I see you.
From the sandy and rocky dunes off Ocean Avenue, I can see Boston’s skyline towering above Massachusetts Bay on a clear day in late September. It makes the view from Marblehead Neck even more picturesque. I wonder if the tourists peering out of the observation deck atop the Prudential Center notice this elite community within the already exclusive town of Marblehead.
Can they see that each blade of John-Deere-green grass is perfectly manicured or that a team of landscapers works quickly to throw down a new blanket of mulch before the flowerbed freezes in a few weeks?
Seventeen miles north of Boston, Marblehead Neck stretches into the Atlantic Ocean and connects to the mainland via the Veterans Memorial Causeway. This “almost” island, known by locals as the Neck, consists mostly of multimillion-dollar homes and private beaches. This is what a wealthy town looks like in today’s economy. A check for $995,000 can buy a slice of the Neck.
In Commerce and Culture: the Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, Christine Leigh Heyrman writes of a time when Marblehead was a struggling fishing community and economic inequality gave rise to social tensions, among the laboring Marblehead citizens and the men they worked for.
The homes that now dot Marblehead Neck do not belong to the average fisherman, if he still exists.
According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Town Survey conducted in 1985, “Marblehead Neck became the mecca for hundreds of vacationers [in the mid-1800s], mostly in tents and crude shanties. Shorefront property began to rise in value and pretentious homes were erected.”
The homes and people continued to grow in number and value throughout the 1920s, the survey continues. Today, Marblehead Neck consists mostly of primary or year-round residences.
With a population of approximately 20,000 people, 97.6 percent white, Marblehead’s average commute time per working-person is 32.7 minutes or the time it takes to drive to Boston. The median family income, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, was $99,892. The U.S. median family income was $50,046.
Marblehead is rich. But it is also:
Up for sale!
On the lawn of 201 Ocean Ave., a white post supports a blue and gold “Previews” sale sign, allowing Coldwell Banker to indicate that this high-end home has something special to offer clients. That special quality might come from the home’s kitchen, which provided the back drop to an Italian-cooking television show. That special quality might be the remodeled living space that Traditional Home found worthy of a spread in its magazine in July 2010. But from outside, it’s clear that the ocean, sweeping up to the edge of the backyard, has something to do with the special distinction.
According to research using realtor.com and MLS records, 201 Ocean Ave. is currently just one of the 18 homes for sale beyond the causeway.
The Neck has 361 residences on 32 streets, excluding all undeveloped, potentially developable, business related, and town owned properties. The Massachusetts Audubon Society owns a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the Neck, but other than that, most of the land has been built on.
The homes that occupy the land have a combined worth of $681,822,300, based on Marblehead’s 2011 assessor’s records. The total assessed price for all the homes for sale equals a little under $38,000,000.
Marblehead Neck is expensive.
“If you look at the statistics in Marblehead, we certainly dipped when everyone else dipped. We didn’t dip quite as drastically as other areas have and I think our [home] prices are starting to solidify to some degree,” said Mary Stewart, a Marblehead resident for 36 years, mother, grandmother, and real estate broker for Coldwell Banker.
“I think that sellers have to be very open to considering solid offers. And many buyers are expecting that they are going to purchase and get phenomenal deals, but I don’t think everyone is giving their property away,” said Stewart.
At an average asking price of more than $2,000,000, it takes a large check to purchase a slice of the Neck. But Stewart, who is the realtor for 346 and 405 Ocean Ave. said people are buying.
“I can tell you that in the past year we have definitely seen several very high end sales. And it is my belief that there are still buyers out there for these properties,” said Stewart. “I think that they are, rightful so, being conservative in their choices”
To avoid hundreds of days on the market, the condition of a home has become an important selling factor.
Liz Carlson, another real estate broker for Coldwell Banker and the realtor for 201 Ocean Ave., said, “First impressions are critical. The home must show in excellent condition to attract buyers.”
Stewart, however, focuses on the dollar then the design.
“I think that the first thing you need to do is appropriately price the house and to do that you need a comparative market analysis,” said Stewart. “Then, prepare the house for sale. Typically people have a lot more in their house then they should.”
Ridding a house of clutter might not be the only task. Sometimes larger projects like bathroom or kitchen remodels need to take place.
Robert Ives, the building commissioner for the town of Marblehead, said, “There are some high profile people out [on the Neck] and they can afford larger projects” which include major renovations or additions.
But Ives also said there have been fewer home additions and more interior improvements in recent months. His office is not as busy as it once was, but the office is still “pretty busy.”
When one of the multimillion dollar homes on the Neck can’t sell, the owners and realtors can turn to another option: renting.
“The property at 346 Ocean Ave. was on the market several years ago and then we rented it for a couple of years and I believe I put that back on [the market] in July or August of this year,” said Stewart.
Renting can help defray the costs of owning a home on the water, which is why some residents need to sell.
“I think everybody has different circumstances. I think in some cases people want to size down,” said Stewart. “In other cases, people may have purchased and their jobs have taken them elsewhere, transferred out. But, I think the biggest reason is people wanting to size down.”
Some residents are packing-up and moving-on, but the majority, nearly 95 percent of Marblehead Neck is not for sale. The beaches, the homes, the green grass, and the view continue to say one thing:
Come back soon!
Patrick Clark O’Brien is a reporter for the Boston University News Service, a collaboration between Boston.com and the Boston University College of Communication.