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School rankings, do they matter?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 6, 2012 01:58 PM

My FaceBook page has a bunch of pictures of smiling elementary school children in raincoats. For the past week and a half, the “back to school” pictures are showing up. It seems to have rained on the first day of school on a couple of different days in a couple of different school districts. (Some districts started last week, some this week, and some are not open yet.) The children look happy, whether they are headed off to classrooms in Newton, Medford, Lexington, or Fort Lauderdale.

With the opening of school, I come to expect that Boston Magazine will publish its annual school review. There is rarely much difference in the top 50 list. There were no surprises in the top ten. The schools that make the top twenty or so are pretty consistent.

Dover-Sherborn Regional
Newton South
Sharon High
Acton-Boxborough Regional

In 2011, the top 10 were:
Manchester Essex

Last year, they had two tables, one with classroom/curricular data (per pupil spending, number of AP classes, sports…) and one with test scores.

My client often ask me for measures like these when they are choosing a town. I keep them available. But, I also suggest that they test-drive any town they don’t know before house hunting there.


Do you really need big bucks to buy and start a family?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 31, 2012 08:39 AM

So how much should you earn before buying a house and starting a family? Well for a certain drussian, a homeowner and family man here it the Boston area, the answer is simple: $200,000.

And if nothing else, his Scrooge-like comments the other day on my post about the high cost daycare in Greater Boston certainly stirred the pot!

To be accurate, he was referring to family income and what a couple brings in together. Still, in drussian's view, you are financially irresponsible if you buy a home and try and start a
family here in the Boston area on less than $200,000.

And if you opt to procreate before hitting that golden mark, well don't come crying to him about the high cost of day care and college!


Newton: Best place in the country to be rich and single!

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 21, 2012 07:40 AM

Really, I'm not kidding. That's anyway what Money Magazine says.

Newton got a fair bit of attention after coming in No. 4 this year on Money Magazine's list of the best places to live in across the country.

The Garden City is behind only idyllic sounding Carmel, Ind., Eden Prairie, Minn., and McKinney, Texas.

But apparently overlooked was the fact that Newton came out No. 1 on another, related list Money also released yesterday, "The best places for the rich and single."

Really, here's the writeup.

Population: 84,655
Single: 31.2%
Median family income: $145,639

Move to Newton to meet someone rich and famous. Matt Damon and Louis C.K. grew up there. Amy Poehler was born there. Media magnate Sumner Redstone still calls it home, and even though he's pushing 90, he still is on the market.
For a little nightlife, head next door to Boston or catch some local culture from one of Newton's two symphony orchestras. Go incognito with your future celebrity sweetheart at a secluded spot along Crystal Lake. Or go public and shout your love to the world beneath Hemlock Gorge's Echo Bridge.

Not sure about the single part, but you do need a few bucks to buy in town.

The median home price in Newton was $750,000 at the end of July, The Warren Group reports, while rents in the city are typically near the top of local surveys.


Good time to buy a Cape home?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 20, 2012 11:23 AM

That's the gist of this Globe article which cites falling home prices on the Cape.

But I wonder. Maybe one reason home prices are down on the Cape is the bloom is off the rose when it comes to what has long been one of the nation's favorite vacation playgrounds.

Yes, of course, there's the real estate downturn, which has certainly hit the Cape hard.

The median price in Barnstable County is down to $320,000 from a peak of $390,000, the piece points out, citing The Warren Group, noting prices on the Cape's more middle income towns are even lower.

But there are big problems that go with being a popular vacation spot, with traffic a major headache on the Cape, as any casual visitor discovers.


Does Allston have what it takes to be hip?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 10, 2012 10:01 AM

Allston's living proof that jam packing a neighborhood with rowdy college kids doesn't necessarily make you hip, at least in an upscale, Davis Square kind of way. A bit of a student zoo, sure, but hipsters, at least those with a few bucks in their pocket, have been renting and buying on the Cambridge side of the river.

Not convinced? Here's an enlightening discussion about some of the current rental conditions in the neighborhood that appeared a couple months ago on Universal Hub, with decrepit, student-packed rentals a primary complaint.

But where others might be skeptical, developer Bruce Percelay apparently sees some true hipness potential in Allston, the kind that will prompt young professionals to part with significant money each month.

He's sunk $20 million into the first major new apartment project in the neighborhood in decades, The Element, with more to come. It includes a 2,000-square-foot roof deck built with recycled synthetic grass - where yoga classes are taught - along with a movie theater, a club room and 100 parking spaces with a car wash station.

It's what Percelay, with the blessing of Boston officials, is calling the Allston Green District, seven buildings owned by Percelay's Mount Vernon Company within a two-block area along Commonwealth Avenue, Griggs Street and Brainerd Road.

And he's basing the appeal of his stylish new apartment project on its eco-friendly lifestyle - what could be more hipster than that?


What kind of education?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 7, 2012 01:56 PM

Early this spring I vacationed in Portland, Maine for a couple of days. Portland has a handful of museums in addition to galleries, shops, restaurants, and beautiful outdoor space. Portland is home to a large art college. Clearly, the town is a haven for artists and artsy types (and foodies.) In every museum that I entered in Portland, I felt the presence of school children. Not only was there a class (or two) in the museum, but there were exhibits by children in both the art museum and the historical society museum.

In some ways, I found the children’s art more interesting than the big Degas exhibit in the art museum. The children’s work was good, for the artist’s age; some of the high schooler’s work was just plain good. But, more importantly, it demonstrated a serious and supported art curriculum in the area schools. There were works that were in response to Magritte and Van Gogh, showing that the children were being exposed to artists and artistic styles. There were works that showed a unique style, which shows that the students have room to experiment with their style.

The historical museum has a one-room exhibit on clothing and identity. It had a hallway full of children’s reactions to it, posted prominently.

Were I a parent with artistically-inclined children, I would be inclined to send them to public school in Portland. If I were a parent who valued history, understanding identity, and wanted my children to have a rich education that extended beyond the classroom, I would be inclined to send them to Portland public schools.


Trade houses, see the world

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 30, 2012 09:39 AM

Sure glad I didn't pay attention to the advice on the comment board of this blog when my wife Karen was exploring our first home exchange three years ago.

It was jumping the gun a bit, but at the time I blogged about how Karen and I were hoping to do a house exchange with a family in Europe.

OK, I guess must be thin skinned since I still remember the barb thrown out on the comment board by a self-proclaimed expert on the home exchange market.

No one is going to be interested in your lowly Natick fixer-upper - they are going to want to trade places with a family in some fancy Back Bay townhouse!

Pure nonsense, as it turns out.

I am happy to report that I just got back from a week of vacation in Quebec City with Karen and our three little ones, eating lots of delightfully rich food and walking around one of the most beautiful and historic cities in North America.


Is Brookline hip?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 19, 2012 06:46 AM

Apparently Coldwell Banker thinks it is.

Brookline is ranked in the top ten hippest places in the country to live, right alongside Manhattan, San Francisco, Seattle and Mountain View.

OK, to be completely accurate here, it is listed as one of the top ten cities for "social seekers." I initially read it and thought this meant social climbers, which makes a bit more sense, but no, that is not how Coldwell Banker defines the term.

Let's got straight to the press release.

The Best Places to Live for "Social Seekers" ... ranks places which are perfect for the hip, trendy and fun at heart - those who would rather go out than stay home any night of the week. The list was compiled based on a range of attributes such as, access to public transportation, high volume of bars and restaurants, happening nightlife and great entertainment.

Maybe someone got confused and meant Davis Square instead, I don't know.


How small is too small?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 16, 2012 07:29 AM

Here's one trend we may be seeing more of: studio apartments the size of a dorm room.

With hopes of encouraging more low-cost housing for singles of all ages, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seeking bids from developers to turn an empty lot into a beehive of studio apartments, each no larger than 300 square feet, according to this AP piece.

It's just enough room for a bathroom, a kitchenette and a small living area just large enough for a foldout bed, the story notes.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino is pushing for some micro units of his own, this one aimed at attracting entrepreneurs to the waterfront.

Behind the push is increasing demand/need for housing designed for singles, whether young, old or in the middle.

Here are couple eye-opening stats from the AP story:


Do you fly the flag?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 13, 2012 10:32 AM

My wife and I flew the American flag on our front porch for several years after we bought our Natick fixer-upper, a decade ago this summer.

The flag eventually had to be retired - a learning experience in and of itself given there is a specific protocol for respectfully retiring the stars and stripes.

My wife now puts bunting up around the Fourth - maybe someday we will get another flag.

I have great neighbors, but if someone was loopy enough to be offended by our modest, patriotic display, I could have simply told them to go pound sand.

But if I was retired living in an elderly apartment complex - or for that matter in many condo complexes - I could sadly find myself in big trouble if I displayed Old Glory without consulting some idiotic rules book.

Once you move into a senior apartment, you surrender your rights to free expression, as one irate World War II veteran in Wrentham just found out.


One house, two towns

Posted by Rona Fischman June 4, 2012 02:05 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team, discusses the issues involved when one property is partially located in two different towns. After blogging weekly on BREN for three years, Sam now posts here on the first Monday of each month.

It may sound unique, but it is more common than you would expect to find one parcel of real estate that has a town or city line running through some part of it. While it is probably more common to find the town line running through a large parcel of land it can also occur on even the smallest lots.

When two parts of the same parcel are in different cities or towns, each municipality taxes the owner on the portion of the property that is located in their town. That is simple enough if the property in one of the towns is land and buildings are in the other town. It is also simple when a garage is in one town and the house is in another.

What happens when the town line goes through one of the buildings?
In that case, I have seen the municipalities calculate the percentage of the building that is in their town and tax the owner on that percentage. While that is a straightforward way of taking care of the taxes, there should be some additional issues of concern for prospective buyers of such a property:

If the town line goes through the house, what schools would children living in the house go to?

I once read about a town that required a child to sleep in the bedroom that was located within their town in order for the child to attend school in their town.

On the other hand, I am aware of a house with staircases in Brookline and the rest of the house in Boston. My understanding is that children can attend either the Boston or Brookline schools.


A grant to help houses of worship become more energy efficient

Posted by Rona Fischman April 6, 2012 01:55 PM

For Christians and Jewish people, this is holiday season. Many churches, temples and synagogues in the Boston area are in old buildings. Most of those old buildings are energy pigs. The decorative windows do not keep out the cold, the walls are not insulated, they use a lot of lighting, and they have high ceilings. This does not jibe well with the responsibility placed on Jews and Christians in Genesis. Religious congregations housed in old houses of worship are carrying high energy costs as well as failing to be a living example of a congregation that acts as guardians of the planet.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26 American Standard Version

Some strange bedfellows: Joe Lieberman and William Bennett put it this way:

Polluting the planet is antithetical to all major religions since they teach caring for creation. Also huge energy bills can financially cripple the congregation, radically reducing the services they can deliver through the house of worship to the community. (93% of the U.S. houses of worship provide community services, such as food pantries, and homeless shelters, which help on average four people outside of the congregation for every person helped in the congregation.

HEET and Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light MIP&L have just received a two-year grant from the Barr Foundation to help thirty-five houses of worship in Cambridge, Boston and Somerville reduce their energy bills and planetary impact.

How it works: Members of the congregation will earn money toward the efficiency upgrades at the house of worship based on the energy upgrades done at their private homes. (If the Smiths put in solar panels at home, the church gets funds toward work at the church.) The more energy and money the congregation saves in their homes, the more money raised for the house of worship upgrade.


In suburbs, boring is beautiful!

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 6, 2012 07:05 AM

Hip urban or boring suburban - where would you rather live?

What started as a comparison of the merits and demerits of affordable but lunch bucket Quincy with Davis Square, the hipster capital of Greater Boston, has mushroomed into a debate over urban versus suburban living.

