Better Home vs. Better School District: Which Would You Choose?

When purchasing a home, there are a variety of different factors that we consider as we make our big decision. These include the size of the house, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, layout, fixtures, condition, neighborhood, location, etc.  Clearly, there’s a lot that we weigh in our minds when thinking about a home.

I recently had a conversation with someone on the topic of tradeoffs when purchasing a home with kids in mind. We were talking about all the features of a home, and the desire for things such as a yard, a playroom, a location away from heavy car traffic, and so on. After we had been talking a bit, I brought up the topic of school districts.

“What about them”, the friend replied.

Surprised, I commented on how of course you would want to make sure that your kids would be able to go to a really good school. (Note: I’m considering the public schools here).

“Of course you want them to go to decent schools that are safe”, was the friend’s response.

My subsequent response was that I would want kids to go to very good schools that were safe, not just decent schools.

“Yeah, but a lot of those schools are in overpriced areas. You’ll be living in a shoebox just to get into one of those districts.”

My response was to spell out how I thought that while the shoebox statement was hyperbole, I do agree with the idea that tradeoffs need to be made. In which case, you trade off some of the qualities you’re looking for in a home, in exchange for having your kids get a better school.

“You can get a good education at a lot of schools; it’s not just the name that matters. You’re paying for a brand name when a good generic can do just fine. No way would I want to trade down from a great house with good schools to an average house with very good schools.”

Now, that was an interesting analogy. I do like to buy quality generics – or store brands – when they’re comparable to expensive name brands. I see the point, and it’s a nice way to put it. The only thing is, I don’t totally buy that argument in this case. These are schools we’re talking about, not products. Some schools have exceptional reputations for a reason.

It became clear that we saw this issue differently. Here are the two arguments:

1.      Nice, Newer Home in a Good School District

My friend’s argument here was that they would rather have a nice, spacious home with all the right features. That was important to them. We’re talking about features such as right number of bedrooms, the right size yard for kids, a finished basement in which the kids can play, a nice upgraded kitchen with upscale countertops and appliances. Basically, it was a house that they could be happy in, considering the physical structure.

The schools are good, definitely better than average. Are they among the better schools in the metropolitan area? No. But they’re decent. Test scores show it.

The Tradeoff: Get the house you want, and send the kids to schools that are good enough.

The Justification: Kids learn most of their values at home, and a household with supportive parents that value education and family can help the kids succeed in life even if they didn’t go to the very best schools. Tutors at takelessons.com can help make up for anything that your child is missing out on by not going to the school with the highest test scores.

2.      Ordinary, Older Home in an Very Good School District

This point of view, which happened to be mine, was that a very good school district, with a great reputation and high test scores, can be a help to a kid as he or she progresses through the grades and ultimately goes on to college. My view is that the scores are high for a reason, and the kids will ultimately have stronger fundamentals, be better prepared, and have higher peer group expectations as they complete school. This will help them compete as they establish themselves as young adults and beyond.

The thought process here is that I would rather have this for my kid, and not have an ideal home. Maybe it would be much older, have less updated features, smaller rooms, smaller lot, etc.

The Tradeoff:  Don’t get the house you want and just settle for an acceptable older house, and send the kids to schools that have excellent test scores – as opposed to good ones in the aforementioned district.

The Justification: A nice home is not a need, it’s a luxury. One can live in a less spacious, older place – at the same price – in order to give the kids the advantages of being in a higher rated school district that has higher expectations of its students.

Question for You:

What point of view do you hold in this situation – Excellent Home/Decent Schools, or Decent Home/Excellent Schools?

I’m curious what you think about this subject, and the rationale behind the two viewpoints. If you don’t have kids just yet, please think ahead to what you would do in this hypothetical tradeoff situation.

Comments

  1. says

    I guess we lucked out, we bought a decent enough home in a good school district… at first. It now seems to be deteriorating with some reported hooliganism in the higher grades. Having a large house is not that important to us, so if we had to move again, it would probably be to a smaller house in midtown, and private school for the boys.

    • Squirrelers says

      101Centavos – that’s the way I see it, getting a decent enough place in a good district. Get away from those hoodlums!

