Where should we buy our next house? How do we narrow down neighborhood choices?
June 12, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Where in Southern Maryland should a young family start looking for a home to grow in?

My family lives on Capitol Hill/Eastern Market/Lincoln Park and while we absolutely love it, we are getting sick of the crime and the grime (we're East of the park), and we see ourselves moving someplace where our young daughter can play in a yard and attend a *stellar* public school system. I work near L'Enfant Plaza, my husband works in Dupont Circle. Ideally we'd like as reasonable a commute as possible - we've been spoiled living on the Hill. We'd like to be metro accessible. We'd like to be able to walk to stores and restaurants etc. And we'd like to minimize the douchebaggery if possible. If there's a place where the 30-something NGO workers live + has good schools + a downtown + reasonable commute to Dupont/L'Enfant, that would be our dream. We love the character of Capitol Hill, so ideally we'd find something with some character.

We've thought of Takoma Park/Silver Spring/Mt. Ranier and really love a lot about TP but (1) it's a long commute into the city, (2) I lived in SS and hate the outdoor mall vibe, (3) the schools are not as good as we'd like, (4) TP doesn't have nearly as walkable a downtown as we would like. Most importantly #3.

Is there such a place in Southern Maryland? Should we really be looking at Falls Church and dealing with the commute? Assuming we should be looking at Bethesda, how do we figure out where in Bethesda would be best for us? I feel like we kind of lucked into the part of the Hill where we live.

We want at least 3 bedrooms as we might have another kid, but it could need a lot of cosmetic work. We can afford to spend around $800,000 I think, give or take $100,000 depending on some factors still to be resolved. We can't easily afford private school, so I don't think moving to a place with everything but really superb schools would cut it.
posted by semacd to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm confused when you say southern Maryland--to me that implies someplace like Charles County, which is serious sprawl country and would make both of your commutes hellacious. Ever seen the Branch Avenue metro stop, which would be your nearest (not saying much) metro in those parts? There is absolutely NOTHING around that station at all.

Honestly, it's gonna be hard to find anyplace with a vibe like Capitol Hill in the DC burbs. Things turn to sprawl and big boxes real fast. *Maybe* somewhere in the Clarendon/Ballston corridor in NoVa would work, though I can't speak to the schools there. Bethesda outside of the small "downtown" core around Wisconsin/Woodmont is not particularly walkable; I actually prefer downtown TP to Bethesda for walkability, even though it's tiny.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:52 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have to agree with ActionPopulated's points above.

Perhaps if you adjust your expectations a bit, Bethesda would work for you, especially near the Metro station. My parents lived in Bethesda right behind Thomas W. Pyle Middle School. Not quite walkable area the way you've gotten used to in DC, but my younger brother found it a great area to get around on his own, whether on his bicycle or cobbling together Ride-On and Metro. It was a very different experience from my cousin's kids in Gaithersburg, who were basically stuck at home unless somebody drove them somewhere.
posted by needled at 9:04 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Yeah, "Southern Maryland" means, approximately, south of Oxen Hill in Prince George's, Charles, Calvert, or St. Mary's counties. (Exact line depends on who you talk to/what you're talking about))

If you do expand your looking to Virginia, with your price point you could find a nice house in the Del Ray or edge of Old Town Alexandria that's probably walkable to Metro and shopping. Sadly to some extent you have to pick one or the other for both King St and Braddock Rd stations, but both are possible. A easy commute into L'Enfant and decent to Dupont.

But, based on my looking, just like you have some compromises in your Capitol Hill location, you'll almost surely have to make different compromises someplace else and decide which factors are worth the most.
posted by skynxnex at 9:13 AM on June 12, 2012

You will not find everything you are looking for in the suburbs, especially in southern Maryland, sorry. (If you're willing to compromise a little more in the commute, you could live in Annapolis and drive to the New Carrollton metro. But that's a pretty serious distance.) Otherwise, it really does seem like Bethesda or Takoma Park is the best fit.
posted by spaltavian at 9:19 AM on June 12, 2012

If you can spend $800k and you prioritize good schools, then Bethesda/Chevy Chase is your place. And that's really about it. Potomac is too exurby for you. Cabin John has no metro access (though the bus is fairly efficient, I've heard).
posted by deanc at 9:45 AM on June 12, 2012

Ahhh, maybe I mean Montgomery County.

