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Rich Towns, Bargain Homes

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 24, 2014 09:13 AM

You don't have to be a mega-millionaire to live in some Greater Boston's posh suburbs.

But if you want to get in for less than $600,000, you can forget about finding anything close to 2,000 square feet.

Want to get into Manchester-by-the-Sea for less than $400,000? Well you can - that is if you are ready to live in a micro home totaling 315 square feet.

Think older as well - anything built within the last decade is going to carry a premium.

Here are some starter homes with big price cuts in some of Boston area's fanciest burbs.

Let's start with that one-bedroom, one-bath cottage up in Manchester at 3 Ancient County Way.

The owners just lopped $21,000 off the price, bringing it down to $329,000. It hit the market back in March. It's being pitched for its location near the "village" center, and the possibility of expanding it into something grander - provided local zoning officials give their blessing.

Manchester cottage.jpg


From Tabloid to Hip Condos

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 23, 2014 10:19 AM

Location, location, location - that's what real estate is all about. And the new Ink Block, taking shape where the South End meets Chinatown, has it in spades.

The glitzy glass-and-steel, six-building condo and apartment development is taking shape on Harrison Ave., where the big old brick red Boston Herald building stood until it was demolished last year.

As a reporter at the Herald back in the 2000s, the location couldn't be beat. Need to get to Beacon Hill? No problem, that's a 20 minute walk. Press conference in the Back Bay - be there in 15 minutes. Hungry? Let's head across the street to Chinatown. Or for that matter, around the corner to the South End, a restaurant paradise. No car needed - just you and your two feet. (OK, I'm tall and a pretty fast walker, but still.)

That location, which was great for reporters, will be even better for the residents of the $500 million Ink Block, with the city and its attractions literally at their feet.

A total of six buildings are planned, each featuring a unique design inspired by the South End and intended to be an antidote to the Boston's increasingly hard to tell apart bevy of new luxury condo towers, Ted Tye, managing director of National Development, tells me.

"There is so much being built in the city these days that is very generic - you can't tell whether you are in the Seaport, the Back Bay, or the South End," Tye says.

Final Sepia Hero Night.jpg


Condos Gain Family Appeal

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 22, 2014 11:58 AM

Some families with young children are going condo, skipping the single-family with the big yard, the Globe reports.

It is part of the resurgence in the condo market we've been tracking on this blog. Here is a post from May on how condos have practically pulled even with homes in price.

Overall, condo prices in Massachusetts jumped 13 percent during the first five months of the year, compared to 6 percent for single-family homes, according to the Globe, citing Warren Group stats.


Boston: Better or More Boring Now?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 22, 2014 08:33 AM

Boston is a better city in many ways, but is it also more boring? Ever higher home and condo prices mean only an increasingly narrow demographic of well-off renters and buyers can afford to live in a growing number of neighborhoods.

It is a question readers are arguing about on the comment board of this blog. My post about how San Francisco's crazy prices could be a sign of things to come in Boston got the discussion rolling.

"Bleacher seats to a Sox game were $3 in 1971," wrote Tom Murphy. "It was pretty provincial then as well. We're a lot more cosmopolitan than we were, and that comes at a price, financial and otherwise."

Certainly a lot has changed in the Hub of the Universe over the past three decades.

The old Combat Zone, that collection of seedy strip clubs and porno shops, is long gone, replaced by the Ritz-Carlton condo towers, the Kensington, and other luxury high-rises, as well as some spiffed up old theaters.

The days when Downtown Crossing was Boston's main shopping thoroughfare are a distant memory now, with the Filene's building preserved, but the store gone. Filene's Basement is gone as well.

Here too, as in much of downtown Boston, the rough edges are getting polished over with new luxury condo and office towers.

The girder underpinning the old Central Artery were recycled years ago, replaced by a new underground highway system, with the Greenway above. (OK, I am probably nuts, but I sometimes miss the rusty old elevated highway - the views of the city and the skyline were gorgeous.)

You can even swim in the harbor now. You would have been nuts to take a dive back in the 80s, when it was one of the most turgid and contaminated waterways in the country.

