How do you solve a problem like the Boston area? With its patchwork of dozens of municipalities, each containing at least several neighborhoods, the region can be daunting to newcomers and residents alike—especially when it comes to picking where to live.
That’s especially true as the 2020s get underway. A historic building boom is entering its second decade, bringing with it tens of thousands of additional apartments and condos, never mind the millions of square feet of commercial space. This development has jumbled not merely the streetscapes of myriad neighborhoods and municipalities, but their very identities. It makes it that much more difficult to divine where to live.
Fear not, though. Take a deep breath in the new decade, and consider these seven areas.
They are competitive in terms of price (re: not astronomically expensive, as is typical of much of Greater Boston). They also offer a proximity to the region’s commercial core in downtown Boston. And! They are each far from stale or staid, but instead dynamic enclaves that offer a lot of energy.
The draw: Historic; close to downtown Boston; stylish architecture
Similar neighborhoods: Mid-Cambridge in Cambridge; Beacon Hill
Getting around: Make friends—and peace—with the Orange Line
Boston’s oldest neighborhood is just across the Charles River from the city’s core and a short Orange Line or bus ride into that core. The neighborhood offers a mix of history—look, the Bunker Hill Monument, townhouses from the 1830s, the oldest bar in Massachusetts!—and very au courant street-level activity. Charlestown is dense and alive—and right there.
It’s also not that expensive. Charlestown’s median condo sales price was $715,500 in 2019, according to Boston-based research firm the Warren Group. That was up a couple of thousand from 2018, and up significantly from $415,000 in 2008. But that’s still in line with the citywide condo median of $705,000.
It is a different story for Charlestown’s much-vaunted townhouses. The median price there was $1.2 million in 2019, up $200,000 give or take from 2018—and nearly double the citywide single-family median of $625,000.
The draw: Absurdly inexpensive and roomy housing three miles from Boston
Similar neighborhoods: Everett; Revere
Getting around: Chelsea is a car city, but the Silver Line and buses get you downtown
The city of Chelsea went bankrupt in 1991, the first Massachusetts municipality to do so since the Great Depression. It has been climbing back ever since, and now offers some of the most competitive housing prices in Greater Boston—all right near (as in three or four miles, tops) downtown Boston.
Not only that, but the real estate on offer in Chelsea is spacious by regional standards, with three- and four-bedrooms available at what one- and two-bedrooms would go for in Boston proper or Cambridge. The median condo sales price in Chelsea was $375,000 in 2019, according to the Warren Group, and the median single-family price was $445,000. Each was barely up from 2018. (Get in now?)
What’s more, as of April 2018 the Silver Line is running into downtown Chelsea and then right back into downtown Boston—the commute can take as little as 30 minutes one way.
The draw: Neighborhood feel near downtown and Logan airport; collegial streetscape
Similar neighborhoods: Allston and Brighton
Getting around: The Blue Line to downtown in 15 minutes tops or a (limited) ferry
Eastie is on the cusp of becoming just as pricey as its nearby brethren the North End and Government Center. That’s due almost entirely to the waves of that have swamped the neighborhood during the past several years, almost all of it of the higher-end variety and much of it on or near the waterfront.
The stats bear this out. The median condo sales price in East Boston was $212,500 in 2010. In 2019, it was $572,500. The median single-family price was $599,500, up from $216,075 at the start of the last decade, according to the Warren Group.
But! Both figures are well below the citywide medians. See where we’re going with this? Eastie’s still a bargain, especially given its location just across Boston Harbor from downtown. Act quickly, however, because it won’t stay this way for much longer. The numbers don’t lie.
The draw: Location, location, location
Similar neighborhoods: Newton and Brookline, but you’ll pay top dollar
Getting around: Downtown in 30 minutes on the Red Line; a car or bike in town
Here’s the thing about the City of Presidents (John and John Quincy both lie in repose there): It’s just outside of Boston, with four Red Line stops and real estate that can be significantly cheaper than the city’s larger northern neighbor. Quincy might be the perfect bedroom community if you work in Boston proper.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own unique quirks and charms. Its waterfront resembles a New England fishing village more than an urban downtown, for instance.
