Top Spots to Live
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Median single-family price: $295,000
Median condo price: $190,000
Residential tax rate: $9.79 per thousand of assessed value
Just a short commute southeast of Boston, Weymouth has a large variety of house styles and neighborhoods and many affordable properties; as of this writing, nearly half of the 41 single-family homes on the market were listed for less than $300,000. There's plenty of shopping and public transportation, and nowhere in Weymouth is anything too far from the water.
HONORABLE MENTION: Lowell, Natick, Plymouth, Waltham
Median single-family price: $762,500
Median condo price: $220,000
Residential tax rate: $8.25
Manchester-by-the-Sea is posh in an understated, quintessentially New England way. Its gorgeous water views made it the summer destination of industrialists and politicians in the mid-1800s, and it retains much of the architecture from that period. Gracious estates on a par with Newport's run to the tens of millions, but even more modest homes have a sense of history, making Manchester an exclusive club with a small-town feel.
HONORABLE MENTION: Cohasset, Wellesley, Weston
Median single-family price: $185,000
Median condo price: $122,713
Residential tax rate: $11.10
In our survey, several real estate agents cited the number of foreclosures as one force driving down home prices in this city. Traditionally a working-class immigrant area, Brockton is loaded with single and multifamily homes -- many with generous flat yards -- that need a little work, and the city is offering low-cost loan programs for those seeking primary residences.
HONORABLE MENTION: Framingham, Lowell, Plymouth, Salem
Median single-family price: $194,900
Median condo price: $155,900
Residential tax rate: $11.68
In recent years, Lowell has been touted as undergoing a renaissance, with an influx of artists and others moving into its canal-front lofts. Since the economic downturn, though, a large number of houses and condos have come on the market for less than $100,000. "Unfortunately, there are many foreclosure properties available, but this presents opportunities for buyers who are willing to put some sweat equity into a property and sell later, when the market improves," agent Jean McGillick of Coldwell Banker in Chelmsford explained in our survey.
HONORABLE MENTION: Brockton, Lynn, Quincy, Worcester
Median single-family price: $750,000
Median condo price: $405,000
Residential tax rate: $7.56
Not only is there a lot of night life in Cambridge -- with countless live-music venues, pubs, and restaurants that serve late -- but there's also so much to do during the day that singles find it easy to mingle. Museums, parks, and street fairs abound, and actions like closing off a portion of Memorial Drive to traffic on summer Sundays help make Cambridge pedestrian-friendly. It's also just a quick walk or Red Line ride to Boston. Condos remain surprisingly affordable, and the city's diversity and sophistication appeal.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jamaica Plain, Salem, Somerville, South Boston, South End, Worcester
Median single-family price: $1,018,000
Median condo price: $445,000
Residential tax rate: $10.69
Culturally rich and diverse, Brookline has attracted a large number of young families, and many residents are highly motivated when it comes to education. About 75 percent of the population age 25 and older has at least a bachelor's degree. The public schools here spend $10,064 per student -- much higher than the national average of $6,058 -- and it shows in the town's MCAS scores, consistently among the highest in the state. There are also nearly a dozen private schools to choose from, as well as nine college campuses. For the younger set, the town has a long list of diversions, such as playgrounds, dance classes, and kids' shows at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
HONORABLE MENTION: Hingham, Lexington, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Newton
Median single-family price: $298,500
Median condo price: $295,000
Residential tax rate: $11.07
Time and again, Plymouth was cited in our survey as a got-it-all location for an over-55 lifestyle, partly because of The Pinehills and White Cliffs developments, which offer golf courses, walking trails, ocean views, restaurants, and retail, with residences starting at $175,000. "Plymouth is the best-kept secret on the East Coast," says agent Tom Gorman of Gorman Associates in Dedham. Other real estate agents identify the concerts, beaches, and shops of Plymouth as big draws for downsizers.
HONORABLE MENTION: Brookline, Chatham, Newburyport
Median single-family price: $681,500
Median condo price: $330,000
Residential tax rate: $5.12
With a history as an artists' colony dating back to the late 1800s, an entrenched reputation as a haven for nonconformists of all stripes, and unparalleled natural beauty to inspire, P-town is an incubator for the arts. Writers, painters, and performance artists will find plenty of support from the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, several literary retreats, and events like the Friday night gallery walks in summer. And its ubiquitous shingled frame cottages are cute as a button.