Are there excellent schools in Alexandria like in Bethesda/Chevy Chase?
posted by semacd at 9:49 AM on June 12, 2012

My nephew goes to a great school in Rockville, he has friends who live down the street, they go to the park and play tennis on the well-maintained courts--idyllic suburban childhood by my lights.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:02 AM on June 12, 2012

Rockville has good schools and single family homes walking distance to the downtown area (which has the metro, library, visual arts center, movie theater, parks, restaurants and shops within a few blocks), but most of the shops and restaurants are in one of those soulless new mixed-use developments. However, they do have a lot of activities during the summer (kids' nights, bands, movies, wine tastings with live music, etc), and quite a few festivals throughout the year, like a jazz festival and a wine festival.
posted by amarynth at 10:03 AM on June 12, 2012

Also, some of the homes close to downtown are stunning Victorians (I think) in the historic district. Lately, I've been fantasizing about living in one of these two on my way to work every day.
posted by amarynth at 10:18 AM on June 12, 2012

Check out the Columbia Pike area in Arlington.
posted by downing street memo at 10:32 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

most of the shops and restaurants are in one of those soulless new mixed-use developments.

I really like the Rockville town center development, and I say this as someone who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts (which has several naturally-occurring "downtown" areas). Yeah, if you don't like purpose-built town centers it's not going to work for you at all, but among purpose-built town centers I think they did an excellent job. The library is particularly well done.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:01 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bethesda/Chevy Chase. Or you might look into the Arlington schools? It seems like the 30-somethings with small kids live in Arlington these days, and it's the 50-somethings with high schoolers who are in B/CC. Shirlington has a very nice planned downtown. But I don't know anything about the schools.
posted by palliser at 11:14 AM on June 12, 2012

I don't know, the schools in TP are pretty good (says this resident). The "downtown" is very small, and feels much more like a small town shopping area than like a city shopping area. If you can walk to the downtown, you can walk to the Metro, which is an easy ride to Dupont (I'd guess the same as getting on at Bethesda). L'Enfant is not much further. I personally like it much better than Bethesda, which has always felt a bit antiseptic to me, and I lived and worked there for much of my childhood, before the Disneyfication. It feels worse now. I tend to think of both Bethesda and TP as skewing a bit older, but not too much older, than 30-something. Maybe late 30-something. At least in TP there are a ton of kids around. I think of Hyattsville and Mt Ranier as attracting a younger crowd, in part because the amenities that you list (particularly good schools and downtown) are not present and the housing stock is much cheaper. (800k would buy several average houses in Mt. Ranier.)

But, I'll admit that I'm a bit confused by your question because I don't think that 30-something NGO workers can typically afford an 800-900k house. If you can afford a house that expensive, I kind of wonder whether you can afford to live in the city and send your kids to private school. That's what I would likely do if I could afford it.
posted by OmieWise at 11:30 AM on June 12, 2012

You might check out Carderock Springs. Houses are in your price range and are cute, the neighborhood is great for kids, and the schools are excellent. No metro, but the driving commute isn't horrible.
posted by procrastination at 11:41 AM on June 12, 2012

I'd be looking more NW DC and in Northern Virginia, like Rosslyn, based on what you're looking for. Southern MD is suburban hell.
posted by empath at 12:02 PM on June 12, 2012

I lived in both Rockville and Takoma Park and I much preferred Rockville. Rockville is a very multicultural area, once you get past the surface Rockville Pike and the malls. It was somewhere I could get my eyebrows done at the Persian salon, go to a Hair Cuttery with a Korean stylist, and pick up a soy sauce chicken from the Chinese grocery on the way home. And the restaurants! Korean-style Chinese with handmade noodles, Northern Chinese, Taiwanese, Peruvian chicken, Japanese ramen ... I didn't find Takoma Park to be as diverse - it seemed to lack the kind of "organic" diversity I found in Rockville.
posted by needled at 12:27 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

On the not affording private school thing---I went to an affluent public high school in the Midwest and live really close to 2 high schools in Bethesda now. There was a writing contest this past year that my friend was judging, and I got a chance to look at some of the entries.

I was floored by the awful writing skills of these junior and senior kids in regular English courses at these high schools.

