The Smart Buys in a Scary Market

We know: Between the topsy-turvy prices and the subprime mess, it's a real estate nightmare out there. But after grilling dozens of brokers and hundreds of industry experts, we're pleased to report there are some bright spots for jittery house-hunters (and owners). A road map to 29 neighborhoods and towns that are holding their value, or are poised to be big winners when the next boom rolls around.

A Less-Costly Free Education

Most towns with great public schools also have greatly overpriced homes. But there are some still-affordable areas where high test scores can be had without taking out that jumbo loan.

Twenty years ago, diversity in Acton was limited to whether you called yourself Irish-Italian or Italian-Irish. These days, the town (with a median home price of just under $513,000) has sizable Jewish, Indian, and Asian populations. There’s also an exemplary school system—last year, in fact, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School posted the second-highest average math SAT score (640) in the state.

You’ll likewise find no shortage of young scholars in Andover, home of Phillips Academy, as well as a healthy housing market (prices climbed another 4 percent last year, to a median of $539,900). Locals can send their kids to the esteemed prep school at day-student rates—but since at $29,000, that’s still not cheap, the best value is Andover’s public schools, where 72 percent of 10th-graders scored advanced on the math portion of the MCAS, 30 points above the state average.

Over in Needham (median home price: $598,500), the high-achieving schools come without the golden-handcuff mortgages you’ll find in neighboring towns. According to research by Municipal Benchmarking, which studied it against Lexington, Wellesley, and 17 other peer communities, Needham ranks fourth in MCAS scores, but 12th in the tax burden borne by residents. Students in Westwood (median home price: $553,750) also post test scores comparable to those in the more famous W towns—and since 2005, they’ve had almost as nice a place to learn, too, thanks to a property tax–cap override that has helped pay for their new state-of-the-art school.