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How to pick a Boston neighborhood

Transportation, housing costs, schools, parks, property taxes, and more should factor into any decision about where to live in the Boston area

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Picking a neighborhood is probably the most important decision a Boston-area resident will make, aside from whether to add “wicked” to their vocabulary (advice: don’t).

There is a smorgasbord of things to consider: how much space you’ll get for your money; whether said space is near mass transit or whether it will mean driving day in and day out; which schools, parks, and assorted amenities are nearby; how loud or quiet the surrounding area is; and on and on.

For newcomers, this may all sound a little overwhelming. Even if you have the cash flow to live wherever you’d like within the region, there will still be tradeoffs. The pickings can be slim regardless of your budget, as the area has long suffered from a dearth of housing supply versus demand.

Here, then, are 11 things to consider when picking a Boston-area neighborhood.


1. First, know the Boston area. The meta thing to know about the Boston region is that it’s exactly that: a region. It includes dozens of cities and towns spreading from the New Hampshire border down to the Rhode Island one, and out to the center of Massachusetts. Nearly 4.9 million people live in this mega-region.

Some of the towns and cities—including Waltham, Sudbury, Winchester, and Stoneham—are downright pastoral, with widely spaced single-family homes amid lush yards and down long driveways. Some—including Boston proper (population 700,000 or thereabouts), Quincy, Medford, and Cambridge—are mostly densely urban and come with all the bustle you would expect to find in a big city.

Somerville, a Boston neighbor, is even denser, with around 80,000 people in about 4 square miles.

It’s important to note up top, though, that Boston is probably one of the few major U.S. metros where it can actually cost more to live farther away from downtown. Downtown Boston is expensive, to be sure—check out these housing stats from summer 2019—but so are those farther-flung pastoral areas, where single-family houses with yards can quickly run into the seven figures each.

The best way to learn about these towns and cities, of course, is to get out there and spend time in them. If you can’t, then be glad that Boston is still a newspaper town, so to speak. To get a better sense of things, you can peruse the local media—Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Cambridge Day, Somerville Times, Quincy Patriot-Ledger, Dorchester Reporter, etc.—to get a feel for each place.

A giant sculpture of a pear in Boston.
Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood is the city’s largest by area.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

2. Second, know the neighborhood. So you’ve picked the municipality, whether Boston proper or one of its neighbors. Now it’s time to drill down into the actual neighborhood in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Quincy, et al. There are hundreds throughout the region, each with its own curiosities and quirks, amenities and the lack thereof. The internet is your friend in doing initial research on neighborhoods, and visits help too.

It’s also a good idea to ask yourself what you’re looking for in terms of a neighborhood. Boston’s South End, for instance, teems with young professionals, and its North End teems with tourists. Allston (also in Boston) has a lot of college students. The region’s vaunted life sciences/biotechnology industry, and many of the people who labor in it, revolves around Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

There are also immigrant communities in different municipalities and neighborhoods, including Salvadorans in East Boston, Vietnamese people in Dorchester (Boston), and Haitians in Hyde Park (also Boston). These communities are reflected in the features of the different neighborhoods, such as restaurants and houses of worship.

Finally, the city of Brockton has the highest share of residents of Cape Verdean descent of any U.S. city, and the city of Boston has long been the capital of the Irish diaspora.

3. Don’t be fooled by old-school reputation or cachet. Perhaps no other region in America is as stereotyped as Boston. It’s as if people’s perception of Boston and the surrounding region ceased evolving sometime in 1980. Think the movies that feature a guy in a Red Sox cap sitting in a bar talking about loyalty or those that see the city and its surroundings as merely a gritty backdrop for mafia machinations.

What’s more, pop culture seems to have trapped certain neighborhoods in the same aspic. South Boston is thought to still be mostly gritty Irish-American (the latter’s true, the former far from it anymore). The Boston waterfront is no longer desolate and dangerous. The Combat Zone closed (and has been replaced by an altogether pleasant stretch of streetscape that connects Boston’s Theater District and Chinatown). Somerville is not the Next Brooklyn, nor is it Cambridge’s cheaper twin any longer.

So don’t let TV, movies, and books cloud your perceptions, nor let a reputation for this or that dissuade you from considering a neighborhood that meets your specific needs.

A line of quaint rowhouses with wrought-iron railings on their stairs.
Rowhouses are a feature of Boston’s South End.
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4. Figure out what matters most: location, space, or cost. Satisfying all three at the same time in the Boston area is like winning the lottery while on a rocket ship to Mars. Even those with cash to spare might have a difficult time hitting the trifecta due to the dearth of supply amid perennially high demand in the region’s housing market.

So it’s important to figure out what’s most important to you. If you’re going for size, you will likely end up living in somewhat distant municipalities such as Arlington, Lexington, Milton, and Woburn—or even farther out, in the likes of Canton and Reading or Swampscott and Peabody—and therefore facing a long commute to work and elsewhere.

If you prioritize neighborhood amenities or cache—the sort that come via hipper urban nabes such as Boston’s Fort Point or South End, or Harvard Square in Cambridge or Davis Square in Somerville—get ready to pony up. Rents and prices can run at least 10 to 20 percent higher than in less amenity-laden areas.

To get a sense of the costs involved neighborhood to neighborhood and municipality to municipality, check out Curbed Boston’s real estate markets report page. A recent report via the Greater Boston Association of Realtors should also help.

5. Take public transit into account. The region’s public transit system is hit or miss. Cancellations and delays dog it due in large part to its agedness (the Boston area’s T is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest subway system) and baked-in funding issues. But when it clicks, it clicks, and it can make getting from point A to point B much easier and cheaper than driving.