  2. says

    It’s common practice where I live to use a friends address if you can’t get into the school you want. The test scores don’t reflect how well the schools are doing in my town. I’m lucky that the school in our district was great (poor on test scores though!). My step-daughter goes went to a school that scored high on testing but had he worst principal. For 5 years she got one teacher after another that were burned-out. Me and my friends depend on the gossip around town to determine how well a school is doing. It’s not very scientific, I’ll admit!

    • Squirrelers says

      Molly – it goes to show that one must look at qualitative factors in addition to quantitative figures. Personally, I strongly lean toward test scores as a primary measure of the quality of the school, but also consider other factors – such as whether the culture would be a good fit.

  3. Schlauefrau says

    Well, from someone who grew up as an Air Force brat and attended a number of public schools all over the country, I can tell you that it really depends more on the teacher than the school. I had some excellent teachers in otherwise mediocre school districts, and I had some pretty lousy teachers in what were supposed to be some of the best public schools in the country. I can think of a couple years when I was lucky and had a great teacher, but my brothers or sister in the same district/school had an awful experience. Of course, you also want a district that can offer your children all the programs and classes that might not be available in a poorer district (AP classes – key for college!, music, arts, foreign languages, sports). If you’re happy with the programs/classes available, then I wouldn’t worry about whether it is “the best” or not.

    • Squirrelers says

      Schlauefrau – totally get what you’re saying about the AP classes. Those are really important, no doubt.

  4. says

    We went with the great school, decent house (and then ended up going to private school anyway).

    The subdivision I live is the perfect example for this discussion. Our subdivision is 1 mile, top to bottom. It is the same city, but split by different school districts. The north end goes to the ‘decent’ school district, and the south end goes to the ‘great’ school district. We chose the ‘great’ school district part of the sub. The houses are older and more expensive than the north end, but the resale value is much better too. It is interesting to see the demographic of who buys where. I don’t want to stereotype, but my part of the sub is very Asian. The north part is very ‘white’.

    • Squirrelers says

      Everyday Tips – well, looks like you took the good school district route. Of course, plans can always change due to a variety of factors!

  5. says

    Although school districts are important, the real importance is the parents and teachers. Good teachers are in every district, but good parents are harder to find. Good parents will make sure the children get what they need from the school or elsewhere. Parents should be supportive by holding their children accountable for their work and behavior.

    • Squirrelers says

      krantcents – supportive parents are essential, I think that goes without saying. A kid without supportive parents will be behind the 8-ball right away.

    • Squirrelers says

      Barbara C – yes, that’s a point you have. I do wonder though about all that kids might miss out on with homeschooling, in a good district.

  6. says

    We went with a shoebox and better school. Yes, the kid learn most of the value at home, but it’s even better to learn good value at home and go to the best school.

    Real estate is all about location location location and school district is location! A better house is not in the location equation.

    • Squirrelers says

      retirebyforty – yes, location, location, location. The house comes after that, ideally. It’s a time-honored approach to real estate purchasing and value.

  7. Squirrelers says

    Ravi – I see it that way too with regard to keeping good company. Of course good company can come anywhere, and bad company could come in a good school too. But all other things being equal, I’ll take my chances with the better schools.

  8. Squirrelers says

    Marty – here in the Chicago area, it really does depend on where one lives. There are some amazing school districts in the suburbs, but some not so good. These days, it’s best to do a lot of research ahead of time, as homes have become much more illiquid.

  9. Squirrelers says

    The Saved Quarter – I think krantcents mentioned that schools are important but parents are more important. I can’t disagree with that assessment, but I do think that even if parents are great, kids will be severely shortchanged if they’re in a substandard school district. The better districts have a culture oriented toward college prep, and generally offer more resources in the way of helping students progress. Your example spells that out.

  10. says

    Education is important to me, so I would have to go with better district/decent house…even though house is important to me. Luckily I don’t have to make this choice because my city has open enrollment and charter schools, so we aren’t limited to the district in which we live.

    Even with these conditions though, there are some districts in town that are highly desirable and hard to get into unless you live there. I worked on a condominium project in this district, and the developers were counting on the reputation of the schools to drive their condo sales, even with the downturn. It worked.

  11. says

    We started out young and poor and could only afford a house in a ‘bad district’. In spite of that, when we moved to a really ‘good district’ (our children were in 6th grade and a Junior in HS by then) they did exceptionally well in spite of all those years in a ‘bad district’.

