Best Places to Live in Greater Boston
Whatever your stage of life, here’s where to look for your first, next, or last home.
Real estate, like life, has its phases. Once upon a time, all you needed to call a place home was a nearby T stop and a bug-free shower. A few years later, utopia was a pad with extra guest/office/Guitar Hero space. Which later became a nursery. And then you craved a backyard for restless kids, and a stellar school system.
Or maybe you’ve already been through all of that. In which case, paradise for you right now is a downsized one-bedroom with a skyline view and a dedicated parking spot. “Best places” — a concept defined in these pages each year — is all about your stage in life, and your lifestyle.
“Approach real estate with your life’s priorities and opportunities in mind, and you’ll make a good buy,” says Jeff Simon, president of SalesApproach Real Estate. Yes, the housing market has had a bruising few years. But Massachusetts remains a solid buy. Since 2002 the median home price has risen $20,000, or 7 percent. And of the 150-plus towns we track, 61 percent saw the median rise in 2010. So whatever your taste or age, now is a good time to buy. Whether you’re looking to purchase a first home, a family-friendlier compound, or a retirement retreat, we’ve discovered ideal spots spanning city, shoreline, and suburbia.
It’s time to buy your own place when you spend days counting the ways renting stinks. You can’t paint the walls, stoke up a fire pit, or have a pet. A multiflight walkup discourages you from grocery shopping, and you’re tired of overhearing your neighbors’ every fight and sigh. Plus, renting isn’t a good deal right now. Landlords have the upper hand because of high occupancy rates (94.6 percent in Boston, the highest level since 2006). The good news if you’re looking to buy is that anyone who already owns actually envies you. You’re in a prime position to get both low interest rates and the recession’s residual low prices. So, you’re ready to take the homeowner plunge. Here are the best places to look.
Median Condo Price: $324,000
One-Year Difference: -2%
Buyers used to shy away from this rowdy student neighborhood. But over the past decade, as the Red Sox won championships, the team’s front office invested in the area. That led other developers here, too, bringing swanky restaurants and condos with them. Fenway today is a terrific value: $500 per square foot versus $700-plus for the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, says Michael DiMella, managing partner of Charlesgate Realty. Where you should be looking: The quiet side streets behind Boylston: Peterborough, Queensberry, and Park Drive. The units don’t have a high occupancy, which means students aren’t likely to congregate there, and the streets offer a smattering of useful services: laundry, small markets, and hidden-gem eateries, such as Church.
Median Home Price: $329,500
One-Year Difference: -2%
For the price of a J.P. condo, buyers can afford a house in nearby Rozzie. Young families snap up small Colonials and Capes (starting in the $300,000s), then load up their calendars: concerts at Adams Park, strolls in the Arnold Arboretum, and trips to the farmers’ market, the neighborhood’s see-and-socialize outdoor emporium. Where you should be looking: Roslindale Village has shops, restaurants, and the commuter rail, too, which will take you to more of the same in the heart of Boston. But don’t discount the Peters Hill neighborhood, adjacent to the Arboretum — a city address with bucolic charm.
Median Home Price: $405,000
One-Year Difference: +7%
In recent years Melrose has transformed from a townie sleeper to a suburban haven for ex-urbanites. Credit goes to Mayor Robert Dolan, the native son who has supported independent boutiques downtown, worked to improve schools, and hosted summertime mixers he calls “slush nights,” during which Richie’s restaurant serves takeout on neighborhood playgrounds. The real estate market has responded in kind. Houses zip off the market — 74 days on average in 2010. Where you should be looking: Restoration junkies opt for rambling Victorians in the highlands, which feature Queen Anne architectural swag, while those who love the tree-lined neighborhoods of John Hughes flicks opt for the flat east-side streets near Bellevue Country Club. (It’s like buying in Winchester, but 30 percent cheaper.)
Median Home Price: $367,000
One-Year Difference: +11%
For another M-town value, try this South Shore enclave, which sits on a massive stretch of coastline below Scituate. In the $300,000 range, you’ll get a three-bedroom in move-in condition, says SeaSide Homes owner and broker Carol Keough. And you’ll get a town that’s sweet in spirit: This is where comedian Steve Carell saved the general store. Locals love the five beaches (sugar-sanded Green Harbor is the best), the turkey sandwiches at Gerard Farm, and the Boys and Girls Club, which will move into a new $3 million facility in 2012 thanks to community donations. Where you should be looking: Homes on side streets off Webster Avenue on the Brant Rock peninsula. They’re affordable — in the mid-to-low $300,000s — and still within walking distance of the beach and restaurants.
The problem with first homes, of course, is growing — or rather, outgrowing — pains. But buying to accommodate an expanding family has its benefits. Trading-uppers are generally savvier than first-timers, says Realtor Linda O’Koniewski, owner of RE/MAX Heritage in Melrose. “They know how a house actually works, and the value of things like mudrooms, storage space, and a master bath.” Brand-name towns (Wellesley, Newton, Cohasset) still command top dollar, because families love the schools. Moving into them may require a jumbo mortgage (meaning more than $417,000); these normally carry higher interest rates, but as of press time were within one percentage point of a traditional 30-year fixed rate. In other words, you may never find such favorable terms again. Moving up? Check out these great towns.
