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Top spots to live 2011

The 24 cities, neighborhoods, and towns buyers should look at right now (and a few more just for fun).

By Vanessa Parks
May 22, 2011

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FOR KIDS

WINNER

NEPONSET

(DORCHESTER NEIGHBORHOOD)

Median single-family home price: $280,000 (all Dorchester)

Median condo price: $210,000 (all Dorchester)

Population: 91,982 (all Dorchester)

Residential tax rate: $12.79 per $1,000 in assessed value

Of all the great things that her neighbors do together, Paige McEachern, 12, says it’s the “together” part that matters. In June, 35 families are going to Bermuda. Every July, neighborhood families vacation near one another on the Cape; last year, they had 50 pizzas delivered to their beach bonfire. At summer’s end, there’s a “No Moms/No Rules” camping weekend with 45 dads and 105 kids. On Halloween, each home on Glide Street goes through about 15 bags of candy. On any given day, kids can go out and play with other kids. The best thing about living here, says Paige, is “so many people coming together and just having fun.”

RUNNER-UP

BOLTON

Median single-family home price: $465,000

Median condo price: $380,590

Population: 4,897

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $19.42 ($8,851)

Americana at its finest: elaborate Fourth of July celebrations, an Easter egg hunt, a Halloween parade and party with cider, pumpkin carving, and costume contests, a town beach with swimming lessons, and hot cocoa to celebrate the opening of skating at Pond Park. Did we mention the good schools?

FOR STABLE PRICES

WINNER

NORWELL

Median single-family home price: $531,000

Median condo price: $267,000

Population: 10,506

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $13.87 ($7,401)

Steady as she goes has been the experience in Norwell, once a boat-building community. With excellent schools and 1-acre zoning, Norwell’s median home price of $531,000 dropped just 6.8 percent from $569,000 at the market peak in 2005. “It’s been sort of a sweetheart of the South Shore,” says Hank DeSantis, sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Norwell. “It’s just a very conscientious town that takes care of the infrastructure. And at the same time it’s a pretty town. People don’t come to Norwell to live in a flashy house. They come because it’s a really quality place to live.”

RUNNER-UP

BROOKLINE

Median single-family home price: $1,130,000

Median condo price: $478,750

Population: 58,732

Residential tax rate: $11.30

Prices in this gilded, coveted suburb have certainly risen over the past decade – by 56 percent for single-family homes and 46 percent for condos – and no one believes they’re about to fall off any time soon. Indeed, you might call Brookline the town that the real estate crash forgot. If you can afford the high cost of entry, investing in real estate here is as safe as stowing your cash in a bank deposit box.

FOR BARGAIN HUNTERS

WINNER

QUINCY

Median single-family home price: $315,000

Median condo price: $226,500

Population: 92,271

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $13.42 ($4,372)

Single-family home prices here have dropped nearly 17 percent since 2005, but insiders say that things look ready to turn around. Planning is underway for the New Quincy Center, a 10-year, $1.3 billion project that will bring 1,200 rental and condominium apartments, 625,000 square feet of retail, two hotels, and an assortment of office space to the city. “The revitalization of the downtown area,” says John Flavin, a Quincy broker for 39 years and co-owner of Flavin & Flavin Realty, “will bring people back into Quincy center. All the neighborhoods around the downtown are going to benefit from that.”

RUNNER-UP

CHELSEA

Median single-family home price: $199,000

Median condo price: $150,000

Population: 35,177

Residential tax rate: $12.92

With the opening of a wildly popular Market Basket two years ago and a HomeGoods and TJ Maxx in March, retailers are seeing the potential in Chelsea, a place particularly hard hit by the real estate crash. “The city has seen many improvements,” says Brigitte Casey, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Charlestown who lives on Chelsea’s Admiral’s Hill. Listed homes are being snatched up more quickly now than a couple of years ago – an indication that buyers are recognizing there are deals to be had in this close-to-Boston city.

FOR FOOD LOVERS

WINNER

SOUTH END

Median single-family home price: $1,610,000

Median condo price: $554,888

Population: 25,889

Residential tax rate: $12.79

It’s not just the number, variety, and quality of restaurants that make Boston’s South End a mecca for food lovers; it’s also the array of specialty purveyors, such as the Five Seventy Market and South End Formaggio. Restaurants are plentiful and mostly, but not entirely, pricey. Diners can opt for anything from $44 salmon at Mistral to an $11 traditional Ethiopian beef dish at Addis Red Sea. Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, a neighborhood fixture since 1927, is closed on Sundays, but brunch is served all weekend at the cafe at Fritz, Boston’s only gay sports bar. How’s that for the spice of life?