After hearing about the delights of living in Davis Square from Franksmartin, frustrated suburbanites are having their say - and then some - on the comment board.

Living out here in Natick, the capital of supposed suburban dreariness, I know which side of the argument I fall on. Yes, we are not hip, but we like it that way. After all, if you have small children, you are not out bar hopping or trying out a different restaurant each night, unless it's a diner or an IHOP.


Bloomberg and Obama slept here. Neither stayed.

Posted by Rona Fischman March 23, 2012 01:57 PM

I have shown houses on the street where Mayor Bloomberg grew up. It is a nice street, near the Winchester line. As you may know, the Mayor of New York City grew up in Medford, Massachusetts. He grew up, left for college, then headed to the Big Apple. He visited his mother, who lived in the house he grew up in until her recent death.

Massachusetts has a high rate of people who stay where they are planted. Michael Bloomberg wasn’t one of them. Massachusetts also has a high rate of migration of the college-bound. Every fall, there is a flood of professional wanna-bes coming to Greater Boston for one of the many colleges in the area. Were you one of them? Notably, Barack Obama spent some time living in Somerville, while in law school someplace nearby.


Why is density such a dirty word?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 20, 2012 06:19 AM

The more homes on a lot, the better!

OK, I'm not advocating high-rise construction in the suburbs.

Still, who really uses all those sprawling one and two acre lots? Such perfectly manicured lawns and their invariably stark and outsized houses too often have a lonely look, as if it is all just for show.

One of my favorites for a dense but carefully crafted housing development is Olde Village Square near Medfield center, just off Route 27. There are plans for 42 homes, featuring really neat retro designs straight from the early 1900s. Better yet, it's all built on a lot just large enough to fit one or two McMansions.

The homes are arranged as if they were part of a small village - the only thing missing is some shady trees. While the lots are tiny, the square footage inside is impressive - 2,000 to 3,000 square feet each.

Olde Village Square - alright, the name is a bit corny - isn't cheap, with homes selling from the $800,000's on up.

Not alone, the project is part of a small but growing number of so-called "traditional neighborhood developments" taking root across Massachusetts.


We're No. 1: Small towns in Mass most expensive for renters

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 15, 2012 07:07 AM

You have to be pulling down more than $31 an hour to afford the average two bedroom apartment in small towns across the state, a new report finds.

That's about $64,000 a year.

But here's the rub: The average renter in our state is making not much more than half of that, pulling down $16.94 an hour, the National Low Income Housing Coalition finds in its annual "Out of Reach" report.


Should drive time trump all else?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 8, 2012 06:48 AM

In a traffic clogged state like Massachusetts, where getting to work can be a daily endurance test, maybe drive time should be the top factor when house hunting.

Our beloved Bay State is practically tops when it comes to the amount of time people spend in their cars and on trains and buses going to and from work, according to a new survey by Suffolk University's Beacon Hill Institute.

Right now, the median commute in Massachusetts is 27.6 minutes - meaning it takes more than a half hour for half the state's commuters to get to work in the morning, notes Jonathan Haughton, a Suffolk professor and a senior economist at the Beacon Hill Institute. (The drive time numbers are pulled from a larger survey BHI does ranking the business environment of states across the country.)

And when you factor in all the folks working out of home offices or the lucky few who live around the corner from the office, well the numbers start to look even more miserable for the average Mass commuter.

"It means there are a fair number of people who are taking an hour to get to work," Haughton notes.


A big gamble for home prices?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 5, 2012 05:53 AM

The debate over whether to put a casino in Foxboro rages on.

And given the size of Steve Wynn's proposed, $1 billion gambling palace, the impact is likely to be felt across Boston's western and southern suburbs.

The question for suburban homeowners downwind of Wynn's mega proposal is whether all that gambling and retail activity will help boost local property values or tank them.

The Sun Chronicle takes a thoughtful look at the issue, looking at studies that seem to suggest a casino might boost prices, as well as concerns raised by casino critics that the data really doesn't apply to a wealthy and densely populated area like Norfolk County

I've argued that it would be naive to dismiss the snob factor - Greater Boston has more than its share of housing snobs who are likely to steer clear of any town associated with a casino.


Tying it all together – the Patriots, casinos and home prices

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 6, 2012 09:44 AM

OK, maybe this is a stretch. I'll let you decide.

But will the Pats crushing Super Bowl loss wind up having an impact on the future direction of home prices in Foxborough and in neighboring bedroom communities like Norfolk, Walpole and Wrentham?

A Super Bowl win would have arguably bolstered Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn's drive to build a mega casino on what are now parking lots owned by Robert Kraft across from Gillette Stadium.

But as Wynn prepares to make another offer to so far recalcitrant Foxboro officials, he will have to do so without being able to wrap himself in Patriots glory, even if only through association with Kraft.

So what does that have to do with home prices in Foxboro, Norfolk and Wrentham? Well, potentially a lot if the Super Bowl loss tips the scales against Wynn's big Foxborough casino.


Does Cape mansion really deserve the wrecking ball?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 3, 2012 06:50 AM

Bet the owners of that $10 million Truro mansion are having some big regrets now as town officials ready the demolition crews.

If you haven't already, check out this Globe story on that spanking new Truro mansion that now faces the wrecking ball after infuriating neighbors and allegedly violating town building rules.

At least from the photos, the 8,333 square foot sprawling, two- story structure looks several cuts above the typical ugly McMansion. But its location may be its undoing - perched on a dune overlooking the Atlantic on a landscape made immortal by painter Edward Hopper.

OK, the owners may have taken some liberties here, and then some - the permit was for an "alteration" of an existing house. The end result was a new home on the site four times the size of the old one.

But is a virtual death sentence - demolition of the entire home - warranted?


Property tax bills, assessments and exemptions

Posted by Rona Fischman January 9, 2012 02:16 PM

Today, our Monday guy, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team, provides and overview of property tax bills, property assessments and tax exemptions.

Most municipalities send quarterly tax bills. Recently, most cities and towns sent out their third quarter property tax bills, They are payable on February 1st. (Even though it’s the beginning of the year, the fiscal year for Massachusetts municipalities runs from July 1 through June 30th.)

The third quarter tax bill is very different from the others.
The two previous tax bills were preliminary estimates which were sent pending approval of the final tax rate by the state. For most cities and towns, 3rd quarter tax bills reflects the actual approved tax rate and should also show the property’s assessed value along with any special credits that the property owner has applied and been approved for (i.e. a residential exemption, personal exemptions for elderly, blind, surviving spouse, veterans with service connected disabilities or minor children of Deceased Parents. Boston added an exemption for National Guardsmen in 2012).

The assessed value of the property does not reflect today’s value. It should reflect the property's value on January 1 of last year. Assessed value does not necessarily reflect the amount paid for a property or what the property is worth today. It is based on a computerized evaluation of the presumed size, location and condition of the property on January 1st of the previous year. There are factors such as increasing or decreasing values, distress sales, property damage or changes in use that could cause an assessment to be different from today’s actual market value.


Priced out of Greater Boston, she moved to Canada

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 6, 2012 06:41 AM

Now there's a long commute!

OK, just kidding about the commute, but not the move. Greyphysics, who some will surely recognize from the comments section of this blog, recently moved to Ontario after she and her husband came to the painful conclusion that Boston area real estate prices were not for them.

The couple, who work in the sciences, traded in their Boston area apartment for one near Toronto that, for roughly the same cost, is bigger, better laid out and includes everything.

Here's greyphysics.

So far it is a huge improvement. Our rent is about the same but includes heat, hot water, electricity and a garage parking space. No more shoveling or running out to move the car for street cleaning. The apartment is updated and perfect for starting a family, unlike most of the apartments back home. We will probably buy something someday, but there's no rush and no need for it to be in Boston.

It wasn't an easy conclusion to come to, though.


Has urban gentrification peaked?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 3, 2012 07:01 AM

After years of rising appeal, tough times are back for American cities, Boston included.

From crime to schools, the bloom is off the rose when it comes to city living, or at least the pioneering brand that involves buying a diamond in the rough on the edge of some poor but up and coming neighborhood. The folks living in the Mandarin Oriental or the Clarendon don't count - that's just living in a luxury bubble with an urban backdrop for some glamor, not real city living.

Still,my hunch is this is not a permanent shift, but economy related, but more on that later.

Here are two starkly different views of where gentrification is headed in the Boston area, culled from the comments section.


Company town

Posted by Rona Fischman December 27, 2011 02:13 PM

My husband and I snuck away for a week just before Christmas. The weather, as you will remember, was cloudy and wet for most of last week. It is sort of what we expected. We planned accordingly and went to the far north-western corner of Massachusetts, where there is a variety of indoor activities to do when the weather is dismal.

We spent a couple of days in North Adams, Massachusetts. We’d been hearing about Mass Museum of Contemporary Art. It is a great place; you should check it out, even if you aren’t all that artsy. I recommend The Workers, especially for those who want art to make them think about the world.

What I found interesting in North Adams was the story of the campus where the museum is. It is sited on a 13-acre factory site. It looked like something out of Dickens, especially on a dark, rainy London-ish kind of day. Lots of tall, old brick buildings along a waterway.

It was a cloth factory until 1942. Then it became Sprague Electric Company. This company employed over 4,000 people in a town with about 18,000 residents. One day in 1985, it was gone. Everyone in this town knew someone who was thrown out of work. The town, like many factory towns before and after it, experienced a sea change.


Are we really that unfriendly here?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 29, 2011 05:36 AM

Landing a decent home can be a challenge in Greater Boston. Despite the downturn, prices remain high and decent inventory remains hard to find.

But for the lucky ones who manage to snag a house, there remains the challenge of getting to know the neighbors and making new friends. While that might be a cinch in oh-so-polite Atlanta or sunny San Diego, we live in a part of the country where outward displays of friendliness to anyone outside of a select circle of family and friends are seen as an oddity or worse, a dangerous aberration. (You know, it's the old subway rule: Avert gaze, stare straight ahead and make absolutely no attempt at eye contact or conversation.)

New Englanders are a chilly bunch, but Bostonians are even worse.


Fannie Mae and the private way

Posted by Rona Fischman November 17, 2011 01:52 PM

Do you know what a private way is? (Yeah, It’s the opposite of a public way.) A public way is land owned by the municipality that the public uses for a thoroughfare; in short, a road. A private way is also a road. But, the owner of the house owns half (or sometimes all) of the road in front. Towns will plow private ways so police and fire can get through. In towns that have garbage and recycling pick-up, the pick-up includes private ways.

The difference is twofold:

1. If a house is on a private way, the lot line of the property is in the road. So the lot includes the square footage under the road. Therefore a 6000 SF lot on a private road is smaller than a 6000 SF lot on a public road. (It is one of the things I check when I do a CMA) I see this in Arlington in a number of neighborhoods.They're in some in other towns, too. Seen 'em in Newton, Lexington, Somerville... There are developments with all private ways where the owners collectively need to plow and pave; I don't see those in the towns around Boston where I work.

2. Around Boston, where I work, private roads are plowed by the town, but in most cases they get paved or repaved by the private owners… or not. Have you driven on a really beaten-up road and wondered why the town was neglecting it? It might have been a private road. Private roads are maintained by mutual agreement. So, if the neighbors don’t get along well enough to chip in for road care, the road gets more and more rutted. I have run into owners who love their rutted private way; it keeps people off their street!


When looking at towns to buy in, potential deal breakers

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 16, 2011 07:11 AM

Would you buy in a town that had a casino? Moreover, what are some other potential deal breakers?

This is no longer a theoretical discussion. State lawmakers last night passed a casino gambling bill. Once signed by Gov. Deval Patrick - he's on board, so no issue there - Massachusetts will be on track to get three casinos and a smaller slot hall.