Median Home Price: $631,000
One-Year Difference: +5%
With its Derby Street Shoppes and posh but quaint downtown boutiques, its redeveloped harbor, and its restaurant scene colonized by Boston chefs, Hingham is the South Shore’s most sophisticated playground. All this development has been tasteful; historical homes still abound, and scenic Main Street winds past everything from clapboard Capes in the $600,000s to Colonial-era beauties at $1 million-plus. Where you should be looking: Growing families favor the Liberty Pole neighborhood; near South Elementary, it’s a maze of child-friendly culs-de-sac and wide yards with easy access to Route 3. Dedicated “Polers” love the street hockey, pickup Wiffle ball, and crab-apple fights.
Median Home Price: $619,600
One-Year Difference: +7%
If you find bigger to be better, Sudbury is overflowing with large, new homes — that just happen to be selling at discounts. For example, $1 million might fetch you a 6,300-square-foot, 18-room spread with nine parking spaces. (It’s 60 Atkinson Lane in North Sudbury, if you’re interested.) Because of an overbuilt luxury market, prices have dropped roughly 20 percent here since the 2005 peak. The deals won’t last forever, though. The town has rustic charm, powerhouse schools, and a handful of good restaurants. Where you should be looking: Tall Pines, which is off Horse Pond Road in South Sudbury. It’s the best neighborhood for top-notch, new-construction homes at a steal.
Median Home Price: $519,500
One-Year Difference: +6%
Look here for “that small-town American experience,” says Kathleen Buckley, owner of Star Realty and Hopkinton resident. With prosperous neighborhoods, good schools, and half-century-old grocery and drug stores, Hopkinton is indeed a Rockwellian throwback that seems farther removed from city life than the 26 miles that separate the town — the start of the marathon — from Boston. ] Where you should be looking: Because of overconstruction in the past decade, a fully loaded house — four-plus bedrooms, three-plus baths on an acre-plus lot — now goes for around $700,000 in neighborhoods like Blueberry Lane, coveted for its proximity to the town center and schools.
Median Home Price: $507,000
One-Year Difference: +9%
It’s a common summer sight: young Headers setting out in white dinghies from the Pleon, the 124-year-old kiddie yacht club. Marblehead’s other charms are equally storybook: clapboard homes downtown the shades of Jordan almonds; a summer sleep-away camp hosted on Children’s Island, one of half a dozen islands off Marblehead’s coast. Where you should be looking: Buyers willing to part with millions should pounce on anything in Marblehead Neck, Clifton, and Peach’s Point, which have stunning water views and large lots, a rarity in town. But slightly smaller lots, and lower prices (just under $1 million), can be found in the “Cliffs” area — Pinecliff, Driftwood, and Shorewood roads — a wooded stretch close to conservation land and playing fields.
The lawn is growing shaggier than Justin Bieber’s hair, and, frankly, you don’t need to be close to madam’s école de ballet anymore. Most downsizers are
empty-nesters ready to shed suburban maintenance and rejoin the urban world of fabulous restaurants and art-house flicks. For them, the holy trinity of city living is ELG: elevator, laundry, garage. Though no longer the urban-market fire sale of 2009, solid deals remain for units in Boston’s full-service buildings.
Median Condo Price: $470,000
Downsizers put off by the Back Bay’s prices opt for Brookline’s A-plus real estate market. It still ain’t cheap, but your money goes further here — and you’ll be minutes away from a historic movie theater, a phenomenal independent bookstore, and some of the best restaurant meals in the Boston area. Where you should be looking: Coolidge Corner is, in theory, the town’s hottest neighborhood to buy in. But the Park Street Condominiums, at 70 to 80 Park, have elevators, a concierge, and an open parkway just outside the door. And you’re only steps from Beacon Street and the Green Line.
Median Condo Price: $539,500
One-Year Difference: +5%
The food lover’s paradise has an ardent following among hipsters — and their suburb-fleeing parents. In fact, it’s common for the older generation to outbid the younger, which has kept the neighborhood’s property values buoyant (to the tune of $600,000 and up for a two-bedroom). Where you should be looking: The so-called Eight Streets Neighborhood: Waltham, Hanson, Milford, et cetera. The area is full of the townhouses the South End is known for, and is within spoon’s reach of Tremont Street’s restaurants. For those who want to skip the stairs, Wilkes Passage on Washington Street and the Penmark on Father Francis Gilday Street are two new condo developments with the sort of ELG that boomers favor. For roughly the same price as a sprawling suburban estate, you’ll have the best of city living.
Median Condo Price: $748,000
One-Year Difference: +16%
Behold, the gilded life: immediate access to Newbury Street and Copley Place’s shopping and restaurants; day spa and salon services; strolls in the Public Garden; and the gorgeous-in-all-seasons Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Where you should be looking: Two addresses on Beacon Street: 180 and 330. These are high-rises constructed just before the Back Bay Architectural Commission banned such buildings. Today they have all the swank an empty-nester would want, without the price tag of, say, a One Charles condo. Plus, you’re living on top of the city.
Median Condo Price*: $2.1 million
One-Year Difference: +18%
For downsizers willing to navigate around the gaping hole of the old Filene’s building, this area is a comer. Textile-supply buildings have been transformed into chic lofts starting in the $400,000s. What these areas lack in a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods, they make up for in theaters and restaurants galore. And of course, the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton embody all the services and fabulousness you’ll ever need. Where you should be looking: The Metropolitan on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown. The high-rise is near the Theater District, the Orange and Silver lines, and scores of ethnic restaurants; plus, there’s 24-hour concierge service. It’s like the Ritz, but closer to everything, and cheaper.
*Figures for the zip code 02111 only