RUNNER-UP

WALTHAM

Median single-family home price: $390,000

Median condo price: $310,000

Population: 60,632

Residential tax rate: $13.09

Whether you’re craving chicken Marsala or chicken tikka masala, it can be had in Waltham. The city is home to more than 130 full- and limited-service restaurants, most independently owned. There’s Salvadoran, Thai, Indian, diners, a handful of Asian markets, and an ice cream shop (plus, a short drive away in Watertown, the inimitable Russo’s produce and fine food market beckons those who’d rather cook interesting meals at home). Moody Street might as well be called Foodie Street, but check out Main Street, too, where parking isn’t as much of a problem during business hours.

FOR WATER LOVERS

WINNER

ORLEANS

Median single-family home price: $365,750

Median condo price: $218,000

Population: 5,890

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $5.57 ($3,971)

Orleans has it all. Located about three-quarters of the way down Cape Cod, it’s the unofficial capital of the Lower Cape. There are great restaurants and shopping, including Provincetown-like art galleries. The popular Nauset Beach has a snack bar and good waves, while the town’s bayside beaches are calmer and warmer. The Academy of Performing Arts stages plays worth seeing, and each August, the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra performs Pops in the Park. The icing on this slice of the Cape? The chance to watch the town’s Cape Cod Baseball League team, the Firebirds, play at Eldredge Field.

RUNNER-UP

ROCKPORT

Median single-family home price: $385,000

Median condo price: $250,000

Population: 6,952

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $9.80 ($5,145)

A “mix of yesterday and today” is how broker Scott E. Smith describes Rockport, where you’re never more than five minutes from the water. The town has six beaches (and views of three lighthouses). Though the downtown can be touristy, it also is livable for residents, says Smith, of Coldwell Banker in Gloucester.

FOR THE GREEN-MINDED

WINNER

ACTON

Median single-family home price: $533,000

Median condo price: $222,750

Population: 21,924

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $18.08 ($9,049)

Among 53 state-designated Green Communities, Acton came out on top in the green category of our realtor survey. When Leslie Hogan put replacement windows in her house, she had to comply with the town’s new “stretch code,” which mandates energy efficiency for some renovations; new residences must be 20 to 35 percent more energy-efficient than required by the regular state energy code. “Acton is a town working hard at getting green,” says Hogan, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Acton. The town is working on new sidewalks and enabling bicycle use. To deal with limited parking at the commuter rail, the MinuteVan Rail Shuttle takes riders from the West Acton Fire Station to the train station for $1 or less.

RUNNER-UP

MEDWAY

Median single-family home price: $338,900

Median condo price: $210,000

Population: 12,752

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $17.10 ($5,992

Medway, another Green Community, has installed 660 solar panels at the high school. lt also will be putting LEDs in town buildings and fitting all town vehicles with anti-idling devices. These initiatives, and the fact that the town leases land to Medway Community Farm, are among the reasons Paul G. Yorkis of Patriot Real Estate says he nominated Medway in the survey. The new Evergreen Estates subdivision is surrounded by conservation land and features Energy Star appliances and geothermal heating systems.

FOR GROWTH

WINNER

ESSEX

Median single-family home price: $579,500

Median condo price: $300,000

Population: 3,504

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $13.62 ($7,021)

People sometimes mistakenly say that Essex is part of the excellent Manchester-by-the-Sea school system, but the two towns are actually part of one regional district. With the opening of a new Manchester Essex Regional High School in 2009, families are seeing opportunities here. “People view it as a less expensive alternative to Manchester,” says Alice Miller, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Manchester. Traditionally a clamming town, Essex is also known for antiques shops and kayaking. But a bumper sticker, “Welcome to North Manchester, formerly known as Essex,” hints at growing pains.

RUNNER-UP

DOWNTOWN CROSSING

Median single-family home price: Not applicable

Median condo price: $799,000

Population: 16,298 (includes Chinatown and the Leather District)

Residential tax rate: $12.79

Most people don’t associate this Boston neighborhood with housing – they associate it with the once thriving, now dying shopping area – but a glut of unused office space led savvy developers to convert buildings to residential use, in part to serve students from nearby colleges. “It’s still kind of a ghost town at night, but it’s turning,” says builder Michael McGough, who lives in the area and has converted commercial space into apartments on Temple Place. “There are more and more people living down here.” Even tiny studios in Downtown Crossing can have great views.

