First-time homebuyers George Tzelias and Ashley Makevich started their climb on the property ladder with high hopes. They wanted a home with at least three bedrooms, lots of land, and loads of charm.
But getting a firm foothold on that first rung was difficult. Although home prices in most communities across the state remain below the market summit of 2005, a lack of inventory is driving prices higher, with many suburban towns closing in on previous peaks, according to The Warren Group, a Boston firm that collects and compiles data on real estate.
“Buyers have to be prepared to act quickly,” said Sharon Gannon, the broker associate at LAER Realty Partners in Dracut, who worked with Tzelias, 29, a social studies teacher in Lowell, and Makevich, 31, who teaches history at Tyngsborough High School. “If it’s a good home, in a good location, in good condition, it will get multiple offers.”
“It was super nerve-racking,” recalled Makevich of the house hunt.
Twice, the couple — who plan to marry in June — had an offer accepted. The first time, the deal fell apart when an inspection revealed structural problems. The second time, they had to outbid two other parties to secure their three-bedroom Colonial in Tyngsborough — Makevich’s hometown — for $342,000. Tyngsborough borders the New Hampshire state line, between Nashua and Lowell.
High-stakes bidding wars. All-cash offers. In the cities and towns north of Boston, real estate agents say buyers must be aggressive if they want purchasing power.
In most of the 57 communities north of Boston, sales prices for single-family homes have largely recovered from a recession that began in late 2007 and lingered until the summer of 2009. In all but two communities — West Newbury and Rowley — the median sales price has climbed over the past five years, with 46 local cities and towns posting increases of at least 10 percent.
The biggest gains were in Chelsea and Somerville. The red-hot market in those cities already has increased median prices dramatically compared with 2009, the year housing prices “fell off the cliff,” according to Cassidy Murphy, editorial director for The Warren Group.
Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, 2014, the median sales price in Chelsea for a single-family home was $260,000 — an increase of 58.2 percent from the same period in 2009, when the median price was $164,450.
In Somerville, there’s been a 45 percent jump in the median sales price over the past five years, from $372,500 during the first 11 months of 2009 to $540,000 during the same period in 2014.
Overall, 20 communities north of Boston posted gains of at least 20 percent since 2009. Among them, Winchester remains the most expensive place to buy a one-family home: The median was $711,000 in 2009 and $910,500 in 2014, an increase of 28 percent.
Housing specialists say the upward trend is expected to continue as buyers fan further out from Boston in search of more affordable and available housing.
Signs of the shift are evident in Tyngsborough, Chelmsford, and Westford, according to Stacey Alcorn, chief executive officer of LAER Realty Partners, who said scarce inventory is driving prices up.
“In Westford, we’re just starting to see teardowns,” said Alcorn, whose firm has 15 offices scattered throughout the state. “A house might come on the market for $300,000, get torn down, and then a $700,000 home will be built.”
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Boston in cities such as Somerville and Lynn, the large number of investors with deep pockets means stiff competition in the housing market.
“We’re seeing a lot of cash buyers,” said Alcorn. “Forget [Federal Housing Administration] loans, forget conventional financing. You’d better have a cash offer or a big down payment.”
A study published by The Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University noted that as the baby boom generation ages, many homeowners will look to downsize their empty nests. “This will likely put a large number of single-family suburban homes on the market relative to the past decade,” the report states. The increase in inventory will keep prices from escalating rapidly over the next decade.
Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of The Warren Group, said patterns in the housing market tend to be related to job growth, particularly access to good jobs.
“A lot of the best jobs seem to be in Cambridge, and the Innovation District in Boston seems to be adding a lot of jobs, giving support to rising real estate prices and the frenzied approach to the housing market in Cambridge, Somerville, and South Boston,” he said.
Other cities have been slower to bounce back because job growth in those communities just hasn’t been as strong, Warren said.
He noted that 2014 was the third year of the recovery in the housing market. During the recent recession, the median selling price of a single-family home in Massachusetts plummeted 25 percent. It was not until 2012 that the state had some improvement: that year, the number of sales jumped almost 20 percent statewide and the median price rose about 2 percent.
Warren believes a slow recovery may be for the best.
“I was a little alarmed when the median prices were going up by double digits,” he said. “I don’t like to see real estate prices go up too quickly, because that’s what created the bubble.”
Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@