With a lack of inventory around the region, the task of finding a home remains precarious for buyers. We looked at the 36 Greater Boston cities, towns, and city neighborhoods where demand — and prices — have surged the most (in three price categories) over the past five years. Here are the nine communities west of Boston that topped the list.
TOP SPOTS WEST OF BOSTON UNDER $600,000
Top spot: Ayer
Median single-family price: $527,500
Increase since 2017: 57.5 percent
Ayer is 35 miles northwest of Boston in the Nashoba Valley, about 15 miles from the New Hampshire border. The town is not on the radar for a lot of people, says Robert Archer, who is 24 and has lived in Ayer all his life. “If I were to say [I am from] Ayer, people would say, ‘Where the hell is that?’” says Archer, who commutes 50 minutes to Medford for his job as a client relations specialist at a medical supply company.
The town has a long military tradition because of nearby Fort Devens, now a US Army Reserve training facility. “A lot of military families have settled in Ayer over the past 50 years,” Archer says.
Ayer has a historic downtown with restaurants and local businesses, as well as a commuter rail stop — the ride to Boston is about an hour if all goes right. The town beach is at Sandy Pond and the Nashua River Rail Trail bike path runs for 11 miles along the river. Ayer and Shirley regionalized their school systems in 2010 and turned the 1960s high school into a state-of-the-art building. The high school now has about 400 students.
The population of 8,400 is about 82 percent white, 2.5 percent Black, 9.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 4.9 Asian, according to the census.
“You get all kinds of people, all kinds of ethnicities, all kinds of cultures,” Archer says. Diners in town can choose from Japanese sushi at Osawa, Korean food at Woo Jung, pizza at Lazy Mary’s, or sweets at Ruby Donuts, among others.
“[Ayer] has a community feel, and that makes people happy. It makes people feel safe,” Archer says. “I can walk downtown and almost guarantee you that I’ll know at least five people.”
Median single-family price: $550,000
Increase since 2017: 54.5 percent
Median single-family price: $510,000
Increase since 2017: 51.8 percent
Hudson, convenient to Interstates 495 and 290, is a former mill town along the Assabet River with a traditional downtown and both old and new housing stock. It also has outdoor opportunities including the Assabet River Rail Trail bike path that runs 12.5 miles from downtown Hudson to Marlborough. Pepperell, population 11,500, sits on the New Hampshire border and is home to the Nissitissit River Wildlife Management Area. It has a rich history, reflected in the 18th- and 19th-century homes included in its historic district, and is known for the capture of a British spy by the town’s women during the American Revolution.
TOP SPOTS WEST OF BOSTON FOR $600,000 TO $800,000
Top spot: Stow
Median single-family price: $785,000
Increase since 2017: 57.8 percent
Stow, a rural town of 7,100 famous for its apple orchards, calls itself “a place for growing up and a place for coming back.” The town might also be a place for commuting. Just east of I-495, it’s about a 40-minute drive to Worcester and about 45 to Boston when traffic is light. Stow retains its country feel: The town got its second stop light in 2004 when Bose built a plant for its automotive services division.
When Ellen Sturgis moved here 33 years ago, the town was mostly farmland and open space. While some of the farms have disappeared, that dedication to land conservation has continued and has encouraged her to stay, she says.
Stow’s several apple orchards are also a big draw, particularly during pick-your-own season. “The kids grow up learning about apples. My kids are quite apple snobs,” Sturgis says with a laugh. Her children have moved away but she says her son is planning to come home for apple season this fall.
Despite being a small town, Stow features four golf courses. That includes Stow Acres Country Club, which absorbed the nine holes originally created as Mapledale Country Club, founded in 1926 as one of the first courses for Black golfers. “People come from a long distance to play those courses,” she says.
Homes for sale recently included a 4,700-square-foot, 2006 Colonial with wine cellar listed for $1.3 million and a four-bedroom 1974 Colonial for $675,000.
Median single-family price: $734,000
Increase since 2017: 52.9 percent
Median single-family price: $600,000
Increase since 2017: 50.0 percent
With its classic town center circled by open space, Groton, northwest of I-495, gives residents the best of both worlds. The town is home to two top boarding schools, Groton School and Lawrence Academy, but also is known for its restaurants, ranging from Johnson’s Restaurant and Dairy Bar for fried clams and ice cream to the fancier Gibbet Hill Grill with its lamb ragu and seared tuna. Medway has the modern convenience of being a few miles from the intersection of I-495 and the Massachusetts Turnpike but the tradition of two historic districts: Rabbit Hill in West Medway and Medway Village in the southeast corner of town.
TOP SPOTS WEST OF BOSTON FOR OVER $800,000
Top spot: Weston
Median single-family price: $2,232,500
Increase since 2017: 67.2 percent
Weston’s median home price is astronomical. But that doesn’t mean the town is defined by snobbery, says Denise Mosher, who’s lived here for nearly 30 years. Mosher, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, tells potential buyers to talk to people in the supermarket or the coffee shop. “Everybody’s always so impressed with how down-to-earth and nice everybody is.”
Hannah Nicholl, who with her husband, Chris, owns Weston Provisions, a gourmet food and sandwich shop, agrees that Weston is friendly, even if the couple can’t afford to live there themselves. “I honestly have made some friends with my customers,” she says. “It’s really nice to have that kind of relationship with people and it’s really kind of a tight-knit community that has been very welcoming to us.”
One of the big draws in Weston: the public schools. All three of Mosher’s children graduated from the high school, which ranks in the top 500 nationally, according to U.S. News and World Report. “And they all had a fantastic experience,” she says. “They’re all different kids and they all had all of their specific needs met.”
There’s not much for sale in Weston; there were 35 homes listed for sale in early April, and they were all ultra-high end: All but one were over $2 million (several were over $10 million).
Still, Mosher says, a mix of people are attracted to the town, which has commuter rail access to Boston. That includes young couples who want to move out of the city, people seeking an easier commute or good schools, older buyers wanting to be near family, and out-of-staters relocating to Boston for jobs. “And then there’s a good number of people that are buying in town that are just moving within town, either to bigger houses or smaller houses.”
Median single-family price: $1,167,000
Increase since 2017: 60.2 percent
Median single-family price: $885,000
Increase since 2017: 57.2 percent
Rich in nature and history, Sudbury offers a balance of country, commerce, and history — the 300-year-old Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is the country’s oldest. Residents can ramble through Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge, dine at a variety of local restaurants, and catch the commuter rail into Boston. Southborough, just 25 miles outside of Boston up the Mass. Pike, is close enough to commute yet still feels like a bucolic escape. Commercial activity is mostly limited to Route 9, crime is exceptionally low, and neighborly conversations and strolls around the Sudbury Reservoir are the order of the day.
HOW WE SELECTED THE TOP SPOTS TO LIVE FOR 2023
Determining a “best” place to live is a subjective exercise, one with as many possible outcomes as there are home buyers. To arrive at this annual list of Top Spots, we rely on the finite but nonetheless valid wisdom of supply and demand: Sharply increasing home prices suggest that these are communities many people want to call home. We analyzed median home prices from 2017 and 2022 to find the biggest five-year increases across three price tiers for each region. In the suburbs, we looked at single-family data from The Warren Group, excluding communities with fewer than 50 sales in 2022. For Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods, we used median home price data — which include both single-family and condo sales — from real estate brokerage Redfin.
Susan Moeller is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. With additional reporting by Sarah Shemkus and Robin Van Impe. Send comments to email@example.com.