The Best Up-and-Coming School Districts in Every State

On Dec. 2, the House approved a sweeping bill to drastically overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, ending an era of major federal involvement in public education. Representative John Kline, R-Minn., who is also chairman of the House Education Committee, said in a statement that No Child Left Behind was “based on good intentions, but it was also based on the flawed premise that Washington knows what students need to succeed in school.”

With the onus of public school performance now shifting back to states and local districts, StartClass examined the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education to identify the primary “up-and-coming” public school district in each state.

The data is from the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. To determine the top up-and-coming school district in every state, we focused on two factors: the change in percentile rank in proficiency rates on statewide math and reading tests, and the change in percentile rank in high school graduation rates.

We then calculated the average percentile rank improvement between the two metrics. We chose the district with the greatest increase as the biggest up-and-comer in the state.

Three states — Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma — are not included in this list because they were not required to report their graduation rates for the 2011-2012 school year. In addition, Hawaii was not included because it has just one school district. We also did not include school districts with fewer than 100 students participating in the state math and reading assessment.

It’s important to note that districts can see a decrease in achievement scores yet an increase in percentile rank. This occurs if the following year sees a decrease in the mean and standard deviation of state assessment scores across the districts in each state. Also, keep in mind that the sample size is only two school years, so the data could be influenced by a year-to-year fluctuation.


Check out the entire list here

6 Stellar Reasons to Buy a Home in 2016

From 12/28/16


Photos: papparaffie/iStock

Is it really 2016 already?  For those of you who happen to be planning on buying a home in the new year—or even just trying to—there’s a whole lot to celebrate. Why? A variety of financial vectors have dovetailed to make this the perfect storm for home buyers to get out there and make an (winning) offer. Here are six home-buying reasons to be thankful while ringing in the new year:

Reason No. 1: Interest rates are still at record lows

Even though they may creep up at any moment, it’s nonetheless a fact that interest rates on home loans are at historic lows, with a 30-year fixed-rate home loan still hovering around 4%.

“Remember 18.5% in the ’80s?” asks Tom Postilio, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate and a star of HGTV’s “Selling New York.”“It is likely that we’ll never see interest rates this low again. So while prices are high in some markets, the savings in interest payments could easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the mortgage.”

Reason No. 2: Rents have skyrocketed

Another reason home buyers are lucky is that rents are going up, up, up! (This, on the other hand, is a reason not to be thankful if you’re a renter.) In fact, rents outpaced home values in 20 of the 35 biggest housing markets in 2015. What’s more, according to the 2015 Rental Market Report, 88% of property managers raised their rent in the past 12 months, and an 8% hike is predicted for 2016.

“In most metropolitan cities, monthly rent is comparable to that of a monthly mortgage payment, sometimes more,” says Heather Garriock, mortgage agent for The Mortgage Group. “Doesn’t it make more sense to put those monthly chunks of money into your own appreciating asset rather than handing it over to your landlord and saying goodbye to it forever?”

Reason No. 3: Home prices are stabilizing

For the first time in years, prices that have been climbing steadily upward are stabilizing, restoring a level playing field that helps buyers drive a harder bargain with sellers, even in heated markets.

“Local markets vary, but generally we are experiencing a cooling period,” says Postilio. “At this moment, buyers have the opportunity to capitalize on this.”

Reason No. 4: Down payments don’t need to break the bank

Probably the biggest obstacle that prevents renters from becoming homeowners is pulling together a down payment. But today, that chunk of change can be smaller, thanks to a variety of programs to help home buyers. For instance, the new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Home Possible Advantage Program allows for a 3% down payment for credit scores as low as 620.

Reason No. 5: Mortgage insurance is a deal, too

If you do decide to put less than 20% down on a home, you are then required to have mortgage insurance (basically in case you default). A workaround to handle this, however, is to take out a loan from the Federal Housing Administration—a government mortgage insurer that backs loans with down payments as low as 3.5% and credit scores as low as 580. The fees are way down from 1.35% to 0.85% of the mortgage balance, meaning your monthly mortgage total will be significantly lower if you fund it this way. In fact, the FHA predicts this 37% annual premium cut will bring 250,000 first-time buyers into the market. Why not be one of them?