The leading candidates, in terms of locations, are Palmer and East Boston. Still, given that it's going to be a competitive bidding situation, at least one, maybe two of these gambling complexes could end up anywhere.

The likelihood of a mass jail break is pretty unlikely in this day and age. That said, there can be a stigma to having a prison in town. There's a reason Walpole prison, that formidable, white walled, high security fortress, got renamed Cedar Junction. It's unfair, but the perception is there.


Financially strong communities

Posted by Rona Fischman November 14, 2011 02:09 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team discusses why it matters where you shop, especially this year.

Few of us think about it, but where we shop makes a difference.
When you shop locally, you support your local community. As more shopping moves online, we may gain convenience and/or price, but how does that affect the place that you chose to make your community?

Most people choose where they live because they like the amenities that are available in the area. Those amenities usually include nearby stores that offer essential services (like markets and drug stores), ways to indulge in discretionary spending (i.e. clothing boutiques, liquor stores, gift shops, entertainment, etc.) and local schools.
Whether your shopping includes a walk to a nearby village of stores or a drive to the nearest mall, imagine what it would be like if you headed over there today and found the store out of business.

When local businesses close, it is more than inconvenient for past customers. Communities lose property tax revenue that funds essential services (like street lights, fire & police services, plowing and school services), and state sales tax revenue that maintains roads and bridges most of us drive on regularly. The state and federal income taxes as well as social security, unemployment taxes and health benefits that eventually work their way back to local doctors, nurses and hospitals disappear. Not only do those contributions disappears, their loss typically becomes a drain on the economy instead as the business owner(s) and everyone else that worked there may need to turn to unemployment and subsidized health care if they can not replace their income immediately.


When buying a home, better start taking heed of Mother Nature

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 3, 2011 05:27 AM

Home buying has gotten pretty complicated.

There is an ever growing list of things to consider, well beyond the old standard of school system, neighborhood and - hopefully, but no guarantee these days - potential resale value.

Buyers are supposed to endlessly obsess about the energy footprint of a house and how much damage their commute will do to the global climate.

But there are even more basic issues to consider, especially in an age where weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable and storms more intense.

This past week of mass power outages across Greater Boston, triggered by a freak October snow storm, is a good reminder of how vulnerable we all are when it comes to nature's wrath.

Here's my quick list potential weather/nature related hazards to mull when house hunting. OK, if you think I am being paranoid, feel free to tell me so, because I am to some extent - and I always enjoy a good argument. But here goes.


Hip equals high rent, survey finds

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 21, 2011 06:25 AM

Hipsters rejoice! Or maybe not after you find out what's happening with rents in your oh-so-cool neighborhoods.

If you had any lingering doubts that you live in some of the most desired zip codes in Greater Boston, RentJuice's latest survey of local rents should put you at ease.

While rents leveled off in many parts of Greater Boston as summer faded into fall, they kept on rising in already pricey Davis Square and Newton Centre.


Walkability is great, but having a Walmart nearby is better

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 11, 2011 08:55 AM

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been an unflagging cheerleader for urban life, overseeing an explosion in new condo development downtown.

But his decision to effectively bar Walmart from setting foot in Boston - and in particular Roxbury - raises one of the major drawbacks of urban living.

Yes, if you trade in your suburban home for a condo or house in Boston, you might just be able to ditch your car as well.

And for someone who hates cars as much as I do, that's an attraction.

But carless or not, you are then stuck with a limited array of shopping options, of which the lack of a Walmart is just the tip of the iceberg. Major grocery stores are hard to find, and, with a captive audience, the prices are invariably higher at the few that have managed to squeeze their way into the city.


Your picks for best places to live

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 3, 2011 12:45 PM

After reading another lame ranking of the "best places to live" that mixed in some randomly chosen Greater Boston towns, I was fairly disgusted.

So I threw the question out - as to the best places to live locally - to the readers of this blog.

Here's a list, based on your nominations:

For their quaint, picture perfect, walkable downtowns: Concord, Newburyport and Winchester.


When it comes to the housing market, will the feds ever get it right?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis September 26, 2011 06:28 AM

What should have been a noble effort to help out jobless homeowners has turned into yet another shameful government fiasco.

Check out this story by Jenifer McKim on the much-touted $2 billion proposal, championed by Barney Frank, to extend up to $50,000 in no interest loans in a bid to help homeowners who have lost their jobs.

The feds have been unable to dole out even half the $61 million targeted for Massachusetts homeowners, with stories piling up of deserving applicants being turned down for a range of nonsensical reasons.

Some have been rejected because their income hadn't technically fallen far enough. And, as I've noted previously, you also don't qualify if you managed to pull down more than $110,000 before you got the ax, a healthy income but hardly enough to put you in the economic elite here in Greater Boston.

But the most galling requirement of all is that you must stop paying your mortgage in order to make yourself eligible for a helping hand from Uncle Sam.


To get into a town with top schools, what would you pay?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis September 12, 2011 06:19 AM

For upscale buyers with school age children, the answer is pretty simple: A whole lot.

Despite the downturn, the bidding wars to get into towns with the best school systems - as measured by test scores, teacher-student ratio, and other metrics - are raging unabated.

That's my quick take on Boston magazine's annual ranking of the area's top school systems.

A quick look at the top 15 reveals communities that also boast some of the highest home prices in the state, if not the country. And some have seen just nominal declines and even gains over the past few years, when the real estate market in general has gone haywire.


Development and natural beauty

Posted by Rona Fischman August 5, 2011 02:00 PM

“Some people called it a federal land grab that would ruin Cape Cod forever.” explains Donna Tunney in Wicked Local. We call it the Cape Cod National Seashore. Tunney continued,

“Some said it was sorely needed to save the peninsula from all-out commercialization. Others admitted they didn’t have a clue what it meant, and that only time would tell.”

Time has told. What do you think? Did the National Seashore save Cape Cod from over-development, or did it encourage more development? I especially want to hear from Cape residents and people with life-long experience of Cape Cod.

The Cape Cod National Seashore is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. When I made my annual trek to Eastham, I took a celebratory guided tour in Eastham’s Fort Hill area. Being the real estate nerd that I am, I was interested in the part of the presentation that involved a real estate deal that didn’t go so well.


Transit speculations

Posted by Rona Fischman August 4, 2011 01:55 PM

Surprise, surprise! The MBTA extension of the Green line in Somerville and Medford has been delayed, again. This time, they are projecting 2018 as a finish date, with the Medford stop possibly being delayed until 2020.

I am on record here at BREN for being skeptical about the on-time arrival of the Green Line. I wrote about it in 2007, and 2008 that I do not think that buying in anticipation of the Green Line is a good idea.

In 2009, I drew on lessons learned during the Red Line extension in the 1980s for an understanding of just how long it takes to see profit from that kind of community change. Here’s what I said then. I still stand by it, except now I am pushing my projections back four years.

C., a client of mine, asked me this question:

… I was also wondering if you had any opinions on the proposed Green Line extension. Personally I think I'll be dead by the time it's done, but was wondering if you'd heard anything to the contrary. I do know about that lawsuit that said it was supposed to be completed by the end of 2014. But I'm not holding my breath.

Cambridge now the top rental market?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 29, 2011 07:48 AM

Move over Back Bay and Beacon Hill. The 1980s and 1990s were good for you, but there is a new king of the rental market across the Charles.

Asking rents in part of Cambridge are now rivaling or even topping those in Back Bay and Beacon Hill - no small feat given some of the outrageous rents some owners of downtown Boston luxury condos are now seeking.

And vacancy is arguably even tighter - Tory Row Real Estate's Arthur Horiatis pegs the Cambridge apartment vacancy rate at about 1 percent.

That's down from a still tight - but more terrestrial - 4 to 5 percent just a few years ago.


Would you live in a gated community?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 18, 2011 08:16 AM

Just back from two weeks of vacation with my wife and three little ones down in the D.C. area.

Karen strung together a pair of house exchanges in Virginia that put us close enough to Washington to make some day trips into the city.

And it also gave me a chance to see what life is like in a gated community.

Frankly, it's a concept I have never been too wild on, but after a late night scare that drove home the vulnerability of rural living, I am rethinking my reservations.

We spent the first week at a development called Lake Holiday in the verdant Shenandoah Valley.

The reality of what it means to live in a gated community was driven home at the start of our vacation when we drove up to the guard shack at the entrance to the development.


Living well in Canton.

Posted by Rona Fischman June 24, 2011 02:08 PM

In 2009, I ran the “Living well is the best revenge” series about towns where housing is more affordable. By reader request, I have been networking through agents I respect to find information about how life is beyond I-95.

Today, I introduce Christine Smith, who is an exclusive buyer’s agent in Canton.

Canton is a suburban town located just southwest of Boston. With a little over 20,000 residents, it is made up of a variety of longtime Canton families who have lived here for generations and newcomers.

Some of Canton's more famous current corporate residents include Reebok and Dunkin Brands. There is a good balance between residential and commercial property in town, which helps to balance the tax burden for its residential property owners.

Recreational opportunities abound in Canton between the Blue Hills Reservation, five golf courses, Reservoir Pond, Massachusetts Audubon trails, Pequitside Farm, the Neponset River and more. The Canton Recreation Department offers a wide variety of recreational programming throughout the year for both young and old alike. With two commuter rail stops in Canton, there is easy access to Boston, whether it be for work or to take advantage of all that Boston has to offer. Located at the junction of Routes 95, 128, 24 and 93, it is a convenient location for commuters in any direction.


Has your town been gentrified?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 23, 2011 09:06 AM

My brother Ben and I grew up in the suburbs here in the 1970s, long before Greater Boston became an international magnet for the upwardly mobile.

While I returned to the area after graduate school to work in newspapers, Ben left for college and never looked back, pursuing a medical career that took him to Nashville, Baltimore and Chicago.

So when we all gathered at my house in Natick earlier this week for a rare family get-together, I was particularly intrigued at Ben's shock at some of the dramatic changes he noticed in towns he last knew as a teenager.

Ben barely recognized Franklin, which, back in the 1970s was as blue collar a town as they come, with a respectable but hardly hip downtown.

That's all changed, of course. Real estate values have soared over the past few decades in Franklin as the homes have gotten bigger and its once dull downtown has filled up with restaurants and other amenities.

And Franklin is hardly alone, with a number of other towns within the 495 and 128 beltways having undergone equally dramatic demographic changes.


The agents are not talking

Posted by Rona Fischman June 17, 2011 01:41 PM

I take questions. Email to Rona Fischman. But sometimes a slightly off-topic comment repeats a question I’ve seen before.

JJ34 asked:

Rona -- are there laws in MA about what agents *can't* tell their clients? When we bought I first house in the Midwest, back when information was nowhere near as readily available online as it is today, one of the things that I really liked about our agent was that she was a very straight shooter. When my husband and I inquired about looking at houses in a certain section of town she nipped that in the bud and told us we wouldn't want to be over there (and she was right). However, when we bought our house in CT our agent seemed to be very "by the book" and I vaguely recalled her saying something to the effect of not being "allowed" to share her opinions about certain schools, etc. Since we were moving across the country and didn't know much about the area, and she lived here her whole life and was an expert on the area, it actually would have been helpful to have some advice and not simply a reiteration of the facts (i.e. "the school is having a lot of budget problems and has been in the news, let me pull some articles for you" as opposed to "yes, there is a school there." )

In general, the reason agents don’t talk about schools or safety is because their managers or brokers tell them they are not allowed to. No law, just policy. What are they afraid of? First, being accused of steering. Second, being held to a subjective opinion on something.

In quality offices, there is information about schools and crime. That information is factual, not subjective. In some offices, like mine, we provide factual data links and also rely on parents in the districts and owners in neighborhoods who can speak to their experiences.

Today, is an encore of a previous entry.

Q: Why would agents not tell you about the great schools?