But Quincy cannot be beat in terms of its ready proximity to Boston via a major subway line. Public and private interests in the city seem to recognize this, for there are hundreds of new apartments and condos going up—as well as office and lab space—on or around said Red Line stops.
As for the prices, again, the numbers don’t lie. The median single-family sales price in the city of 94,000 was $512,500 in 2019, well below the median in Boston. And the median condo price was $360,000—again, well below that of Quincy’s northern neighbor.
The draw: Quiet, suburban feel near Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston
Similar neighborhoods: North to Malden, or try Arlington and Watertown to the west
Getting around: You’ll need a car, but the Green Line is coming soon
Michael Bloomberg’s hometown is another bedroom community—not just for Boston, but for an increasingly expensive Somerville and an absurdly expensive Cambridge. The town of about 58,000 people either borders or is right near all three. In fact, you can basically stroll into Medford from Somerville.
Like other areas proximate to these pricier enclaves, Medford is getting more expensive. If you’re looking to live in a place where you’ll be able to regale dinner guests five years from now with your foresight for getting in early, Medford is the place. The town’s median condo sales price went from barely $286,000 in 2010 to $535,000 in 2019. And its single-family price hit $619,500 in 2019—almost double the total 10 years before.
What’s more, the state is extending the Green Line into Medford. It’s supposed to finish unspooling in 2021, which will crank demand for the town to 11.
The draw: Near Kendall Square and just across the Charles from Boston
Similar neighborhoods: Somerville enclaves Spring Hill and Ten Hills
Getting around: Eminently walkable and bikeable; near the Kendall Square Red Line stop
Fact: The city of Cambridge is one of the most expensive in New England, with a median 2019 condo sales price of $760,000 and a median single-family price of $1.5 million. Also a fact: East Cambridge is its cheapest part.
The Warren Group doesn’t break out East Cambridge stats from the rest of the People’s Republic, but anecdotally—and via any cursory search of home listings—the enclave is less expensive than Cambridge nabes such as Harvard and Porter squares or even the farther-out Alewife area, where the Red Line ends.
Well, so what? It’s a less expensive neighborhood in a very, very expensive city? Well, East Cambridge—with its almost quaint row houses and low-rise residential buildings as well as copious amounts of parkland—makes the list because it is just to the north of the East Coast’s number one tech/biotech hub, Kendall Square.
Thousands of people work in that hub, whether for major tech and biotech firms such as Genzyme, Facebook, and Google or for resident behemoth the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. East Cambridge is therefore a convenient option for these folks—as well as for those hoping to make inroads into such industries or into M.I.T. itself.
The draw: Centrally located; tons of public transit; a 24-7 vibe
Similar neighborhoods: Its western neighbors Roxbury and Mattapan
Getting around: Learn to lean on the Red Line
Mighty, mighty Dorchester is Boston’s largest neighborhood by area. (How’d that happen? Dorchester was its own city until the 1870s!) As such, it has several distinct enclaves, and is probably Boston’s most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood as well as its most diverse in terms of housing stock. There are grand, old Victorians side-by-side gut-renovated triple-deckers and ground-up luxury condos.
Plus, because Dorchester (aka Dot) is right there in Boston proper, it’s near downtown, South Boston, and other neighborhoods such as the South End, Roxbury, and Back Bay. The Red Line rumbles through it as do more than a dozen bus lines; the dense, eclectic neighborhood teems with activity 24-7. It’s lively.
It’s also still affordable—a rare thing within the city limits nowadays. Dot’s median single-family price was $550,000 in 2019, actually down several thousand from 2018, according to the Warren Group. And the median condo price was $485,000, up $9,000 from 2018.
In fact, gentrification of the bad kind—read: displacement of longtime residents and businesses—dogs Dorchester because of this relative affordability. Proceed as you see fit.