Fall House Hunt

Sales behind closed doors? Off-market deals are gaining traction in Boston

A stealth side to Boston’s hot housing market is growing in popularity, area brokers report.

This hidden sector of the residential market isn’t entirely to blame on coronavirus, experts say. Adobe Stock

Residential brokers in Boston and even inner suburbs like Newton and Wellesley say off-market transactions, or those involving a home that never appears on the Multiple Listing Service, have surged in recent years.

Select homeowners don’t want to bother with open houses that invite strangers to traipse through their living room on a Sunday afternoon during a pandemic.

But this hidden sector of the residential market isn’t entirely to blame on coronavirus.

“It’s not always comfortable to have your house out there,’’ said Maggie Gold Seelig, founder of luxury boutique firm MGS Group. “One thing about Boston sellers and buyers is it’s a conservative city in a lot of ways and has a historic mentality of not being a flashy city. It’s wonderful, in a way, that our cultural sense is one that is understated, and you don’t have to flash your personal circumstances to be valued here.’’


Boston’s historic Puritan values sometimes extend to online MLS pages or the lack of desire to have one’s home ever appear on one. Certain sellers Seelig has worked with didn’t want to list their homes publicly for a variety of reasons, from not wanting to broadcast their property values to friends and colleagues to avoiding making their children anxious about a pending move.

While MLS is a platform technically available only to real estate agents, its listings are automatically picked up by online platforms like Redfin and Zillow.

“The home is very private to people,’’ Seelig said. “The Internet, while great to have information flow, is invasive in that way.’’

Boston’s historic Puritan values sometimes extend to online MLS pages or the lack of desire to have one’s home ever appear on one.

It is difficult to pinpoint just how popular off-market listings became in recent years because, well, they’re off-market. But there are some clues in public records.

MLS data show 569 homes sold in Boston in July 2019; however, land records indicate that the number of condos and single-family home transactions was actually 658, according to analytics firm The Warren Group. That disparity implies 89 off-market listings in Boston.


The disparity between MLS closings in Boston compared with total transactions widened to 107 in July 2020.

But off-market deals aren’t just a Boston trend. Cambridge had 12 in July this year, while Wellesley had three.

They were more popular in Arlington in July 2019, when that town had 11 off-market deals, according to the disparity between MLS closing records and real estate data of all condo and single-family home closings. Brookline had six, and Newton had 20.

In Wellesley, Gibson Sotheby’s agent Lara O’Rourke said she is having a record year for off-market sales.

Including a nearly $3 million-dollar deal that went under agreement in early September, O’Rourke said she and other members of her team have completed nine off-market deals so far in 2020 compared with only one in 2019.

“Everybody loves the allure of an off-market deal. It has a cool vibe to it,’’ she said. “But when COVID hit, there was more of a need for people to want to do off-market deals to limit the number of people in their houses. I started getting phone calls from clients looking to utilize my network over listing their property.’’

Off-market deals do have their shortcomings, however.


The Greater Boston housing market is extraordinarily hot, with bidding wars at many price points often resulting in a home going for well over the asking price. Keeping a property off public listing services could prevent sellers from getting the maximum return on their assets.

“I am a huge fan of putting it to market,’’ O’Rourke said. “If sellers are comfortable with it, I always tell them it’s always in your best interest to list your property, because you never know who’s out there.’’

But privacy trumps profit for some Boston sellers.

“Sometimes squeezing every last dollar out of a transaction isn’t important to a seller,’’ said Michael Harper, a partner at MGS Group. “It really varies with respect to somebody’s motivation as to why they want to go with an off-market strategy. There’s no simple answer; it’s as unique as the piece of real estate we’re trying to sell.’’

The off-market world isn’t just limited to those with enormous home-buying budgets, Harper added. He typically brokers several off-market deals a year and said transactions range from an $800,000 one-bedroom South End condo sold last year to properties currently available off-market in the $10 million range.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do it,’’ Harper said. “It all comes back to what works for the clients.’’


Cameron Sperance can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.


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