Answer number one: Unless the agent says the same thing to every customer or client, that agent may be seen as practicing “steering.” Steering violates fair housing laws. It is the attempt to encourage people to buy in areas with people “just like” the buyer. In the past, this practice maintained segregated communities.


The tyranny of location, location, location

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 16, 2011 06:36 AM

Anybody who has ever gaped at the astronomical price tag for some modest starter home in an upscale Boston suburb has surely had this thought at some point.

The schools in Sudbury, Winchester or Weston, or you fill in the town, are surely great, but if I took the same cramped Cape and moved it 20 miles west, I'd shave off half the price or more.

A case in point is Coldwell Banker's survey of the most and least affordable towns in the Bay State, as measured by average selling price.


Whose neighborhood is this?

Posted by Rona Fischman June 7, 2011 01:58 PM

The kerfuffle over the Whole Foods store in Jamaica Plain is an age-old Boston area battle, revisited.

The question of whether gentrification is good or bad for a community is in the eye of the beholder. What do you behold? Gentrification brought us the housing bubble. Or is that the other way around, the housing bubble created gentrification? Does Whole Foods cause gentrification or is it capitalizing on gentrification that is already there? Does loss of a “normal” local grocery store toll the death knell for working-class families in a neighborhood?

David Taber, writer for the Jamaica Plain Gazette reports that there is evidence that the presence of a Whole Foods as a precursor to condo price increases in the neighborhood. He quotes a 2007 study that showed that urban amenities attract people who will pay price premiums for housing. That 2007
Johnson Gardner study of urban amenities said this about groceries like Whole Foods:

Specialty Grocers (+17.5%): Price premiums for being nearby a specialty grocer are estimated to range from as low as 5.8% to as high as 29.3%... Accordingly, the calculated 17.5% premium is likely robust, as anecdotal evidence is strongest for specialty grocers.

My office is in Cambridge. I don’t think the three Whole Foods are the cause of gentrification there. I also work in Medford, where the Whole Foods sits quietly in its parking lot, not hiking property values around it. But, the facts above are facts. What do you make of it?


Exaction, extortion or illegal? Mandatory dedication of open space parcel held unlawful

Posted by Rona Fischman June 1, 2011 02:11 PM

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein discusses a court ruling about development. The question today is about the power of local zoning boards. Do they have too much and are they power hungry? Or are they trying to take care of their community? What is your experience in your town?

Score one for property rights advocates
Massachusetts has the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most challenging states to permit a new housing development due to its myriad of rules, regulations and zoning by-laws. Real estate developers seeking to build a new subdivision typically go through an arduous permitting process before the local Planning Board, Board of Selectmen, Board of Health, Conservation Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and other town boards.

Open space set-asides
In what has become very much en vogue and required in the last decade are towns requiring that the developer dedicate or deed some of its developable land for open space and recreational purposes. In the recent case of Collings v. Planning Board of Stow, the Appeals Court ruled that the planning board went too far in requiring that the developer set aside almost 6 acres of a 5 lot subdivision for open space and “environmentally significant areas with views.”


Coming soon to your online real estate search: neighborhood crime stats

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis May 26, 2011 06:23 AM

If you really want to check out the neighbors before you buy, well Trulia is betting it has the search tool for you.

Trulia next Thursday will roll out CrimeMaps, which it bills as a service that will enable "people to view, explore and compare crime in neighborhoods across the U.S."

The initial stats will not include Boston, but data on the Hub will be coming soon, I am told.

Trulia contends its new mapping technology will let you determine which neighborhoods have the least and most crime reports, when crime tends to happen, and even the most dangerous intersections.

Of course, whether this proves to be useful or just a silly gimmick will boil down to not only what kind of information is available but how it is displayed.


Let’s help James quit his day job!

Posted by Rona Fischman April 19, 2011 01:26 PM

In March, we discussed hurry-up buying near to death. Sometimes the conversation stopped over the question of who trusts who’s statistics. Do Assessed values correlate to sale prices? Is the MLS right about square footage? Are agent CMAs accurate?

Here’s where the data comes from:
• Municipal records showing assessed value and square footage.
• Deed/title records showing sale price and square footage.
• MLS records showing asking price(s), sale price and square footage.

James wrote:

“Yeah, I was wondering about sources of aggregated data. I suppose I can write my own scraping script, but I'd hoped someone else had already scraped and cleaned the data.”

I answered:

"If you could clean up town real estate data and sell it, you could quit your day job."

To which, James wrote:

“Actually, I've been thinking about doing just that. What data would you like to see?”


From cold to red hot, the real estate along the Marathon route

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 18, 2011 07:15 AM

The 26.2 mile Boston Marathon dashes past some of the priciest real estate on the planet.

The race kicks off in middle class territory - Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham and Natick.
But as the runners cross the Natick line into Wellesley, the median home price immediately doubles. And as they hit their stride, the Marathon runners will find themselves gliding past some of the most expensive suburban and urban enclaves on earth before crossing the finish line at Copley Square, in the heart of downtown Boston's luxury home and condo market.

In towns like Ashland, Hopkinton and Natick, prices are settling back into solidly middle class territory after having flirted with the lower rungs of the high end market during the boom years.

But in Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and downtown Boston, prices are still stratospherically high and, if anything, taking a breather before the next sprint up.

Without further ado, here's my town-by-town real estate tour of the Marathon route. (All numbers are from The Warren Group, with the exception of Hopkinton, which I used Trulia for.)


Where does the average person buy?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 15, 2011 02:13 PM

Today, I challenge you to find the best place for the “average” wage-earners in Massachusetts. You all have your favorite MLS interface, so get searching.

Within Ten Miles:
The single-earner household can borrow $100,000. He or she needs a 20 percent down payment. That makes a purchase price of $125,000. Within ten miles of Boston, $125,000 could have purchased houses in Boston, Chelsea, Dedham, Everett, Lynn, Malden, Quincy, Revere, and Saugus. Condos (at least a couple) could be had in Melrose, Winthrop and Winchester. (Data from the last six months.)

The two-income household can borrow $250,000. With their 20 percent down payment, their purchase power is about $313,000. I put some limits on the size of this two-person or more living space. It must have two bedrooms, five rooms and be 1000 square feet or more inside. In the past six months, there were houses in Arlington, Boston, Braintree, Chelsea, Dedham, Everett, Hull, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Newton, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, Stoneham, Wakefield, Waltham, Watertown, Weymouth, Winchester, Winthrop and Woburn. When I throw condos in, I get a lone Brookline condo to add to the town mix.

Where do properties in these towns fall, generally, on that size + location + condition (+ some for style in some cases) = price equation?


Growing where you were planted?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 12, 2011 01:46 PM

A couple of years ago, I wrote about being surprised that 74.7 percent of American-born people who live in Massachusetts were born in Massachusetts. The comments that followed really called me on my naivety. It seemed obvious to some that Massachusetts-born made for a lot of Massachusetts-stayed. “Grow where you are planted” is alive and well here. (The entry predates the “great comment wipe-out.” So, so you can’t see the conversation anymore.)

I was reminded of that conversation by comments on Marcel’s thoughts about leaving Massachusetts. Artie and RedheadedJen both mentioned family ties as a reason to stay here.


Restrictions – What you can’t see can affect you – Part 2

Posted by Rona Fischman April 11, 2011 02:06 PM

Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team is our Monday guy. Today he continues the discussion about restrictions that he began last week.

In addition to the restrictions that we discussed last week, there are other restrictions that can affect how an owner can use his or her own property.

Condominium or co-op documents:
Condominium documents, including rules and regulations, if any, often include restrictions regarding pets, ability to rent, parking, storage, use of condo units, voting rights, insurance, use of common areas, and financial matters including the condo association's ability to borrow money for the association on behalf of all owners. Condo docs also address who is a trustee (A/K/A Member of the Board of Directors) and what powers and responsibilities trustees have.

Easements are used when one party has the ability to use someone else’s property. Typically, easements are used for shared driveways or utility access. It is not uncommon to see utility easements when underground pipes are beneath or planned on someone’s property. A utility easement grants the utility company the right to access a particular area of someone’s property to install or maintain their utilities. Easements should be noted on property deeds.

Community covenants:
When some neighborhoods were developed, the developer created a set of community covenants to regulate the appearance of the neighborhood. Any aspect of a neighborhood can be regulated through community covenants provided the restrictions are legal. In many cases, community covenants restrict the style or size home, garage or other building that can be built within the neighborhood, the type number of vehicles that can be kept by owners (no campers, boats, etc.), types of antennas possible on homes, pets, landscaping, or the colors that homes can be painted. Community covenants should be noted on property deeds.


Where should Shadowcat house-hunt?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 6, 2011 02:04 PM

I am working through the questions leftover from the chat yesterday.

We're looking to move to a bigger space next spring. Our priority is a good school system, but we also would love a town with a commuter rail or T stop and an active town center. And we'd like more than a postage-stamp of a yard. Our budget is under $400k and I'm having trouble finding towns that fit the bill. What resources would you recommend?

There is an equation that is always true:
size + location + condition (+ some for style in some cases) = price.

If you shop carefully, you may find a B location which is big enough and in B condition. You may find an A location that is not big enough in B condition. You may find a B location that is a little too small in A condition. You may find… you get the picture. $400,000 is not going to buy an A location that is big and in good condition.

Size: When I look at my towns, I get 112 properties that have 3 bedrooms and 1400+ square feet inside and 6000+ square feet outside that sold in the past 6 months for under $400,000.

But then you have to define the limits on location and condition.

Commuter rail towns: Acton, Concord, Medford, Melrose, Natick, Waltham, Wellesley and Winchester. Which of these do you consider good school systems? What is your take on busy streets? (you have to rule those out.)

Condition: The better the location, the worse the condition. Guarranteed!

So, what choices would you make in ShadowCat’s shoes?


Moving to Greater Boston with $600,000 to spend, where should Nancy buy?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 6, 2011 08:07 AM

A happy resident of the Sunbelt, where the skies are always blue and new homes come cheap, Nancy is getting ready to move to the Boston area with her husband and children.

She says she's ready for sticker shock - and a doubling of her current mortgage - but Nancy has yet to get on the ground here and start looking.

I ran into Nancy, so to speak, during Monday's Spring House Hunt market chat, where I tapped away on my keyboard doing my best to keep up with questions thrown out by potential buyers.


Bid farewell to Massachusetts?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 5, 2011 02:31 PM

Today, I came, I saw, I chatted. The busy beavers on the editing end will post the link, in full, sometime soon.

Marcel asked a question that is on the minds of many, many people. I repost his question here, with some ideas about how to sort an answer for yourself.

Do you have advice for Marcel? Did you leave Massachusetts for cheaper housing? Are you happy? Or did you stay despite our over-inflated market. Are you happy?

[Comment From Marcel] Hello. My wife and me is thinking of chunking the deuce on Mass because home prices is so high. We are thinking of moving to an area where housing is less expensive, so we can buying. If we could buying a house in another state now (closer to families), would it make more financial sense for us to buy or keep renting until we can afford a home in Massachusetts.? Thx.

If you are thinking of “chunking the deuce on Mass” (I never heard that before, but we all know what he means) these are the things that I think you should consider.

You need to compare a number of factors to make a decision that you won’t regret five or ten or twenty years from now.

Employment and income:
What is the future of your job prospects, career opportunities, and educational opportunities in Massachusetts and in the other state?
Will you find yourself making a lower income elsewhere? Will that balance the lower housing cost, or are you just stepping away from inflation without getting more economic freedom? Will your career be dead-ended elsewhere, lowering your lifetime income?

Will you be happier living near family?
What are features of both places and which suit you better? Think about weather, recreational and social activity, cultural activity (theater, sports, music, parks, museums.)
Is there housing stock at a reasonable commute to work in either place, or will you get a much better place in the same commuting zone (or even a shorter one) outside of Massachusetts?


