Best Places to Live 2009
Where Vultures Score
If you’ve got the financial security—not to mention the stomach—here’s where to look for real steals.
In a few communities, price tumbles have yielded golden opportunities for the right buyer. Whether the misstep was overbuilding or ego-inflated pricing, real estate experts suggest that further depreciation will be minimal, while the potential upsides are strong. Especially if you’ve got the right mindset about what you’re buying in a home. “It’s a hard asset, it builds equity, and at the end of the loan, you own it outright,” says John Ranco, director of sales for Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty. “I think we’ve all forgotten about that.”
I. THE QUAINT QUEUE
To get the Norman Rockwell look without the markup, scout these discounted charmers.
Median home price $277,000
One-year change -4.65%
Since market peak -14.51%
This tiny enclave tucked away off Route 24 near Randolph offers one of the best shots at finding a starter home (or golden-years retreat) close to Boston. An industrial park to the west gives Avon its low tax rate, which adds up to less than $3,000 annually for the sort of three-bedroom ranch houses in oversupply here. Foreclosures are an opportunity: Thirty-seven percent of local home-owners are underwater, according to real estate website Zillow. Though most of the inventory is postwar tract houses, currently selling in the mid-$200,000s, you can find remnants of a rural past—in Colonial and Victorian styles—on larger lots.
Median home price $530,000
One-year change -3.64%
Since market peak -14.17%
Curt Schilling’s 11,000-square-foot pile has been on the market in Medfield for nearly a year. Granted, No. 38 has marked it up to a hefty $8 million (despite a kitchen rumored to date from when Drew Bledsoe owned the place), but the home could stand in for the town’s market in general. Pie-in-the-sky listings and flagging sales for “older” homes have led to properties idling and prices deflating. Yet Medfield itself still offers value, including an excellent high school, a new softball field partially donated by the Schillings, and a truly old-school downtown luncheonette. Short sales are unusual, but starter homes in the $400,000s can be found on side streets near the town center or in places like Pine Needle Park and Belknap Estates. In the market’s upper and top tiers are ’90s-era construction such as Wild Holly Lane and the in-development Scott Colwell neighborhood on the Minuteman trail, where the Schillings have reportedly bought lots.
Median home price $438,250
One-year change -12.35%
Since market peak -16.52%
Scituate has a well-deserved reputation for being the friendliest burg on the South Shore. There’s also the ocean, the harbor, Hunter’s Pond, the North River, and any number of picturesque views over cranberry bogs or tidal marshland; from the town’s four cliffs you can see Provincetown on a clear day. Yet the mentality among buyers has typically been: Why buy Scituate when you can get Cohasset (i.e., caviar)? That attitude has always kept prices in check, and the recession has softened them further still. For small or starter homes, the Egypt area, with its own beach, is consistently the most affordable. In Minot, turn-of-the-century homes can run from $800,000 to the multimillions.
II. THE CONVENIENCE-AND-CULTURE CLUB
Enjoy big-city perks without spending big-city bucks.
Median home price $594,500
One-year change -9.31%
Since market peak -19.34%
During the boom years, if you were priced out of Carlisle or Lincoln, you went to Sudbury, tore something down, and built much, much bigger. A wave of mortgage resets has dislodged some nouveau residents, but foreclosures have abated following a spike in 2007. “Sudbury used to be closed to young families. Now you can get in for under $500,000,” says Laura Meier of Black Horse Real Estate. Development along Route 20 has brought in a welcome mix of boutiques and restaurants, previously in short supply. Those additions haven’t obscured what’s always been good about Sudbury: rambling country roads with stone walls, and Colonials and Capes in harmony with fairly discreet newer homes. The town is also laced with old farmland conserved for cross-country skiing, hiking, and camping. The regional high school, Lincoln-Sudbury, is top-notch.
Median home price $360,000
One-year change -11.66%
Since market peak -18.07%
West Roxbury is like Boston’s secret suburban arm. Instead of triple-deckers, there are sidewalk blocks of single-family homes with backyards. The city schools have been a bugaboo for some, but homes have moved rapidly and continue to do so—selling in 77 days, on average. Centre Street has a library, a YMCA, solid restaurants, and a supermarket, allowing families to run errands on foot and limit themselves to a single car (and car payment). Longer-term, broader cultural shifts toward greater civic engagement and shorter commutes should help propel this neighborhood’s popularity. Look for three-bedroom houses in the $300,000s near the Brookline or Dedham line; large Victorians on Bellevue Hill sell for $700,000 and up.
BOSTON LUXURY CONDOS
These days there are, as one luxury broker puts it, “uncommon values” to be had in some of Boston’s poshest addresses, with Realtors singling out the Ritz Residences, the InterContinental, Battery Wharf, and the South End’s Bryant on Columbus as particularly ripe for bargains. (Unfinished projects like the Clarendon and the W Hotel Residences, on the other hand, are still publicly asking top dollar.) One broker predicted the Mandarin Oriental condos, which sold out at a record-setting $1,500-plus per square foot preconstruction, may eventually go for reasonable rates, given the number of owners already looking to sell. Other developers are throwing in parking spaces, scuttling closing fees, and picking up the tab on a year’s worth of condo dues (for instance, at Southie’s eco-friendly Macallen Building). One note: With few new projects getting financed, now is the time to strike, as constrained supply could put an end to further price sliding.
III. THE SQUARE-FOOTAGE SQUAD
If you’ve dreamed of more breathing room—or simply a view that’s not of your neighbor—you’ll find it here.
Median home price $350,000
One-year change -10.83%
Since market peak -15.69%
Easton’s imposing civic buildings designed by H. H. Richardson (of Trinity Church fame) come courtesy of the Ames family, whose iron-bladed shovel laid miles of Union Pacific rail. The appetite for historic preservation still runs high in Easton, which has long socked away land for conservation. All those attributes, plus strong schools and access to Routes 495 and 24, gave Easton a good run-up in home values during the first half of this decade, but today there’s a fair amount of inventory. Still, buying here won’t necessarily push you into jumbo-loan territory. A nice Colonial on 2 acres, for example, is being offered in the $400,000s.
Median home price $453,500
One-year change -8.57%
Since market peak -13.11%
Along the sun-dappled, clam shack–speckled drive that is Route 1A, it’s hard to tell where Wenham begins and Hamilton ends. For Wenham, that’s a boon. The twin towns share a school system, library, and recreation department, as well as a commercial district along their border. But Wenham’s median home price reflects a roughly $50,000 discount from tonier Hamilton’s, making it a smart buy. The state has studied merging the towns into a single municipality (Wenhamilton?), and if it ever pursues such a move, Wenham’s values will be the ones to benefit.
Median home price $420,000
One-year change -15.75%
Since market peak -18.45%
The longer commute to Boston, the fire sale going on in nearby Lowell, and a general oversupply of four-bedroom, recent-vintage Colonials have softened the market, but it’s temporary: While generating some of the fastest growth rates in eastern Massachusetts, the town clamped down on residential permitting a little over a decade ago. Businesses love Westford because it charges them the same as the residential tax rate, and the jobs created by the likes of Puma and IBM can only spell good things for home values in the long term. Appealing traces of Westford’s rural roots can be found in its farm stands, historic clapboard houses, and Apple Blossom Festival, held each spring. The Nabnasset Lake area is the best bet for finding starter homes under $400,000.