Mapping Transportation Costs for Home Buyers
By Elizabeth Razzi
April 13, 2008
When you're stuck in Beltway traffic burning $3-a-gallon gasoline to creep along at walking speed, it offers time to think. Would it be easier if I left home earlier? Would I be better off riding a train? How bad will my commute be in five years? Would life be easier and cheaper if I found a job in Pittsburgh or Nashville or some other place where the roads aren't as crowded and the homes aren't so expensive?
A new Web-based tool developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based urban development think tank, can help put facts behind those daydreams. The CNT developed a Web site, at http://htaindex.cnt.org, that takes into account household expenditures for transportation, along with home prices, to estimate whether a home is truly affordable for households with moderate incomes.
Academics at the CNT argue that a home isn't really affordable if its location forces a household to devote an excessive amount of the family budget to transportation. How much is excessive? They say 18 percent of the area's median pretax income is typical; lowering that to 15 percent would be better. That's on top of the 30 percent of pretax income that they estimate as an affordable budget for a home's mortgage principal and interest plus property taxes and homeowners' insurance, which lenders call PITI.
With gasoline prices nearing $3.50 per gallon and Metro fares that recently increased by the largest amount in the transit system's history, keeping Washington-area transportation costs below those thresholds is only going to become more difficult.
The Web site is a data fest even by wonk standards. It's a map-based tool offering information on housing and transportation costs for 52 metropolitan areas, including the Washington-Baltimore area. You can zoom in on individual neighborhoods and pull up U.S. Census information on the percentage of neighborhood residents who use mass transit, their average monthly spending on transportation, the number of wage-earners and cars per household, and other data. The Web site also displays nearby subway and commuter rail lines and stations.
The interactive maps are the type of thing urban planners will pick apart with gusto, but they're also an interesting tool for people pondering a move. It wouldn't be surprising if the information is eventually woven into real estate search tools, such as the local multiple-listing service or Zillow.com.
Other housing-affordability measures ignore the need to travel, CNT President Scott Bernstein said. Travel consists of more than your daily commute. "Only 20 percent of the trips we take in America are to work," Bernstein said. All those other little trips, runs to the grocery store, Little League games and the dry cleaner's, actually make up the bulk of our travel.
It's no surprise that most neighborhoods in the District score high on combined affordability. Despite a lack of grocery stores in too many neighborhoods, many have good access to bus and subway service, retail shops and places of worship that are within walking distance or a short drive away.
What is surprising is that pockets of combined home/transit affordability are scattered across the far-out suburbs that are usually assailed for their dependence on automobiles. This reflects the way development has been happening in some of these communities, where jobs, shopping and recreation are developed near each other, creating little urban-ish centers out in the 'burbs.
For example, the map shows splotches of affordability -- where housing and transportation costs combined consume less than 48 percent of the median income -- throughout the suburbs, including areas around Gaithersburg, Bowie, Chantilly (VA) and Dale City (VA).
But you also can find pockets of un-affordability in the farthest reaches of the Washington area. Combined housing/transportation costs exceed that 48 percent threshold in the Solomons Island area of Calvert County, according to the Web site.
The site has some major drawbacks. Although it was launched nationwide only last week, the database uses 2000 Census data, which are growing stale. Housing and transportation expenses have soared since the government collected that information. Even the recent decline in home prices has barely unwound the big run-up in values that occurred after 2000.
"The trend is sort of in the wrong direction," said Peter Haas, director of CNT's geography, research and information department, who acknowledged that housing and transportation costs are now greater than those reflected on the Web site.
The site also reports $57,291 as the median income for the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan statistical area. That's on the low side for Washington, where more recent Census Bureau
estimates pegged the median at $78,978. The lower figure is based on the Census Bureau definition of the Washington-Baltimore MSA as stretching from the Chesapeake Bay west into parts of West Virginia, where lower wages pull down the average.
The outdated numbers mean you can't simply pluck a dollar amount from the Web site and use it as the basis for your real-live, right-now budget. But you can still use the site to compare one neighborhood to another. Then you can develop your own price estimates to help gauge whether a home will truly be affordable once you add in the transportation expenses you will bear once living there.
Always do a trial commute during rush hour before you make an offer on a home. Time the ride and estimate your gas consumption. If you're thinking of taking Metro or commuter rail, price out the weekly expense.
As you size up neighborhoods, take the time to figure out where you will worship, buy groceries, go to the movies, enroll the kids in dance class or pick up an extra gallon of milk. Is bus or rail service available, even if only as a backup for days when your car is in the shop? Will your children be able to ride bicycles to the pool, or does a six-lane highway make that too dangerous?
It's easy to underestimate your total transportation budget when you house-hunt on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And misjudging your travel needs can seriously derail your after-purchase budget.
Reader comments at:
My favorite quote from article above:
"The Web site is a data fest even by wonk standards."
Naturally, this being a Washington Post story, i.e. with impact and reach far beyond the D.C. area, the reader comments within 12 hours of this story seeing the light of day included one from what I'm sure is an Obama-supporter blaming SUVs for the Fall of the Roman Empire, and yet another pitching real estate, witness:
1.) "To all the Americans who spend an hour or two commuting in a SUV, truck or other gas guzzling vehicles....you deserve the pain you are experiences in the pocketbook. It won't get any cheaper."