FOR BUYING A MANSION

WINNER

MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA

Median single-family home price: $727,500

Median condo price: $389,000

Population: 5,136

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $9.04 ($9,424)

If money isn’t a concern, why not buy a priceless ocean view? In Manchester-by-the-Sea, you can have stunning beauty right out front yet still make it into Boston by commuter rail or car in less than an hour. “It’s a very lovely town,” says Kathleen McHugh, a broker with Coldwell Banker there who voted for Manchester in the survey. “Everybody pretty much knows everybody else in Manchester. And there’s a great little downtown.” Singing Beach, the town strand named for the sound the sand makes, often feels surprisingly uncrowded, perhaps because the long walk from the visitor parking area scares away some would-be beachgoers. If you’ve got the cash, you might as well start your shopping with a look at Sandy Hollow. Listed by Lanse Robb of LandVest (617-357-8996, http:www.lanserobb.com), it’s a $12.25 million compound on 6.5 acres. It’s also the priciest home for sale in this Gold Coast town right now.

RUNNER-UP

WESTON

MEDIAN SINGLE-FAMILY HOME PRICE: $1,090,000

Median condo price: $1,435,000

Population: 11,261

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $11.39 ($15,835)

The average price of a home on the market in Weston is just shy of $2.5 million, making this no place for thin wallets (the town also has the highest average tax bill in the state). But the steep price will get you top-tier schools, scenic roads, and things that will pretty much stay as they are, thanks to the strict zoning regulations of multiple historic districts.

FOR BUYING A STARTER HOME

WINNER

LITTLETON

Median single-family home price: $390,000

Median condo price: $319,950

Population: 8,924

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $15.33 ($5,656)

Small class sizes, large lot sizes, a commuter rail station, and easy access to important highways – these are the reasons Sharon Belseth, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Acton, recommends Littleton in this category. Prices are lower than in the towns to the east, such as Carlisle and Acton. Littleton is close to Route 2A and Interstate 495 but still has lots of farm stands and family-friendly activities like strawberry picking. Several stables offer horseback riding lessons, and the Nashoba Valley Ski Area is just over the town line in Westford. But the housing stock is limited: Earlier this month, there were only 55 homes and seven condos on the market.

RUNNER-UP

HYDE PARK

Median single-family home price: $283,000

Median condo price: $149,900

Population: 30,637

Residential tax rate: $12.79

Nearly half of the 40-plus homes on the market in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood are priced at less than $300,000, and condo prices, which have dipped nearly a quarter in the past year, are $150 per square foot – about half the price of condos in Brighton. Appealing to young buyers: arts and jazz festivals, a farmers’ market, and free movies at the Martini Shell. Proximity to downtown is also a draw for downsizers.

FOR ARTS OMNIVORES

WINNER

BACK BAY

Median single-family home price: $3,200,000

Median condo price: $800,000

Population: 18,808

Residential tax rate: $12.79

Many of the city’s most beloved and storied cultural institutions are located in the Back Bay, and much of what’s not technically in the neighborhood is within walking distance. The neighborhood includes Copley Square, home to the main branch of the Boston Public Library and popular events like its Author Talk Series; Newbury Street, where art and fashion lovers can shop at dozens of galleries and boutiques; and the Public Garden, a work of art in its own right. Symphony Hall is a short walk or T ride away, while the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are a few blocks beyond that.

RUNNER-UP

PITTSFIELD

Median single-family home price: $120,000

Median condo price: $164,000

Population: 44,737

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $15.19 ($2,795)

“Synchronicity is happening,” says Megan Whilden, director of cultural development in Pittsfield, where there’s been an explosion of artist’s studios, restaurants, and shops. The Berkshire Theatre Festival recently partnered with the restored Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. On “Third Thursdays,” as many as 15,000 people flock downtown for a free outdoor festival. Up next: possible train service to New York, America’s cultural nerve center.

