Property tax bills add to cost of living in the suburbs
When they begin their house hunt, potential home buyers weigh several factors, from schools and green space to the ease of their commute. But as they become more educated, another key element comes into play.
“I find as buyers move closer to the high end of their budget, what the property taxes are and what they get for that money becomes more important,” said Sonia Rollins, a sales manager at Exit Premier Real Estate in Burlington. “They’re forced to consider what they’ll have to spend outside of their mortgage.”
For those looking for good schools, easy access to Boston, safe neighborhoods, and property tax bills that will not break the bank, housing experts said communities that are close to the urban core and have a strong commercial base are often good places to look because local businesses help offset the cost of municipal services. Those towns, realtors say, include Braintree, Burlington, and Natick.
Not surprisingly, the highest average tax bills in fiscal 2015 (July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015) are paid in towns where homes often command prices of at least $1 million. All but three — Manchester-by-the-Sea ($11,137 average tax bill), Winchester ($10,588), and Cohasset ($11,114) — are in the western suburbs. At the top is Weston, where the average property tax bill is $18,059, the highest in the state.
In many of those communities, voters consistently have given local officials the green light to raise their property taxes beyond the limits set by Proposition 2½ to support their public schools, finance infrastructure improvements, or to purchase needed equipment. Yet in some upscale towns — including Wellesley, Weston, and Winchester — there is no curbside trash pickup, and residents must either hire a service company or haul their trash to the dump.
“In more affluent communities, buyers go in with their eyes open,” said Rollins, who oversees a staff of 30 in Burlington. “If they’re buying in Winchester, for example, they know that folks in that town are going to vote for an override to maintain the characteristics of the community. They have to be willing to resign themselves to the fact that they’re going to pay more.”
In return, buyers who can afford high-priced real estate get top-notch schools and neighborhoods with quintessential New England charm. In these tony suburbs, well-manicured parks and upscale shops are common, while crime — particularly violent crime — is low, according to statistics released by the FBI. For example, in Wellesley, only 46 burglaries and 12 violent crimes were reported in 2012.
“It’s a good place to raise a family, convenient to everything, and within walking distance of the commuter rail,” said Carleen Vantine, 64, of Wellesley, her hometown. She and her husband, Dave, 64, plan to put their four-bedroom, 3,032-square-foot Wellesley Farms home back on the market this spring. It had been listed at $1,225,000 in the fall, but the couple decided to take it off the market for the holidays.
Sitting on the sidelines during the winter months is not likely to affect the Vantines’ bottom line. In Greater Boston, towns with the highest property tax bills have stable real estate values, even during tough economic times.
Between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2013 — a period marred by tumbling stocks and plummeting housing prices — only six area communities enjoyed an increase in average value, with most posting modest gains ranging from 2 to 4 percent. Weston and Wellesley were among them. The others were Arlington, Cohasset, Needham, and Winchester.
A Globe review of state Department of Revenue data found that 15 of 158 cities and towns in the suburbs have average single-family property tax bills above $10,000. The statewide average is $5,232.
“It’s really the assessed value that brings up the tax bills,” said Teri Adler, a broker with Pinnacle Residential Properties in Wellesley. “And that’s because our real estate is expensive.”
Town records show the assessed value of the Vantines’ home inched over $1 million in fiscal 2012 and stands at $1,123,000 today. That translates into a property tax bill of $12,982.
The average value of a single-family home in Wellesley is $1,152,000; in Greater Boston, only single-family homes in Weston have a higher average value: $1,470,602.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Globe analysis found that the lowest tax bills in the region can be found south and north of the city. Of the 15 municipalities with average tax bills under $4,000, only two are west of Boston: Ayer ($3,982) and Bellingham ($3,772). Wareham has an average single-family tax bill of $2,582, making it the lowest in the suburbs.
In those less affluent communities, voters have been far less likely to approve tax hikes that exceed the annual 2.5 percent increase the state law allows officials to assess without putting the question on the ballot.
