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Low inventory puts squeeze on first-time home buyers

Miles Connors; his realtor, Jeanette Cummings; and his son, Jadon, check out an open house with a sea of other potential buyers in Waltham.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Evan Wondolowski was ready to buy his first home more than a year ago. He offered 5 percent over the listing price of a small two-bedroom condominium in Jamaica Plain and started planning where the furniture would go in his new place.

Then he heard from his real estate agent: 18 other offers had been made, and his wasn’t even in the top three. The 700-square-foot condo ultimately sold for just under $400,000, 11 percent over the asking price.

“It was disheartening, to say the least,” said Wondolowski, 28. “It put everything in perspective for what was to come.”

What came for Wondolowski is what legions of first-time home buyers in Greater Boston have experienced: more frustration. Contending with low inventories, rising prices, and fierce bidding wars for the few properties on the market, would-be buyers have perhaps never had a harder time becoming first-time homeowners.


Some have spent months navigating crowded open houses, making quick offers, and raising their bids, only to be disappointed. Wondolowski, for example, has made 13 other offers for properties in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, East Boston, and Somerville, averaging $20,000 over asking price. He’s still renting a one-bedroom apartment in Somerville for about $1,900 a month.

“When I started, I thought it would be a few months,” Wondolowski said. “It’s been a year and a half.”

Industry analysts say several years of tight inventories and rising prices have made the real estate market among the toughest they’ve seen for first-time home buyers, who last year accounted for more than 40 percent of all Massachusetts buyers, compared with about 30 percent nationally, according to the National Association of Realtors.

These factors affect all buyers but are particularly challenging for first-timers, typically younger with fewer financial assets, including equity built up in previous homes. They have lower incomes — a median of $82,000 for couples compared with $116,000 for couples who already own a home — and smaller down payments after paying record rents, according to the National Association of Realtors and local industry officials.


All this puts them at a disadvantage as short supplies spur competitive bidding and higher prices, industry officials said. The state’s housing inventory has fallen on a year-over-year basis for 63 consecutive months — more than five years — and the monthly average of homes for sale in 2015 was the lowest in more than a decade, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

In Greater Boston, homes sold for a median $46,000 above listing prices, compared with $39,000 statewide and $40,000 nationally, according to the National Association of Realtors. Home values in metro Boston rose 6 percent over last year to a median $384,500, according to Zillow, an online real estate database. Zillow forecasts area home values will rise another 1.4 percent in the next year.

“It’s really amazing how quickly this market is moving,” said Nadine Fallon, partner and broker at Great Spaces Real Estate in Dorchester. “Basically, if you can get in the first day of the showing and put in an offer before the open house, you have the best chance. From a seller’s standpoint, it’s great; from a buyer’s point of view, [it] is daunting.”

Maria Arabatzis (left) and Brian Egan, potential first-time home buyers, looked over marketing materials during an open house of a one-bedroom condo in Jones Hill in Dorchester.Dina Rudick/Globe staff/Boston Globe

In the last three months, the average condo price in the Dorchester neighborhoods of Savin Hill, Jones Hill, Polish Triangle, and JFK/UMass has increased to about $404,000, up 42 percent from $284,000 during the same period two years earlier, said Fallon, who is Wondolowski’s agent. The inventory of condos for sale in those neighborhoods has shrunk to just 11 as of March 7 from a peak of 132 units in 2006.


As a result, open houses are jam-packed, attracting overflow crowds of 20 to 30 people at the same time and netting between three and six offers, Fallon said.

This year’s mild winter has meant that open house activity remained steady when most home buyers usually take a break. The extra competition was an unpleasant surprise for buyers hoping to get a jump start on the spring market, such as Miles Connors and his wife, Dina Abbondante, of Belmont, who have been going to open houses every weekend since the fall.

“We went to one in Stoneham, thinking we were getting away from the hustle and bustle, but there were 40 couples that walked in within two hours,” Connors said. “My wife says you barely have time to digest it or picture yourself in it before the agent is looking for offers.”

The couple, both 41, is searching for a home with a short commute to their respective jobs in Cambridge and Newton, in a community with good schools for their 9-year-old son Jadon. Since the fall, they have made five unsuccessful offers, including one for a two-bedroom in Arlington Heights where they committed $30,000 over the $429,000 asking price and agreed to concessions, including giving the homeowner five months to move out.


That one “personally crushed me,” Connors said. “People are willing to put down $30,000-$40,000 above asking on a place in these surrounding communities. Then the question becomes, when does it stop? How do you become more of a competitor?”

Their agent, Jeanette Cummings, said it’s increasingly difficult to tell her clients with middle-class incomes that even when they make generous offers, it’s often not enough in this market, filled with well-heeled buyers from the booming tech and biotech industries, as well as foreign investors.

Properties this year are listing between 3 and 5 percent higher than last year’s prices because of demand, she said.

“There’s definitely some burnout because it’s an emotional roller coaster,” said Cummings, of Avenue 3 Real Estate LLC in Cambridge. “Miles and Dina haven’t taken a weekend off yet.”

North End-renter and Financial District-worker Maria Arabatzis, 28, is only at the beginning of her first-home search. She and her boyfriend Brian Egan, 30, have already become discouraged that their price range of $600,000 to $800,000 won’t get them anything bigger than a one-bedroom unit in Boston.

“It’s very frustrating looking in downtown Boston, seeing places for $1 million, $2 million, $3 million, or more,” Arabatzis said. “It’s great that Boston is growing the way it is, but it’s important to have affordable housing options.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh recently announced an initiative to create 20,000 new units of middle-class housing by 2030 by offering incentives to developers, including tax breaks and easing zoning regulations and the permitting process.


Annie Blatz, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, said many first-time home buyers have been brought out by rock-bottom mortgage rates, which are running below 4 percent for a 30-year-fixed mortgage and increasing the competition for properties. Although she hopes that more homes will come on the market, Blatz said she expects another tough spring market for buyers.

“The trends we’re seeing now are slow and steady; inventory decreasing and prices rising,” she said. “I can’t imagine that there’s going to be any abrupt change.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.