In an increasingly online age, can you really live, work, and buy a house anywhere you choose?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 21, 2011 09:14 AM

It is one of the truly intriguing lifestyle choices created by the online revolution, the idea that you can ditch the corporate office and set up your life anywhere you choose.

A recent story in the Boston Sunday Globe magazine - featuring, among others, an internet guru who ditched Boston for the U.S. Virgin Islands - got me thinking about this. (Sorry, I'll keep trying, but I can't find the link.)

In theory, the ability for work from anywhere - whether at Starbucks or in a home office - should be liberating, and clearly, for a few, it already is.

Not only should it free more and more of us from the rat race of spending hours each day stuck in traffic, but it should also open up a much broader range of choices in the real estate market as well.

With laptop in hand, you, too, should be able to ditch the corporate office and move to the hinterlands. Sure, that could mean Fargo or some exotic island, but more practically it might open up much less expensive choices beyond the 495 ring that would seem impractical if tethered to a long commute to Boston.

Yet it remains just a theory, as anyone who has checked out the difference between 128 and 495 home prices can tell you.


Towns and neighborhoods where sellers still rule

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 10, 2011 07:49 AM

OK, you have been hearing it's a buyers' market for years now.

But here in Greater Boston, while that's true for some towns and neighborhoods, it's definitely not for others.

Yes, prices are starting to fall again. Even here in the perpetually overpriced Boston housing market, a growing number of sellers are starting to take it on the chin.

Yet while we are catching up, the Hub is still behind the national curve when it comes falling home values. Prices have fallen 27 percent nationally from peak, compared to 17 to 22 percent locally, according to various estimates.

And in some coveted towns and zip codes, frustrated buyers and cocky sellers can legitimately feel as if not much has changed since 2005.

Some of the the trendier enclaves in Cambridge and Somerville come to mind - Davis Square for one.


Is Greater Boston truly enlightened when it comes to housing discrimination?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 24, 2011 06:23 AM

I've always thought Greater Boston landlords and brokers were a relatively enlightened bunch.

But soon we won't have to guess at how much of a hold that bigotry of all types - including against sexual orientation - still has when it comes to sale of homes and the renting of apartments.

The federal government has launched a sweeping review of housing discrimination across the country.

It is the fourth such survey by Washington, which began doing such studies every ten years back in the 1970s.

This time, however, the review by the Department of Housing and Urban Development will take a broader look than in the past. For the first time, the federal government will also look at discrimination in rentals and sales against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals and families.

Can't imagine they are going to leave the Boston area, the economic capital of New England and one of the country's largest metro areas, off the list, can you?


For buyers, towns that are diamonds in the rough

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

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.


Christmas/holiday lights - what's your preference?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 24, 2010 09:18 AM

My wife is a big fan of white lights during the holiday season. And I have no grounds to complain - Karen braved 17 degree weather a few weeks ago to string them along our front porch and railing of our Natick fixer-upper.

Still, now that the white lights have taken over the world - or at least the upscale suburbs - I find them somewhat monotonous.

But luckily, since I live in a more middle-of-the-road town, I don't have to look far for a contrast.

Our neighbor Richard is a fan of colored lights - he also likes to put them up on his front porch.

My three little ones, 6, 5 and 3, are big fans of colored lights. In fact, they are begging for lights "like Mr. Foster's."


Should you stretch to buy into a power 'burb?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 14, 2010 07:22 AM

Absolutely not - that's my quick answer.

But given the responses to my recent post on a couple just in from the Midwest who chose Woburn over Lexington, I appear to be in the minority here.

What I held up as a refreshing example of common sense and heartland values, others saw as a tale of real estate folly of the highest order.

The couple - I changed their names to Ted and Joan and for good reason given the heated responses my post generated - overpaid by shelling out nearly $650,000 for a spanking new, four bedroom Colonial in Woburn, according to some of the comments from the regulars and not so regulars who follow this blog.

Maybe, but that clearly got them a lot more house - and in better shape - than anything they could afford in Lexington.

But some of the responses left me wondering whether reflexive snobbery is playing a bigger role than I would have thought in steering buyers into some towns and away from others.


Looked at Lexington, but picked Woburn

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 9, 2010 06:07 AM

Why not Woburn?

Just in from the Midwest, one couple came to just that conclusion after scouting out some of the pricier towns in the western suburbs.

Ted and Joan, as we will call them here, were hoping to land a house within a quick drive of Ted's new job in Cambridge. With twin tots, settling for a condo was not an option - they wanted a reasonably sized single-family.

Here are some of Ted's observations after a long and at times frustrating search that ultimately ended in success - with their purchase of a newly built Colonial in Woburn. I have taken out some of the identifying details.


When it comes to housing discrimination, it is open season on families with children

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 24, 2010 06:16 AM

OK, here in the waning days of 2010, why are condo associations, landlords and even town officials allowed to stick it to families with children?

A Methuen condo association is poised to settle allegations that it hit families with "excessive" fines after charging them $10 every time their children were caught playing tag or ball in the common area.

Under a proposed settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Stonecleave condo association will pay $130,000 to the families to settle allegations it violated fair housing laws, as well as a $20,000 fine, the Herald reports.

Apparently, the kids had been banished to a field farther out.


Urban living versus suburban and rural. What’s your pick?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 3, 2010 06:58 AM

OK, time to detox from all the breathless election coverage.

Here's a quick recap on the real estate angle stemming from the voting action yesterday.

Barney Frank survived a pretty strong challenge by a Marine reservist Sean Bielat, who put Barney on the hot seat on whether he ignored early warning signs of the housing market fiasco.

And with a big boost from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and a coalition of business, religious and housing groups, Question 2, which would have repealed the state's 1960s-era affordable housing law, went down to a resounding defeat.

Let me know if I am missing anything.

Here's a news flash: There's more to buying a home than price, even in Greater Boston, arguably one of the most overpriced markets in the country.

It's also a question of what you want to come home to at night - a condo in a funky city neighborhood, a house on an impeccably landscaped suburban street or a home tucked away in the woods off some dirt road in Podunkville?


Top ten schools, 2010

Posted by Rona Fischman September 7, 2010 02:02 PM

There is more to a town than the schools, but the reputation of the school district affects home prices there. Should a buyer care about schools if that buyer does not plan to use the school system? Is it just too expensive to buy in a “top school” town? Or is it worth it to buy into a school district that is more likely to hold value?

People who plan to use the schools for their children need to analyze the relationship between that reputation and the actual performance. There are lots of children who do not do well in the “best” places, and also a good number who do well in the “worst” places. How do you figure out where to live to get the best town for you and the best schools for your children?
I liked it when Boston Magazine listed school districts in terms of cost efficiency as well as academic rankings.

In 2008, the Top Ten efficient schools were:
Algonquin Regional

The same year, The Top Ten academic schools were:
Boston Latin
Newton South
Newton North

This year Boston Magazine Top Ten are:
Newton North
Newton South

The Top Ten seem to cluster around a bunch of “usual suspects.” The districts that are only mentioned once are three noted for efficiency: Algonquin Regional, Sharon, and Andover. Two made the top ten for academics in 2008, but not this year: Boston Latin and Weymouth.

Now the buyer advice:
Choosing where you live involves a combination of factors. Schools are one factor, along with other city services (parks, activity, police, fire, and street care.) Buyers also need to consider commute, general housing stock and average yard size. Towns which have good schools, good services, nice housing stock, and good yard size have the heftiest price tags. Are they worth it?

I tend to believe that involved parents can have a positive impact on their child’s education, but the other factors – town services, housing stock and yard sizes -- are beyond your control. When buyers choose their towns, I remind them that there is more to a town than the school ranking. Am I wrong to minimize the importance of the school system?

How I spent my summer vacation

Posted by Rona Fischman August 31, 2010 02:15 PM

This year, my husband and I took a car-trip to the Berkshires for a week. We went west via Route 2 and came back via the Mass Pike. (Try it sometime. The travel time is twice as long on the northern route, but the experience is totally different!) Even though I swore off all email, internet and phone communication involving work, my blogger/broker head never entirely shut off. What we noticed were the billboards announcing town and regional brands.

First, some personal history: My husband and I met in the Pioneer Valley, AKA the Happy Valley, AKA NoHo, AKA The Hamp. That’s Northampton and vicinity. We moved to the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) for one academic year before settling near the Hub, in Red Sox Nation.

Back to my vacation: On the way, we found that Leominster is both the Pioneer in Plastics and the Birthplace of Johnny Appleseed. Gardner, apparently, is Chair City, the Furniture Capital of New England. Lee makes a virtue of the traffic jam it gets every weekend in the summer by calling itself Gateway to the Berkshires. (The fastest way to Tanglewood is off the Pike and onto Main Street in Lee.)


Don't like Greater Boston's high prices? Blame it on the density wimps

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 16, 2010 10:30 AM

Here's one tired excuse for Greater Boston's chronically high housing prices that needs to be run out of town once and for all - "they just aren't making land anymore."

Sure, we are not Texas with lots of wide open spaces to build in. But the Hub - from downtown Boston to the bucolic suburbs that ring Rt. 128 - suffers from a very American aversion to density.

Instead, it's not a lack of land that continues to keep home prices around here artificially inflated, even as we head into the second leg of a double dip housing downturn.

Rather, it's a frankly NIMBY mindset that automatically rejects tall buildings downtown and densely built housing in the suburbs.

I recently got back from two weeks in the Netherlands where Karen and I and the kids did a housing exchange with a Dutch family.

There density isn't as matter of debate - rather it's an inescapable fact of everyday life in a country reclaimed over generations from the sea and soggy marshland.


Hello foreclosure and goodbye neighborhood?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 22, 2010 08:00 AM

It's not exactly new news that foreclosures can be bad stuff, especially if it's your house the bank is taking.

But if it's your neighbor's home, you may pay as well, regardless of whether you have never missed a mortgage payment in decades.

In a new study, an MIT economist and two Harvard researchers have trolled through 1.8 million Massachusetts home sales over the past two decades to put a price tag on the impact foreclosures can have on the real estate market.


Don't like the neighbors? Put up a good fence

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 6, 2010 10:30 AM

It may seem like a hostile act, basically fencing out a particularly irksome neighbor.

But it does not have to be that way. In fact, a good fence may simply be in everyone's best interests.

My wife Karen and I certainly agonized over whether to put up a six-and-half-foot fence to screen out one neighbor whose lifestyle is a bit different than ours.


What's your media diet?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 1, 2010 10:33 AM

One of the best things about this blog is the mini-debates that take place each day.

Sure, I hope my posts are generally a good read, but the comments can take on a life of their own.

Sometimes the arguing gets a bit too sharp-edged, but generally the regulars on this blog tend to stick to the facts.

Let's just say I think there are some pretty sharp media consumers out there among those who comment regularly on this blog.

So here's a chance for all of us to exchange notes and tips on where we get our real estate and business news from and how we value these different sources of information.


The tourist and the townie

Posted by Rona Fischman June 3, 2010 02:15 PM

I went to college near a harbor town that was invaded by tourists all summer. It was there that I got my first taste of the complexities of living in tourist towns. I was reminded this Memorial Day weekend, when I attended a family wedding in Newport, RI.

We arrived on Thursday evening. We ate in a restaurant on the tourist strip. It was relatively quiet, with a few regulars at the bar watching baseball. Service was wonderful. The tourist retail shops closed around us at 7 PM.
By Friday night, that same strip was teeming with tourists at 9 PM, with about half the retail stores still open. The restaurants were packed.

By contrast, Thursday after dinner we walked through a more year-round commercial area and found the bars and restaurants packed and rowdy. We knew we weren’t wanted. On Saturday night, we were there again and found business brisk, but not as hysterical as it was on the strip.


