6 Ingredients of Strong Housing Markets

Community elements essential to supporting favorable home prices over the long haul.

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With lower home prices and attractive mortgage rates, 2009 will present plenty of bargains for real estate shoppers. But as the historic bust continues, Americans everywhere are learning a painful lesson about home buying: property values don't always increase. As such, anyone looking to purchase a home this year should make sure they're buying into a community that can support long-term value. With the help of housing experts, U.S. News compiled a list of the top 6 ingredients of strong housing markets:

Please not that although the following factors will help support a home's value over the long term, they can't prevent short-term declines in a given market—especially in light of the ongoing real estate crash. "These would be forces that are going to impact [your home] over the next five to ten years, as opposed to next year," says Mike Larson of Weiss Research.

1. A well-groomed neighborhood: Well-maintained homes and landscaping have a positive effect on property values in that community, says Joshua Dorkin, founder and CEO of BiggerPockets.com, a real estate networking and information site. By caring for the appearance of their homes, residents help to create a more aesthetically-pleasing environment that future real-estate hunters will want to buy into. So when you're eyeing a home, make sure to take a drive through the entire neighborhood. Take note of how the neighbors care for their homes, lawns and gardens. "Run-down houses and abandoned cars are big red flags," Dorkin says.

[See The Run-down Foreclosure Next Door: What You Can Do.]

2. Good schools: Given the importance of education, communities located within strong school districts tend to support higher home prices. Parents, after all, will want to move into the communities with the best educational opportunities. "The school district is important in terms of increasing demand for that particular area," says Richard Moody, chief economist at Mission Residential. Would-be home buyers can determine the strength of a local school system by accessing online information from local governments or community websites, Moody says.

3. Low Crime: Low crime rates also support strong home values. Since nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where they feel unsafe, crime limits housing demand in a given community. As a result, it's important to obtain crime statistics for the neighborhood you're considering moving into. The best way to do that, says Steve Dexter, a foreclosure expert and author of the book Beat the Banks, is to contact the local police department. "The police department is a public utility," Dexter says. "Most medium- to large-sized [communities] have a public information [officer] that is dedicated to interacting with the public." By contacting this office, home shoppers can get their hands on all the information they'll need to determine a community's level of safety.

4. Close to public transportation: Proximity to public transportation or commuter rails can also help boost home values, says Ron Phipps, a broker with Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I. He argues that Americans are increasingly willing to pay a premium for properties that allow them to be less dependent on cars. "Access to bus lines and commuter rail lines is of huge value," Phipps says. "The price of fuel is going to go up again and a lot of my clients are saying, 'O.K., how do we position ourselves to minimize that impact?'" Phipps says.

5. Favorable population trends: It's also important to look at the population trends in the city you're considering moving to, Moody says. "You want to see a track record of steady population growth, which supports growing demand for housing, which will in turn support rising home values," Moody says. Such data can be found online at the U.S. Census Bureau, or though local county or township web sites, he says.

6. Healthy employment landscape: Employment plays a key role in population trends, as workers migrate to locations where they can find jobs. Thus, a healthy employment outlook is a key component of a strong housing market. "If you are in one of these upper Midwest cities and you've got layoffs, especially in a sector like automotives where the jobs are disappearing and they are not coming back, that is a huge problem," Larson says. Home shoppers can obtain economic data from the local government or chamber of commerce, Larson says. Pay special attention to the unemployment trends and find out if any new companies are slated to move into—or out of—the area. "A lot of communities have been trying to attract the sort of economically insensitive industries like biotech and [pharmaceutical companies]," Larson says. "If you've got an area where that kind of business is being brought in—through tax incentives or other efforts—that would be a positive for your local area."