On the South Shore, homeowners in Braintree — just 10 miles south of Boston — have easy access to Routes 3 and 128 and good access to public transportation,
“It’s a vibrant community with one of the lowest residential tax rates in the state because of all the commercial and industry here,” Marella said, noting that the town also runs its own light department, which helps to keep utility costs down.
Single-family homes in Braintree go for as little as $280,000, though many starter homes sell in the mid-to-high $300,000s. Low inventory is driving housing costs up, Marella said, noting that prices are highest in Braintree Hills, where ranches and bungalows are being transformed into expansive homes with vaulted ceilings.
After extensive work, a contemporary home in that neighborhood, at 21 Braemore Road, recently sold for $665,000. Once a 700-square-foot bungalow, a 2,000-plus square-foot addition opened up the space, flooding it with natural light.
Still, Braintree remains a bargain when compared with other South Shore communities. The same home in Cohasset would command 30 to 50 percent more, depending on location. “If it were on the water, it could easily go for over $900,000,” Marella said.
“We moved to Braintree because we heard the school system is good,” said Elaine Huang, 26, who, with her husband, Alwen Chen, 26, purchased a two-story, three-bedroom home in East Braintree for $341,000 in September. The tax bill on their home is $2,941 this fiscal year, according to town tax records.
In Metrowest, realtors say Natick offers a good balance between reasonable housing prices and the services homeowners receive for their hard-earned dollars. Natick students have good MCAS scores , while the town boasts a low crime rate, miles of walking trails, and upscale shops at the Natick Mall.
Surrounded by many communities where homes command much heftier prices, Natick is the first affordable town a buyer will hit heading west out of Boston, according to Mark Galante, a broker and owner of Exit First Choice Professional Realty in Framingham. The average property tax bill for a single-family home in Natick is $6,630; in surrounding communities other than Framingham — including Weston, Wellesley, Dover, Sherborn, and Wayland — the average annual bill for a single-family home exceeds $12,000.
North of Boston, Burlington is considered a good buy. The town has low residential property taxes, good schools, nicely maintained parks, and the 3rd Avenue retail boulevard, which is expected to add significantly to the town’s $1.3 million meal tax revenue.
“When people are trying to decide where to buy, and where they grew up is not a factor, they look at quality-of-life issues, and that includes property taxes,” said Rollins, who added that she thinks Burlington is one of the best values in the region, in part because “elected officials, for a number of years, have opted to include whatever services they can in the tax dollar. There aren’t a lot of fees.”
The strong commercial tax flow enables Burlington to fund a broad range of services and programs, from iPads for every high school student to a Recreation Department that offers a variety of programs throughout the year. The town does not charge for trash pickup, school bus transportation, or high school athletics.
Homes in Burlington run from the mid $300,000s for a small ranch to the low $800,000s for a newly built Colonial, Rollins said. The average assessed value of a single-family home is $420,117, with an average tax bill of $4,768.
“Finding a home here was very competitive, but definitely worth it,” said Ryan DeCoste, 25, who with his wife, Beth, 28, bought a 1950s ranch on a half-acre for $390,000. The couple passed papers on the home last month, attracted to the area in part by the services they get for their tax dollars. The assessed value of the couple’s home is $338,800. They will pay $3,845 in property taxes this fiscal year, Burlington records show.
“We had been looking in Woburn, Wilmington, Billerica, and Tewksbury, too,” said DeCoste. “We decided to buy in Burlington because, overall, we felt it offered more. Billerica taxes were so much higher, and it was the same with Woburn and Wilmington.
“Here, we have better access to the main highways and we were able to find a house with gas and sewer. In other communities, the homes were on septic and oil.”
Added Rollins, who helped the DeCostes through the home-buying process: “At the end of the day, there are certain communities that just offer more. Burlington is one.”
|Property taxes around the state|
|What the owner of a single-family home of average value will pay in property taxes in the current fiscal year (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015).|
|City/town||Average value||Tax rate||Average bill|