    Parents matter most.

    Speaking as a parent whose children are long gone from the ‘good district’, you might also consider how long you intend to stay in your house and whether or not you want to continue to support those great schools with your high real estate and property taxes!

    That said, home values do tend to stay higher in areas with the great public schools.

    • Krysta says

      I agree that parenting goes a long way when it comes to a child’s education. However, parental involvement paired with a great school district is preferable, IMO. We are getting ready to down size from our spacious house in the city (with a pool) to an outdated little ranch in a small town. It sounds like a bad decision, but the school district is not acceptable where we live right now. I will sacrifice the space, convenience, and luxury if it means that my children will thrive at their school and have a better sense of community. Plus it will give me an opportunity to work on some thrifty DIY projects. ;)

  12. says

    We’re learning all about school districts in my town: they’re subject to change.

    Do we expect that our home will deflate by 20-30%? No, we bought in at the “bottom,” so to say. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some premium priced into the home for access to good school districts.

    As far as I see it, homes will stand on their ground longer than that ground will be part of school district X. Doing some kind of future value of the home vs future value of the cost of a tutor, it looks like hiring a tutor to make up for any difference in education seems like a sure bet. Tutors that are worth their salt are cheap, homes with districting premiums can lose them easily. I’d take the tutor and the less expensive home/sq footage.

  13. says

    Krantcents, you are right, parents should be supportive and hold their kids accountable. However, I see so many parents that justify their kids poor behavior because it is easier that way, and this is in good school districts.

    I grew up in a poor area with a horrible school district. Parents didn’t go to conference or attend sporting events. We basically did everything ourselves and learned as we went along. I was lucky in that I had goals and got out of that situation. (Not that the teachers/counselors were of any help at all, they didn’t care either.)

    There are kids out there that will do well no matter where they go to school. But, based on my own upbringing, those are few and far between. Ideally, a student should have access to great teachers, counselors and a challenging curriculum, along with parents that are involved. However, that combination can be very hard to find, depending on where you live.

  14. says

    Here in Vancouver, you can live on the “bad side” of town and still have your child go to the good school district. You’ll just have to get them there in the mornings, and the kids who live in the catchment area get first priority, but it’s pretty fair still.

  15. says

    I bought in a crappy school district…so bad in fact that the town has to give me another choice outside of my district. My son is in a great school now and I love it. The parents at this school are VERY engaged and that makes all the difference. My kid knows many of the parents because they are at the school reading to the kids and helping in the classrooms. Amazing.

    In order to buy in the “great school district” our housing costs would have at least doubled, and tripled if we were to have the same kind of house. At that point, even private school is cheaper than spending that much more on a mortgage.

    Then I also heard that quite a few parents school choiced their kids out of the “great” school district to the “good” school district because of bullying and cliques. What I heard is that if the kid’s parent doesn’t earn 7 figures or run one of the companies in town, both the teachers and fellow students look down on you. How funny that someone could be considered trailer trash because their parents only earn 6 figures.

    So far it’s worked out for us. There is good and bad in every type of school. For me, as long as the high school has AP level classes, a safe environment and decent teachers, that’s all I need.

    • decisions says

      I wish I knew what district you were referring to. My husband and I are in the process (counter offer) of buying in Carmel, CA (great schools) and this is one of my fears. I might want to stay in the ‘good’ district up to 8th grade and think about private school for High School (the HS is not so good in this district, but my kids are 1 and 4). Carmel is so close to my husbands’ work and everything else we like and the ‘good’ district is a 45 minute commute. My husband is well educated and works very hard and makes the low 6 figures, yet we will live in one of the older and smaller houses if we move. I already know many families in the good district (it is also ranked a 10 on greatschools.org). Very hard choice. Several neighboring towns have some of the worst school and I do not want to rely on a transfer.

  16. says

    Here in Sprawl Central, where our City Parents studied everything Los Angeles did wrong and then went out and did that, we chose to live in the central part of the city because my husband didn’t want to commute every day over the homicidal streets. Consequently we had to put our son in private school. It was darned expensive…and yes, just as in the alleged “great” public school district, our son and we were looked down on because we only earned six figures.

