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Creatively Expensive: the Evolution of the Boston Loft

Here's the latest installment of Bates By the Numbers, a weekly feature by Boston real estate agent David Bates that drills down into the Hub's housing market to uncover those trends and people you would not otherwise notice. Follow him on Twitter and check out his ebook, Context: Nine Key Condo Markets, 2.0.

It wasn't always that way. It was just a few decades ago that developers started buying industrial buildings in remote Boston locations and repositioning them as residential living space. Instead of spending lots of money outfitting the new condos with expensive finishes, those investors dropped in $999 kitchens and left the interiors raw and open.

Richard K. Greer, of the Boston brokerage Kimball Borgo, was the listing agent for some of the original loft conversions. He recalls buying big boxes of chalk, the kind typically used for the game Four Square, and spending days chalking out perhaps as many as three units on each wide-open floor of a former industrial building. "And that's how they sold them," Greer says, pointing out that it was the most fun he has had in his 30 years as a broker.

When these condos came to market in the '80s, creatives such as designers and photographers loved the former-use details: the exposed bricks and beams, cement columns, large windows, old wide-planked wood floors and, of course, the exceptional ceiling height. They also loved the prices, which typically came at a significant discount compared with more finished condos in more established neighborhoods. And, thus, one of real estate's sexier marketing terms, "loft," was born.

Early on, lofts were hard to explain, especially to appraisers, who used small studios in some of the city's best neighborhoods for comparables. But it didn't take long for this new style of home to become understood and find more mainstream buyers. Greer remembers when loft living was romanticized in a 1990 movie and he would get calls asking, "Do you have anything like the loft in Ghost?" Lofts had come of age.

As the popularity and prices of lofts increased, however, not only did the demographics buying them change, but the types of Boston buildings they were found in also changed. No longer was it necessary to re-invent an old factory, tannery, warehouse, firehouse or school as lofts. Instead, loft developers built brand-new buildings and planned every inch of what the space would look like. The new Boston loft developers added bedrooms to the open spaces, put in luxury finishes, and even hired concierges for their modern loft buildings—amenities that seemed in stark contrast to the original utilitarian look and feel of lofts.

The new loft buildings also, of course, priced out creatives, but few developers cared because their features and amenities appealed to a much more profitable segment of real estate buyers: luxury buyers. Today, Greer says that in Boston there is a very strong market for artists and other people looking for inexpensive, raw loft space, but that it "pretty much doesn't exist anymore." He notes that even a loft he sold back in one of the original loft conversions recently re-sold for more than $1 million.

Paul Santucci, a broker who has specialized in loft sales since 2006, told me that Court Square Press is the best loft building in Boston. He says that the concierge building with a gym is the perfect example of a converted factory and that the developers utilized the unique characteristics of the building in their design. The tipping point for Court Square Press's popularity, however, has been location. Santucci notes that Court Square Press is right on the doorstep of the West Broadway T, which he identifies as the "hottest location in Boston right now" for new restaurants and retailers. It seems that even the remote city locations where Boston lofts can be found have become mainstream.

Santucci says that loft living appeals to a wide variety of Hub demographics, but isn't for everyone. Some people really want to buy a loft and try to make it work, but find they are more conservative than they thought and end up in more traditional condominiums.

For a while, we discuss the great loft buildings outside of Boston, in places like Lowell, Lynn and Everett. One loft building that Santucci has a special enthusiasm for is Spencer Lofts in Chelsea. It has an artist gallery, an amenity very appropriate for a loft building, and Santucci says that on any given Sunday in the summer, some of the building's residents who are musicians might be heard giving an outdoor concert. In terms of Boston lofts, however, Santucci, who comes from a design background, echoes Greer. "Unfortunately, the one thing that I am seeing is less and less real true artists being able to afford the spaces."

Without question, lofts are a popular way to live in Boston, but are they more or less popular than they have been in years past? What do you think?
· Our Bates By the Numbers archive [Curbed Boston]