Reason No. 6: You’ll reap major tax breaks

Tax laws continue to favor homeowners, so you’re not just buying a place to live—you’re getting a tax break! The biggest one is that unless your home loan is more than $1 million, you can deduct all the monthly interest you are paying on that loan. Homeowners may also deduct certain home-related expenses and home property taxes.

How Has Buying a Home Changed Since Your Parents’ Time?

From 1/27/16

buying a house in 1985 vs. 2015

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images; Feverpitched/iStock

Those who love babbling on about millennials’ narcissism, sense of entitlement, or ungodly love of selfie sticks are missing out on the big picture: These are the people forever transforming the world of home ownership.

Older millennials, in fact, are now the biggest group of first-time buyers. It’s a brave, new world! If you’re part of it and thinking about buying your own place, you might naturally turn to Mom and/or Dad for advice. Good call. But be aware that things have changed quite a bit since they bought their first home—you know, the one you grew up in, stealthily sneaked into at 2 a.m. as a teen, and finally escaped as an honest-to-God adult.

But exactly how much have things changed, really? To find out, we decided to compare the home-buying and ownership experience today with back when your parents bought their first place in the ’80s—a time when twee floral patterns were all the rage, “Sesame Street” was still on free TV, and Apple’s best-known product was … applesauce.

Let’s jump into the® DeLorean and go Back to the Real Estate Future: 1985 versus 2015. Buckle up!

Fact 1: Millennials rule, but more buyers are older

Compared to the good (?) old days, Americans are delaying homeownership, just as they are delaying marriage. Sure, older millennials may be making their impact felt on first-time home buying, but the overall age of homeownership is steadily rising. The median age of home buyers was 33 in 1985, and now it’s 44, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Having a more mature career salary also helps in buying a home at today’s prices.

Fact 2: It’s not just Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Three decades ago, the home-buying club was almost exclusively married couples, who made up 81% of all owners. Now that number has declined to 67%; single females (15%), single males (9%), and unmarried couples (7%) are steadily on the rise.

Fact 3: Prices keep going up and up and up

Home prices have been steadily increasing, much to buyers’ dismay. Your parents probably paid around $80,000 for your childhood home in 1985; you’re facing about 1.75 times that price. NAR data show that the median sale price of existing homes was $222,400 in 2015.

Over the same time frame, household income increased 127% from $23,618 in 1985 to $53,657 in 2014 (the latest data available), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That combination of factors has led to low homeownership rates. In the third quarter of 2015, the Census Bureau reported that the homeownership rate, not seasonally adjusted, hit 63.7%—the lowest level since 1989. Stringent mortgage standards are another hurdle for would-be home buyers, says our chief economist, Jonathan Smoke.

Fact 4: Bigger homes, more bathrooms

In 1985, a typical home purchased was 1,610 square feet. That number has grown to 1,900 in 2015, according to NAR. At the same time, American families are shrinking, from 2.69 people per household to 2.54. (What does a 2.54-person household look like? We’ll save that for a future article.)

How do people make use of that extra space? More bathrooms, mostly. Say goodbye to the days when the whole family crammed into one tiny loo in the morning. Most for-sale homes on the market now have two bathrooms, and newly constructed homes are usually built with more than three bathrooms, according to the NAR and the Census Bureau. This is a positive development.

Fact 5: Luxe features are more plentiful, and disco is dead

The standard of living has improved over the years. Central air conditioning and dishwashers—things you can hardly picture your home, much less your life, without—only made it into half of households 30 years ago, reveals the American Housing Survey.

Aesthetics have also shifted. The ’80s taste for mauve is now a turnoff for home buyers, as are brass, track lights, and Laura Ashley floral comforters. And, perhaps saddest of all, disco-influenced decor has gone the way of … disco.

Where to Live: Something Old, Something New, or Something Rented?