Still, it also cost a lot less to live in Boston then, with real estate prices not yet having gone into overdrive. (Here's the old Central Artery, since replaced by the Greenway.)

Central Artery.jpg


We're Tops for Big Disasters

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 21, 2014 11:43 AM

Sure, home prices may be high here. But aside from a big hurricane every few decades, New England weather is fairly tame when it comes to big disasters.

That's what I've always thought. More than once I've given thanks for often dismal but reassuringly dull weather after hearing the latest house eating firestorm out west or the one of those heartrending tragedies out in tornado country.

But it looks like I haven't been paying close enough attention to all the real and potential natural disasters out there. At least that's my conclusion after reading RealtyTrac's "Natural Disaster Housing Risk Report."

Take a look at the color coded map and you'll see Massachusetts has two of the four, dark red splotches to be found in the entire Northeast representing areas at a "very high risk" of natural disasters.

Those two dark red patches represent Hampshire and Worcester counties, both of which were either in the path of, or very close to, devastating tornadoes in recent decades.


Insane San Francisco Prices Offer Warning

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 18, 2014 10:10 AM

If you think home prices in Greater Boston are bad now, just look at what's happening in San Francisco.

We have a lot in common with that fellow innovation hub, from an economy driven by cutting-edge companies and research to restrictions on new home building that helps keep pushing prices to ever nuttier levels.

Well here's some pretty disturbing news out of our West Coast sister city: The median price of residential properties in San Francisco, both single families and condos, has just hit the $1 million mark, SFGate reports, citing DataQuick numbers.


Clueless Agents Spoil Open Houses

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 17, 2014 09:00 AM

Open houses are supposed to give buyers a chance to check things out in person and quiz the broker about the property, right?

But that's kind of hard to do when the real estate agent at the open house gets stumped by questions beyond such basics as where's the bathroom or how many bedrooms.

Apparently we are starting to see a rise in the number of clueless agents at open houses, with the actual listing agent out drumming up more business or simply at the beach.

Here's an observation from a top Boston-area buyer's agent who has run into a couple of know-nothing brokers at open houses this summer and is none too happy about it.


The $1.5 million Tear-Down

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 16, 2014 08:17 AM

OK, maybe it's not Downton Abbey.

Still, Southborough's Garfield House is pretty grand. The 13 bedroom, five-and-a-half bath stone mansion was built in 1850 by businessman and philanthropist Joseph Burnett. Founder of St. Mark's School, Burnett spent summers there with his wife and 12 children, with the house staying in the family until 1947.

There's even a chapel - Burnett also started the first Episcopal church in town as well - and some beautiful grounds with lots of old trees.

While it clearly needs some work, the grand old house on Main Street is considered a jewel of the town, the MetroWest Daily News notes.

They definitely don't build houses like that anymore. (Here's a great write-up by the local historical society, with lots of great old photos stretching back into the 1800s.)

But tell that to the owner. A local developer has spent $1.5 million to buy the old manse and its valuable land, with plans to level the house and build three English cottages in its place, the paper reports.

Garfield House, Southborough.jpg


July Last Best Chance for Sellers

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 15, 2014 09:06 AM

If you are looking to sell, now's the time.

July is the best month of the second half of the year to sell, at least if you are a condo owner in Boston, writes Hub real estate agent extraordinaire David Bates.

Roughly 9 percent of all pending condo sales in Boston back in 2013 closed in July, one of the highest totals for the year, Bates notes in his blog, the Bates Real Estate Report. (David was also kind enough to interview yours truly about my own vast real estate writing empire. Better yet, I even sound halfway coherent!)


Goodbye Seller's Market?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 14, 2014 09:06 AM

For-sale and open-house signs have been popping up right and left. If this was April or May, it wouldn't be all that surprising. But we are now in sweltering mid-July, the dog days of summer and traditionally a dead zone for open houses and new listings.

Certainly the latest reports back up this anecdotal evidence, with the number of homes for sale finally starting to rise after a years-long drought.