  17. says

    My views on this have changed as I have matured. We bought our current house 4 years ago while the market was still decent with the promise that our area would be growing so quickly that a new elementary school would be necessary by the time our 20 month old son was ready for kindergarten, since the zoned school at the time was awful (in quality).

    Well, you know how the story ends…the real estate market fell apart and we were stuck looking at a zoned school that we did not want our child attending. I would home school him if I weren’t the bread winner of the family. But thanks to our nice house with its (not so) nice price tag, I cannot possibly stop working to do it.

    Luckily we got him into a charter school within the public school system that is great. If he didn’t get in (it was selected by lottery), we were going to be looking at private schools. As much as I don’t WANT to pay tuition, I was willing to over the alternative.

    So since wising up with our spending habits and seeing what is truly important, I would take the lesser house any day.

    That being said (as if this isn’t long enough), I grew up in a pitiful school system just because there were no alternatives. I did well there and in college and have turned out an intelligent person with a fantastic education that I got on scholarship. All because my parents valued education and made sure I made it a top priority regardless of what I was (not) learning at school.

    So it can definitely work if it has to, but I would not choose it that way.

  18. Squirrelers says

    Robin – you definitely bring up a good point about this not being totally straight forward. Good teachers can be in bad schools and bad in good, that’s true. There are situations such as this that can certainly occur. I agree with you on the role of parents.

  19. Lidia says

    I am in the situation where my spouse keeps trying to convince me to move into a nicer brand new house that costs less but is in a terrible school district. My childrens education is my #1 priority and buying a home in the great school district with an average house is fine for me. Im not a materialistic person so that doesnt matter as much. One of my children has a learning disability and Im afraid if he is placed in a bad school it will be so much worst for him. His current teacher helps me keep tabs on him and sends me weekly notes on his progress. I have never had a teacher care so much to take the time! I refuse to move my children from the school they are in and am willing to sacrifice the beautiful brand new dream home for my childrens education.

    • Squirrelers says

      Lidia – I totally see where you are coming from, and respect your point of view on this. Education first, dream home later.

  20. Cheryl says

    We just sold our home in a great school district, and relocated (new position) to the Dallas area. We expected to rent our apartment for a few months (getting to know the area and school districts) and purchase a home. Well, it has been 5 1/2 months and we are still not any closer to finding the best area to live. We love the Southlake area (Carroll ISD…. one of the best in TX.) but worry about our children being looked down upon because our annual income is in the low six figure range…… not 7 figure. I know what it was like to feel like the poor kid in school, and I don’t want my kids to know that pain.

    Not sure what to do? If we move to the more expensive district, then we will not have the money to pay for private coaches and lessons… which is a basic requirement if you want to play sports.

    • Squirrelers says

      Cheryl –

      Private coaches as a requirement? That sounds really pricey, and unfortunate.

      Anyway, I can understand the dilemma that you seem to be facing. I think at the end of the day, we all want to live in an area where we feel welcomed and have a chance to participate on at least a somewhat level playing field. There was a person I knew who told a story about a friend he had who bought a home in an extremely expensive area. This person was of more middle class income, but he and his wife really wanted to live in this prestigious communitiy which also had excellent schools in terms of test scores.

      They ultimately decided to move. The way the story goes, the final decision came when their daughter went to a birthday party with a classmate who got a horse for birthday. Not a toy horse, but a real horse. They soon realized that their daughter would be having expectations of what was “normal” that would be beyond their means as parents. So they left.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Cheryl says

        I really appreciate your perspective and your time!

        Sadly, we are still renting, but it has given us more time to evaluate our new home purchase. Thanks for the article, it really has helped my husband and I navigate through the education/house hunting process!

        We did remove Southlake off our list….. beautiful town and superb school district…. it just isn’t a good fit for now.

        Thanks again,
        Cheryl

  21. Squirrelers says

    $27k seems beyond outrageously expensive for pre-K. I can only think of that being worth it if someone A) lives in one of a handful of big cities (such as NY, SF, Chicago, Boston) AND B) Has an extraordinarily high income.

    I think in many places there are some really good public school districts that will cost much less in terms of incremental housing costs.

