desirability and value of a prospective home can change dramatically if a school's boundaries are altered and that house is suddenly within a different school boundary. It's an event -- especially in consolidating urban locations -- that happens all too frequently.

"People do care about what school district they live in," Friend said. "But what they really care about is where their children are going to attend school. You can be located in a school district that might have a dozen elementary schools. Some of the schools might be great -- some of them might not be so great."

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade," has been ranked as a top-selling real estate investment book for the Amazon Kindle e-reader.

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