From 1/18/16



In the world of real estate, it qualifies as The Big Question: “Should you buy or should you rent?” But let’s dive deeper into the realities of the 2016 marketplace. The seemingly simple category of “homes for sale” actually covers a mind-bending number of different options. So maybe the better question is: “Should you buy a new house, buy an old house, or just keep on renting?”

It’s easy to see the emotional appeal of each. Buy a brand-new home, and you can customize it to your own (cultured? progressive? freaky?) personal taste, then move in knowing that no one else’s fungal toes have ever slid over the bathroom floor. An older home might have more character and some interesting history, and be in a well-established neighborhood that you love. And renting? Well, it allows you to pull up stakes with just a few weeks’ notice, ready to follow a new job opportunity, a budding romance, or a national tour with the reformed Guns N’ Roses. It also enables you to set down some roots without the financial onus of a hefty down payment.

But putting emotions aside, how do the new, old, and rent options compare when it comes to real numbers and tangible features? Let’s go to the data!

What it’s really going to cost you

Price is often the biggest hurdle to homeownership. Considering that the median list price on our website is $228,000 and an average home buyer puts a 12% down payment in 2015, that’s $27,360 in cold, hard cash. Last year, home prices rose 5% to 7% nationally, says our chief economist, Jonathan Smoke. These rising prices, often outpacing pay raises, have held back many a would-be home buyer.

Does that mean renting makes more economic sense? Not really—rent increases are even crazier. Nationally, the average apartment rent stands at nearly $1,180, up from about $1,125 a year ago, according to the Wall Street Journal. But in the 20 biggest metropolitan areas, asking median rent reached $1,868 in November 2015, a whopping 13.6% increase from a year ago, according to Altos Research.

That makes buying a home sound better and better. But due to shrinking inventory, competition among buyers is likely to be fierce this year, says Smoke. One savvy strategy is to consider new homes, which are typically overlooked by many buyers. Price is one primary reason: In November 2015, the median sales price of existing single-family homes, not seasonally adjusted, is $220,300; and new homes command a median of $305,000—almost 40% higher.


But that higher price tag might not wind up being as much of a financial burden as it may seem. Sometimes you need to dig a bit deeper to understand what you’re getting for the steeper initial cost of a new home.

“An existing home is more likely than not to have some kind of maintenance issue,” says Smoke. “For a new home, everything is brand new and typically covered by a warranty. Most new-home owners will get a one-year warranty for labor and materials, two years’ protection for mechanical defects—plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems—and 10 years for structural defects.

Assuming that a new home incurs no maintenance cost for the first five years, here’s the cost comparison of a new home and an existing home within the same period. HGTV advises homeowners to set aside 1% to 3% of an existing home’s price for maintenance and repairs each year. The following graphic uses the conservative estimate of 1%—it would obviously be way higher if the home were in lousy condition.


As for rental prices across the U.S., they just keep heading skyward with no end in sight. According to current levels, a typical renter would pay more than $70,800 for five years of housing. And, yeah, the house (or any kind of equity) isn’t included.

Bottom line: If you can afford the new-home price, you’ll get more value than you think.

What you’re going to get

The three types of housing offer distinctive features that essentially speak to different lifestyles.

For each category, we measured how often a particular feature is mentioned in listings to figure out how common it is. We used single-family homes built in 2015 as our indicator of new homes, and those dating to the 1980s—when the majority of our for-sale listings were constructed—for existing homes.

With a new home comes modern living: Spend time with family in the open-concept living room, whip up some blanquette de veau with your stainless-steel appliances in a chef’s kitchen, keep your clothes organized in the walk-in closet (or maybe even a glam room!). Many new homes are also touted as energy-efficient, which saves money on utility bills.

Older homes often come with cozy features that may or may not seem dated. They could be wall-to-wall carpeting and fireplaces, or even wet bars!

As for renters, you are trading one convenience for another. Many buildings offer amenities such as a 24-hour fitness center, community pool, and doorman, but some specifically say no pets or no smoking (unless you want to kiss off your security deposit forever).

