Imagine that you are an eager home hunter who can't believe your luck. The newly listed property you are touring exceeds all the criteria on your wish list: It's sparkling clean with every amenity you desire. The price is right, too.
But you step outside to take in the surroundings. It's pickup time at the busy grade school across the street, which is next to a cemetery. Beyond the back deck, there's a tangle of overhead power lines, but you still are able to see and hear the roar of planes circling before they land at a nearby airport.
Now picture the same house on a peaceful cul-de-sac. Children tend a lemonade stand across the street, while friendly neighbors wave hello as they collect the mail. Charming stores and restaurants are a short walk away. Ready to make an offer?
"Context is everything in real estate," said Allyson Hoffman, a Re/Max agent who works in the north and northwest suburbs. Hoffman's 27 years of experience have taught her that location is one of the most critical factors in a home search because it's permanent.
Outdated kitchens are routinely gutted and outfitted with new cabinets and appliances. Dingy basements become cozy rec rooms with the addition of carpeting and drywall. But the shopping center across the street is likely to stay put, and there's little a homeowner can do to change that.
"Location is largely a matter of how it makes the client feel to be in that particular place," Hoffman said, noting that while many home hunters want trees on their property, others feel isolated in a wooded location.
When looking for a place to put down roots, homeowners do seem to have some clear preferences. They want great neighborhoods close to work. In the National Association of Realtors' 2010 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, based on survey results from over 8,000 buyers and sellers across the country, buyers ranked quality of neighborhood (64 percent) and convenience to job (49 percent) as the most important considerations when selecting a place to live.
Convenience to friends and family, quality of the school district, and proximity to shopping and leisure activities also topped the list. Seven percent of buyers sought homes close to public transportation.
That makes sense to Realtor Mary Bremer, of Keller Williams Realty in Glen Ellyn, who has seen the importance of sticking close to work and other frequented places when making a home purchase. People who move to the Chicago area for the first time or those who leave the city for a house in the suburbs often underestimate commutes and then quickly tire of time spent in the car, she said. Escalating gas prices only add to their woes.
That can spark buyer's remorse, with homeowners deciding to cut their losses and find a new house closer to work or public transportation. To avoid this situation, Bremer advises buyers to clock their potential commutes during different times of the day before putting in an offer. "But I can only say so much," she said. "At the end of the day, it's their pick."
In addition to work, homebuyers also factor in play when making a purchase, the Realtors' survey shows. Seventeen percent of respondents desired a home close to parks and recreational activities.
Leisure factors in for many buyers who target southwest suburban Palos Park, said Douglass Blount, a Palos Park homeowner and broker/owner of Prudential LT Blount Realtors. Large, wooded lots and homes within walking distance of forest preserve trails attract horse and nature lovers alike.
"Some people are wowed by the latest kitchen gadget," Blount said. "But I would say that's secondary to most Palos Park buyers." Years ago, after purchasing a home a block away from forest preserve trails, Blount began taking daily nature walks. He's continued this habit for more than two decades.
But whether or not they are hikers or horseback riders, almost all buyers desire a "quality neighborhood," a concept that is hard to define. While crime statistics and school rankings help provide a snapshot of an area, they give little clue as to whether neighbors socialize with one another or get involved in community organizations. Some sleuthing can help determine that.
Instead of clicking on the computer, you might begin a search by scouting prospective neighborhoods. If you have children or pets, search for clues that the neighborhood will be welcoming to them: swing sets in yards, community parks and pools, and dog parks, for example. Ask friends or co-workers if they know anyone who lives in the area you are targeting and whether you might be able to speak with them.
Whenever possible, get out of the car and walk the sidewalks. Visit schools, churches and neighborhood hangouts. Have lunch in a local restaurant, taking time to speak with residents about the pros and cons of their area.
Though "perfect" locations are rare, decide what you can live with — and what you can't. "If something little bothers you, say the street is a little too busy, chances are it is still going to bother you five or 10 years from now," said Jen Vargas, an agent with Century 21 1st Class Homes in Schaumburg.
Home hunter and lifelong Chicago resident Paola Portela is proof that "perfect location" means something different to almost everyone. Portela's Irving Park condo vibrates with the sounds of buses, trains and cars. It's in front of a cemetery. And the commute to her job as a pediatrician in the suburbs is more than an hour each way. But she loves all of this.
Portela and her husband are now searching for a house in Norridge, but noise and long commutes won't dissuade her from buying a property, she said: "I like the hustle and bustle. I like that it makes me feel I'm attached to the world."
Location may also present opportunities, especially for first-time buyers. Homes on busy streets or near schools or shopping centers often have lower price tags, within reach of buyers who may not otherwise be able to afford them.
Eight years ago, Jessica White and her husband searched for a house in Wheaton to be close to her parents in Glen Ellyn and so that their young family could benefit from the community's good quality of life. "We weren't sure we could afford Wheaton at first," White said, but when a fixer-upper on busy Main Street became available, the Whites made an offer that was accepted.
"That house was our way in," said White, who lived in the house for several years with her husband and young children before selling it to move to a quieter neighborhood. "We could live with the busy street, and now here we are."