2.) "Buy now in South Arlington between Shirlington and Clarendon before it's too late. Summer 2010 will e stoo late."
Yes, the real estate sickness is as out-of-control in D.C. as here.
But at least the latter has the virtue of being correct.
South Arlington between the Shirlington area -near WETA-TV, where PBS' Jim Lehrer News Hour is produced- and Clarendon in central Arlington is a pretty good place, esp. now that the mass transit there is getting much improved, courtesy of a coming trolley and better access to the Pentagon Metro Station.
See http://www.piketransit.com/default_old.aspx and http://www.stationmasters.com/System_Map/PENTAGON/pentagon.html
I lived for three years not far from Fort Myer and the Clarendon Metro (and The American Spectator magazine, founded in Bloomington by conservative IU grad R. Emmett Tyrell )
See http://www.walkarlington.com/walkable/clarendon.html and
That included two years (and one insane blizzard) with a great former housemate, who, as I've written before, is now the Kansas Senate Majority Leader, a former Editor of The Daily Kansan in Lawrence and a Georgetown Law grad, to boot. And someone with a great political future!
Trust me when I tell you, the coterie of South Miami/Gables young professionals along S. Dixie Hwy. only wish they had an area that's as convenient, fun, dynamic and easy to get around on foot, as the Clarendon and Court House Metro areas of Arlington, where there is a range of interesting retail, recreation and office space that I've yet to discover down here.
I mean there was an Apple Computer store there before there was one in D.C., capisce?
See http://www.commuterpage.com/art/villages/courthouse2.htm and
The AMC Courthouse Theatre there is where I probably saw about 75% of all the films I saw over a period of 15 years. And talk about close, from the top of the Metro escalator to the theatre box office is maybe 50 feet away. As is the entrance to the Arlington County Govt. Bldg.
For the last seven years I lived in Arlington County, I lived near the Ballston Metro Station, http://www.commuterpage.com/art/villages/ballston2.htm , which is exactly the kind of urban, transit-oriented area along what's W. Dixie Highway and First Avenue from a future Aventura train station around N.E. 203rd Street, north thru Hallandale Beach and continuing past Hollywood should be like.
It's embarrassing that for all the talk about taking advantage of future transit, the only thing remotely like it so far is Hollywood Station, http://www.hollywoodstation.com/
As I've mentioned to many other transit-oriented public policy people in both Broward and Miami-Dade, just the idea that the Broward County Commission would even consider thinking of building a new HQ for Broward County Govt. or a new County Courthouse in the future that was NOT within a short walking distance of either the Tri-Rail or a future train station along the FEC tracks, is preposterous, and certainly something I'd fight.
That sort of backward thinking is why a pro-transit voter like me was thumbs down on the proposed penny/transit tax two years ago.
Speaking of a myopic transit situation, see this great Orlando Sentinel story from Wednesday, Judge tosses thousands of citations, fumes at toll 'injustice' by Rene Stutzman, Sentinel Staff Writer, April 23, 2008 http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/seminole/orl-toll2308apr23,0,2167491.story
This story is interesting for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that 1.) it actually didn't happen in South Florida, and 2.) in a story about motor vehicles, the photo depicting the family featured in the story is of them on a plane. And you've got to read the reader comments, too, at: http://www.topix.net/forum/source/orlando-sentinel/THTFVV0K4DAGQSVD8
But, of course, as I have often lamented here and in South Beach Hoosier, when it comes to transportation and civic design that promotes and complements smart, planned growth, almost everyone in authority down here acts like they first have to re-invent the wheel.
But only after numerous payments to a series of consultants that will tell them in the end what common sense should've told 'em anyway.I'll discuss this WaPo article in the future from a South Florida perspective, as well as show how even the Washington Metro that most Washingtonians find indispensible to their quality of life, like the Miami-Dade Metrorail, is not without its problems. http://www.wmata.com/
On the other hand, they never gave up and abandoned a station due to the homeless problem.
That painful lesson was brought home to me again on Wednesday by a post by blogger Cindy Cruciger of Computer Colonics, http://www.ferfelabat.com/ , which I first heard about that same day via South Florida Daily Blog, http://southfloridadailyblog.blogspot.com/ .
In an amusing but forthright essay titled Walking in Miami,
http://www.ferfelabat.com/?p=848 , she questioned the sanity of actually following in the literal footsteps of the Herald's Anna Menendez, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/columnists/ana_menendez/story/506010.html
I recall when I came down here from Arlington four years ago and was told that the county had thrown in the towel on that station, thinking someone was pulling my leg.
My next post will tell of a recent outrage against a smarter transporation policy perpetrated on the citizens of Hallandale Beach by their elected City Commission and Mayor, acting out of an overabundance of stupidity and myopia, and a dearth of information and preparation.
For more transit oriented articles and stories, see: http://www.commuterpage.com/cnews/current.cfm#story11893