Some neighborhoods, too, have not only more stations and stops than others but also more buses and trains running through them. These neighborhoods tend to be around and near downtown Boston, and include Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, the South End, South Boston, Dorchester, and Roxbury.

Adjoining cities such as Somerville, Cambridge, and Quincy enjoy a greater share of mass-transit options. Check out the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Trip Planner site to get a better sense of what goes where. You can even plot out your possible commute.

Finally, we should note that staying on the train or the bus that much longer—sometimes only one stop longer—can save you quite a bit in housing costs. But, again, mass transit in the Boston region can be hit or miss day to day. How valuable, then, is your time?

A subway sign in Cambridge’s Kendall Square stop, with commuters walking by.
Cambridge’s Kendall Square is the region’s biotech and tech hub.
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6. If you’re going to drive, try to live close to your office. See above re: mass transit. And also know that the Boston area’s traffic is absurdly bad. The region’s drivers suffer from some of the nation’s—if not the world’s—longest commutes, and supercommuting (i.e., driving at least 90 minutes one way) is pretty common compared with other U.S. metros.

What’s more, there are basically no signs of improvement as of late 2019. Traffic congestion in the Boston area has gotten so bad that Massachusetts officials are considering implementing a telecommuting tax credit that would be the first of its kind in the nation. It would reward companies that let employees work either from home or closer to it.

Think hard about whether you want to join this vehicular crunch, or if you want to try to get by without a car.

7. Know the school districts if you need to. As in most cities, the public school systems in Boston proper and most of the towns and cities surrounding it base student assignments around home address.

The different systems, too, offer busing options, including through the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). And the MBTA itself offers discounted passes for students (children under 12 ride free with an adult, with up to two such kids per adult). That way you don’t have to drive or live right next to the school for a relatively easy commute.

As for picking a school or school system, start with the state’s fantastic online clearinghouse of data, searchable by school district, which includes things like student-teacher ratios and test scores. For more information, simply reach out to the individual systems themselves for information.

Don’t rely on word of mouth, as while certain districts have had their struggles—Boston proper, for one—individual schools might be quite good. The reverse can be true for districts with better overall reputations, including Cambridge and Newton—some schools might struggle in spite of their system’s overall quality.

8. Assess your property taxes. Because the government certainly will (heh). This matters even for renters, as landlords can end up passing along property taxes in the form of higher leasing costs.

Property taxes vary from municipality to municipality in the Boston area. Check out this handy tool from financial planning website SmartAsset to see what you might pay per town or city.

The priciest towns and cities do not necessarily have the highest property taxes. Cambridge—one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. for renting or buyinghas one of the state’s lowest property tax rates. And, compared with other municipalities in the region, Boston proper’s isn’t that high either. It ranks 312th out of 347 Massachusetts locales.

A path along trees changing color.
This parkland in Wellesley—on the campus of Wellesley College—is typical of the wide-open natural spaces more prevalent farther from the region’s core.
Shutterstock

9. Nature, peace, and quiet are all on the menu if you choose. Yes, the Boston area is one of the most densely populated metros in the United States. But there are redoubts of quietude.

Enjoying these oases, however, will mean living farther afield from the region’s core, including downtown Boston, in more verdant bucolic towns such as Weston, Wellesley, and Woburn, that have more green and open spaces, and likely forgoing public transit in favor of driving.

It will also almost certainly mean paying more in housing, as, again, single-families and larger condos in these locales can quickly run past six figures. So ask yourself how valuable peace and quiet are to you—literally.

That said, though, there are still peaceful places within and near the region’s core. Plenty of neighborhoods have fantastically expansive parks that let you escape the urban hustle and bustle. Try Boston’s Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, or Fenway. Or West Cambridge. Or try living near one of the region’s beaches or waterfront esplanades (downtown Boston and Cambridge boast a lot of frontage along the Charles River, for instance).

10. Know the town-and-gown breakdown. It’s impossible to divorce the Boston region from the dozens of colleges and universities that dot it. And why would you want to? Collegians give the area much of its vigor. But, let’s face it, they can also be noisy and keep odder hours than most.

Certain neighborhoods—including Boston’s Allston and Brighton, Cambridge’s Harvard and Kendall squares, and Somerville’s Davis Square—have higher student populations than others. So avoid those if you want to keep Frisbees off your lawn (metaphorically), or plunge right into them if you want a little more youthful vibrancy in your streetscape.

11. Consider winter. Alas, the Boston area is one of the more inhospitable U.S. metros to reside in from about late November through early March. Its winter weather absolutely must be taken into account when picking a neighborhood.

It will take longer during the winter to commute, whatever your means of transportation or proximity to mass transit or main thoroughfares. It just will. Plowing varies from municipality to municipality, and neighborhoods farther from downtown cores generally take longer to dig out (often because they’re not the priority), and they have fewer interior stations, exposing commuters to the elements more than stops in neighborhoods throughout much of downtown Boston and downtown Cambridge.

This is where living in more central neighborhoods, or at least neighborhoods nearer to public transit, comes in handy. Might we suggest downtown Boston areas such as Back Bay and Downtown Crossing, or Cambridge’s Kendall, Central, Harvard, and Porter squares? Or pretty much anywhere in densely packed Somerville, which is strategically placed next to both Cambridge and Boston and which has quite a few transit stops, particularly for buses.

Though the snow, ice, and gloom has been known to slow the T as well.

Heavy snow piled on a street and on the cars along the street.
You’ve been warned. Boston’s Back Bay snowed under.
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