Despite the physical, emotional, and economic trauma unleashed by COVID-19, Boston-area home sales and prices throttled even higher in 2020 — and have shown no signs of slowing down this spring, as a full year of de facto house arrest has left many people itching for a change of scenery.
But the pandemic appears to have fundamentally changed the way we think about our homes and where we want to live. With everything from offices to bars shuttered, downtown living was stripped of its many perks. And with stifling rush-hour traffic temporarily removed from the equation, buyers ventured farther outside the city in search of more living space, both inside and out.
Those fortunate enough to be able to work remotely realized the world (or at least the Cape) was their oyster, sending prices soaring in vacation communities. For the first time in years, median home prices — the midpoint of all sales — actually declined in some Boston neighborhoods.
These trends helped propel some newcomers onto our 2021 list of the hottest real estate markets in and around Greater Boston. In a pair of quiet seaside towns, for example — Marion on the South Coast, and Newbury on the North Shore — the median single-family home price jumped more than 27 percent last year alone, launching them into the ranks of communities with the largest price gains over the past five years.
Whether those increases prove short-lived or permanent remains an open question. Much of the answer hinges on how soon (and how often) companies will require telecommuting employees to come back into the office. “We really just don’t know what kind of requirements offices might have,” says Tim Warren, chief executive of The Warren Group, a real estate analytics firm. “An hour drive is much more doable if it’s just Tuesday and Wednesday every week, not so attractive if it’s Monday through Friday.”
The forced national experiment with remote work in certain sectors went well enough that it will be hard for employers to put the genie back in the bottle, says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at the national brokerage Redfin. She expects many office workers will continue to telecommute at least part time, or readily find a new job where they can. That potential “is what’s driving a lot of people to look in areas that aren’t close to a downtown office,” she says.
One thing the pandemic hasn’t changed is the demographic reality underpinning the current real estate rush: Millennials are now the nation’s biggest generation, and millions of them are in or nearing their 30s — peak home-buying years. “There are way more people who want to buy a home than there are homes available, and that problem will only get worse,” Fairweather says.
You wouldn’t think it could get more challenging. But at the rate buyers snapped up houses in February 2021, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors said the number of single-family homes for sale had dwindled to the point where it would take just 18 days for every active listing to sell if no new houses came on the market.
That’s left buyers understandably frustrated, says Kiernan Middleman, realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Warren Residential in Boston, particularly those seeking single-family homes and outdoor space. “The suburbs and places like West Roxbury and even Jamaica Plain are absolutely out of control right now,” she says, noting a home in Medford that received an astonishing 56 offers. “Sellers are cashing in, big time, and buyers are putting in 10-plus offers before getting one accepted.”
The condo market has been less frantic, Middleman says, because there’s more for sale — including a healthy supply of “starter condos” that get people into prime Boston neighborhoods for under $750,000. “In a more balanced market, these are often scooped up by cash investors, but those buyers held back over the last year,” she says. (She notes demand for downtown condos has been warming along with the weather, however.)
Brace yourself, home buyers. But if you’re ready to join the fray in the suburbs, or looking to beat the traffic back into the city, our guide to the top spots to live in Greater Boston is here to help.
EXPLORE THE TOP SPOTS TO LIVE PACKAGE BY REGION:
HERE’S HOW WE SELECTED THE TOP SPOTS TO LIVE FOR 2021:
We analyzed median home prices from 2015 and 2020 to find the biggest five-year gains across three price tiers for each region. In the suburbs, we looked at single-family data from The Warren Group, excluding places with fewer than 50 sales in either year. For Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods, we used median home price data — which include both single-family and condo sales — from real estate brokerage Redfin, excluding areas with fewer than 100 total sales. The median price for a single-family in the Boston area was $680,000 in 2020, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.