Best Places to Live 2012

Our annual guide to finding your happy place.

By Kimberly Blanton | Boston Magazine |

Illustration by James Taylor

WHAT MAKES FOR a great place to live, anyway? For some, it’s a prestige ZIP code or top schools. For others, it’s a sense of community or abundant green space. Whatever you’re looking for, “now is a good time to take a calculated risk and make a move,” says Warren Group CEO Timothy Warren Jr. Want in on the attractive mortgage rates and low prices? We consulted real estate agents, residents, and town officials to find the most interesting opportunities within the I-495 loop, logging close to 600 miles along the way. Here are 14 towns, cities, and neighborhoods — some up-and-comers, some already-theres — you’ll love to call home.

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Swanky Town Smackdown! How Boston’s Best, Fanciest, Suburbs Stack Up
How Much House Do You Get For the Money?

 

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Best Places to Live Lakeville

All’s calm on Lakeville’s Long Pond. Photo by Bob O’Connor.

Acton

Because it’s a suburban town with a global vibe
Median home price: $519,500, One-year change: +5%
This community northwest of the city is earning a reputation for diversity that’s on par with Lexington’s. (In fact, there’s an actual rivalry between the two towns: Last April, Acton-Boxborough Regional High’s math team bested the Lexington squad by one point in a nail-biting state meet.) Thanks to the area’s vibrant Indian and Chinese populations, kids get an international experience that extends beyond school hours. On Sundays, children taking Chinese lessons fill the junior high. Instructors from Angel Performing Arts lead 80 girls, ages 5 to 15, in Chinese folk-dance lessons at Exchange Hall. And at the high school, the student organization Asha (“hope” in Hindi) promotes South Asian culture with activities like food festivals, and is raising money to build a school in Rajasthan, India.

 

Boston’s Leather District

Because it’s got downtown style with a small-town soul
Median condo price: $605,000*, One-year change: +21%
A strong sense of community pervades this compact, nine-square-block warren of old office buildings and factories near the Financial District and Chinatown. Five-year resident Tim Cushman, who, along with his wife, Nancy, owns the sushi temple O Ya, says they bump into familiar faces all the time, especially at the nearby Dewey Square farmers’ market. “We have a lot of neighbors who come into the restaurant,” Cushman says. The neighborhood is also maturing: Social media startups, ad agencies, and other hip businesses have put down roots in the area and formed a tight-knit group, even banding together for a block party last fall. And although luxury loft construction screeched to a halt when the economy tanked, things are looking up. Current offerings include both smart bargains (a one-bedroom loft for under $400,000) and high-end finds (a $1.3 million terrace penthouse). Hudson Group North America also plans to break ground later this year on a 25-story high-end apartment tower where the decrepit Dainty Dot Hosiery building stands at the corner of Kingston and Essex streets. Expect the project, which is on the outskirts of the neighborhood, to further enliven the area and increase foot traffic. *  Data  is  for  the  02111  zip  code, which  includes  parts  of  Chinatown.

 

East Boston

Because it’s an adventurous eater’s paradise
Median condo price: $227,500, One-year change: +7%
In 2009, chef Michael Serpa of the North End’s Neptune Oyster decided to jump on a gut-renovated two-family near Orient Heights. The price? Just $340,000. Two and a half years later, he couldn’t be happier with the choice. Besides the eight-minute commute to downtown through the old harbor tunnels, Serpa and his wife, Lina Velez, love Eastie for its inexpensive global comfort food like Peruvian ceviche, Colombian tongue stew, and Salvadoran pupusas. (The Mexican fare at Angela’s Café is legendary.) Mayor Menino is certainly betting on East Boston, too, having recently announced plans for a series of infrastructure improvements to lure private developers to the harbor.

 

Lakeville

Because it’s an overlooked waterfront retreat
Median home price: $299,900, One-year change: +13%
In places like Heaven Heights and Bliss Road, houses tucked into the nooks and crannies of Long Pond’s sparkling shoreline start at $200,000 and go up to $2 million. (It’s rumored that John Travolta looked there.) The draw? The waterfront vistas afforded by lake living…minus the beach-town pricing. Real estate agent Tracy Shand of Jack Conway & Company moved to town with her husband after losing out on properties north of Boston. They now have 101 feet of pond frontage. Lakeville does have a sprinkling of amenities — the Cottage Day Spa, Somethin’s Brewing Book Café — but the community revolves around the pond, where locals can putter up to the dock at St. John Neumann’s Church for mass on Sunday mornings.