  22. Leaving WV says

    When we bought our “great house” in 2007, that has lots of property and square footage we didn’t research public schools at all. Right after we bought it, we spent roughly $40k in renovations for it (granite/new well/etc.), since it was 8 years old and needed some face lifting. At the time, we were pregnant with our first child – our girls are now 4 and 6. I never even considered public schools in our “bad district” because we found a private school that went to the 8th grade and had planned to send our kids there. (The private school even told us that they had expectations of building a high school and even showed us the cement slab.) Then the private school lost a lot of enrollment and nearly went under. It was “saved/repurchased” by a teacher who bought it and now it only goes to the 3rd grade. Then I lost my high paying job of 9 years…and my salary has decreased by 40%. I recently lost my next job due to a lay off as well. During this time of unemployment, my husband and I have realized the value of me staying home (blessing in disquise)…but we can’t do it and pay for a private school. So here we are – trying to downsize (not easy) and find a school district that’s great. We are in the panhandle of WV and the test scores are incredibly poor. There is only about a 50% proficiency rate in reading and math in our district and all the surrounding districts! We have to move to MD. I wish I knew this before buying here, but now I know better and hopefully someone reading this article doesn’t make my same mistake. I just hope for us that when all is said and done we find a house that meets our needs and in a school district that exceeds are expectations. Those are the priorities, along with me having more time with my children. My husband never thought he would think that way…then we got the opportunity to see life differently and it has forever changed us. Great article and lots of good responses!

    • Squirrelers says

      Glad you liked the article and the discussion! It seems like in your case – as with many folks in different life situations – hindsight is 20/20 as often said. You made the best decision you could at the time. The great thing is, you’ve learned from the whole experience. All the best to you.

  23. Aimee says

    I am in this incredibly difficult decision making process….we can live closer to my husband’s work (in the city) and there is a wonderful neighborhood that I fell in love with, and I love the home but it’s pricey and we already have renovation ideas. I feel this house will hold value based on location and the school–but I don’t like the city’s new all-day kindergarten policy, especially since there is hardly a budget for music and arts…and it’s an IB school which means lots of high expectations on kids and tons of homework. Though I want them to have a specialized education, I don’t want it to be traded for their childhood. And since I’ve mostly been a stay-at-home mom with a daughter about to attend kindergarten next year, I am even more sensitive about it right now. (I also love this area b/c I am still relatively close to a couple friends.)

    However, we can move to a great neighborhood, but longer commute time for my hubby. We fell for this house first b/c of the great schools and literally, behind the house is an AMAZING park with all the amenities, and elementary school in walking distance w/ half-day fully enriched kindergarten and wonderful schools. The house itself, I don’t love at all.but could make it work. The other hard part is I have no friends at all close to this area, where the city one, I still have access to city life on a rare date occasion. And though we could get this house for cheaper, the area is pricey and will be more of a difficult to find preschool for my two year old daughter that won’t seem like I am going crazy picking up and dropping off next year since half day is really only 1/3 of a day really.

    I feel the first home is the selfish choice, yet I really hate to increase my husband’s commute time–even 25 min a day adds up when they are little and go to bed so early.

    We keep stalling on making a bid, and I am feeling restless since these are both meet so many checks compared to other homes in both of these neighborhoods that I have been tracking.

  24. says

    We REALLY lucked out with our house! We found exactly the house we wanted in the school district that we wanted! There are other great school districts but are in areas where we probably wouldn’t fit in or feel comfortable! ;) Our area gives you the best of both worlds; affordable housing AND a great school district! We moved three years ago to our current house to be settled before my oldest started kindergarten. So for me, I would say school district is higher priority than house!

    • Squirrelers says

      I know what you mean about school district being a higher priority. And good for you that you got both….that’s great!

  25. Julie says

    Try this one on… I have two, elementary age children. One has been attending a therapeutic day school due to Asperger’s and OCD. The school was made possible thru the district where his father lives. Now the home district no longer offers the therapeautic day school option… rather, they have started a new program in district, the last part of the last school year. They throw all the “special” kids into one classroom, including the suspended kids. Two of the kids in the classroom were with my son in the therapeuatic school. They bullied him daily. So no matter what… it’s not an option. This district is my ex-husband’s home town. He has a very established career there, and a large home that wouldn’t sell any time soon. He won’t move.

    The therapeutic day school my son attended previously was close enough (20 minute drive) that I could take him when he was with me. The bus took him from his dad’s house (40 minute ride). My daughter was supposed to transfer into my district this year. We have charter schools that she could get into.

