In the early 1950s, my grandfather built a house from scratch in Northborough. The endeavor was partially an act of love for my grandmother, whom he’d met and married while stationed in England during World War II. He was determined to build her an English-style cottage to ease her homesickness.
My dad, a young kid at the time, remembers the whole family living in a trailer on a pondside lot while his father chipped away at the house on weekends and after work — day by day, year by year. He and my dad drove to Vermont to get slate for the roof. A neighbor let them dig rocks out of his pasture for the exterior stonework. They gathered bricks from the rubble of old factories, and my grandfather put my dad and uncle to work. “He’d pay us a penny for each brick we could scrape clean after school,” my dad said.
But once my grandfather finally finished the house (with some hired help at the end), the property taxes skyrocketed. After all, he’d built a beautiful home with four fireplaces, all on a waterfront lot. The tax bill, on top of other financial pressures, was more than his family could afford. So, before long, he had to sell his hand-built home — a work of art and devotion — and find less expensive housing a few towns over in South Lancaster. It must have broken my grandfather’s heart, but like so many before and after him, he was priced outward in Massachusetts.
With home prices in Boston and its immediate suburbs increasingly out of reach for many buyers, that outward migration is now a tradition — one that shows no sign of stopping, as the median price of a single-family home sold in the first two months of 2016 topped $1 million in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Newton, according to data from The Warren Group.
But if they don’t mind the longer commute, Bostonians looking for land and a good school district can often find a house with both for half the cost of even a condo in the city (the median sold-for price for the first two months this year was $600,000 in Somerville, $615,000 in Cambridge, and $765,000 in Boston, according to The Warren Group) if they broaden their search to the outer reaches: Interstate 495.
Hopkinton realtor John Savignano, who arrived here by way of Newton then Ashland himself, said buyers out his way like the access to the Massachusetts Turnpike, the commuter rail, and the good school systems. “The schools are probably number one,” he said. “They have good schools as you get closer to Boston, of course, but the price of the same home can easily double.”
“People who work in the Boston job market are definitely looking for and finding affordable housing in that area,” said Tim Warren, CEO of The Warren Group, “but it’s really all about jobs. Jobs drive real estate.”
And there are jobs to be had here, said Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, a public-private collaborative and nonprofit. “Our communities are responsible for one in every 11 jobs in the state,” Matthews said, referring to the group’s 35 member towns and cities, ranging from Westford in the north to Foxborough in the south.
EMC Corp., a Hopkinton-based technology giant that employs nearly 10,000 people in Massachusetts, moved its headquarters from Newton to Natick in 1983, and then out to Hopkinton in 1987. The growth since then has been “striking,” Matthews said. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of the towns out here were small and primarily residential and rural. When EMC made the decision to locate in Hopkinton, that was a real landmark decision, and a lot of companies followed suit. ... The trend started changing in the ’70s and accelerated in the ’80s.”
In fact, while many people in the MetroWest area still head into Boston for work, plenty more actually commute the other way. “The trend flipped about six or seven years ago; we noticed that the region became a net importer of labor,” Matthews said. “We’ve been talking to the MBTA about adjusting commuter rail schedules to better serve reverse commuters.”
Matthews points to biotech giant Genzyme Corp. “While the common perception is that they’re a Cambridge company, and that’s where they’re headquartered, their biggest employment center worldwide is in the 495 area,” he said.
This Merrimack Valley knows about losing big employers. While a modern-day textile giant is unlikely to bring the brick factories of Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill humming back to life, many of the historic buildings are being converted into housing and retail or office space. “The trend to convert older mill buildings into mixed use is really prevalent here,” said Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.
Real estate agent David Pollack sees Lowell and Haverhill attracting young buyers. “There are breweries in the downtown areas, and you get good bang for your buck,” Pollack said. “It’s not quite like a Somerville yet or anything, but it’s still quite affordable.”
Chelmsford realtor Paul Brouillette said Lowell’s compact, cobblestoned downtown district of arts venues and restaurants makes it an appealing alternative to Boston. “It’s attractive for people who want to live in an active, older city but can’t afford downtown Boston,” he said.
Warren said the University of Massachusetts Lowell is a catalyst for economic growth there. “Lowell has a university that has always focused on technology. ... I think that’s a magnet for jobs and startups.”
The median price of a single-family home in Lowell rose 27 percent between 2010 and 2015, to $241,750, according to The Warren Group. Suburban communities here continue to grow, too. Home sales in Amesbury and Andover have ticked up by at least 11 percent in the past 12 months, according to Redfin, while prices in each have risen 7 percent. For buyers who want a half acre of land in the $300,000s, Brouillette said, “Chelmsford offers a very good school system, a nice community, and a low crime rate” at a discount to neighboring Westford and Burlington.
While Boston’s red-hot housing market is warming up many outlying communities, it isn’t really spilling over into Middleborough, on the southern stretch of I-495, said realtor Debbie Blais. The town experienced a big influx after commuter rail service arrived in 1997, she said, but that’s not enough for everyone to relocate here.
You have the train and the quality of life, “but you’ve still got a long commute,” she said. “Obviously you get a lot more house for your money here, but I’m finding people will go to the higher-price towns to be near their jobs and just buy less property there.”
Donna Remmes and her husband, Gregory, are not among them. They left South Boston 19 years ago to buy a home in more affordable Wrentham, where they live with their three children. They loved the town’s lakes, and in 2014 purchased a home on Lake Archer that needed a total renovation, including winterization.
“There was nothing but a couple of two-by-fours left from the old house by the time we were done,” Remmes said. But even after more than $300,000 in renovations, their lakefront dream home costs less than a median-priced house in Newton and Lexington.
“It’s paradise,” Remmes said. “It’s hard to imagine we’re only 35 minutes from Boston.”
FUTURE OF THE I-495 BELT
This stretch of rural paradise can evoke images of the one paved for a parking lot in the Joni Mitchell song.
In 1950s Northborough, my dad recalled, “I would ride around these country roads on my bike, and I felt like Huckleberry Finn. ... There was an orchard nearby, and you could just reach up and grab an apple off a tree branch as you rode past.”
But like many small towns along I-495, Northborough experienced incredible growth after the highway was completed; the population has more than quadrupled since 1950. “It’s a struggle, but the towns are doing a good job managing growth and maintaining the small-town character,” Savignano said.
That’s to say nothing of the parking lot that I-495 now resembles at rush hour. “I’m dating myself,” DiZoglio said, “but when I was a kid, we snuck onto 495 and rode our bikes on the highway because there was nothing there. Today there’s traffic congestion all the way up to Haverhill.”
Matthews said local planners are cognizant of the issues rapid growth caused along Route 128. But, he added, many towns embrace development. “If you think about what the growth has brought these residents, it’s helped their commercial tax bases, which you could argue has helped with strong schools and quality of life,” Matthews said.
And while some expect millennials to reject the sprawl-inducing migration of their parents and grandparents in favor of cities and dense inner suburbs, Warren isn’t so sure.
“I think the big game changer is marriage, kids, and schools,” he said. “Young married couples and people with kids who are thinking about schools are going to gravitate toward those suburban areas. It’s very traditional and probably isn’t going to change a great deal.”
In fact, you could call it a rite of passage.