The lure of the ocean

Marblehead’s coast is hot property for home buyers.
Marblehead’s coast is hot property for home buyers.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2009

Maureen Coelho’s new Marblehead home has three bedrooms, a charming red front door, and proximity to good schools. The yard is tiny, but Coelho, 29, does not mind; she was happy to trade a sprawling lawn for access to the ocean.

“I’d rather have the beach down the street,” said Coelho, who moved from Charlestown. “I just wanted to be near the water.”

Coelho and her husband, Christopher, are among thousands of home buyers drawn to the white beaches and rocky coastline of the North Shore. The lure of seaside living persisted throughout the recession, real estate agents from Salem to Newburyport said.

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“Just being near the ocean is a big draw for pretty much everybody,” said Jim Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Field Real Estate in Salem. “It takes in all your senses: the sight, sound, smell of the ocean.”

Now, an improving economy and historically low interest rates are fueling higher demand for coastal properties.

The housing market on the North Shore, as in many communities north of Boston, started to pick up steam in 2012. Sales volume for single-family homes in Ipswich, for example, was up 33 percent from 2011 levels, according to the Warren Group. In Marblehead, sales were up 20 percent during the same period; Salem saw sales grow by 46 percent.

During the past month or two, real estate agents said, the market has gone from strong to booming.

“The market is unbelievably good right now for a seller,” said Jeanne Carpenter, vice president of J Barrett and Company in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

For potential buyers, this surge in sales activity means that fulfilling the dream of oceanside living will probably cost more and require a competitive spirit.

In 2012, median sales prices in coastal towns north of Boston ranged from $180,000 in Lynn to $692,500 in Manchester-by-the-Sea, but those numbers may be on the rise. Newly listed houses have been going under contract within days rather than sitting on the market for weeks or months, agents said, and sellers often receive multiple, competing offers. That means houses are rarely going for less than the asking price, agents said.

“Sellers can be firm on their price,” said Valerie McGillivray, managing broker for the Bean Group in Newburyport.

On Cape Ann, potential buyers are already upping their offers to beat out rival house hunters, Carpenter said. A few of Coelho’s friends are also looking at homes in Marblehead, she said, but none of them have had any success; they keep getting outbid.

House hunters who want to be in a coastal town can control the cost by focusing their searches away from the immediate waterfront, Armstrong said. Properties close to the water can command a premium of up to 25 percent over comparable inland homes, he said.

In Gloucester, for example, a three-bedroom condo across the street from the rocky eastern shore is currently on the market for $699,000. Less than a mile inland, in the same part of the city, a unit with four bedrooms and an additional 1,000 square feet of space is going for $549,900.

“Just being back a street or two makes a huge difference in the price,” Armstrong said.

Furthermore, some towns are generally more affordable than others. The median price of a single-family home in Ipswich, for example, was $328,000 last year; in Marblehead the midpoint price was $480,000.

Living on the shore still has appeal, even after a particularly harsh winter during which storms eroded beaches and caused widespread flooding and wind damage.

 House hunters, however, are being a little more cautious than in the past, Armstrong said.

“With any house you ask, ‘Do you get water in the basement?’ ” he said. “Now it’s, ‘Do you get water in the front yard?’ ”

On Plum Island, where storm erosion has toppled some homes and damaged others, buyers are “shying away,” McGillivray said. Locals shopping for a bigger house or making the jump from renting are still looking on the island, but outside interest has dried up, she said.

Nonetheless, the lure of a seaside home on the North Shore is still strong, real estate agents said.

For Coelho, being near the ocean was really the only choice, she said.

“If we were going to spend the money to live in Massachusetts, I felt like we should pick some place that is worth the money,” she said. “And that’s the coast.”