Look west to see big rise in suburban home prices

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Though not exactly a backwater, there wasn't much real estate action in Pine 25 years ago.

The opening of the Parkway North in 1989 just west of the North Hills township changed that 1,000 percent. Last year, home sales in Pine totaled $129 million, up from less than $12 million in 1988. No place in Allegheny County had a greater increase in home purchasing dollars than that $117 million bump.

RealSTATS on the South Side provided these numbers that help show us where folks most want to be. On Thursday, I wrote about how the city of Pittsburgh beat the county as a whole in home appreciation in the past quarter century (157 percent in the city vs. 126 percent in the entire county). Eight of the 10 places with the highest average gain in home prices are city wards.

But less than a quarter of the county's population lives in Pittsburgh proper, and a dozen suburban communities had 200+ percent increases in average prices of homes sold, along with 13 of the city's 32 wards. A couple of big infrastructure projects completed as the '80s rolled into the '90s -- the Parkway North and the new Pittsburgh International Airport -- are still being felt in the suburban booms.

Let's start with the 14 suburban communities where the median home price at least tripled since 1988. (Most of us don't often dabble with such percentages above 100 percent, where the value doubles. At 200 percent, it has tripled. At 300 percent, it has quadrupled, and so on.)

The median price of a home sold in Collier rose 460 percent, from $45,000 in 1988 to $252,000 last year. The arrival of the Nevillewood golf community in 1993 had a lot to do with that, Dan Murrer, vice president of RealSTATS, surmised.

Neighboring South Fayette was next, 306 percent; then Findlay, 295 percent; McDonald, 278 percent; Sewickley Hills, 259 percent; Ohio Township, 257 percent; Osborne, 250 percent; Sewickley, 249 percent; Pine, 242 percent; Crescent, 240 percent; Aspinwall, 238 percent; Jefferson Hills, 225 percent; North Fayette, 200 percent; and Heidelberg, 200 percent.

Nine of the top 10 overachievers and 11 of the top 14 are west of the Golden Triangle, and most became more desirable because of the new airport and its related highway improvements, or Parkway North completion, or both. Six of those communities were among the 15 where the average price of purchased homes rose by at least $180,000.

School districts also loom large in home-buying decisions. Mr. Murrer, who came up with more charts than my eye doctor, pointed out that six of the 15 communities where the average home prices shot up by $180,000 or more are in the Quaker Valley School District.

Most of those price jumps weren't due to new construction, but price appreciation on existing homes. Shelling out big money for a desired school district can often seem like private schooling in public disguise, but two communities in Quaker Valley that lagged the average countywide home price increase were Leet and Leetsdale. Those of more modest means looking to get into that school district might start there.

Because so much of the boom was in the city, most suburban communities lagged overall county home appreciation in the past quarter-century. Eight places even saw the median price of a home fall: Duquesne, McKees Rocks, the city's 13th Ward (Homewood/East Hills), Versailles, East Pittsburgh, Wilmerding, Whitaker and Harmar.

This boom had a decided western tilt. Were one to look outside the city now for bargain homes that could do well in the next quarter-century, look northeast. An epidemic of communities along Route 28 underperformed the county average. Besides Harmar, they included Cheswick, Springdale borough and township, Brackenridge, Harrison, Fawn, Tarentum, Frazer and East Deer.

Route 28's chronic traffic problems are winding down, and its considerable recent improvements are already benefiting Allegheny Valley commuters. It's crystal clear from the RealSTATS data that the ease of the commute -- be it from a big new road or, in the city the promise of little commute at all -- influences home-buying decisions.

Finding the next place with home values that triple or quadruple is a little tougher call.

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