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Boston-area housing prices shock newcomers

Marilyn Santiesteban and Kent Portney’s home in Texas was a third of the price as their home in Boston, and had 600 more square feet and a pool.
Marilyn Santiesteban and Kent Portney’s home in Texas was a third of the price as their home in Boston, and had 600 more square feet and a pool. (Michael Stravato for The Boston Globe)

Shayna Chapel and Aaron Cotton were living in an airy one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis when he was accepted to a master’s program at Boston University. For $1,500 a month in the trendy Uptown neighborhood, they had his-and-hers sinks in the bathroom, a rooftop lounge, two covered parking spots, and a swimming pool.

Shayna Chapel (right) and Aaron Cotton in their apartment in the Back Bay .
Shayna Chapel (right) and Aaron Cotton in their apartment in the Back Bay .(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

“Even the mailroom was nice,” Chapel says.

Rent would be more in Boston. They had accepted that. But there’s a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level — and the gut punch of being shown a $2,550-per-month Back Bay unit so small the fridge was dorm size and the bed was wedged partially into a closet.

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“Maybe that was just how they set it up,” says Chapel, 24, a senior account executive at the Castle Group in Charlestown, “but I don’t know how else you could have done it.”

After a monthlong hunt, the couple landed a roughly 780-square-foot one-bedroom in Back Bay with a single closet and a rent of $2,350. “In Minneapolis we had a washer and dryer in the unit,” Chapel says, “which I’m now learning is a dream” here.

It’s a story told over and over, as people from states with sane housing prices move to Greater Boston, the land of the one-two insult: Every place is overpriced, and you’d be lucky to get it.

Think of it as real estate porn for masochists.

Unless people are coming from California, Hawaii, or the District of Columbia, the only places in the country where the real estate is less affordable, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, sticker shock happens.

Newton agent Margie Kern describes a common scenario: Medical residents from Ohio, perhaps, or the South match with a hospital in the Longwood Medical Area and start looking for a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in Brookline with parking. “Their budget is $500,000,” says Kern, a principal with Karp, Liberman & Kern Sotheby’s International Realty, “but it's going to be double that, and it will need work.”

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The Boston metropolitan area has the sixth highest median home value ($379,900) of the 35 most populous metro areas in the United States, according to Zillow. And aspiring renters have it no better. Greater Boston’s average monthly tab of $2,239 makes it the sixth most expensive metro area in which to rent, according to Zillow’s October 2015 figures.

Want to see how unfair it really is? Go online and look at the listing for Ruth Isaacs’s four-bedroom house in Ambler, Penn ., a leafy suburb of Philadelphia with good schools and a direct train to the city.

The photo gallery on Trulia shows an on-trend kitchen, a patio with a dining area under a trellis, and a library/music room. They were happy there, but when her husband got a job at a biotech firm in Waltham, the couple put the house on the market (now offered at the reduced price of $619,900) and began looking.

“I thought we’d find something for around $900,000,” Isaacs says.

That was before they saw the Somerville condo with an asking price of $990,000 and a view of the T tracks. Before the real estate alerts made Isaacs realize that “finding someplace we wanted to live for under a million dollars wasn’t happening.”

What did happen: Their budget went up — to $1.325 million for a town house in Belmont that is as pretty as their Pennsylvania home but that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

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The master closet she left behind remains a source of sorrow. “It was the size of a two-car garage,” she says. “Our closets here are not fabulous. They are unfabulous.”

Impossible housing prices are a conversational staple in Boston, but some transplants can’t bring themselves to tell the folks back home what they’re shelling out.

Consider Erin Caldwell’s situation: She moved to Boston last fall from just outside Rochester, N.Y., where she lived in a 2,750-square-foot farmhouse on five acres with a $1,875-per-month mortgage. Her first apartment here was a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom in Charlestown that she rented for $2,200 a month.

“It seemed like a lot,” she says, “but it was less than others I’d been looking at.”

On a recent visit back to New York, she got her hair done, and the chat turned to her stylist’s new apartment. “She was like: ‘I know it’s crazy. I pay $800 per month, but it’s a nice two-bedroom, and I’ve got parking and a fitness center and a rooftop deck, and it’s a secure building,’ ” Caldwell, an account director at Corporate Ink, says. “She was almost apologetic.”

When the stylist finished describing her apartment, Caldwell quickly ended the conversation: “I’m not telling you what I pay.”

But you know who does want to discuss what they’re paying — who, in fact, can’t talk of anything else? People like Marilyn Santiesteban, people who have moved out of the Boston area — in her case from Newton to College Station, Texas.

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“We have a three-car garage, four bedrooms, a swimming pool, and the backyard has palm trees, so it feels like our own island resort,” Santiesteban, the assistant director of career services at the Bush School at Texas A&M University, says. “We’re living like Republicans.”

Their house in Newton was a “standard issue” center-entrance Colonial with three bedrooms, 2½ baths, and a one-car garage that fit her husband’s Prius, but not her Honda Accord.

The wiring was so old that when her husband went to replace the vanity in the kids’ bathroom, he learned that the entire second floor needed to be rewired.

“Everything here is new,” she says. The couple joyfully raised their children in Newton. But when her husband, Kent Portney, a political science professor at Tufts University, got a job offer in Texas, they put the family home on the market for a bit under $1 million, promptly got over asking, and moved.

Santiesteban lowers her voice as if what she was about to say was obscene, and in a way it was. “This house was $360,000.”

But then she tosses the folks back home a bone: “The price difference worked in our favor,” she says, “but it means we can never go back.”

Marilyn Santiesteban and her husband Kent Portney at their home in College Station, Texas.
Marilyn Santiesteban and her husband Kent Portney at their home in College Station, Texas.(Michael Stravato for The Boston Globe)
Santiesteban and Portney’s former home in Newton, Mass.
Santiesteban and Portney’s former home in Newton, Mass.(Narin Oun)

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.