Cobblestone streets, walks along the Charles River, a robust historical background, great school districts, and quintessential New England falls: It’s no wonder why people are flocking to buy a house in Boston.
In this desirable New England city, a good listing goes off the market fast. The average time it takes to sell a home in Boston is only 22 days, so buyers need to act quickly to snatch up a place they like.
“There were times in the past couple of years where, after going to an open house, I’d be writing up an offer on the hood of my car for clients to get it in time,” says Gary Dwyer, an exclusive buyer’s agent who ranks in the top 5% of Boston agents.
Need help? Don’t worry. We’ve done the research and talked to local real estate pros who know all the necessary steps to buy your dream home in Boston.
Start with your budget in Boston
Dwyer explains that high prices are pushing many buyers out of the “core Boston market,” which includes areas like Beacon Hill, Back Bay, South End, Seaport, and South Boston, where the average price per square foot was $1,965 in the second quarter of 2019, up 13.1% annually.
Sellers will also sometimes purposely price a property at less than fair-market value to get multiple offers on the table. “Buyers need to do a good comparable analysis to know what the fair-market value is, and where the property will actually come under agreement,” Dwyer says.
Public transportation demands a premium in Boston
Buyers, more than ever, are concerned about the length of their commute.
A 2019 study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shows that rush hour in Boston spans between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., when anywhere from 17% to 66% of all roadways inside Route 128 and I-495 are congested. Yikes!
Because of this significant traffic, homes closer to the center of the city demand a premium price. According to the study, the median price of single-family homes within a five-mile radius of Boston is about $775,000, but drops down to about $565,000 15 miles out. Prices begin to fall below $400,000 once you get 30 miles outside of Boston.
What does this mean for you as a buyer? Your big challenge will be to find a home within your sweet spot of commute time and budget.
Find quality public schools right inside the city
If you’re a household with school-aged children, the top school in Massachusetts, Boston Latin School, is in the city. But with 33 public elementary, middle, and high schools recognized on the U.S. News and World Report’s Best School Ranking, there are plenty of other great options to pick from.
Children attend elementary and middle schools based on home location, whereas high schools are city-wide, meaning students are able to apply for any high school in the Boston Public School district.
Other districts in the area with good schools include Brookline, Newton, Wellesley, Needham, Winchester, Lexington, and Concord.
The sweet spot for a shorter Boston commute
Boston was ranked the second-best public transportation in the United States in a 2019 study by WalletHub. But to really rack up these benefits, you need to be closer to the city center for easier access to public transportation and a shorter commute.
The city of Boston has an average Walk Score of 81. The most walkable neighborhoods are Chinatown, the North End, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, and Downtown, which also all have a 100 Transit Score.
However, you’ll be paying a premium price for these hot neighborhoods and short commutes, as the average price of a condo in these areas is $1.8 million, according to the 2019 Elliman Report.
Be close to the best nightlife in Boston
There are plenty of museums scattered throughout the city, but if you want easy access to bustling nightlife, start your home search in the North End. Not only does it have the restaurants in Boston’s “Little Italy,” but it puts you in walking distance to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, which is filled with bars and clubs like Ned Devine’s and Hong Kong.
This neighborhood is also a short distance away from TD Garden, home to the Celtics and Bruins as well as a popular concert venue. You can also find great bars here along Canal Street.
Another neighborhood close to nightlife is Back Bay. Basically in the center of the city, it has easy access to Fenway Stadium and the nearby bars on Lansdowne Street as well as the Boston Theater District, which offers both dance clubs and touring musicals.
If budget takes precedence
To get the most bang for your buck, you’ll have to look further out from the city center.
Areas like Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, Jamaica Plain, and High Park are more affordable. For example, in East Boston, the average asking price is $518 per square foot as of March 2018, according to a report by NeighborhoodX Boston. The tradeoff, though, is longer commutes to the center of the city and more limited access to public transportation.
Getting easy access to local universities
With 52 colleges and universities in metropolitan interwoven in Boston, the city is bustling with students and college life. Students and professors might look for properties closer to the school itself.
Jamaica Plain is just 20 minutes from Downtown Boston, which features schools such as Emerson College and Suffolk University. The Fenway and Kenmore area has a plethora of colleges, including Emmanuel College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Simmons College.