Home prices are important, but they aren’t everything

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 1, 2010 09:55 AM

Just back from a beautiful Memorial Day weekend spent with two of my little ones in St. Johnsbury, capital of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. My uncle Rod, a retired art teacher and landscape painter, lives in a house on a wooded hill above town.

It's gorgeous up there, but hardly a poster child for economic development. There are unobstructed views galore, mainly because the region is so remote and poor - about 40 miles from the Canadian border - it has yet to attract any significant development. And may never, at this point.

Of course, if you look closely at the landscape of lush, rolling green hills and mountains and dairy farms, there's the ubiquitous mobile home, as standard as capes and colonials are in Greater Boston.

Needless to say, if you are looking to buy a relatively inexpensive home of some sort, there's a lot to pick from.

There are lots of rundown older homes for below $100,000 - the few half decent ones might put you out $150,000 or so, based on a quick reading of the real estate ads. Heck, you can pick up a pretty nice mobile home for $25,000.

The few upscale homes of the type you might find in the suburbs around Boston can cost you up to $300,000 or more - though some of these look like shipwrecks from the bubble years when wealthy New Yorkers overpaid and went crazy on renovations no one wants now. (My uncle's last house, an 1801 colonial in tiny Danville outside of St. Johnsbury, is on the market again for a shade under $300,000. The new owners aren't playing up the historic charm of the house. Instead, the ad features a single photo of stainless steel kitchen of the type common around here. Anyway, somebody just blew a lot of money - the home isn't selling.)

Beauty and warts and all, I wouldn't mind living up there - my mother's side of the family has deep roots in that part of Vermont.

So what's my point?


Wealthier metro areas like Greater Boston faring better

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis May 27, 2010 10:04 AM

Yes, this is the worst downturn in the housing market since the Great Depression.

And no, we aren't dodging the bullet here in Greater Boston.

But here's an interesting post on the Atlantic website that points to a pretty significant disparity in terms which metro areas are bearing the brunt of the pain.

Generally, wealthier metro with greater concentrations of New Economy jobs and a wider array of cultural amenities have so far escaped the worst of the downturn, writes Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class.

Boston home prices, after rising for several months in 2009, are now stagnant at best heading into the post-tax-credit market. But they are still up roughly 4 percent over last year. Las Vegas, by contrast, saw home prices fall yet another 12 percent.


Clamping down on bidding wars, probing the secrets of successful buyers and sellers, and much, much more

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis May 5, 2010 09:38 AM

That's a list of coming attractions on this blog, ideas that flowed out of the first ever Boston Real Estate Now housing confab last night.

A small group of BREN bloggers, readers and contributors gathered at the Tavern in the Square in Cambridge's Porter Square to talk about real estate and just life in general.

I came out with lots of great ideas for future posts, including:


Save the date: First ever Boston Real Estate Now housing conference set for May 4th

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 13, 2010 06:17 AM

OK, it's not going to be a real "conference." More like a talkfest and casual get-together combined.

Let's all meet after work on Tuesday May 4th at Tavern in the Square, which is conveniently located in Cambridge's Porter Square near the T and parking as well. I've reserved space from 6:30 to 8 p.m. (There's another location in Central Square, we are meeting at the Porter Square tavern.)

Anyway, here's a chance for some of the regulars on the blog, who have some of the most interesting debates around in the comment section, to actually meet in person.

Nor do you have to be regular in the comments section to show up - all our welcome, even the most casual reader.

Rona emailed me last night to say she is giving a book group to attend, so it does not get much better than this.


More housing in urban and town centers no magic bullet for high housing prices

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 12, 2010 09:33 AM

Home buyers who flee to the exurbs in search of lower prices end up instead getting whacked with higher commuting costs, a new study out today finds.

It actually costs more to live in Dracut (35,643) than in Cambridge (28,671) once transportation costs are added to the average housing tab, the Urban Land Institute report finds.

It's a badly needed new approach to analyzing housing affordability, and it is similar to another study I recently blogged about here.

OK, it's Monday morning and maybe I am just a bit cranky. However, when it comes to solutions, I am not impressed with ULI's prescription.

The study makes a case yet again for more densely packed middle class housing near businesses and shops and public transit links.

It's the same tired old drum the anti-sprawl crowd has been banging on for years, with little or no impact on escalating housing prices.

In fact, it took a once-in-a-generation financial and housing market meltdown and an epic recession to even make a dent in Greater Boston's perpetually inflated home prices.

It's time for a much more comprehensive approach, one that takes a hard look at the anti-housing, anti-development civic culture that has taken hold across Greater Boston.


April fool in the park

Posted by Rona Fischman April 2, 2010 02:33 PM

Today, I want to talk about little parks and their affect on the local real estate. Throughout the area there a little pockets of green (now still rather brown) where one can lose one’s self for a while. Scattered in urban, suburban and rural regions are State and local parks. To find local parks, you need to ask around or go to the local municipal sites.

Recently, weather has been lovely -- except when it has not. I have been taking to the woods whenever I can. On Saturday, I had a 45-minute gap between appointments. Rather than heading to the office to bury myself in email, I decided to bushwhack my way through the woods in the Turkey Hill Reservation in Arlington. I knew there was a trailhead near the house where I was meeting my clients. I found it and climbed the hill in less than ten minutes. It was good to be by myself in the quiet. There was no sign of life except some birds and squirrels. No raccoons, no snakes, no bears (real estate or wild.)
I rarely stop thinking like an agent. I mused:


Announcing the first ever Boston Real Estate Now housing conference

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 2, 2010 06:04 AM

Wow, that headline is a mouthful.

Seriously, I have a radical idea that I want to throw out there to the regulars and not so regulars on this blog.

The debates over all aspects of the housing market that take place on this blog, especially in the comments, are some of the best out there.

So why don't we all get together for coffee or drinks sometime?

I would welcome the chance to meet some of you and hear your ideas of what you want covered and how. More importantly, you get to meet all the other contributors you have been debating with for months and even years now.

Not that it's limited to those who have posted comments. Anyone who has read the blog and the comments section is welcome to come as well.

Some of my best posts have come from readers who don't show up regularly in the comments, but have emailed me directly with a comment or personal story.

Now we come to the part where my wife Karen, the ultimate event organizer, would know just what to do.

I'm a democratic type of guy, so I will throw it out there for suggestions on times and places to meet.

My general idea was that we would pick a coffee shop, bar or restaurant in Boston or Cambridge that is somewhat centrally located.

Let's give this some lead time, so for starters, how does the week of April 21 look for you?

Homeownership still shines, despite foreclosure cloud

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 8, 2010 07:00 AM

Sorry, I refuse to throw out the idea of homeownership, despite the market meltdown that has seen millions lose out to foreclosure. Call me just another crazy homeowner if you want, but I still think the good outweighs the bad here.

Check out this excellent column by Yale housing guru Robert Shiller, who argues reforming the church of homeownership may prove trickier than we realize. The worship of homeownership goes all the way back to the founding of our country, the co-founder of the respected Case/Shiller housing index notes, arguing it has become interwoven with our national identity
Even so, Shiller argues that renting should be looked at anew as a better option for millions of Americans. And, if we are going to insist the federal government keep on subsidizing homeownership, then better safeguards are needed as well.

Shiller's case for a more limited revamp sounds pretty reasonable to me, though I think even that may prove difficult.

While there are a fair number of rentals out there, it's a market built to cater to the single and childless. Greater Boston is no except to that - you might as well just buy a house for the price you would pay for a relatively new, three-bedroom apartment.

I don't see that changing anytime soon - rather it is only likely to get worse as towns and cities across the state pressure developers to build one and two bedroom units to keep school costs down.

It probably would make sense to make homeownership more difficult to achieve as well, but that's another tough concept to sell, even if it's worthy.

So yes, reform would be wonderful. But I am not ready to give up on the idea of homeownership, despite the carping of all the doom-and-gloomers out there.


When it comes to falling prices, inner city, working class and rural areas the hardest hit

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 2, 2010 07:00 AM

Check out this fascinating chart that went up yesterday on

Nothing fancy, just a comparison of local home prices from the peak of the bubble in 2005 to 2009, when the downturn was reaching new depths.

Here's my ten second analysis. If you bought a condo in a poor Boston neighborhood or an old industrial city like Brockton or Everett back in 2005, you've taken the brunt of the downturn.

Those who bought in rural towns far from any job base beyond the local dairy farm, or in middle and working class suburbs, fared a bit better, but not much.

While few communities have escaped the wrath of the downturn unscathed to one degree or another, the usual suspects are more likely to have landed on a feather bed as opposed to a box full of nails.


Greater Boston's enduring appeal, part II

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 1, 2010 07:00 AM

OK housing bears, you loved my first post on this subject so much that I just couldn't resist giving you another.

Apparently, my overly flowery description Greater Boston's "beauty and historic richness" even managed to make our indomitable Markus a bit queasy before breakfast.

Let's get serious here now. Whether you like it or not, Greater Boston in recent decades has emerged as one of a collection of elite metro areas that draws the young and upwardly mobile from across the country and the world.

Is the reputation justified? Yes and no. But does the Boston area have that top city reputation and all that goes along with it in terms of impact on the local housing market? Absolutely.

Yes Markus, there are some enduring qualities that make Greater Boston a wonderful place to live. I'll take the walkability of Boston any day over New York and its cold, inhuman scale.

We also have a pretty formidable collection of private and public universities and cutting edge industries that help keep the talent flowing in.

These are fundamentals that aren't going to disappear overnight. Does it make it the best place in the world to live? Hardly - my wife would vote for the little village in Normandy where she spent a couple years, and I would have to agree with her on a couple points.

However, as I mentioned before, our dirty little secret is a frankly not-so-hot local housing market.


Boston market's enduring appeal

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 29, 2010 07:00 AM

Maybe home prices in Greater Boston are headed for another tumble, maybe they are not.

But the outlook for the next couple years, however cloudy, can't obscure a key, enduring fact about this region: We are a magnet for the young, smart and wealthy.

Our fabulous concentration of top research universities, cutting edge biotech and high-tech industries, and a still substantial financial sector are all draws. Not to mention the beauty and historic richness of our cityscape and countryside alike.

In fact, Boston is one of a few such elite cities that are drawing this upscale mix of newcomers, contends Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor, in a recent Times piece. His list includes "New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, and Seattle," among others.

Florida argues the downturn has intensified this trend, which has been picking up speed for decades. The privileged young and mobile are still flocking to Boston and other coveted metro markets, while others, locked into place in a depressed housing market, languish in towns and cities where opportunity is harder to come by.

And it's not a great leap to suggest this shift is here to stay for the foreseeable future, with some significant consequences for the Greater Boston housing market.


Assessed value and January’s property tax bill

Posted by Rona Fischman January 18, 2010 02:00 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team explains why there is no direct relationship between market price and assessed value of real estate.

Property owners around the state recently received their property tax bills. January’s property tax bills are special because they include the “assessed value” of the property on the tax bill.

After January’s tax bills go out, I usually get calls from clients asking if I agree with the estimated value of their homes. Here’s how I explain “assessed value”:

The “assessed value” of a property is the town’s estimate of a property’s value based on information that’s in their files. That information typically includes a property’s location, lot size, building size, finished (heated) living area, quality of construction and upgrades, degree of updating, views, etc. The assessed value is only as accurate as the information in the assessor’s files and is based on the last time that the assessor walked through the property plus information that the assessor learns from permits on file for work done to the property. Sometimes, the information is based on a drive-by of the property.

The “assessed value” of a property is based on the condition known (or supposed) by the assessor on January 1 of the previous year. Therefore, January 2010 tax bills show the assessed value on January 1, 2009. Since assessments are based on sales that took place during the previous year that means that January 2010 tax bills are based on sales closed in 2008. If the town’s values declined since January 2009, then the assessed value on the January 2010 bill should be higher than today’s actual market value. On the other hand, if the town’s values have increased, then the assessed value should be lower than today’s value.