FOR BLENDING CITY AND COUNTRY LIFE

WINNER

ARLINGTON

Median single-family home price: $514,000

Median condo price: $375,000

Population: 42,844

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $12.41 ($5,949)

Arlington offers a blend of urban and suburban living within its borders. The area in and around Arlington center, with theaters, shops, and restaurants, is attractive and happening, though not after about 9:30 at night, says Dave Ledwig, a realtor with Coldwell Banker there. Schools are good. Almost every neighborhood has a park, and homes just outside the town center often have yards that feel generous at these price points. The Alewife Brook Reservation and Minuteman Bikeway lie partly in town. Somerville’s Davis Square is a short distance to the southeast, while bucolic settings like Concord are a quick drive up Route 2.

RUNNER-UP

MELROSE

Median single-family home price: $401,500

Median condo price: $229,000

Population: 26,983

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $12.46 ($4,955)

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Melrose’s downtown is not just a pretty facade. It’s a dynamic business district, with shops, yes, but also the kinds of services that meet residents’ daily needs: pharmacy, bank, optician, hardware store. There’s also ample opportunity to enjoy nature, notably at the sprawling Middlesex Fells Reservation.

FOR OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

WINNER

DUXBURY

Median single-family home price: $573,500

Median condo price: $318,500

Population: 15,059

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $12.60 ($7,366)

More than a third of Duxbury’s 37.6 square miles is covered in water, so it’s no wonder outdoor life here revolves around the stuff. Fishing is big, on the ocean and on the shallow-water flats of Duxbury Bay at low tide. Residents can swim at Duxbury Beach, a breathtaking barrier beach with showers, food, and ice cream. If the ocean’s not your thing, adventure can be had on rivers, ponds, brooks, marshes, and cranberry bogs. Walking paths meander through Myles Standish Monument State Reservation and the North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by Mass Audubon and the town. Duxbury also owns a nine-hole golf course at North Hill Country Club, where residents can get a family membership for $1,250 per year.

RUNNER-UP

CONCORD

Median single-family home price: $681,500

Median condo price: $384,000

Population: 17,668

Residential tax rate (and average bill): $13.19 ($11,074)

Henry David Thoreau would be delighted to discover that Concord is still a great place to enjoy the outdoors. The Walden Pond State Reservation, Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Minute Man National Historic Park, Hapgood Wright Town Forest, and Old Calf Pasture offer opportunities for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and swimming. There are also community gardens, a skate park, and a vibrant downtown. Doesn’t window-shopping count as exercise?

JUST FOR FUN


FOR BRAINIACS

Late last year, The Daily Beast set out to find the smartest city in America, comparing data such as education statistics and nonfiction-book sales. Boston came in first. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
FOR HYPOCHONDRIACS

Sure, Boston has a ton of hospitals, but it also has a ton of people. On a per capita basis, Burlington has more doctors than anywhere else in the state.
FOR REGULAH DRINKAHS IN A HURRY

Coffee lines are theoretically shortest in Avon, the town with the highest per capita density of Dunkins.
FOR SEASON TICKET HOLDERS

It’s a tie. If you stick to the back roads, Westwood is halfway between Fenway and Gillette, according to http:www.meetways.com. Canton is considered the middle if you’re willing to brave game-day highway traffic.
FOR THE CAR-AVERSE

Cambridge is the most walkable of the state’s 46 largest cities, according to http:www.walkscore.com. The Riverside area, where residents can do all daily errands on foot, is classified as a “Walker’s Paradise.”
FOR PRIUS MECHANICS

No, not Cambridge. West Tisbury on the Vineyard has the highest ratio of hybrid cars to people in the state.
FOR THE NEW-IN-TOWN

Rumor has it that Bay Staters can be rude, cold even. Recent transplants looking for a warm reception might try Seekonk, where nearly three in four residents were born elsewhere.
FOR THE TAXACHUSETTS-WEARY

Rowe, near Springfield, has the lowest average annual residential tax bill in the state at just $1,100.
A NOTE ON SOURCES

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors (http:www.marealtor.com) sent a Globe Magazine survey to a select group of its members. Their responses were factored into our picks. Median home and condo prices for all but Downtown Crossing, which was estimated by the magazine, are from MLS PIN, the largest property listing service in New England (http:www.mlspin.com). Prices were for sales between April 1, 2010, and March 31, 2011. Population figures are from the 2010 US Census and City of Boston estimates. Residential tax rates (and average single-family tax bills) are from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services. That office does not compile average tax bills for communities that allow residential tax exemptions; eight communities on this list fit that category.

Vanessa Parks writes the Globe Magazine’s On the Block column. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.