The Brighton/Allston neighborhood is closest to Boston College and Boston University, and it is just over the water to easily access Harvard University and MIT. Beacon Hill also has an easy commute to Cambridge schools and Downtown Boston.
Things to consider when buying a condo in Boston
There are a few additional costs and factors to consider when buying a condo in Beantown.
If you plan on buying into a condo association in Boston, Dwyer recommends getting a condo owner’s policy to protect what isn’t covered by the master insurance policy that’s typically included in your monthly fee.
Condo occupancy can also cause big challenges for unsuspecting buyers. In some buildings, owner-occupancy might be less than 50%, and some lenders might not be willing or able to finance a unit in those buildings — and even if they can, buyers will have to bring 20% to 25% of the condo price to the table as a down payment.
Sacrificing A/C in historic homes
The charm and character of a historic brownstone may be appealing, but buyers interested in these buildings may be facing the heat — literally. While 93.5% of new single-family homes have a central AC system as of 2018, it typically isn’t found in older Bostonian homes from the 1950s or earlier.
If central air is a deal-breaker in your housing search, look for a property with central air already set up instead of determining how to install it, which is an expensive trend Dwyer is seeing.
“Before people were buying these old houses knowing that there was no central air, and it was more of a secondary consideration if they were going to do some renovations,” Dwyer says.
The specifics on buying in Boston
Rather than using escrow, buyers will need a real estate attorney to draft a sale contract. This is a two-step buying process, where the agents write and submit the offer to purchase, followed by a period of due diligence. Then, an attorney crafts the final purchase and sale contracts.
According to Ali Alavi, an attorney at Alavi + Braza, P.C., which specializes in real estate law and buyer representation in Boston, an attorney who can navigate the uncharted waters is essential with a big purchase.
Finding a real estate attorney who stays abreast of new developments, laws, and regulations is essential to the closing process, and could even help determine what contingencies to add to protect the buyer during the initial purchase offer like a home sale contingency, which means that the transaction is dependent upon the sale of the buyer’s home.
“I work with some lenders where they actually will not only pre-approve the buyer but they’ll also underwrite for the buyer,” Dwyer says. “So, they have all the information about the buyer already nailed down.”
Dealing with inspections and upgrades
When it comes to inspections, Dwyer recommends beginning with an initial home inspection and going from there. For example, if there’s evidence of mold, a buyer would want to have a mold test and air quality test.
It’s becoming more common for sellers to have home inspections done before listing their properties. This means small issues, like tightening doorknobs to servicing the HVAC unit, will be addressed upfront, which helps speed the buying process along.
Look for homes in July and October to get a lower price
HomeLight data shows that July and October are the best months to shop around for a lower-priced home in Boston, with homes selling for about 3.6% below the yearly average. Though the pickings may be slimmer, there is a better chance of scoring a great deal.
Dwyer says that these are the months when things start slowing down and sellers tend to get nervous. “Things that were on the market during the heyday of the summer and fall market, they haven’t sold,” he says. So at this point in the year, sellers with vacant properties start to worry that “they have to heat it and maintain it for the winter, and having to compete with newer listings,” he adds.
Dwyer notes that savvy buyers notice how long a home has been on the market. If a listing doesn’t sell within the first couple of weeks, it generally gets stale, and Boston buyers will wonder what’s wrong with it — giving you an edge if you want to make an offer on it.
Dwyer’s biggest advice for landing a home in Boston? Be patient, but also be willing to act immediately. What you see one weekend might not be there the next, so if you really love a property, it’s best to make an offer sooner than later.
“In the spring market, each client loses one or two properties before they can land on one where they’re ready to immediately pull the trigger,” Dwyer says.
Find a top buyer’s agent in Boston
With houses flying off the market, it’s essential to hire a top Boston real estate agent who can help you navigate one of the biggest purchases you’ll make.
The top buyer’s agents in Boston can save you an average of $39,964 more than the average Boston buyer’s agent. That’s a whopping 70.0% more cash in your pocket, simply by using an agent in the top 3%.
“I would find someone that you’re comfortable with to help guide you through the process so that you can take advantage of the knowledge — about not only the market, but about the properties that you’re going to see,” Dwyer says.
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