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Unsettled

Is home buying tougher on the wallet or the ego?

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“In one apartment, the couple was huddled on the couch watching TV and eating lunch while we walked through. Upstairs, another tenant was in her pajamas, eating cereal out of the box in her bedroom. In the other bedroom, there was a giant ball crawl, a la Chuck E. Cheese.”

Kerry Lynch, a 40-something copywriter from Somerville, sounds like she’s describing outtakes from “The Real World.” She’s actually talking about an open house she attended near Davis Square. “All this — for the bargain price of almost $800,000,” she says. “And, of course, it was pending sale two days later.”

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The region’s housing market has, in some communities, become excruciatingly competitive. Inventory in Massachusetts is at an eight-year low, leading to price inflation; bidding battles in the most desirable communities have become commonplace. (One realtor I spoke with recently received 15 bids on a property in Medford.) Buyers often end up being priced out by people with bigger wallets. This is tough on the budget, but even tougher on the ego.

The home-buying process is “deeply symbolic,” said one woman I interviewed, a process that sometimes involves a degree of psychological compromise, if not outright resignation. Would-be buyers who have built their lives in sought-after neighborhoods, with easy access to restaurants, shops, and nightlife, are these days finding that relocation is the only option.

“We have good jobs, we're responsible, we have savings,” Lynch marvels. Still, over-bidders, some of whom can pay cash, have trumped her. “My husband and I are like, ‘How is it that people who are younger than us have this kind of money to just throw down?’ You feel edged out by people with these capabilities” — whether those capabilities come from lucrative jobs or generous family members.

Lynch sold her Union Square condo in six days, and she’ll regroup in a Cambridge rental until she finds an affordable house near the city. “I don’t want to settle,” she says. “But I’m going to these open houses, and I can just feel the competition.”

Jessica Slavin Connelly, 40, a psychotherapist who moved from Somerville to Malden, has noticed the identity shift both in her practice and personally.

‘What I’ve seen is that some people are buying beyond their means, or they’re moving to towns that they wouldn’t have considered or heard of at first. Or they’re renting.’

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“It’s depressing for people when they start on a path, bringing all of their energy to it, and then they fall off for one reason or another,” she says. After considering Arlington and Belmont, her family bought in Malden because it offered urban perks without the price tag. But Connelly, who grew up in Newton, had to confront a jarring reality: “I was not going to be able to afford the lifestyle that I grew up with,” she says.

Children, who need both space and schooling, complicate things. Ally Paul, 31, and her husband realized it was time to leave Charlestown after having a baby, but they clung to their urban dream until it became untenable.

Home buyers are increasingly seeing bidding wars lead to homes being sold for more than the original asking price.

Michael Conroy/AP

Home buyers are increasingly seeing bidding wars lead to homes being sold for more than the original asking price.

“We had a 9-month-old and were renting a small two-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up with no parking. I swore I was going to be the last one standing in the city. I quickly realized that this requires several million dollars,” she says. The couple’s Charlestown house-hunt was eye-opening. Even in less-desirable neighborhoods, listings with the space they needed were topping $700,000.

So began the suburban prowl. They settled in leafy Hingham, where they managed to find a modest home with a yard close to the beach.

“My husband and I looked at each other and went, ‘Ahhh, I get why everyone moves to the suburbs now!’ ” she says.

But Paul has pangs of nostalgia. “I'll be talking to an old friend on the phone who is single, successful, living in [the city], and I'll picture myself at the supermarket, eight months pregnant in a sweatshirt, dragging a toddler around the aisles, and I'll think, ‘Oh. My. God.’ ”

Tim Seamans, 33, made concessions of his own. After renting in Brookline, he and his wife had a baby and moved to Franklin, which he says he hadn’t heard of until he began house-hunting.

“We were seeing houses coming on the market, good houses, going for above asking in a short amount of time. You had to move quickly,” he says. The couple, Babson MBAs, took an analytical approach. “We did a cost-benefit analysis. We had a good handle on our finances, and we were able to drown out the noise,” he says. (He admits that he initially longed to live in Newton.)

Seamans recognizes how many people around his age are in the same boat.

“What I’ve seen is that some people are buying beyond their means, or they’re moving to towns that they wouldn’t have considered or heard of at first. Or they’re renting.” He and his wife might consider moving in a few years, preferring to think of life in “five-year chunks.” But he isn’t stressed. “We have a baby now. We’re pretty much hermits anyway,” he says with a laugh.

Connelly, the therapist, echoes Seamans’s perspective. After living in Malden for a few years, her own life has taken an instructive turn.

“I want to stay here and invest in the town,” she says. “Amid the [economic] pressures of living in the Northeast, I’ve embraced simplicity. There’s not much that I need.” Except easy access to the Fells and a vibrant downtown — both of which are just a few blocks from her home.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.
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