So after years of fence sitting, some sellers are taking the plunge, hoping to snag a buyer while prices are still rising and the market is hot.

However, whether they know it or not - and here's betting most don't - sellers are hitting the market just as it starts to shift. Sure, it's still a seller's market, especially in Cambridge, downtown Boston and the pricey inner suburbs, but there's a lot of real estate beyond 128.

Home sales in Massachusetts and across the country have been faltering for months now.

Only the hangover effects of a years-long shortage of listings are keeping prices on the rise.

Yet, here's the rub: If the market is weakening, seller expectations aren't. In fact, sellers are still dreaming of hitting the real estate jackpot, egged on by a couple years of rampant home price inflation, a Redfin survey shows.


A Hot Summer for Buyers

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 11, 2014 11:49 AM

This spring saw more than its share of crazed bidding wars.

However, if you struck out trying to buy a house back in April or May, don't despair. While other buyers are headed for the beach or settling into new homes, try hitting some open houses this July and August.

Sure, Cambridge and other hipster hot spots show no signs of cooling down. But the rest of the real estate market has shifted into summertime mode.

You might find less competition and, better yet, sellers ready to come down on their prices after failing to land an offer in the spring.


Bubble Fears Escalate

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 10, 2014 10:50 AM

Bankers aren't exactly known for their bold predictions. Simply put, they are more likely to be behind the curve in their predictions, not ahead of it.

So when a bunch of bankers say they are worried about a real estate bubble forming, well then it could be a sign that we are already in some deep doo-doo.

A majority of mortgage executives surveyed by FICO - 56 percent - are convinced the real estate recovery has gone off the rails as home and condo prices soar.

In particular, the lenders expressed concern that "an unsustainable real estate bubble is forming," according to a press release by the Professional Risk Managers' Association, which conducted the survey for the credit score agency.


Army Base Becomes Hot New Neighborhood

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 9, 2014 10:12 AM

Looking for green space galore? Miles of hiking trails, ponds, playing fields, and a couple of championship golf courses thrown in for good measure?

Well as it turns out, you can find all that, and more, at Devens, the old Army-base-turned corporate park just off Route 2, next door to Harvard, Ayer and Shirley, I discovered in this story I wrote for the Globe West.

Devens may be best known for the prominent role it played as a mustering center for soldiers across the country during various 20th century conflicts, starting with World War I, when it was carved out of farmland by the federal government.

After decommissioning in the 1990s, the old base got a new lease on life as a corporate park, with Bristol-Myers Squibb building a giant drug plant and numerous other companies moving into new digs on the old military campus.

But the town-sized Devens also has a small but growing residential community. The first wave of residents bought up the graceful old brick colonials and other homes that once housed the officers on the base. A cluster of modern, energy efficient homes was built a few years ago.

Now Lexington developer Evergreen Village Collaborative is moving ahead with plans for 120 homes and apartment. The 35-acre development will feature clusters of homes surrounded by woods and other green space.

But if you think the townsfolk of Devens are staring out at smokestacks and parking lots, well then you would be wrong.


Gen X Falls for the Big City

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 8, 2014 08:45 AM

Gen Xers are increasingly ditching the suburbs to raise families in the big city.

And yes, it's happening in Boston as well.

Sean in West Roxbury, a regular on the comment board of this blog, is seeing the trend play out in his neighborhood as well as in Roslindale.

As I recently noted here, Trulia is reporting an increase in families with young children in cities across the country. Boston saw .6 percent rise in the pre-school set in 2013, outpacing the suburbs.

Both neighborhoods "have seen their commercial districts perk up with new restaurants and bars that cater to the 30s- 50s set, rather than the 20s," Sean writes. "And yes, it's mostly GenXers - folks in their mid-30s to mid-40s who are finally settling down but not wanted to completely abandon the city."

Here's West Roxbury's main drag, Centre Street.



Boston's Faux Housing Boom

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 7, 2014 07:18 AM

We keep hearing about all the new housing that's being built. And yes, there are lots of cranes putting up luxury condo and apartment towers in downtown Boston.