 

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Best Places to Live Plymouth

The award-winning Pinehills community in Plymouth. Photo by Getty Images/Globe.

Medway

Because sustainability is a way of life
Median home price: $335,000, One-year change: +1%
This southwest suburb has taken the eco-conscious cause to heart. Massachusetts recently designated Medway an official “green community,” providing grants to install low-energy lighting in municipal buildings and set up residents with rainwater collection barrels. Last May, the first shares of organic crops — heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, fresh-cut flowers — were sold from the Medway Community Farm (local fourth-graders helped plant the seeds) on town-owned land. The high school generates some of its electricity via solar panels, and the middle school is being retrofitted for them, too. Even commercial developers are getting in on the act. One new subdivision near the center of town features geothermal air systems. “Green is good” here, says Paul Yorkis, who is developing 18 energy-saving townhouses in West Medway. Mother Nature agrees.

 

Northborough

Because of one ridiculously great grocery store
Median home price: $367,000, One-year change: +4%
We tried to stay within the I-495 loop for this package. We really did. But if there’s one thing we’ll endure a longer commute for, it’s the new mega grocery store Wegmans. Northborough denizens have flipped for the New York company’s first New England outpost, a shiny 138,000-square-foot space teeming with gourmet goodies. “I almost want to cry when I walk by the bakery,” town resident Shawn Gillespie says of the store’s appeal. Home cooks stock up on shallot-thyme butter, red Cerignola olives, and prepared foods galore — and shop the cavernous liquor department. Real estate agent Karen Scopetski, who says a large number of Northborough residents commute to nearby EMC or to Boston, can show you $275,000 homes in the Northgate neighborhood, $400,000 residences in Indian Meadow, or $700,000 McMansions in Brigham Woods.

 

Plymouth

Because the new high school is a high-tech masterpiece
Median home price: $264,500, One-year change: -3%
This town, where you can get a 1,600-square-foot house for less than $275,000, is a savvy shopper’s dream — and it’ll be even more so when Plymouth North High School opens in September. Principal Kathleen McSweeney says the space will feature a robot-engineering lab, building-wide WiFi, electric-car chargers in the parking lot, and $6,500 worth of gadgets for every classroom, including interactive whiteboards and Bose speakers. (There will also be sparkling facilities for the sports teams.) And for parents? Plymouth offers a quaint downtown and the Colony Place outdoor mall.

 

Quincy

Because it’s about to get an extreme makeover
Median home price: $299,950, One-year change: -5%
With $1.6 billion in planned upgrades to a 20-block area, Quincy is a city on the move. Once infrastructure improvements are completed next year, Street-Works Development and the Beal Companies are slated to begin building a downtown department store, farmers’ market, up to 1,400 residences, and more. The project’s buzz may help explain the spurt in winter sales activity around Quincy — 221 single-family homes and condos were sold or went under contract between November and mid-February, compared with 140 during the same period last year.

 

Scituate

Because of the bustling harbor
Median home price: $437,000, One-year change: +2%
A wave of development on Scituate Harbor, including retail, office, and condo projects, has energized the waterfront. “All of a sudden, it’s lively,” says Realtor David Drinkwater. On Front Street, you’ll find Wishbones pet boutique, food and gift shop Roman Table, the rehabbed cinema, and seafood eatery Oro. In 2009 three local families reopened the 29-room Inn at Scituate Harbor, and its Dogwatch bar attracts weekend crowds.

