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The driving factor

Commute time is becoming increasingly important in home-buying decisions.

October 05, 2003|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

It may have been its Mission architecture that inspired Jim Grace and Cameron Kelley to buy their new home in Los Angeles' Koreatown, but slashing their travel time to work made them fall in love with the place.

Grace no longer has a grueling 70-minute commute from Toluca Lake to the South Bay that routinely stalled at the transition of the Ventura and San Diego freeways. Nowadays, he hops on the Harbor Freeway shortly after 7 a.m. and arrives at his job at a home-video company 20 minutes later. Kelley, an attorney, can bicycle the few miles to his office in the Transamerica Building downtown.

Kelley and Grace are among the homeowners for whom travel time to work has become a key factor in deciding where to live because of increasingly stressful commutes, the high cost of car ownership and the desire to spend more "quality time" with family. These factors are convincing some home buyers to forgo the slow crawl of commuting from distant suburbs and seek housing close to work -- often in dense, urban environments.

"I cannot stress how liberating it is to go from an hour and 10 minutes to 19 minutes," said Grace, who now is often the first in the office and has time to make coffee.

Choosing a house based on commuting arguably marks the most dramatic shift in home-buying attitudes among Southern Californians since the post-World War II march to the suburbs began. Less than a generation ago, few home buyers would have had second thoughts about buying a new tract house in the suburbs and driving long distances to work.

Los Angeles has been the nation's No. 1 congested urban area since 1987. Area residents with an average 30-minute commute time in 2001 wasted about 108 hours, or more than four days, on extra travel time because of delays, according to Tim Lomax, co-author of the 2003 Urban Mobility Report released last week by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Another study showed that as much as 20% of a household's income is spent on transportation -- the second-highest expense after housing for many families.

Although tracking a clear relationship between commuting times and home-buying choices is difficult, housing experts say they see an emerging pattern.

"People will pay a lot for housing in Santa Monica and West Hollywood or Brentwood, more than those same houses would be worth further out in the suburbs, because those places are close to major employment centers," said Elizabeth Deakin, director of the Transportation Research Center at UC Berkeley.

Cases in point are the growing popularity of "in-town" neighborhoods, including Hancock Park, Larchmont, Echo Park, Silver Lake and West Adams. Even some "transitional" neighborhoods, such as parts of West Adams, where houses were historically slow to sell, are attracting multiple offers, according to John Aaroe, president of Prudential California Realty, John Aaroe Division, a Los Angeles-based residential real estate brokerage.

"Buying homes close to work is a trend across the board," he said, "from first-time buyers to trade-up buyers."

The phenomenon is something that has caught on in Los Angeles only in the last couple of years, although people in San Diego and San Jose have been doing it for a while, said Julie Bornstein, director of the Keston Infrastructure Institute at the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. Buying closer to work may have caught on faster in San Diego and San Jose, she said, because drivers are largely dependent on single freeways -- Interstate 5 in San Diego and the 101 Freeway in Silicon Valley.

Sherri and Stephen Moss, longtime renters in Culver City, considered commuting times when they shopped for homes with their 6- and 8-year-old daughters last year in suburban locations from Riverside County to Encino Park. A family outing from Culver City to a prospective home in Encino took more than an hour, recalled Stephen Moss, art director for a publishing company in Culver City. "We all looked at each other and said, 'No way.' "

Rather than buy a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the Encino area in the high $280,000 range, the Mosses chose instead to buy a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium in Culver City for about $60,000 less. The commute is, of course, far shorter than the Encino option for Stephen Moss as well as for his wife, who works as a freight-company clerk in the LAX area.

Commuting time can be a quality-of-life issue for the whole family. Actress Wendy Lawless and her husband, screenwriter David Kidd, toured suburban communities, including La Canada Flintridge, Malibu, Mount Washington and Rancho Palos Verdes, before settling on the West Adams area to shop for a vintage Craftsman home.

"It would not be good for David to sit for hours on the freeway and get his blood pressure up," said Lawless, adding that a frazzled dad "would not be good for the family either."

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