TOP SPOTS NORTH OF BOSTON FOR UNDER $600,000
Top Spot: Lawrence
Median single-family price: $385,913
Increase since 2016: 67.8 percent
North of Boston, three former industrial cities — Lawrence, Lynn, and Lowell — have seen home prices climb upward of 60 percent in the past five years, with buyers drawn to their mix of vibrancy and relative affordability.
Marianela Rivera, a lifelong Lawrence resident and education justice advocate, loves the city’s activist history. “Growing up as a kid in Lawrence, walking around the mills and learning about the Bread and Roses Strike really inspired me,” she says of the landmark 1912 labor protest. The city is also rich in culture, she adds. “You see art everywhere in our community,” from salsa socials hosted by the Utopia Dance Company, to literary events at El Taller, the independent bookstore and cafe Rivera calls “a local treasure.”
And what’s more? “The food, oh my God,” Rivera says. In addition to Dominican and Puerto Rican restaurants — and the cheap, heaping plates on offer at her corner bodega — ”there are all these fusion spots now.” Vaka Restaurant, for example, serves Dominican-influenced sushi and tapas, and Japu puts a Japanese spin on Peruvian ingredients.
Fusion is a fitting culinary theme in a city that has long welcomed international arrivals. “There’s something really beautiful about Lawrence being a place that has attracted immigrants from all parts of the world seeking opportunity,” Rivera says. But she worries that rising rents and home prices are displacing longtime residents. “As much as it is an amazing place, I think a lot of people right now are struggling to continue to call Lawrence home, which is sad.”
Runners-up in the under $600,000 category
Median single-family price: $463,000
Increase since 2016: 61.3 percent
Median single-family price: $410,000
Increase since 2016: 60.8 percent
With an oceanfront setting and the 2,200-acre Lynn Woods Reservation, Lynn beckons buyers with a blend of urban lifestyle and natural beauty just a few miles from Boston. Upriver from Lawrence on the Merrimack, Lowell is home to a National Historical Park honoring the city’s role in the Industrial Revolution, and a major piece of the state’s public university system. All three cities have seen their relative affordability diminish in recent years.
TOP SPOTS NORTH OF BOSTON FOR $600,000-$800,000
Top Spot: Rockport
Median single-family price: $744,500
Increase since 2016: 64.7 percent
At the far end of Cape Ann is Rockport. And at the far end of Rockport, where Bearskin Neck juts into the harbor, you’ll find the studio and gallery of John Caggiano, who moved to this former artist colony more than 40 years ago. “A girlfriend brought me here, but I stayed because of the coastline and the beauty of the area,” Caggiano says. “All of Cape Ann, I have to say, is a painter’s paradise.”
Between the iconic red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf — called Motif No. 1, it is perhaps the most painted building in America — and the town’s quaint, coastal charm, a walk around Rockport can feel like a stroll through a painting. “The July Fourth parade is something out of Norman Rockwell,” Caggiano says. In December, Santa arrives by lobster boat and a choir sings carols in Dock Square.
Rockport remains a small town where “neighbors rely on neighbors,” Caggiano says, and an artists’ haven at heart, with new galleries continuing to open and more performance venues than one could expect from a town of 7,000 year-round residents. But this picturesque perch on the Atlantic, connected to Boston by commuter rail, has also grown more popular and more cost prohibitive. At one time, three cars constituted a traffic jam and the Pigeon Cove area across the harbor was mostly forest, Caggiano says. “There’s still plenty of open space, but it’s gotten busier.”
Runners-up in the $600,000-$800,000 category
Median single-family price: $651,000
Increase since 2016: 62.8 percent
Median single-family price: $715,000
Increase since 2016: 58.0 percent
While Winthrop borders Boston and Logan Airport — and sits beneath the flight path of many an approaching aircraft — it can also feel a world apart, nearly enveloped as it is by the ocean. A 2021 Top Spot to Live, Newbury offers access to downtown Newburyport as well as open spaces such as the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.
TOP SPOTS NORTH OF BOSTON FOR $800,000 AND UP
Top Spot: Wenham
Median single-family price: $870,000
Increase since 2016: 52.6 percent
Wenham’s roughly 5,000 residents share many services — including a library, commuter rail station, and well regarded school system — with neighboring Hamilton (where the median price has risen a similar 52.8 percent in the past five years, to $770,000).
“The schools were one of the primary reasons we wanted to buy here,” says Barbara Locke, who moved to the town in 1995 with her husband, Peter, a Wenham native. Local kids can also enjoy a summer playground camp, located behind the Wenham Tea House, that has been offered since 1935 by the Wenham Village Improvement Society (Locke is on the board).
“Wenham is a beautiful place,” Locke says. “It’s a small town, and you really get to know your neighbors.” But she laments the property taxes driving out people on fixed incomes. “We have no commercial base, it’s all residential — so the tax burden falls on the homeowners,” she says. (The average annual property tax bill in Wenham is $14,265 this year, 14th highest in the state.)
Runners-up in the $800,000 and up category
Median single-family price: $855,000
Increase since 2016: 52 percent
Median single-family price: $850,000
Increase since 2016: 51.1 percent
With fewer than 5,000 residents, West Newbury offers a rural setting (plus the 270-acre Mill Pond Recreation Area) along the southern stretch of the Merrimack River between Haverhill and Newburyport. Fast-growing Middleton, which offers access to Interstate 95 on its eastern side and two state forests on its northern border, gained nearly a thousand residents in the past decade, and saw home prices rocket 27 percent last year alone.
What you get for around $750,000 north of the city
45 Cottage Road | Newbury
Square feet: 2,449
Lot size: 0.97 acre
Bedrooms: 4 Baths: 2
Surrounded on three sides by conservation land, this contemporary house — sold in as-is condition — features exposed wood beams in the living room and two decks to enjoy the natural landscape. (Listed by Paula Viera, Bentley’s Real Estate)
—Additional reporting by Kim Costigan
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.