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What relocating workers look for in Massachusetts

Industries are setting up shop and expanding in the Commonwealth, relocating their recruits. So plaster on a smile and polish those playgrounds. Is your town up to snuff?


First impressions.

Second thoughts.

Third degree.

Finding a new home is stressful enough. Now ratchet up that tension with a new job that involves uprooting your life and your family to unfamiliar territory.

Which community is right for us? Which school district? Where will my spouse work? Um, what’s the Big Dig, and why do people keep mentioning it?

As several life science companies join the cadre of businesses that call the Commonwealth home, more workers are facing these questions — and sporting lists of must-haves for their candidate communities.

Relocations account for more than 10 percent of annual sales for Coldwell Banker-affiliated NE Moves Mortgage, said Phil Tocci, a senior vice president of sales. That meant about $140 million in 2013, not including Vermont transactions, he said.


“Technology and financial services have always been very strong in the Boston and New England areas, but when the economy slowed down, those sectors slowed down,” said Tocci, who launched NE Moves’ relocation division in 1997. “Life sciences have picked up — Cubist, Vertex, Biogen [Idec] — they’ve all come to the forefront as far as relocating employees into this area.”

In response, some realtors are offering a “concierge level” of service. For clients relocating from overseas, this could mean anything from helping them take their driver’s test to giving them crash courses (pardon the pun) on neighborhoods.

Christine Norcross, a Wellesley-based realtor affiliated with William Raveis’s relocation division, is one such “concierge.” Norcross is often the person introducing people to New England. For many of them, the weekends they spend house-hunting with her will help determine the course of their lives — both professional and personal. “I always tell people to go have lunch, talk to people about the community. . . . When you drive somebody through a town, they have an immediate, visceral reaction — either they like it or they don’t like it. You hear stuff, but you’ve got to get into a town and figure it out for yourself.”


Quality schools often trump other items on clients’ relocation wish lists, she said. Working families will typically endure a longer commute time for towns whose schools have higher MCAS rankings, she said. Wellesley, Newton, and Winchester are her clients’ top choices.

“I used to work for IBM, and I got moved around a lot, so I know what it’s like. I worked with one real estate agent and . . . I felt like all she wanted to do was sell me a house,” she said. “It’s about a lot more than that.”

Norcross said IBM paid her realty fees and bought her old house as part of her relocation package. Some of the state’s biggest employers, including drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, are expanding. A $250 million expansion by Bristol-Myers Squibb should add about 350 jobs in Devens. The company declined to comment on what it offers relocating employees.

This lack of transparency is pro forma, said Ellie Sullivan, an authority on relocation industry trends who has more than 25 years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies. You no longer see one set of benefits for all employee levels; companies have gotten a lot more creative, said Sullivan, vice president of consulting services for Weichert Workforce Mobility. As such, specifics about benefits are often proprietary information, she said, but one of the most common offerings is to buy the home employees are moving out of. Most relocation packages will also include realtor-matching, the services of a moving company, and career support for spouses.


Sanofi, which opened a cancer research center in Cambridge last year and added an estimated 250 jobs, is one such company offering spousal-
career assistance, says Mary Kathryn Steel, director of media relations and public affairs for the drug maker. “Relocation is a highly individualized process that encompasses aspects beyond employment,” Steel said. “We recognize the competitive playing field in which we work and place great emphasis on work/life balance, not only to attract talent, but to retain engaged employees.”

That’s a playing field that includes Biogen Idec in Kendall Square, which last year relocated its corporate team from Weston. The employees’ biggest concern surprised company officials, said program coordinator Meggan Whiteman. “While we thought the open-space layout would be an issue, the biggest concern for many was the commute and the impact on their work-life balance,” she said.