Since municipal assessors estimate value for thousands of properties, they use computer programs that analyze each property’s characteristics to estimate its value. Obviously, if the information that they have about a property is not accurate, the assessed value will not be accurate. Anyone wishing to view an assessor’s property file can view it on the town’s web site or at the assessor’s office.


The market may still be down, but your taxes are going up

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 7, 2009 09:43 AM

That’s the frustrating dilemma many homeowners across the Bay State now find themselves in.

Cash-strapped towns and cities are scrambling are boosting residential tax rates as they scramble to find any extra revenue they can.

Boston is expected to announced, as soon as this week, a roughly 10 percent increase to its residential tax rate.

Homeowners in suburban towns are also feeling the pain, officials raising the residential tax rate in Lexington, Braintree and Walpole as well, among others.

The increases, in some cases, are sometimes offset by falling real estate values. But even in a tough market, the decline in a home’s assessed value may not be enough, with the tax rate rising even more.


Home values and Halloween candy

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 30, 2009 09:56 AM

OK, this is pretty silly, but Halloween is tomorrow.

If you have young children as I do, it’s practically national holiday over the next two days between parades at school and parties and trick or treating tomorrow.

I just got back from my five-year-old son’s kindergarten parade – my wife is headed over to preschool to watch our two daughters show off their fairy costumes.

If you are looking to optimize your haul of Halloween candy, has just come up with an index on the best towns and neighborhoods in each metro market to trick-or-treat in.

I know, just what you were looking for.

Anyway, the index, Zillow insists, is not just based on the rather crass and faulty assumption that neighborhoods with big and expensive homes will dole out more treats.

Home values are just one of four factors measures, the Seattle-based real estate site contends.

Disclaimers aside, the top five all happen to be high up on the scale when it comes to real estate values.


Celebrating a milestone - and asking for your thoughts

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 30, 2009 09:00 AM

Now here’s a chance for a little reflection.

When Rona’s post goes up this afternoon, it will be No. 1000th entry on the blog since it was launched just over two years ago.

Rona’s been here from they start –congrats and cheers – I came on last fall. We marked the milestone in true blogger fashion, with a good dose of caffeine at the Keltic Krust in West Newton.

We never planned it this way, but there’s been a natural division of labor here on the blog.


Looking for better info about towns around here

Posted by Rona Fischman July 3, 2009 02:24 PM

Yesterday, the Boston Globe brought up an off-beat use of the internet for home-town searching. Find out who is trash-talking the town on line. That seems like fun, but there are readers who are looking for real information.

I ran the “Living Well is the Best Revenge” series from January through May this year. Then I ran out of reporters who would tell you all about their towns. My problem is two-fold. First, I know where I work and I don’t know about other towns. Second, the people I can call are agents. Most of them supply me with sales-talk, which I decline to pass on to you.

So, I still get questions I can’t answer. N.P. asked me about East Boston and Winthrop, but I came up blank of good information. T.M. wants to know about Waltham, Watertown, Westwood, Melrose and Malden.


Here's one magazine listing that actually makes sense

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 8, 2009 09:00 AM

Finally, here’s a magazine listing that appears roughly on target.

Frankly, I am still in shock over Forbes listing Cambridge as No. 11 on its list of “America’s best bargain cities.’’

It’s hard to dress up that one.

But I’d have a hard time arguing with the decision by Men’s Journal to feature J.P. as one of the country’s best neighborhoods.

The magazine cites the neighborhood’s mix of tradition with its increasingly eclectic mix of yuppies and immigrants and thriving, independent restaurants and shops.


Living well at the grocery store

Posted by Rona Fischman May 22, 2009 03:06 PM

In a doctor’s office waiting room, the conversation turned to how overpriced a certain supermarket was.

“Oh! You mean the one in town A, but the same store in town B is pretty competitive. When I first moved here I went to the one in town A, and I thought I’d starve in Massachusetts. “

The same store chain? So, chains do not all price the same. That was a revelation to some in the waiting room. Some chains are individually owned and operated; some just price differently depending on demand.

I knew this. I used to live in Winter Hill, Somerville. The nearest grocery store was the Star Market there. The prices were outrageous. Once we figured this out, we only shopped there for fill-in items. It sort of became our extended convenience store. We grocery shopped elsewhere; it was worth the gas.

Why was it so overpriced? One theory was that it was walking distance to Mystic Housing project, so it had a captive audience of shoppers without cars. If that theory is true, they were intentionally inflating the prices on a poor population…evil. Time went by. We moved away. A Stop and Shop opened up on McGrath Highway. That Winter Hill Star went out of business. Good riddance.


Cambridge a bargain? You've got to be kidding

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis May 15, 2009 09:00 AM

Forbes has come out with its annual real estate section.

It is chock full of all sorts of enlightening categories, from America’s most “lustful’’ and “greediest cities’’ to “America’s Best Bargain Cities.’’

Of course, what do you know, Cambridge weighs in at No. 11 in the bargain category, tied with Denver and I think Nashville. (For what it’s worth, Detroit is ranked No. 15 – sign me up!)


Goodbye McMansions, hello starter homes? Don't bet on it

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis May 8, 2009 09:00 AM

Yes, prices are certainly falling now here in Massachusetts, the land of perpetually overpriced homes.

But don’t get the idea that it’s a picnic out there for buyers, especially first time buyers.

The fact is, even during the boom not a whole lot of new housing was getting built. And what did get built too often turned out to be either retirement communities, deluxe condo developments, or ugly and obscenely overpriced McMansions.

A recent conversation I had with a banker on the South Shore got me riled up on this subject.

He was clearly surprised after spotting a trend that seems very out of place for our beloved state, especially the eastern half.

Builders are starting to snap up cheap lots and taking out $250,000 to $300,000 loans to put up starter homes, such as raised ranches.

Starter homes in Massachusetts? Who knew.


Property rights and restrictions – understanding zoning

Posted by Rona Fischman May 4, 2009 03:21 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team
continues his Monday series with the first part of a discussion about property rights and restrictions. This is a must read for anyone thinking about buying, building, renovating or adding onto their property.

Many people feel that when they buy property, they should have the right to do what they want with it. Sooner or later, most homeowners that try to modify their property discover that the use and possibly the design of their property is subject to municipal rules that can restrict their plans. This applies when building a new home on a vacant lot and even to simple modifications of existing property, like adding a deck, shed, or widening a driveway.

Over the years, communities have developed their visions of what their cities or towns should look like.
Municipalities designate areas for businesses and other areas are designated for residential uses, like single families, two families and larger multi-family property. Some communities have designated industrial areas, adult entertainment areas, hospital districts, historical districts, etc.


Living well close to home

Posted by Rona Fischman April 24, 2009 03:32 PM

I got this comment on Wednesday in regard to landlord-tenant relations:

... If the landlord has some kind of landscaping that needs maintenance/gardening/watering he has to do it or be resigned to it not surviving. For your average single family the renter will be taking care of that sort of stuff...

Last week, I took a walk with one of my former clients. She is an avid gardener. She knows her plants. She wanted to walk around to see what was popping up in gardens around town. Since it was early in the year, there wasn’t much. So, we popped into a local municipal park to see if the turtles were sunning themselves. They were! Nice afternoon. All-in-all, this was a pleasant afternoon. It cost us less than a dollar in gas and shoe leather.

Do you participate in any of these “living well” activities:
1. Gardening
2. Walking with friends
3. Using local parks

If you rent, does your landlord let you garden? Who pays for the seeds and plants? At my property, I do the gardening, but I would share it if my tenants wanted to express themselves horticulturally.

Walking with friends can be done by anyone with friends as long as both can walk or travel in a wheelchair or scooter. Have you spent an afternoon on foot this spring?

Local parks are sometimes easy to find, and sometimes not. How do you find them? My favorite activity, before I was a broker, was to go on guided tours of neighborhoods and parks. There are lots of them in the city of Boston. Look for them along the Emerald Necklace and in the North End. Now I have my off-time in the middle of the week, so I explore with friends or on my own.


Is living well about the schools?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 10, 2009 02:25 PM

Why is spring the typical busy season in real estate? People will argue that the spring buyers come out because the weather has turned. This theory doesn’t hold water with me. First, spring weather here is not uniformly pleasant. Second, for when it is pleasant, I can think of a hundred outdoor activities to do that don’t involve going into strangers houses. I think that people house-hunt in the spring in order to close at the end of the school year. That gets them into a new home before the school year starts again. This scheduling is further reinforced by the large number of rental leases that end during the summer months.

Whenever we talk about living well, schools almost always become part of the discussion. There has been a lot of opinion stated about schools that are “bad” or “good.” What makes a good school?


Living well. Try west of Boston

Posted by Rona Fischman April 3, 2009 02:45 PM

Today’s Living Well column is brought to you by Mike Berry. He’s an exclusive buyer’s agent in the area west of Boston bounded by these roads: West of 128, East of 495, South of 2, North of 9 and the Mass Pike.

Looking for a single family house with 6 rooms, 3 bedrooms, and 1.5 baths for around $350,000? Check out these cities & towns west of Boston in Middlesex County. Maynard, Acton, Hudson, Marlborough, Framingham and Ashland are located inside route 495 and are 30-50 minutes from Boston as the crow flies.


Is it really time to rethink homeownership?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 26, 2009 09:00 AM

I guess it’s inevitable that the benefits of homeownership are now coming under scrutiny given the historic housing market bust we are living through now.

An essay in the Globe’s Ideas section this past Sunday, “Rethinking rent,’’ makes some great points.

During the boom, too many people who were just not cut out for homeownership wound up with big mortgages on single family homes and condos they simply couldn’t handle.

They clearly would have been better off renting.

The article also looks at the growth of the cult of homeownership in our country, the idea that owning a home allegedly bestows a range of quasi mystical benefits, from civic engagement to better all around happiness.

It certainly got me thinking about the pressure, if mainly internal, my wife Karen and I felt to make the jump into homeownership before having our first child.


Financial death and taxes

Posted by Rona Fischman March 20, 2009 03:10 PM

Last month, WES asked a great question. We were talking about Living Well in Chelmsford. WES commented:

Yeah but how are the taxes compared to surrounding towns, I hear that they are much much higher. Where do you check? Posted by WES February 14, 09 03:10 PM

First of all, I want to set the record straight about “Taxachusetts.” We are in the middle when it comes to taxes in America. We only look bad because of the low-tax lands to our north.

To answer WES’s question, I went looking around for a comprehensive list of taxes by town. There are lots of partial lists by county or region. Lots of out-of-date information. The best one I found is this. It’s a couple of years old, but it works for the purpose of comparison. Once I know the comparative levels, I can look up the current rates.


A great idea, just a year or two late

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 18, 2009 09:00 AM

So what took them so long?

That’s my reaction to the rollout Monday by state official and nonprofit executives of an initiative to buy up foreclosed homes in New Bedford and other hard-hit cities and towns across the state.

Citizens Housing and Planning Association will run what’s described as a “clearing house’’ for foreclosed properties. Community development groups will then buy up these distressed homes and condos, fix them up, and resell them at affordable prices to low and moderate income buyers.

Of course, the only problem is that the small-time real estate speculators who helped make a mess of inner-city neighborhoods across the state are already at work, snapping up foreclosed properties at dirt-cheap prices.


A double whammy for homeowners

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 13, 2009 09:00 AM

Here’s the next shoe to drop with the collapse of the real estate market: rising local taxes.

For most homeowners the plunge in values, which has left a significant portion of the market under water, is bad enough.

But the real estate crash is now poised to devastate local cities and towns across the country, many of which are now faced with tax bases that have shrunk dramatically overnight.

