Boston’s housing heat map has shifted in the past two years, as a pandemic penchant for more space and serene settings led home buyers to coastal communities and towns far outside the city — or wherever they could still afford to buy.
Looking at the hottest housing markets in Greater Boston over the past five years, “It really seems like there’s been a flight to affordability,” says Tim Warren, chief executive of The Warren Group, a real estate analytics firm. “People have had to seek out the more affordable and more distant communities to buy,” he says. “Some of that’s reflective of people’s ability to do remote work,” he adds, but a lot of them simply can no longer afford communities inside Route 128.
Because let’s be clear: Home prices have gone absolutely bananas. The median price of a Massachusetts single-family house spiked 14.1 percent in 2021, and 27.5 percent over the past two years, according to The Warren Group. It’s no longer just a coastal city phenomenon, either. With America’s biggest generation, the millennials, at settling down age, there are way more buyers than homes for sale all over the country. A recent study by the National Association of Realtors found that we need to build at least 5 million more homes in the United States to relieve our “chronic shortage” of housing.
It will take years to plug that kind of gap, and economists don’t expect the housing supply crunch to ease soon. So if there’s any hope of price increases slowing, it will be due to interest rates, which are rising at their fastest pace in decades — making it even more expensive to buy a home.
Consider this ruthless math: The median price of a Boston-area single-family home was a stomach-wrenching $750,000 in 2021, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. A year ago, when the average interest rate on a standard home loan (30-year fixed, 20 percent down) was 2.97 percent, according to Freddie Mac, a typical monthly mortgage payment would have been $2,520. By mid-April, the average rate had risen to 5 percent, bringing the cost to $3,221 — about $700 more per month. And that’s if home prices simply stayed put for a full year. (Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)
“Buyers who could afford a certain price, and who were pushing their max, now have to drop down and now have to rethink where they’re moving to or what they’re trying to get,” says Greater Boston Association of Realtors president Melvin A. Vieira Jr., a broker at RE/MAX Destiny.
That is pushing many buyers to the sidelines, which economists expect will ease some of the frantic competition for homes as the year wears on. But others remain determined. “There are just so many people who want to buy a home that even if a small percentage of them drop out because of higher mortgage rates, it doesn’t really affect the market,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at the national brokerage Redfin. “One of the things that makes it more dire is that, in many parts of Boston, inventory is much lower than it was last year,” she adds — with about 40 percent fewer listings this spring across metro Boston.
It has also sent buyers to the farthest reaches of Greater Boston in search of better value or settings that feel like a year-round retreat — quickly pushing prices up in some far-flung places.
In nearly half of this year’s Top Spots, the median price of a single-family home rose over 20 percent in just the past 12 months, and upward of 50 percent since 2016. (If this were a statewide list, it would consist largely of towns in Western or Central Massachusetts, and those on Cape Cod and the Islands; in Stockbridge, for example, prices more than doubled in five years, while on Nantucket, the median price of a single-family home leapt by nearly $1 million.)
That trend shows no sign of slowing. Office workers are now getting long-term commuting clarity from their employers, says Barbara Hirsch, head Boston strategist at the real-estate advisory Suburban Jungle — and many are learning they can expect continued flexibility, “which is really opening up where they can live,” she says.
Meanwhile, workers — especially those in high-demand fields such as health care and biotech — now have more negotiating power than before the pandemic, Fairweather says. So people who bought in farther-out areas while working remotely the past two years will likely be able to insist on a flexible schedule going forward. “We may see a bit of a return to the office,” Fairweather says. “But I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”
EXPLORE THE TOP SPOTS PACKAGE BY REGION:
HOW WE SELECTED THE TOP SPOTS TO LIVE FOR 2022
Determining a “best” place to live is a subjective exercise, one with as many possible outcomes as there are home buyers. To arrive at this year’s list of Top Spots, we relied on the finite but nonetheless valid wisdom of the market: Sharply increasing home prices suggest that these are the places many people want to call home. We analyzed median home prices from 2016 and 2021 to find the biggest five-year increases across three price tiers for each region. In the suburbs, we looked at single-family data from The Warren Group, excluding communities with fewer than 50 sales in 2021. For Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods, we used median home price data — which include both single-family and condo sales — from real estate brokerage Redfin.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.