New housing data covering the first seven months of 2021 from the Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman, seem to suggest a shift may be underway in the urban market, with overall spring and early summer sales increasing across the state while some suburban towns experienced a softening in prices.  

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence, via real estate agents and brokers, suggests the pandemic-era exodus from urban areas may be easing, with demand for units in some cities, both for rentals and units for sale, picking up in recent weeks, as the fall homebuying season commences. 

Year-to-date statewide sales of both single-family homes and condominiums, which plunged last year during the height of the pandemic, were not only up in July, by 14 percent and a whopping 40 percent, respectively, compared to July 2020. Statewide year-to-date sales through July were also up from pre-pandemic 2019 levels, or by 3 percent for single-family homes and by 21 percent for condos, according to Warren Group data. 

The increase in sales over the first seven months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2019, doesn’t appear to have made much difference in prices. Year-to-date median single-family home prices jumped by 27 percent, to $506,375, from 2019 to 2021, while median condo prices jumped by 21 percent, to $460,000, during the same time periods, data shows. 

Still, real estate agents are cautiously encouraged by the increase in sales. 

Listings Inch Up 

There are a number of explanations for the uptick. Among them, more sellers were putting their homes on the market to take advantage of current high prices. And sellers may feel more comfortable, after this year’s massive COVID-19 vaccination push, about putting their homes up for sale in the middle of a pandemic or finding a new home in a very tight market. 

Total single-family inventory in the Greater Boston Association of Realtors’ coverage area crept up from May to July, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and sat at 1,198 in July and 1,087 in August. Condos saw broadly similar movement, with inventory at 1,933 in July and 1,651 in August. 

Whatever the reasons, some real estate agents, though not all, say they’re noticing a slight shift in the market. 

Dean Poritzky, owner of Engel & Volkers Wellesley, says the spring market was “extremely active,” with many potential buyers continuing to migrate away from urban areas in search of homes with more indoor and outdoor space.  

Yet Poritzky, whose office covers Wellesley, Weston, Wayland, Dover and other nearby communities, said the market is “not as frenetic” as it was a year ago, thanks partly to a slight increase in the number of homes for sale in some, though not all, communities.  

“I think it’s starting to come back a bit,” he said of additional homes being put on the market. 

Mixed Picture in Urban Sales 

Larry Rideout, owner and chairman of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, says he has no doubt a shift is underway, both in terms of the number of units for sale and where sales are occurring.  

After a hectic spring and then a major lull in August, Rideout, whose firm has 24 offices in eastern Massachusetts, says he’s seen an increase in sales activity – with many of them in urban areas. And rentals in urban areas are also increasing, “perhaps to historic levels,” though more data is needed before any definitive history-making statements can be made, he said. 

“I think Boston is on the precipice of coming back,” he says. 

Data over the first seven months of 2021 appears to confirm Rideout’s observations about Suffolk County, home to Boston, where condo sales were up 35 percent in July, compared to July 2020, and up year-to-date by 56 percent compared to the first seven months of 2019. Single-family sales in Suffolk County also increased during the same time periods, or up by 12 percent and 36 percent, respectively. 

Suffolk County median prices have also risen, with condo prices up 18 percent year-over-year in July, to $659,000, compared to July 2020, and up 2 percent year-to-date compared to 2019. Single-family median prices in Suffolk County were up 13 percent and 18 percent respectively during the same time periods, to $683,000. 

Numbers of listings have crept upwards in Greater Boston in recent months as the total buyer pool has shrunk slightly. But the market is still very heated, agents say.

Digging deeper into the Boston data, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, downtown, the North End and South End combined show a year-to-date 32 percent increase in condo sales, but prices in the core area continue to struggle, down 6 percent, to $871,000, compared to the first seven months of 2019.  

The same mixed trends can be seen in other urban-like communities, such as Brookline, where sales of both single-family homes and condos have indeed shown increases of late – but where median prices have actually fallen for single-family homes by 8 percent, to $1.96 million, and condos by 6 percent, to $850,000, during the first seven months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2019. 

Yet Jon Ufland, managing broker and principal at Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty, said one has to be cautious when it comes to drawing conclusions about Brookline’s stats.  

He noted that prices were softening in Brookline even before the pandemic due to a number of factors, including more new units in Boston and Cambridge and fewer international buyers, both of which appear to have dampened demand for high-priced properties in the town. 

In the city of Newton, year-to-date data shows increased sales of both single-family homes and condos from 2019 to 2021. Median prices were up 15 percent for single-family homes, to $1.48 million, while condo prices increased by 4 percent, to $775,000, during the same time period. 

More Listings Not Enough to Relieve Pressure 

What about the suburbs? Overall, demand remains extremely strong, particularly in towns with good school systems and lots of space, said Amy Mizner of Gibson Sotheby’s in Weston.  

But some suburban towns are doing better than others, such as Sudbury, where single-family prices over the first seven months of 2021 jumped by 37 percent, to $1 million, compared to the same period in 2019. Other towns seeing big year-to-date price hikes compared to 2019 include Lexington (up 28 percent) and Weston (up 48 percent). 

But some suburban towns seem to be seeing a softening in prices, such as Dover, where year-to-date prices through July were up by 9 percent, to $1.4 million, compared to 2019. That’s still a hefty increase but not necessarily Sudbury-like numbers. 

Mizner and others downplayed such differences, saying suburban buyers are simply trying to find the most affordable deals in a very hot suburban market – and they may be shying away from previously high-priced towns such as Dover. 

Meg Steere, an agent at Berkshire Hathaway Commonwealth Real Estate in Watertown, said there may be technically more homes for sales in some communities in recent months – but it sure doesn’t feel like it.  

“It’s just still so competitive,” she said. “There’s not nearly enough inventory. You’re constantly losing out on multiple bids.” 

As for the fall, Steere said she’s not expecting much change:“So far, it feels like it has in the past – very competitive.” 

Is the Urban Market on the Rebound?

by Jay Fitzgerald time to read: 5 min