Location, location, location

New homes offer a slew of tangible merits, but the best locations aren’t among them. It’s one of the prime trade-offs: Generally speaking, the most desirable addresses and neighborhoods are already filled with existing development.

But it’s a different story for rental units, many of which are in (old and new) apartment complexes in urban neighborhoods. As a result, rental units usually offer the highest levels of convenience in terms of proximity to restaurants, shopping venues, and public transportation. After all, renters tend to be young, social, and mobile.

For older buyers seeking a good education for their children, existing single-family homes are more likely to be located near established school districts. If you search the listings for “great schools” or “top schools,” you’re even more likely to find your perfect match.

Cleveland Embraces Foodie Culture, Feeds Millennial Real Estate Market

From 1/21/16

CLEVELAND — You can’t buy a great cheeseburger on the Internet, and that is the simple fact behind the new driver of downtown real estate development. Restaurants are the new retail, and celebrity chefs today are fast becoming just as powerful as names like Macy’s and Neiman Marcus were a half century ago.

“I think these days you’re finding our developers lead at the ground floor with the restaurant, and everything fills out around it. Retail these days as we all know because of the Internet, is a fairly precarious proposition,” said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc., a development, service and advocacy organization in this Ohio city.

Cleveland has embraced the “foodie” culture, as young millennials move downtown. They are the force behind a 70 percent jump in the city’s downtown population to over 13,000, according to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. Apartment growth is already robust, with 4,000 units in the planning stages, and job growth in professional services and technology is helping to fill more and more housing. There is one common denominator in all the growth.

“We’ve got a dozen great-happening vibrant retail centers in Cleveland that are really part of the resurgence, and they seem to be over and over again led by the chefs,” said Ronayne.

Cleveland housing is also the most affordable in the nation, with an average sale price of $74,502, according to Coldwell Banker’s 2015 Home Listing Report. That is prompting more young residents to move back home after college. One of Cleveland’s celebrity chefs, Zack Bruell, said these are the people filling his restaurant tables and his kitchens.

“The kids that left Cleveland to be educated somewhere else would stay in Chicago, they’d go to San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York. Now those people are coming back to Cleveland. That’s the future,” said Bruell. “Look at what the cost of living in Cleveland is. It’s really affordable, and there is a sophistication here that exists in those markets, so you can practice your craft here and maybe buy a house, save some money and raise a family, which would be very difficult there.”

Bruell, who owns and operates 10 Cleveland-area restaurants, from a French brasserie to an Asian fusion eatery, said restaurants are driving downtown development and employment, and names like his are at the heart of it. Bruell said he has expanded his staff from 250 to 470 in just the past two years.

“The developers or the landlords come to me, so I’ve got, sort of have, an upper hand in choosing where I go. I’m going to transform a neighborhood or help transform a neighborhood. I’m part of that,” said Bruell, standing in L’Albatros, one of his restaurants that already had a good crowd seated around the bar on a cold Wednesday afternoon.

While brick-and-mortar retail is flailing across the nation, restaurant sales are growing. Stronger employment also means more people are eating out for lunch.

“Americans are using their [gas] pump price savings to go out to eat,” said Chris Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight.

Cleveland has also benefited from a new government program that has awarded more than $160 million in tax credits to the city’s development projects, leveraging almost $1.5 billion in redevelopment, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate services company. Abandoned office buildings are being converted to apartments and hotels.

“As this wave of new residential properties has swelled, it has been a catalyst for development activity downtown. As more young workers are moving downtown, businesses have taken note, choosing to remain in the CBD rather than expand to the suburbs,” researchers wrote in a recent report by CBRE titled, “Resurgence in Midwest Secondary Markets.”

Restaurant growth is fueling downtown commercial property prices as well. Office vacancies are down and rents are up. Occupancy in apartments is at 97 percent, according to CBRE, which estimates downtown Cleveland has seen $5.5 billion of new investment since 2010.

“We look at neighborhoods these days as experience districts. Of course they’re housing, they’re also the return, 100 years later, to mixed use. They call it new urban, but it’s really true urban of 100 years ago, on these old street car corridors in these Midwest cities, where the retail commercial ground floors were at the base, the residents lived right above, and you’re finding that they’re both live/work 24/7 districts, but they’re also destination districts,” said Ronayne.