So while the assessment on your home may be going down, your local tax assessor will have to boost the tax rate to make up for all those home values that have vanished over the past two years. Roughly $3.3 trillion in property values disappeared last year amid the downturn, has reported.

Bloomberg offers a pair of interesting stats that get to the heart of this budding crisis


Living Well in Malden

Posted by Rona Fischman March 6, 2009 03:30 PM

If your town is a Living Well town, write me!. Today, I invited Deb to tell you about a town she works in, that is today's Living Well spot.

I love the idea of Rona’s “Living Well is the Best Revenge” series. Yes, there are nice places to live around Boston where you don’t need to eat macaroni and cheese each night because you’re spending every dime you make on your house.

Malden is 8 miles north of Boston. There are two MBTA stops in the city. The Oak Grove T stop is one end of the Orange Line (so you can find a seat in the morning) and is located on the border of Melrose. The Malden Center T stop is, well it’s in the center of the city itself.


If you aren't living well in Massachusetts, why are you here?

Posted by Rona Fischman February 27, 2009 02:55 PM

I got an email on Wednesday. Tim asked a good question for the "Living Well" topic. He asks:

… I have a question that hopefully you can answer [at]. I am new to the home buying market and I want to know why similar sized homes cost so much more in the Massachusetts market compared to say Cincinnati, Nashville or anywhere in Texas to name a few? Am I that naive is it really that much better living here then other states?

The article I sited Wednesday answers this question. If you want to read it yourself, the discussion of how talent-attracting regions are economically robust begins on page two, paragraph two.

In short, Boston and other places like it are “brain Meccas.” For Boston, the reason cited is the colleges. We have a lot of middle class, wealthy, and/or smart young people who come here for their college education. They think fondly of this place and many try to stay. Some come back. Some college educated people from elsewhere come here based on the buzz of their friends who went to school here or for a job.


Is the grass greener in Pennsylvania?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 26, 2009 09:00 AM

No, I haven’t lost my mind. But after visiting an old college buddy who now lives in a sleep rural suburb of Harrisburg, I have come away a little envious.

Not of his house, a tidy and relatively spacious ranch. Let’s just call it a lifestyle thing.

Mike, who teaches political science at Penn State, and his wife, a former academic how is now a stay-at-home home, bought their house at a price that wouldn’t even get your own parking spot at a downtown Boston condo tower.

We didn’t get into the details, but I doubt if he paid half of what my wife and I shelled out for our Natick fixer-upper, which cost us $280,000 in 2002.


Living well in Fairhaven

Posted by Rona Fischman February 20, 2009 02:52 PM

The “Living well is the best revenge” series depends on readers who can tell me why their town is a “living well” town. I fear that the nay-sayers have scared you all alway. Are there no nice places to live for $350,000 or less anywhere near Boston? Are Maynard, South Lawrence and Dedham all there is?

My best friend Amy moved to Fairhaven. She and her husband bought a 3 bedroom, 2 bath Colonial in the historic district. I thought she moved to the end of the earth. Since then, the place has grown on me. There is a bus to South Station. It’s a 45-minute commute to Providence.

I enjoyed the New Bedford folk festival on Labor Day weekend, I have walked the beaches and in the historic neighborhoods. Fairhaven Village, the retail area near the water, has a small but good cluster of shops and restaurants. Margaret’s is a favorite of mine. There are also shops there where boating supplies, clothes and gifts can be bought.

In Amy’s neighborhood is a young family with two children. The grandparents live nearby and see the grandchildren every day. One aunt lives there, too. This, apparently, is not uncommon. Fairhaven seems to be a town where people stay put.


Living well in Chelmsford

Posted by Rona Fischman February 13, 2009 02:57 PM

According to Pat Magnell, there is a lot to like in Chelmsford.

Chelmsford is located north of Boston at the junction of Routes 3 and 495. Housing is varied in style and price ranges. Moderate priced single family homes and condominiums are readily available. In the past 6 months, 41 homes have sold within the “living well” limit.

In 2007 Money Magazine named Chelmsford one of the 100 best places to live in America. Why? A great combination of historical preservation and new growth.


Living well in Maynard

Posted by Rona Fischman February 6, 2009 02:48 PM

This week, Sally tells us about Maynard. It is an affordable choice in the middle of more expensive towns.

I am a real estate agent, not based in Maynard, so I have no professional stake in trumpeting the virtues of this town. I did live in Maynard for a couple of years. Many of my friends have excellent incomes and could live in any neighboring town such as Lincoln or Concord, but they choose Maynard for it's small town atmosphere. The schools are about in the middle in terms of MCAS averages, for what it's worth. The parents I know have been satisfied with their kid’s education and some of them went on to excellent, selective colleges.

Maynard is the quintessential New England mill town with a population of about 10,000.
From just about anywhere in Maynard you can walk to the downtown area where you'll find restaurants, gift shops, a CVS, 3 banks, salons, a liquor store, hardware store and more. There is a lively art scene anchored by the artists building, ArtSpace. The library is newly renovated. And there’s a movie theater. The Mill Building houses many business including Monster, Inc and Curt Schilling's 38 Studios. One can drive to a commuter rail stop in either Acton or West Concord in 10 minutes. There are nature trails and other green space in the town.


Living well in South Lawrence

Posted by Rona Fischman January 30, 2009 02:43 PM

This is the second entry in the series “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” which aims to highlight happy homeowners in towns that you don’t need a jumbo loan to live in. (I will chime in again below, in italics.)

Here is B.H.R’s entry on her move:

I sold my more expensive house in a more affluent North-of-Boston town last year. I took a hit, but bought another much less expensive. My taxes are much lower, too, as are my heating and maintenance.

I bought for 180K in South Lawrence. The convenience is incredible. I'm about 2 minutes to either I-495 or 93. Lawrence is an interesting and diverse city, with a lot going on. It’s a short drive to the nice new train station. Big bonus, I can walk to work in the good weather, or drive in about 5 minutes.


Living well in Dedham

Posted by Rona Fischman January 23, 2009 02:54 PM

Dedham is the first town in the series I call “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” Thank you to Matt for being the first volunteer to write here about where you can live well for less than the jumbo loan limit. Here's Matt, in his own words:

The first thing that comes to mind about Dedham is the access to Rt.128. Traffic is light and manageable. In three minutes we can be at Readville station or Hyde Park commuter rail locations and on our way to downtown. I have driven to Lake Winnipesaukee in 2 hours (without a ticket) and the Cape is an easy jaunt.

I drive around East Dedham and everyone has big yards, lots of space, fenced in yard, kids riding bikes around, tree lined streets and I am transported to all the features that I miss about former home in New Hampshire. With average rents of $1300/month, why wouldn't you pay $400 more to be living in a spacious ranch without anyone on top, below, or either side of you?

You can actually see Blue Hills (night skiing) illuminated in the winter months. The Stoneybrook reservation with 400 acres of trails abuts Dedham on the West Roxbury/Hyde Park borders. Wilson Mountain is another large recreational outlet for dog walkers and people staying in shape for ascents of higher peaks to the North. In January you can obtain a burn permit and have toasty marshmallow fires in your backyard and really capture the essence of New England. I have friends that are able to have them and even have built an ice skating rink in their large yard! It is an absolute blast and a great cure for cabin fever.


When will the bridge be finished?

Posted by Rona Fischman January 14, 2009 03:35 PM

Everyone hates detours. We lived through the mother-of-all-detours, the Big Dig. That’s history. Now we have the garden-variety daily local detours that make the day interesting. What detours are you following these days?
Detours can make residential living hell. If you live on a quiet street that becomes a detour route, you now live on a main street. Not only can it wreck your quiet enjoyment, it is also the kiss of death if you happen to be selling. Have you lived on a detour? For how long? Where?

One of my clients owned a florist shop. She had a great location down the block from a hospital. She had a regular walk-in business in addition to phone orders. She was “Best of” a number of times. Then the city dug up the street. She called it, “the year I wanted to kill myself.” And it was a year.

I drove over the Walden Street Bridge on Friday afternoon. It was the first time since 2006. The owners of the little convenience store at the base of the bridge, The Shamrock and Thistle, had two years of dirt, noise and blocked traffic. I am glad that their life in a construction zone is over.


A sign of things to come

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 6, 2009 09:00 AM

Some Cape Cod towns have come up with an ingenious way of raising revenue during the downturn.

They want to extend hotel and motel room taxes to rentals of private homes and condos.

That’s bound to hit vacationers in the wallet, for sure.

But think again before you dismiss this as some colorful and irrelevant Cape dispute. For if you are a homeowner in the Bay State, this is just a taste of things to come.


The prettiest town in Massachusetts, at night in December

Posted by Rona Fischman December 18, 2008 03:36 PM

I like driving around at night in December. I see Christmas lighting wherever I go. In most towns, no one can tell you that your lights are too much. It is one of the perks of home ownership; like decorating. If you can pay the bill, you are free to light your home anyway you want. It is an activity where people express themselves, for better or for worse.

Today’s entry is for people who like Christmas lighting. (Tomorrow’s entry is for those who question the practice.)

When I first moved to Massachusetts, I heard that Revere was the Christmas lights capital of the area. However, Revere has a lot of competition. Where are the best (or the worst) lighted homes?


How does your garden grow?

Posted by Rona Fischman December 5, 2008 03:18 PM

The New Republic column, “Firm Grasp on the Obvious,” cites this headline:

'Light' Meals are Lower in Fat, Calories
Huntington Herald-Dispatch

Equally obvious is this:

Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation study that found Suffolk County residents with the least access to fresh produce, safe parks, and affordable places to exercise were the least healthy.

Cities like Boston, Somerville, and Holyoke have been part of an effort to change this.


My home town is called...

Posted by Rona Fischman November 12, 2008 03:17 PM

My question today is about home-town identity. I would like to hear from some of the small-town readers, those who went to regional schools, those who went to small local schools. How does home-town identity shape you?

In tough times, should towns that have been sharing facilities merge? Is it worth the change in identity to streamline the services paid for by municipal tax? Wenham and Hamilton are discussing just that. They already share a library and a regional high school, so why not get married? Two can live as cheaply as one, my grandmother used to say.


Sales pick up in September

Posted by Stacey Myers October 24, 2008 11:31 AM

Across the country, sales of existing homes edged up 1.4 percent in September when compared with the same month last year, according to a report issued today by the National Association of Realtors. (From August to September, the increase was much larger, 5.5 percent.)

Staff at the NAR cite several possible reasons for this uptick in sales, including recent declines in sales prices and lower mortgage interest rates. But the real estate organization’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun, definitely doesn’t seem ready to declare this a major market turnaround.

“The credit markets are not settled yet, although the mortgage market stabilized with the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Inventory remains high, and price declines are pressuring owners,” he said in an NAR press release. “Additional housing stimulus would stabilize prices more quickly, which in turn would bring faster stability to Wall Street. Removing the repayment feature on the first-time buyer tax credit and permanently raising loan limits would bring more buyers into the market and further reduce inventory.”

Yun also noted that 35 to 40 percent of the sales for the month were “distressed sales.” Those sales, he said, pulled down the national median sale price in September to $191,600, from $210,500 in the same month last year.

Here’s how the regions tracked by the NAR did on sales and median sale prices in September compared with September 2007:

West: Sales up 34.4%; price down 18.5%, to $253,600
Midwest: Sales down 2.5%; price down 7.9%, to $152,500
South: Sales down 7.8%; price down 4.1%, to $167,200
Northeast: Sales down 7.7%; price down 5.4%, to $246,800

At first blush on the wires today, these numbers seemed like possibly good news, if you are someone trying to sell a home or make a living selling homes. But it seems Yun struck the right tone, a cautious, not overly optimistic tone. What, if any, thoughts do you have on these numbers?

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

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