HONORABLE MENTION: Boston, Cambridge, Gloucester, Lowell, Rockport
Median single-family price: $700,000
Median condo price: $401,000
Residential tax rate: $12.97
Beautiful and historic, Lexington is a mecca for runners and cyclists because of its lightly trafficked roads and its convenience to nearby towns and major highways. Last year, the 5.5 miles of Minuteman Bikeway in town constituted the first urban trail and the first trail in the Northeast to be inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. The Hayden Recreation Center is a great inexpensive option for children's organized athletics, and for less structured activity, the town offers more than 1,300 acres of conservation land with endless miles of trails.
HONORABLE MENTION: Boston,Cambridge, Newton, Wakefield
Median single-family price: $760,000
Median condo price: $780,000
Residential tax rate: $14.04
Carlisle is the very definition of small-town New England, with plenty of red barns, white church steeples, and low stone walls dotting the rolling hillside. Amazingly, about a quarter of the town's land is protected -- covering everything from wetlands and white-pine forests to farmland and cranberry bogs and offering miles of serene trails for dog walking, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing. Many homes sit on an acre or more, creating hundreds of private mini nature preserves.
HONORABLE MENTION: Concord, Essex, Lincoln, Marshfield, Norwell, Winchester
Median single-family price: $350,000
Median condo price: $229,500
Residential tax rate: $9.60
Gloucester is pretty much surrounded by water, so it's no surprise that it's an epicenter for all things aquatic, from fishing and boating to whale watching and shore diving. Calling itself "America's oldest seaport," the city still has an active working harbor, overseen by the famous Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial statue. There are miles of beaches for everyone from kids to kite surfers, and good real estate deals can still be had, particularly in the multifamily and condo markets.
HONORABLE MENTION: Duxbury, Hull, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Newburyport
Median single-family price: $1,400,000
Median condo price: $520,000
Residential tax rate: $10.63
"Every type of food you could ever want or dream of," agent Mindy Roiff Shanfeld of Prudential Town and Country in Wellesley noted in our survey, and she isn't far off. This trendy enclave, with loads of condos in converted brownstones, is awash in fine wines and stacked with platters of Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Thai, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Indian, French, and continental food. Everything from a takeout smoothie to an elaborate seven-course meal can be had any night of the week. For home cooks, there are favorites like South End Formaggio and Lionette's Market.
HONORABLE MENTION: Arlington, Back Bay, Cambridge, North End, Roslindale, Waltham
Median single-family price: $391,000
Median condo price: $351,250
Residential tax rate: $11.71
Still more affordable than Cambridge for single-family homes, Somerville embraces its bohemian side. Quirky festivals devoted to subjects like Marshmallow Fluff and brass bands fill the streets on many warm weekends, and almost a dozen former factories and other buildings have been converted into studios for artists to work and, in some cases, live in. In the past decade or so, pedestrian-friendly, T-accessible Davis Square has seen a resurgence, with loads of restaurants and bars, as well as venues for indie music acts and film festivals. Union Square is also an up-and-comer, making the city cool enough to banish the epithet "Slumerville" forever.
HONORABLE MENTION: Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Provincetown, Salem
Median single-family price: $760,000
Median condo price: $428,000
Residential tax rate: $9.96
At less than 10 miles from Boston and about 3 from Interstate 95, as the crow flies -- or, more accurately, as the Pike drives -- Newton is a clear choice for commuters. Though inventory is often low because of high demand, prices in Newton are diverse: You can get a 719-square-foot condo for $210,000 or a 10,000-plus-square-foot single family for $7.3 million. With that, you get plenty of green space, great shopping and restaurants in the village centers, and some of the best public schools in the state.
HONORABLE MENTION: Braintree, Chelmsford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Quincy, Winchester
Median single-family price: $330,000
Median condo price: $243,000
Residential tax rate: $12.60
Quincy offers "four [T] stations walking distance from dozens of great neighborhoods," Arthur Foley, owner of Century 21 Annex in the city, noted in the survey. "On the Red Line, it's a direct shot into downtown Boston in 15 minutes if you hit it just right." The MBTA's year-round commuter boat also stops here en route from Hull to Long Wharf and Logan Airport. All this and 27 miles of coastline, three golf courses, and the city-within-a-city Marina Bay condo development.
HONORABLE MENTION: Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Hingham, Lowell, Melrose, Newton
NOTE: Population statistics are for 2007; residential tax rates are for 2009. All median home prices come from The Warren Group for 2008, except for the following from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors: condo prices in Carlisle for 2006-2008 and single-family and condo prices in the South End for December 2008.
Elizabeth Gehrman lives in East Boston and writes the On the Block column for the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How We Did the Survey
Earlier this year, we asked members of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors to name the top communities in eastern and central Massachusetts in 15 categories.