    I am engaged now to a great person. We purchased a stately, vintage home and spent everything doing a massive remodel. Then… the district here became unaccredited last year. They have a temporary transfer program to other districts… but we don’t qualify this year. Next year it may not be an option if they get their accreditation back. Our house is in a very desired neighborhood. But we stand to lose 100K if we have to list the house. We did the remodel with living here a long time in mind.
    Obviously, my son needs a specialized program no matter what.
    I found a neighboring school district that offers a fabulous program for my son. The only adequate program, private or public in our greater metropolitan area. So now I’m faced with having to live separate from my fiance just to get kids into the great school district.
    Our neighborhood school… albeit in an unaccredited district, in a very urban setting… only has 10 kids to 1 teacher plus one assistant ratio. Not bad. But not great. The kids are from VERY rough urban households. Special Ed program might be okay… but I know without a doubt that my son would do a thousand times better in the great school. I’m considering renting an apartment in the district and making the commute from my “real” home. Not sure if this is really ethical… albeit taxes would still be paid by me paying rent. Or… I could go ahead and move during the school week into the district. I’ll keep my finger’s crossed that there will be positive changes by next year. If not, I’ll have to consider giving up the fiance and the house, so my kids can go to a great school… living apart is not going to be the lifestyle I want… and he really doesn’t want to move. Aside from that… things are great.

    Watcha guys think about his dilemma?

    • Squirrelers says

      Wow, that’s quite a complex set of circumstances. It seems like you have tradeoffs to make whichever route you take.

      Clearly, when you poured a lot of money into the home under the assumption that the schools wouldn’t be an issue. But that’s in the past. Ultimately, I can’t see how anyone can fault you for making a decision going forward that’s in the best interest of your kids.

    • says

      I would stay put in the house. I think parents place too much faith in schools web most of what kids learn is at home. The behaviors, habits, attitudes, and trust you have helped them have will be of way more benefit than a good teacher. Good kids thrive wherever they go, so unless your kids are troubled (difficulty learning or rambunctious in school), then I’d just stay put. Try out the different program and see how your son likes it.

      I’m a daycare provider and I know that children who are developmentally delayed, have developmental disabilities, or are younger than the peers in the group thrive when they have others to observe whose skills are more advanced than theirs. It gives them room to grow and to have positive influences.

  26. Michelle says

    I definitely agree that the house we “want” should take a back seat to our child’s education. My husband and I are shopping for our first house, and can’t afford as much house in the school district we want, but are willing to accept a ”good enough” house in favor of helping our children excel in life by sending them to highly rated schools.

  27. Raivyn says

    We bought a house in 2004 and poured our whole life savings into it. It wasn’t in the best neighborhood, and the schools were just ok, but we were hopeful to make enough equity to use towards a house in the neighborhood and school district that we wanted. Come the housing bubble and recession and now we are trying to pick up the pieces after losing the house, both of us losing our jobs, and a bankruptcy. We were fortunate to find a rental in our ideal neighborhood and school district; the elementary school is in walking distance to the house. But we’re caught between paying relatively high rent to be in the neighborhood we want, or rent in a less expensive area with less desireable schools but have the abiliy to save so we can hopefully buy a house again in a few years.

    We still haven’t decided which way to go – on the one hand I feel my son is living an idyllic childhood, but the insecurity of not owning a home and having difficulty saving is hard day by day.

  28. says

    I believe that test scores alone are not a good indication of quality. I went to elementary school back in 1999-2002 that is now ranked a 2/10 but i had some off the best teachers and learned soooo much from them. I had fun learning, loved the outdoor play choices we had, and loved the food (although looking back on that, it wasn’t healthy). Some of these teachers made a huge impact on me. The high school i went to (in another state) is rated an 8/10 and while it had a lot of choices (AP, IB, the arts, different levels of classes), most of my teachers were either mediocre or ok.

    Just remember that it’s the kids’ intelligence that gets a school good test scores, not the teachers. Yes, they teach. But ultimately it’s the skills and general intelligence of the kids that matters.

    In a choice of good VS excellent schools, consider all the activities, classes, variety, and quality of school lunches. At the A rated high school i went to, the food was awful and was barely a grade above dog food.

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