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For buyers, towns that are diamonds in the rough

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 29, 2010 06:53 AM

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Lots of people would love to live in Manchester-by-the-Sea or Weston or in other tony 'burbs, but relatively few can afford it. Given Greater Boston's perpetually inflated home prices, there are large swaths of territory inside 128 and beyond that are mostly out of reach for middle income buyers, unless of course, they play the old stretching game. Or find a viable fixer-upper. And both can be fraught with risk.

But one often overlooked option is finding a diamond in the rough - a town, like a house, which has potential but needs work. The key is figuring out which towns are moving in the right direction and which are either destined to remain rough on the edges.

I'm interested in your nominations, but I will get the ball rolling with one of my top choices, Quincy, final resting place and hometown of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It is a city I know well, having lived there for several years in college and then after when I was just starting out.

It wasn't the most exciting zip code to live in back in the 1980s/90s, but what Quincy lacked in hipness it more than made up with relatively affordable rents and 15 minute morning commute on the red line to downtown Boston.

My wife and I grew quite fond of Wollaston. A Quincy neighborhood, Wollaston effectively had its own town center, complete with a third-run movie theater, a couple nice restaurants and coffee shop, as well as its own T stop.

Downtown Quincy was another matter. There was nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing terribly right either. A lot of potential overwhelmed by big, ugly, 1950s-style thoroughfares designed to keep motorists zipping through town as quickly as possible.

That appears poised to change, though, with Quincy officials having unveiled a $1.3 billion plan to revamp the city's downtown. It is an ambitious proposal that calls for 1,200 new condos and apartments and hundreds of thousands of square feet of new shops and restaurants.

There are also plans to play up the Adams connection, including the revamping of the Adams Visiting Center. (While they are at it, they should also free the Church of the Presidents, the Unitarian church where the Adams family worshiped and in whose crypt John and Abigail, as well as John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams now rest in peace. The church sits on what amounts to a traffic island in downtown Quincy, surrounding by wide lanes of traffic.)

I will throw in Natick as another of my nominations, though I am clearly biased here. Karen and I bought a fixer-upper back in 2002 not far from Natick Center and quickly fell in love with the town. Like Quincy, Natick revamped its center a few years ago, renovating and expanding its picturesque Victorian library, the Morse Institute, while redoing the rest of the town's public buildings in a retro, 19th century style that takes its cue from the library.

The town also voted earlier this year to pony up $89 million for a new high school.

There are other affordable options out there as well, of course. Sticking close to Boston, Dedham, Woburn and Medford also come to mind.

OK, now I am running out of steam. What are your nominations for diamonds in the rough?


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

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