Cleveland may not seem like a destination city, but as more millennials struggle to afford big-city life, they are heading to the next best thing. Vibrant downtowns are no longer exclusive, and affordability is beginning to trump location. In a fast-changing economy, food still works, and if you cook it, foodies will come.

“Cleveland is no different than anywhere in the United States,” Bruell said as he put on his chef’s jacket and headed into the kitchen to whip up a cassoulet.

Our Economist’s Top Tips for Selling a Home in 2016

Our Economist’s Top Tips for Selling a Home in 2016


DreamPictures/Getty Images

If you’re planning to sell your house this year, well, you’re in luck.

“The 2016 housing market is forecasted to be mainly a seller’s market, filled with increasing home prices, relatively low inventory, and fierce competition between buyers,” says Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for®.

But you could still make missteps on the way to the bank. Yes, your house will likely sell, but when? Remember, time is money.

“For sellers, it’s about understanding the ins and outs of their local market so they can optimize the price of their home and close quickly,” Smoke says.

Smoke and his team analyzed market trends to distill their best advice for homeowners looking to sell in 2016. Follow these tips to get the most out of your home sale.

Price your home to the market

“What Realtors® tell me over and over again, and from the analysis that I’ve seen historically, the most important thing is getting the price right,” Smoke says.

In 2016, prices are expected to increase nationally 3% year over year. Local price changes are anticipated to be more dramatic, with markets such as Stockton, CA, and Las Vegas, NV, expected to increase by 10%. But that doesn’t mean those stats are true of your town, or your neighborhood.

“Making the error of going for a price that’s well above the market price is a recipe for being let down and potentially not selling the home at all,” he adds. A home that sits on the market eventually will turn off buyers, who will suspect that something is wrong with it.

Sellers who work with a local Realtor to optimize the price of their home based on its unique features and surrounding neighborhood are often able to receive the highest price for their market and sell more quickly.

List during peak season

Unlike buyers, who want to minimize competition, sellers benefit from demand. Prime home-buying season begins in April and reaches its peak in June, according to analysis of home sales. Sellers who list their home during the prime spring and summer months benefit from a larger population of buyers and potential bidding wars, which often result in higher prices and faster closings.

Offer incentives

This one seems counterintuitive, given what we’ve said about a seller’s market, but hear us out. Last year—the best for U.S. home sales in nearly a decade—37% of all sellers offered incentives to attract buyers.

“The nature of this market is that you’re going to have more first-time buyers, who are more dependent on financing,” Smoke says. Getting a loan is one thing; coming up with a chunk of cash for closing costs, on top of the down payment, is another.

“If you’re a seller and you’re able to offer some money toward closing costs, you’re actually making it easier on that buyer, and they might be more willing to give you the full asking price,” Smoke explains. You could end up with a faster sale and more profit.

Best place to sell a home: California <—- just sayin can I get a high 5?

This isn’t really actionable advice since if you don’t already own a home there you won’t be selling one, but FYI: California markets are accelerating past the already strong national averages and showing extremely favorable conditions for sellers.

Robust job growth, increasing prices, and limited inventory have sellers ready for big gains in the greater metro areas of Stockton, Bakersfield, Fresno, and San Jose. Once you’ve sold, though, you may not be able to afford to buy again in the area—we’d suggest looking in the Midwest or South.

She Bought Julia Child’s Home

Meet the Smith College Alumna

Who Bought Julia Child’s France


Under Makenna Johnston’s ownership, La Pitchoune will become a culinary retreat center.

La Peetch

Makenna Johnston. / Photo by Catherine Just

On a Friday morning in November, a post in a public Facebook forum for Smith College alumnae caught Makenna Johnston’s attention. The New York Times reported that La Pitchoune, Julia Child’s home in France, was on the market.

Even before the two women shared an alma mater—Child graduated from the Western Massachusetts school in 1934; Johnston is Class of 2007—the younger Smithie was a huge fan.