In response, Biogen Idec beefed up its commuter benefits (including a flex option to support workers who walk, bike, or carpool) and added a luxury coach bus service equipped with Wi-Fi. Routes originate in Marlborough, Worcester, Plymouth, and Londonderry, N.H., with an average daily ridership of 115 passengers in all. Relocation services were offered for moves of less than 50 miles, but “we did not experience high demand to move closer to the city — we believe due to the breadth of commuter options” and added benefits at the Cambridge site like fitness and child-care centers, Whiteman said.


And those commuter options are even more appealing given the home prices in some communities. The costs here trend above the national average, which can lead to “sticker shock” for relocating home buyers.

Leslie Mann of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty in Weston said prices and ages of homes surprise her relocating clients the most. She and her husband, Kyle, who work together as realtors, said Wellesley, Newton, and Lexington are “places people always seem to groove on,” but the duo has started targeting less expensive, outside-the-box locations. Scenic South Natick, for example, abuts Wellesley, and Hopkinton has garnered interest recently for its schools. “A few years ago, if you asked someone where Hopkinton was, they’d say ‘Huh?’ But there’s a lot of new construction there, and their high school is top-ranked. . . . When you can get newer or new construction for $600,000 versus going in toward Wellesley or Newton — [where] it’s a lot less house for the money — it’s one of those towns that never used to be on people’s radar,” Mann said.

The Manns estimate that relocaters constitute 65 percent of their client base — mostly doctors whose chief concern is commute time to hospitals, although schools run a close second.

Cheryl Meyerson of Gibson Sotheby’s Back Bay office, who works mainly in city placement, said relocation demand has, in part, inspired pricey high-end condo construction. “Unfortunately, the housing isn’t necessarily there [yet]. What’s happening is it’s pushing people out to farther, different areas,” Meyerson said. She cited Allston (new town houses, Whole Foods, and its close proximity to Boston), Charlestown, and “transitioning” Watertown (“Just jump on the bus and you’re 10 minutes to Harvard Square and the Charles River, five minutes to the Mass. Pike and Cambridge’s cool restaurants”).


If there are concerns about the quality of education, “there are so many great private schools around here,” said Meyerson, who founded New City Inc., which helps newcomers make connections. “Usually the people I’m working with are executives who can afford to have their kids go to a private school.”

Relocation certainly has its advantages.

“Relocating is so vital to the growth and vitality of businesses, especially today where you see a huge talent gap,” said Sullivan, the Weichert authority on mobility trends. “There’s also the impact of the millennials and their appetite to experience relocation and to use relocation as a developmental tool, not only for their personal enjoyment, but to advance their careers.” According to the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council, a relocation services trade group, today’s typical transferee is 36 to 40 years old.

After they got married last year, Ann Deka and her wife sought out a corporate relocation. With assistance from Norcross, the couple, who are in their 30s, transitioned from a one-
bedroom apartment in New York to a four-bedroom home in Winchester and now enjoy a 9-mile commute together into Boston each morning. “We made the decision from a long-term perspective, thinking about the future and having a family.”

Like many corporate relocations, they were offered short-term housing, and from this “base of operations” in the Back Bay, they looked at upward of 50 houses with Norcross in Wellesley, Newton, and Weston. (Sullivan said up to 70 percent of people relocating to the Boston area will end up renting as opposed to buying, on par with national relocation figures.)

But when the couple came across Winchester — and newer construction with an open floor plan — the couple was sold. “A lot of people will tell you about Newton or Wellesley, but one weekend we were driving around exploring [for] ourselves, and we ran into this little town. It was just so gorgeous and so quaint,” Ann Deka said of Winchester. “We would have been happy in any of those towns, but we found a house here that was absolutely perfect for us.”

The welcoming environment was just another selling point. “Obviously one thing that mattered to us, being gay, was ‘How are people going to perceive that and be open to that?’ . . . People here are very liberal and open and welcoming, and that was a big deal.

“I come home, I sit down, and I’m at peace.”

More coverage:

- What are the top priorities for relocating home buyers?

Carley D. Thornell is a writer born and based in Boston. Send comments to