But sorry, that's not a true housing boom - at least when it comes to building the kind of homes that would lower rents and prices for everyone, including Greater Boston's
increasingly strapped middle class.

The Hub is nowhere close to meeting former Mayor Thomas M. Menino's goal of 30,000 new housing units by 2020, I find in my weekly Banker & Tradesman column. (Menino rolled out his grand plan in the spring of 2013, a sort of last hurrah during his final year in office.)


Student Loans Killing Home Sales

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 3, 2014 08:59 AM

OK, it doesn't take an Einstein to put these two trends together.

Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies just came out with its annual tome on the housing market.

Among the many scintillating stats packed into the 44-page report is this rather revealing number: The homeownership rate for those in their 20s and early 30s plunged 8 percent over the past decade.

Meanwhile, in a separate section, the Harvard report notes that student debt levels have gone through the roof.

In fact, number of young adults stuck paying off $50,000 or more in student loans has tripled over the past decade, the Harvard study finds.


Boston's Baby Boom

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 2, 2014 10:54 AM

Maybe it's not all those hip millennials that are driving growth in cities like Boston after all.

Rather, the "stroller set" is leading the way, notes Trulia after crunching the latest census numbers.

Boston ranks near the top of major metro markets that have seen the biggest increase in new babies and tots in 2013, Trulia finds.

The Hub is No. 8 on Trulia's list, with a .6 percent increase in the number of young children, ranging from newborns to four-year-olds.

mom with kids in stroller.png


Boston one of Nation's 'Riskiest' Markets

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 1, 2014 07:27 AM

Don't know where you are going to be in five years? Think twice about buying.

That's a pretty good rule of thumb no matter where you live, but especially here in Greater Boston, now pegged as one of the nation's "riskiest" housing markets, a new report finds.

In fact, we are far riskier than San Francisco, San Jose and even crazy, boom/bust Las Vegas, according to the Bloomberg, which teamed up with Zillow to come up with a list of the most historically volatile housing markets.

Boston is No. 4 on the list, with home buyers standing a nearly 30 percent chance of losing money if they have to sell within five years, the Bloomberg/Zillow survey finds.

In fact, New England is generally a risky place for buyers who, for one reason or another, aren't able to commit long-term to a house.


Your Home the ATM

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 30, 2014 09:51 AM

Prices are soaring. And once again, banks are working overtime to convince homeowners to take some cash out of their main asset.

Home equity loans in Massachusetts rose more than 7 percent in 2013, the Globe notes, citing Warren Group stats. And so far, the pace is up even more dramatically in 2014, with some local bankers seeing a 40 percent increase in home equity loans.

You have to go back to the bubble years to find a similar surge in home equity lending.

However, let's read between the lines here. The fact that banks are hot on home equity lines is hardly a shocker.

Actually, it is one of the few areas of real estate lending that has yet to tank.


Waltham Hip?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 27, 2014 09:27 AM

Big plans are afoot to remake downtown Waltham.

And given the Watch City's proximity to Cambridge and Somerville, it's not long before hipsters priced out of Davis Square "discover" Waltham.

A Newton developer has kicked off construction on a trio of five-story deluxe apartment buildings in the heart of Waltham center where the historic Mercantile Building once stood.

No cookie cutter design, the Merc at Moody & Main has a retro, late 19th century look, with masonry facades and large windows, in a nod to the Mercantile Building, torn down in 1979 in a belated spasm of urban renewal.

Northland Investment's first proposal, put forth several years ago, didn't go over too well with Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, who thought the modern design looked like something out of "The Jetsons."

"The architect (at the time) said to me 'You insult me,' and I said 'No, it's good for Cambridge, but it's really not good for this historic downtown Waltham," McCarthy told the Waltham News Tribune.

In fact, Northland's attempts to build apartments in downtown Waltham date back to at least 2007, when an earlier version with seven stories was derided as a behemoth that would cast shadows over Waltham Common.

Apparently five stories, the height of the current project, is a better fit.

Here's what the new Merc will look like when it's finished.

11-20-12_Moody and Main Rendering.jpg

About boston real estate now
Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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