Is living in affluent towns worth it?
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Every week, it seems there's more daunting news about Boston's expensive real estate market and the tide of middle-income buyers being pushed out of marquee suburbs with top school systems and amenities. In Lexington, for instance, the year-to-date median sales price for a single-family home is $905,000, according to recent data from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. In Newton, it's $1,155,000; in Concord, it's $1,197,500.
If there's an upside to these prices, it's that they might help current residents and potential buyers to reevaluate their priorities. After all, affording these towns can strain the budget and also the psyche.
"Psychologically it takes a toll, and the expenses often hit all at once: good schools, extracurricular activities," says Dana Levit, a financial planner in Newton.
A bit of perspective: In many parts of the country, the rule of thumb is that housing costs should occupy a third of one's income. Here, that standard frequently doesn't apply.
"The general metric is a quarter to a third of your income. In areas like Boston or New York, it's blown out of the water," Levit says. "People spend 40 to 50 percent on housing, and that puts a lot of pressure on everything else." She says that she sees clients who have accrued debt or neglected retirement savings by trying to keep up with the neighborhood.
These income pressures can create a pervasive sense of unsettledness even for financially comfortable families, according to David Barlow, founder of Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. "It doesn't matter how much money you're making: You could be in the most upscale community, but if somehow you perceive others as living a bit better than you or having a bit more than you or sending their kids to one additional camp or something, it can create that sense of lower self-worth," he says.
This isn't shallow competitiveness. Much of this insecurity stems from the well-meaning instinct of wanting to do right by one's children, especially as kids get older and want to blend with peers.
"People worry about their ability to pay the bills and provide for their family," Barlow says. "That's part of human nature. But in the 1940s and 1950s, it was easy for kids to achieve more than their parents. Now it's harder. Most kids aren't ending up better off, and parents want to give them every possible advantage. It's an elusive goal. You may feel you have to do these Herculean things to provide for your kids."
For families who live in traditionally pricier communities, a bit of perspective is increasingly helpful. Meredith Berg, 37, and her husband own a 1,200-square-foot condo in Newton. As recent Brooklyn transplants, the space feels "gigantic," she says.
That said, she's preparing her 6-year-old and 4-year-old for the pressures of living in an affluent town, especially as her neighborhood is growing rife with teardowns replaced with far larger homes.
"We say to my son, 'Do we have a tree with money growing on it?' When he asks why we work, we explain that we have to pay for our house, to keep the lights on. We're open with him. If he came home asking why our house was smaller than his friend's, we'd say we don't have as much money as those people. That's the reality," she says.
Still, the Bergs have what they want: proximity to a local park, a nice backyard, and good neighbors in their building.
So too with Jeff Layton, 39, who lives in Concord with his wife and two kids.
"We're extremely frugal," he says. "We don't lavishly spend. I drive a Civic. We'd been saving for a lifetime to buy our home."
A childhood spent helping to run a family business in Canada taught him the value of hard work. "We never went without, but I didn't grow up with much," he says. He tries to impart this sense of scale to his children, opting only for camps that they'd truly enjoy and emphasizing the value of free play.
Meanwhile, for families who haven't yet bought a home, understanding these pressures has become important when evaluating where and how much to buy.
Take Emily Welch, a 38-year-old mother of two. She grew up in Belmont ("My parents recently sold their home in a weekend," she says) and now rents in Natick and hopes to buy soon, though not where she grew up.
"I'm curious as to how these people have so much money when they seem to be in the same place in life as I am. I'm curious as to what types of jobs they do. [Prospective buyers] were writing letters to my parents. Is that what it's come to?" she asks.
She's opting to remain in Natick, where the current median price is $527,000 — no bargain, but more attainable than prices in nearby towns. "Natick has good schools, a community feel, restaurants, shops, and two libraries," she says. "I don't think I'd want to live in the cheapest home in a fancy town."
Rebecca Goddard, 34, who teaches fourth grade at a private school in suburban Boston, left her Belmont rental for a reasonably priced home in Framingham. "My friends are moving out to Walpole and Maynard. We're all being pushed out," she says.
In Framingham, she says, "We have great neighbors, a nice neighborhood, and a big backyard. My son has his own big bedroom and we have a good piece of land — things we couldn't have closer in. Those things are priceless."
Regan Schuchart, 36, now rents in the South End while looking for a home to buy with her husband and baby daughter. She comes from Utah, and she's enduring real estate culture shock.
"My family doesn't understand. They ask: 'Why not just buy a house?' Where I'm from, a $500,000 home is a mansion with a lot of acres. Here, that doesn't get you anything," she says. "It's overwhelming how expensive everything is. I don't know how people survive here."
According to Barlow, a healthy sense of priorities is the most important survival skill. Every community has its pros, cons, and pressures, but he says that there are universal truths.
"What matters most are your relationships with family and friends — supportive, loving relationships," he says. "That's the key to success and happiness. And if it does mean living a bit farther out and putting up with a longer commute, generally we find it's worth it."
House hunters, take heart.