According to Forbes magazine, the top 10 priciest ZIP codes are either in the New York City metro area or California, two areas of the country that have experienced a lot of economic turmoil since the mortgage and financial markets blew up four years ago.
Those markets remain extremely pricey despite experiencing fluctuations. If you are seeking a high-end market that has been much more steadfast with minor price movement, then you have to go further east than the Big Apple, all the way to the Atlantic Coast of Massachusetts and the city of Boston — and not all of Beantown, just the central core.
"Downtown Boston dodged a bullet," said Kevin Ahearn of Boston-based Otis & Ahearn Inc., a brokerage firm and publisher of local residential sales data. "We held prices from our peak in 2008 with over $1,000 a square foot on million-dollar home sales."
In addition, he said, "2010 has been a great year, especially at the high end, with the second-highest data points in the last decade."
What Ahearn refers to is median and average pricing for single-family units. According to his company’s reports, average pricing for the downtown Boston market — think neighborhoods like Back Bay and Beacon Hill — in 2010 reached just under $700,000, which is the highest point in pricing since the record year of 2008, when the average was $718,393.
If one goes by median pricing, 2010’s $470,000 equals the $470,000 of 2008.
Tracy Campion, president of the eponymous boutique brokerage, Campion and Co. in Boston, said she’s a top-selling real estate agent on a statewide basis, and her firm was the second-busiest office in Boston last year. Her stomping grounds: downtown Boston.
In 2010, Campion and Co. transacted more than $220 million in sales, up nicely from the $176 million the year before.
"The good thing about downtown Boston is that it is a small area," she said, "and prices haven’t come down — at least not in the luxury, high end of the market that I’m lucky enough to work in."
Her biggest deal last year was a three-building set for $13.75 million, but she also sold a condominium penthouse that overlooked the Charles River for $8.5 million. The buyer of the condominium was an empty-nester.
The dense, intensely urban city of Boston boasts great restaurants, shopping, universities, and a plethora of cultural venues and events, all of which have attracted large numbers of baby boomers who are at or near retirement age. Some are selling their large homes in the suburbs and moving to condos in the city.
Other cities are experiencing the same phenomenon, but in reality there are only a handful of great urban locations in the U.S., and Boston is one of them.
"The people who are selling in Weston and Wellesley have tremendous cash and equity in their homes and if they are not moving to Florida or Cape Cod, they are coming into town," said Ahearn. "They no longer need the suburban school systems and large homes."
The Boston metro has some great affluent suburbs including the aforementioned, Wellesley and Weston, but they were all affected by the recession, Ahearn said. "What happened in downtown Boston was very different from what happened in the wealthy suburbs, places impacted by layoffs and a poor economy."
What cushioned downtown Boston was a complex mix of diversity and economies.
According to Ahearn, even wealthy suburbs generally have two types of buyers: first-timers and people who trade up. On the other hand, the downtown market has many different buyer profiles: investors, parent-purchasers (for children in college), retirees, executives, singles and young marrieds, etc.
Secondly, the inventory in the suburbs is much higher than downtown, which has barriers to entry for new construction. "Right now, we have just five months’ inventory, and it is dropping like a brick," said Ahearn.
Thirdly, the downtown market is underleveraged; in 2010, about 30 percent of buyers paid in cash. Fourthly, downtown Boston boasts a diverse cross-section of jobs.
As a result of all that, the downtown Boston residential market behaves quite differently from the rest of the state.
I also checked in with Timothy Warren, whose Boston-based company, The Warren Group, publishes a monthly report on Massachusetts single-family home sales.
"Massachusetts started earlier into the recession, but didn’t fall as far as the rest of the country," Warren reported. "Home prices declined about 20 percent from peak."
That apex came in 2005, when single-family median prices for the state hit $355,000. By the end of 2009, the decline finally halted at $285,000. Today, the median price has clawed back to $298,000.
The real difference between Massachusetts in general and downtown Boston is that the latter’s stability is the antithesis of what has happened across the state.
Starting in July 2009, the state experienced 12 straight months of increased sales volume — mostly due to tax credits. When the credits ended, sales volume hit a wall. As an example, November single-family home sales declined 29.8 percent from the same month the year before.
The only good news in that data point was that sales were higher than November 2008 before the mad rush to buy with the tax credits.
Warren is cautiously optimistic for 2011. "There’s some pent-up demand for people who postponed a home purchase or a home sale," he said. "Improved job numbers would give people a lot more confidence to go make real estate deals."
That’s a sharp difference to the prognostications of Ahearn, who even sees good news in the cheaper segment of the downtown Boston market.
"We’re seeing a broad holding of values across all segments, if not upward pressure on pricing on the lower end ($499,000 and below)," he said. "The small-unit market has very high yield. You look at the studios and consistently see deals at $700 to $900 a square foot.