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City condos are making a big comeback, but Boston-area buyers are pickier

Last year, many buyers seemed to want to be far away from dense city living. But now condos are back on wish lists — with a twist.

Michael Mullan for The Boston Globe

By this time last year, the pandemic real estate rush was already underway. The frenzy, particularly for single-family houses, would only intensify over the winter before peaking in early spring. “February, March was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Melony Swasey, founder of the Good Boston Living team at Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty in Jamaica Plain. “There was a sort of — I wouldn’t even call it desperation. I would call it a piercing fierceness to the competition.”

But even as buyers chasing more space endured bidding wars and cutthroat competition for single-family houses, property hunters were all but ignoring some other homes — notably, downtown condos. By the third quarter of 2020, the average sales price of a Back Bay condo, for example, had slipped to levels not seen since the Obama administration, according to data compiled by Warren Residential Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Boston.


Elsewhere in Boston, condos mostly held their values during the pandemic, says Brian Dougherty, managing director in the Boston office of Compass. But they took a lot longer to sell — and trailed the eye-popping price growth that single-family homes were experiencing. “At the peak of the pandemic, people were leaving downtown Boston in droves, literally in search of greener pastures, extra space, privacy, clear air, and calm,” Dougherty says. “The Boston suburbs and surrounds experienced unprecedented sales growth.”

Then, COVID-19 vaccinations helped restore the joys of city life, from dining out to Red Sox games, and condos started staging a comeback. With 1,423 condo sales across Greater Boston, this past July was the most active on record, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. Same goes for June ...and May, April, and March — all record-setting sales months for local condos. Through July 31, there had been 8,192 condo sales in Greater Boston year to date — a 52.5 percent increase over 2020, and far more than any year in recent memory.


In Somerville, condos had their busiest July in years, even as the median price, or midpoint price, hit $895,000 — a 14.4 percent increase over just a year ago, when the typical Somerville condo sold for $782,500. The median price of a Cambridge condo sold in July was up 8.7 percent versus a year ago, to $840,000, on the back of a 57.4 percent sales uptick. And in Brookline, July condo sales were up 61.4 percent, with the median price jumping from $780,000 to $905,000.

“The Somerville-Cambridge market, I don’t care what happens in that area, they’re being snapped up like there’s no tomorrow,” says Melvin A. Vieira Jr., president-elect of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. In Boston, where the market is still a bit slower, new construction is letting condo buyers be more choosy. “Buyers are able to go, ‘I want new for that price. I’m not going to pay that price for something old, I don’t even care if you rehabbed it,’” Vieira says.

Swasey says it’s a big difference from last year, when she had a two-bedroom condo in Cambridge that sat on the market from July through Halloween. While it was nicely renovated, it lacked some key COVID criteria, like outdoor space. “And honestly, it was like we were begging people to come look at the property,” Swasey says. When she put it back on the market this March, though, offers poured in after the first busy open house. It sold for $50,000 above asking price.


Condos with outdoor access still have an edge in Boston, though buyers are showing more willingness to share outdoor space, Swasey says. But they still want room for an office. “So many people I talk to are in some point of discussion with their employers about how long they might be able to work from home entirely, or in a hybrid manner,” she says. “A lot of people are banking on that.”

With so many people still working remotely, a location near green space has, for some buyers, become even more important than proximity to the train. “It’s about, ‘Can I get to some outdoor areas?’” Vieira says. “The T and the commuter rail will come back into play as soon as this pandemic slows down a little bit,” he adds, “but people are looking for the ocean, the Emerald Necklace, the Arboretum. They want Franklin Park, they want Jamaica Pond.”

Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com, expects buyer behaviors will settle somewhere between where they were pre-pandemic and where they were in the midst of it. “The extremes that we saw during the pandemic reflected what, hopefully, will ultimately prove to be a temporary situation,” Hale says. And yet, adjustments made over the past year and a half will likely have long-term repercussions, she says, with hybrid schedules allowing more people to live farther from work. That means buyers may still have an easier time condo shopping than house hunting outside the city.


However, there’s no telling yet what impact the startlingly swift-spreading COVID-19 Delta variant will have. Will Boston dodge the worst of it? Or could it bring city life — and the urban condo market with it — grinding to another halt, like a squealing Green Line trolley?

“I think most buyers were just about to pretend this nightmare never happened, and that they could be back to dinners with friends, workouts in the gym, shopping in the stores, and all of the other draws of city living, when they started hearing about breakthrough cases, booster shots, and the like,” Dougherty says. “So we’re going to have to see how it all impacts the fall market.”

Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.