 

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Best Places to Live Scituate

Somerville

Because it’s the new Cambridge
Median condo price: $358,000, One-year change: +2%
Consider it the feistier younger sister to the People’s Republic: close to Boston and densely populated, but edgier and more artsy than its sibling. While the ’Ville’s Open Studios draw culture-seeking crowds from all over in the spring, you’ll find exhibits throughout the year. There are the studios in the Arts at the Armory and Brickbottom buildings, and the shows at the Washington Street Art Center. The Artisan’s Asylum craft center, with its classes on metalworking, home brewing, and, uh, robot building has grown so popular it had to be moved to a bigger space near Union Square — which, generally speaking, is where creative types hang their hats. That’s no surprise, given the neighborhood’s coffee shops, music venues, and the locavore-leaning Sherman Market. You’ll also find plenty of artistic folk in the ungentrified outpost of East Somerville (near Sullivan Square) and in pockets between Highland Avenue and Winter Hill. On the whole, prices are on the upswing in the city, but Ellen Friedman of Keller Williams Realty says there’s plenty in the $300,000 range, making Somerville a good option for first-time buyers — who will stand to profit if and when the city’s many planned municipal projects begin to bear fruit. In addition to the proposed Green Line extension, which would add five T stops, city planners have offered a fresh retail vision for Assembly Square, where new residences are already going up. And Alderman Tony Lafuente has plans to invigorate Winter Hill’s tired but well-trod commercial area.

 

Topsfield

Because the great outdoors are your backyard
Median home price: $415,700, One-year change: -4%
Most people know only one thing about Topsfield: the annual fall fair, which features piglet races and giant pumpkins. But this rural community of beautiful old homes and horse farms offers more than just a slice of Americana — it’s also a recreational hub for folks of all ages. Topsfield recently completed a two-mile rail trail that’s part of the proposed 28-mile Border to Boston Trail, which will eventually run from Peabody to Salisbury. Then there are the large swaths of Bradley Palmer State Park and the Ipswich Wildlife Sanctuary that fall within town lines. Baby boomers can park their bikes at the budding 55-plus English Commons community (customized town homes start around $650,000), which sits on 69 serene acres near the Putnamville Reservoir. But opportunities abound for buyers of all ages: Since 2006, prices here have plunged by 25 percent.

 

Westwood

Because it offers rural charm and big-city amenities
Median home price: $525,000, One-year change: -1%
If you want to leave the Back Bay for an idyllic suburb but are terrified of giving up your Apple store, consider Westwood. Retail addicts get their fix just across the town line at Dedham’s open-air Legacy Place, which includes Stellabella Toys, Whole Foods, Anthropologie, and more. Yet pretty Westwood (population under 15,000) retains its quaint character. And it’s getting some upgrades: a new library, new luxury senior housing, and a recently expanded middle school to accommodate a baby boomlet. Neighborhoods like Islington (prices start under $300,000) and the Clapboardtree Street area ($700,000 to $1.2 million) feature tasteful postwar housing stock, while Stevens Farm ($2 million and up)offers newer construction, says agent Barbara Shea. And with an Amtrak station and two commuter-rail stops, those who just can’t shake their downtown-shopping habit can get back in a flash.

 

Winthrop

Because your commute could be a 25-minute cruise
Median home price: $290,500, One-year change: -10%
When Winthrop began running a $6 weekday shuttle ferry to Rowes Wharf in downtown Boston last year, it opened up a world of possibilities for commuters in this ’burb northeast of the city (bonus points for free parking near the dock). But the ferry operated from just May to October, leaving residents out of luck during the winter. Thankfully, town manager James McKenna hopes to offer year-round service aboard a town-owned vessel in the near future. Winthrop has also secured state funding for a walkway and bike trail that will run along the harbor. Bargain Capes, ranches, and Victorians abound on this 1.6-square-mile peninsula, where the median price has dropped 20 percent since 2006 — and every house is near the water.

 

Wrentham

Because it’s the little town that could
Median home price: $390,000, One-year change: +13%
Many know Wrentham primarily for its outlets and proximity to Gillette Stadium. But its assets go far beyond Banana Republic and Tom Brady. For starters, there’s the top-notch extracurriculars at King Philip Regional High School, which completed a reconstruction in 2007. The blockbuster music program brings home top awards. Last year, the football team made it to the state semifinals, and the girls’ softball squad won its second consecutive state championship. (Paul Schaefer, district director of finance and operations, credits the surge in talent to a bump in enrollment.) Home values are on the upswing, too: The median price jumped $45,000 from 2010 to 2011, and with the recent approval of the Fox Run subdivision (which will start in the high $400,000s), the trend is likely to continue.

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