This same friend taught a private SAT prep course to rising juniors and they were horrible at math. They were in regular classes and good students according to their report cards, but they apparently had really poor math skills.

So if you plan to stay in this area, be wary of anyone who says the MoCo school system is great. Parents want to say it, realtors want to say it, school districts want to say it. Compared to DC public schools, sure, they're great. But you should ask about average SAT scores and average scores on AP tests, and really take the time to do that research if you really can't afford the costly private schools.

It makes more sense to spend less on a house and ensure that your kids get the best primary and secondary education possible, because having lousy math and writing skills really shuts down a lot of great future career choices. I know a few people who tried to switch careers and pretty much couldn't because the grad program they wanted to get into required taking a physics course (an algebra based one!) or math course that they couldn't hack because they'd never taken serious math courses during high school or had enough basic math education and then graduated with degrees that required no real mathematics or science education.

In short, spend on a solid primary and secondary education over a fancy house or neighborhood. Make sure you don't get up in any school district's positive PR talk (e.g., "We offer a zillion AP classes!" or "We have a gifted and talented program!") or any private school's glossy "Our grads go to Harvard, Stanford, and Yale!" Make sure you have solid numbers for these claims and that they match what you want for you kid.
posted by discopolo at 12:49 PM on June 12, 2012

By the way, I live in Bethesda and have lived in NW DC before and I very rarely see kids just playing outside the way I used to as a kid. I see cute little toddlers in strollers w/moms or nannies,and preteens and teens hanging around in groups (acting like they're being filmed on reality TV and trying hard not to look into the camera and act all casual), but I never see kids play as I used to with other neighborhood kids. I don't see the kids ride bikes up and down sidewalks alone (maybe they dont allow that on sidewalks here) or in empty parking lots. They're always being supervised by an adult.
posted by discopolo at 12:57 PM on June 12, 2012

It's probably not relevant just yet, but you might care in the future: Montgomery County has excellent magnet programs. Most of my classmates from high school had stellar SAT and AP scores and felt totally overprepared for the first one or two years of college, including at very selective schools. More importantly, I was surrounded by people who were genuinely enthusiastic about learning and weren't just gunning for a 4.0.

It's not a perfect system. They're a lot more competitive now than when I was a kid, so it may be kind of a crapshoot to get in, and it can be a very stressful environment. But it also has everything I've heard parents want for a quality education: intelligent classmates (with involved parents), passionate teachers, and a supportive administration.
posted by tantivy at 1:05 PM on June 12, 2012

Bethesda is about as outdoor mally as Silver Spring. Just with more expensive stores. I always thought SS had a much grittier feel - at least outside of that Georgia Ave mall area - than Bethesda.

You're on two different Metro lines, so the commute is going to be a pain in the ass wherever you end up in the suburbs unless your husband can walk from Farragut.

Also, you can buy a house - not a big one - for $800k in East Bethesda - between Jones Bridge and East-West Highway, Wisconsin and the country club. It seems like a really nice neighborhood with quiet streets and lots of trees and easy walk to metro and downtown Bethesda. (At least last time I was there a year or so back.)

If your daughter's still a couple a years away from actually going to school, why not sell your house and rent for a while in a couple of areas, see what you like.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:53 PM on June 12, 2012

As an imperfect point of comparison, here are SAT scores for some schools in the area. I have had these a while, I believe I got them from the Washington Post and from the web pages of various school districts when we were looking for a new place with good schools. Notice that Thomas Jefferson draws off the top students for many of the Fairfax schools, so SAT scores of other schools are likely lower as a result.

2010 SAT avg NOVA top ten (excluding Thomas Jefferson):
Langley 1812 (Fairfax)
George Mason 1795 (Falls Church City)
McLean 1778 (Fairfax)
Yorktown 1741 (Arlington)
Woodson 1738 (Fairfax)
Madison 1734 (Fairfax)
Oakton 1729 (Fairfax)
Marshall 1690 (Fairfax)
Washington-Lee 1670 (Arlington)
Robinson 1665 (Fairfax)
* TJ 2200 (magnet)

** Montomery County Maryland
Whitman 1879
Churchill 1824
Wooton 1822
Poolesville 1813

If you really want to get into the swamp on this, you can take a look at some of the school discussion on the DC Urban Moms Forums.
posted by procrastination at 6:17 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

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