Dustin Pevear counts himself lucky to have snagged a small Cape in Wellesley for just under half a million dollars, the lowest-priced listing in town when he and his wife bought it last summer.
Though the backyard is next to Route 9, a new 10-foot fence muffles the sound of traffic. And while the three-bedroom house was dated, it was nothing that could not be solved with a little paint and refinishing.
“To get a three-bedroom, two-bath Cape with an attached, two-car garage under $500,000 in Wellesley was pretty challenging,” said Pevear, who saw the house the day it was put on the market and quickly made an offer.
It is tougher than ever this spring to find bargains in Wellesley, Newton, and Watertown — three sought-after communities a short commute from downtown Boston — but for the first-time home buyer with a bit of imagination, it can be done.
Fewer houses carry price tags below $500,000 this year as the recovering economy brings floods of potential buyers looking for good schools, easy transportation, and a reputation for rising long-term values, according to brokers in the three communities.
Jesse Schreier has found out the hard way, searching, so far to no avail, for a house in Newton while he and his wife and their 2-year-old daughter bunk at her parents’ home in town.
Schreier, who designs online courses for a college in Rhode Island, has found himself outbid twice — and other times he never got a chance to even put in an offer.
“We are finding that houses in the $400,000 to $550,000 range are disappearing fast,” he said.
He recalls one home, listed at $400,000, that looked like a college frat house, with a strategically placed plant hiding a crumbling wall.
It has never been easy to buy an entry-level home in Newton, Wellesley, or even Watertown. Prices in all three communities far exceed the state median of $277,750 for a single-family home, and did not drop as much during the recent recession as they did farther away from Boston.
As of January, the median price in Wellesley stood at $935,000, while Newton weighed in at $710,000 and Watertown at $400,000, according to The Warren Group, a Boston-based real estate data company and publisher.
Meanwhile, the selection of modestly priced homes has dwindled to a handful.
“Everybody is getting hit,” said Sam Schneiderman, president and principal broker of the Greater Boston Home Team. “Buyers are facing tremendous competition for anything that is in good shape.”
As of March 8, there were just two homes on the market in Wellesley for less than $500,000, compared with five at the same point last year, according to the MLS Property Information Network, or MLS PIN.
And there were just three homes on the market between $500,000 and $600,000, compared with eight last year.
Wellesley’s least expensive home as of March 8 was an 1872 farmhouse on Walnut Street with flaking red paint listed at $239,900 and marketed as a “contractor’s dream,” according to the MLS PIN.
“We have incredibly low inventory right now in Wellesley,” said Edward Trainer, a broker at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “It is really a seller’s market.”
The numbers of homes on the market in Newton and Watertown below $500,000 are also pretty meager.
There were just six homes on the market in Watertown below $500,000 on March 8, compared with 18 the same day the year before, according to MLS PIN. The lowest-priced listing in Watertown hit the market that day. A small, two-bedroom, 1950s ranch, 9 Goldie Street, was listed at $350,000.
At 952 square feet, the house is small, but — unusual for a lower-priced property — in good shape, said Mike DelRose, a broker at RE/MAX Leading Edge, who is trying to sell the house.
“We are starting to see a little more inventory, but not enough,” he said.
In Newton, there were just four homes on the market in that half-a-million-and-under price range, compared with 12 last year.
But demand, if anything, is rising, with buyers — especially if they have young children and are intent on securing a foothold, no matter how small, in Newton or another community with a top school system, said Peter Phinney, who works in Wellesley, Watertown, and Belmont for Redfin, a real estate brokerage company.
“Everybody is hoping to get into the Newton school district if they can,” Phinney said. “They will accept a smaller house if they can get into a good school.”
Newton broker Jane Goldman, who is selling what was the lowest-priced home in the Garden City, listed at $439,000, has seen first-hand how hot the market is for more reasonably priced homes in the city.
The small bungalow at 54 Greenough St., not far from West Newton Square, is in good shape but has only 925 square feet.
“I listed it on [a] Tuesday afternoon and it was under contract by Thursday,” said Goldman, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.
There were also two offers from contractors within a day or two of first putting the home on the market, but their plans to tear down the house and replace it with multifamily projects turned out to be not realistic.
Instead, the house was put under agreement to a young couple.
The seller, Lesley Radcliffe, admits to feeling a bit sentimental after spending years living in her tiny but well-kept home, which she has lovingly renovated and updated over the years.
She bought the house in 1978 and did quite a bit of work on it, taking down old wallpaper, renovating the kitchen, putting in hardwood floors.
Radcliffe also loved the location — near the bus line that took her each day to her financial services job in downtown Boston.
“It was emotional for me to come to a decision, given all I did to the house and all the memories here,” Radcliffe said, adding she is “very happy the house is going to someone who will enjoy the house as much as I have.”
For his part, Pevear, who bought his Wellesley Cape for just under $500,000 last summer, says: “In hindsight, I do think we got in at a pretty good time. At the time, it seemed like the market was very hot with limited inventory, but it seems like it is even hotter this year.”