Whew! It’s taken us over two and a half years to find a house to buy, but we finally did it! In that time, we’ve lived in three different rented houses. We’ve investigated the blocks around at least 100 different homes for sale, and we’ve toured inside at least 50 of them.
So, what makes our new house on Yale Road, Menlo Park so special? Is it the house itself? Absolutely not. It’s OK for us, but nothing special. We’ve probably seen a dozen houses we like more.
True to my promise in other articles on Playborhood, we’ve chosen a house with our children’s quality of life as our first priority. For us at least, that means our children’s opportunity for a rich neighborhood life with other kids is most important. After that, our other highest priorities are school district (but with our own criteria for what makes a good school district) and walkability to retail and other important places.
In this article, I want to tell the story of how we found this house and how we came to a decision to buy it.
In my Guerilla Playborhood Hunting Techniques article series, I describe three steps that we’ve been using to search for a Playborhood around a home for sale: 1) research neighborhood reputations, 2) research neighbors of promising homes for sale online, and 3) visit the neighborhood and talk to neighbors. I discuss each of these steps below for this house.
Research Neighborhood Reputations
Yale Road is in the Allied Arts neighborhood of Menlo Park. We’re friends with two families there: one on College Avenue by Blake (about three blocks away), and another on Princeton Road (about a block and a half away). So a great deal of what we know of Allied Arts we know from them. Both families love their immediate blocks, where there are lots of kids playing, particularly on Princeton, which is just one block away from Yale. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean Yale Road has lots of kids playing, but it does indicate that the neighborhood has a certain tendency to have this.
In both places, our friends tell us that Halloweens are very, very active.
Also, they and others told us that people often walk to the retail shops in downtown Menlo Park from there, and indeed, it’s less than a mile away – about a 10 minute walk. On walkscore.com, the Yale house gets a score of 71, which is very good for a suburban residence.
Finally, and perhaps most important from a neighborhood perspective, we’ve been very impressed by what we’ve heard about Oak Knoll Elementary School, which is the public elementary school our kids would go to (unless over-enrollment problems in Menlo Park force us to go elsewhere). Like all schools in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, it has great test scores, but what makes it stand out is that it has a reduced homework policy thanks to its visionary principal, David Ackerman. I’ll be writing about this topic in a separate article soon, but here I’ll just say that educational researchers have not been able to identify any correlation between homework in the elementary years and student achievement, so homework in those years seems to be a waste of time that cuts into children’s playtime.
Research Neighbors of Promising Homes for Sale Online
I received frequent email alerts of homes that I might be interested in from my brokers and from Movoto.com. When I received these, I would scan the prices, bedrooms, baths, square footage, and location (which from my local knowledge I could usually map to a neighborhood). Whenever I saw a promising house in a neighborhood I liked, I would research next-door neighbors of the house as I describe in an article on this topic. In our case, I was looking for preschoolers and parents likely to have kids in the future, since our kids are 3-1/2 and 6 months, and we plan to have more.
In this case, when I saw the alert for the Yale house, I found it appealing enough to do next-door neighbor research on Zillow.com and Intelius.com. For the neighbor on one side I Googled the parents and found a birth announcement in 2006 in which an older brother was mentioned. Great news!!! Then, I Googled the neighbors on the other side and found the personal home page of the owner, in which he showed wedding pictures from the summer of last year. I guessed that a newly married couple buying a nice 3+ bedroom house in Menlo Park would be having children soon.
So, my online neighbor research was a home run – it was likely that both next-door neighbors would have kids our kids’ ages. This was definitely enough good information to warrant my taking the next step, a neighborhood visit.
Visit the Neighborhood and Talk to Neighbors
When I visited the immediate neighborhood around the Yale house for the first time, the first thing I saw was two neighbors and a toddler girl hanging out talking. Good. I joined their conversation, telling them that my wife and I were interested in buying the house for sale, and because I have two preschoolers, I wanted to know about others who lived around there.
Since I was talking to a mother of a toddler, I got a rundown on the feeling of the neighborhood and the kid population of houses close to her. I was impressed, both by her friendliness and by what she told me about preschoolers there. After that, I knocked on the doors of the next door neighbors of the house for sale. I spoke to the father whose child had a birth announcement two years ago, and indeed he spoke of his two children, and then I went to the other side and spoke with the new bride. Sure enough, she was expecting a child. Both were very nice.
In all, including the soon-to-be-born baby, I counted 12 preschoolers within five houses on either side of the house for sale on both sides of the street, and a high concentration of those – seven – within two houses on the same side of the street. Thus, in terms of preschooler population, the Yale house was the best I had seen in all my home searching.
However, I was a bit disappointed to learn that kids there didn’t have much of a life outside in the neighborhood. In other words, it’s no Playborhood. I did hear of a few middle schoolers who occasionally played street hockey around the corner, but the preschoolers didn’t have any habit of playing in their front yards or along the sidewalks or street. In response to a question about whether kids played there, one of the parents told me to check out the park a few blocks away.
While this was disappointing, in the final analysis, my wife and I concluded that the immediate neighborhood around the Yale house has tremendous “raw materials” for becoming a vibrant community for kids – a great kid population, some friendly parents, and a high quality, play-friendly elementary school. In deciding to buy there, we concluded that we would have to be catalysts in taking those raw materials and making a Playborhood out of it.
So, we haven’t bought a house in a Playborhood. Instead, we’ve bought one in a neighborhood with fantastic potential. We’re planning to be quite active there from the beginning. We have some great ideas for how to create an outstanding Playborhood. Stay tuned…