“I watched reruns on PBS, and I used to imitate her voice,” Johnston says.

She grew up in Colorado, but her family of Francophiles visited that country a couple times a year. As an adult and a “pretty competent” home cook, Johnston and her wife, Yvonne Johnston, catered their own wedding. She credits her homespun skills to her mother and father, a wine industry veteran, as well as a summer abroad in Nesle, in northern France.

Like Child, Johnston is inspired by that country, and she is motivated in her own kitchen by Child’s fearlessness.

“I saw the article, and I felt like I need this house, but I thought, that’s not going to happen,” Johnston says.

But later that day, things changed. She was eating with her family when they heard that Paris was under attack.

“When [that] happened, I started thinking about how Julia Child was a total peacenik. She worked for the government, and the best word from back then is she was very democratic. She was very involved in improving communities through food,” Johnston says.

Her father, who had just retired at the beginning of the month, was already planning another trip to France. While many travelers put plans on hold after the terrorist attacks, “We started looking at the house,” Johnston says.

She’s a self-employed business strategist and life coach. Her wife, a U.S. Air Force Reserve captain, left a full-time military career in 2014, and this series of events inspired them to create new meaning in their lives.

La Peetch

The kitchen at La Pitchoune. / Photo provided, courtesy of Sotherby’s International Realty

They conceived of a project devoted to Child’s legacy of joy, compassion, and sharing the love of food: Yvonne enrolled in culinary school, and they would buy a home in France, preferably La Pitchoune, and open a culinary retreat center. They also involved a fellow entrepreneur, friend, and filmmaker, Wendy Timmons.

When Johnston called Sotheby’s International Realty, there was already an offer on La Pitchoune. But a week later, the listing was still on the website, so she followed up—with a few investors on board, including Johnston’s father, the house that Julia built was theirs. They close next month, Johnston says.

When they originally thought La Peetch was out of their hands, they toyed with naming the project Reviving Julia. Now, the Johnstons are keeping the nickname Child gave to the house she and her husband, Paul, built in 1963.

In the 1990s, La Peetch was purchased by Kathie Alex, who turned it into a culinary school in the spirit of Julia Child, and famously kept the kitchen intact with Child’s well-organized pegboard and her extra-tall countertops.

“[Alex] was very excited I’m a Smithie,” Johnston says. The two didn’t meet; a La Peetch investor represented the project on site, but Johnston has video of their interaction. “It was important to her that it remain a cooking school.”

She clarified, La Peetch will actually be “a cooking retreat with excursions in yoga.” It “will be a home base for a center on culinary exploration, peace, and community,” she shared with the Smith community.

The center will begin hosting retreaters and vacationers in May, but the first cooking sessions won’t be booked until 2017. At that point, Yvonne, La Peetch’s head chef, will be done with her program at the International Culinary Center, and her externship. The couple will host weeklong, Courageous Cooking sessions in April-June and September-November next year.

“The focus is on cooking French food, for sure, and really, on the Julia Child way of cooking: The no-holds barred, ‘Look at that omelet!’ style of cooking,” Johnston says. “Our goal is to really take out some of the anxiety that comes with big messes, especially for new-ish cooks.”

She knows there can be fear attached to cooking—and Julia Child did, too. One of the reasons the world’s first celebrity chef is so revered is because she encouraged her viewers to have courage.

“She’s all about the idea that no one has to know what you did. I think that it’s something we have lost sight of,” Johnston says. “Our goal is to bring good cooking back. So many people spend so much money and time going out to eat. If you can bring it back into the home and entertaining, it’s a very different life.”

While they’re not yet culinary professionals, the Johnstons understand this from experience. Remember, they catered their own wedding. Their wedding guests helped, with a barley-beet risotto, mussels steamed in wine with cream, tarragon, and thyme; and more.

“Each person was assigned to a station, with people they didn’t know. They enjoyed it,” Johnston says, adding that she has friends who met there and still keep in touch. “Cooking makes us human, and it’s a huge thing that brings us together. It’s important that it continues to do so.”