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How to pick a Boston Neighborhood

So, you’ve taken the plunge and decided to move to Boston. That’s great! Boston has so much to offer, from amazing and diverse neighborhoods, to a bustling food scene, to some of the best dog parks around. Boston also has some of the best schools in the country, making it highly popular with students and families with young children.

When picking a Boston neighborhood, there is a host of things to consider: your living expenses, availability of transportation, nearby amenities such as restaurants, parks, and schools...the list goes on and on!

In fact, there are so many factors that come into play when choosing a Boston neighborhood that monthly rent might not even make the top priority. Even if you had sufficient cash flow to afford pretty much any type of apartment within Boston, you can still end up having a hard time choosing the right neighborhood for you.

If you’re not familiar with the Boston area, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you can find about living in the region. So, here is a guide on how to pick a Boston neighborhood.

Get as Much Information as You Can

Moving to Boston, or indeed, any city, is a massive undertaking. You should prepare for your move as much as possible by doing your due diligence before you start looking for an apartment. 

Knowing the Boston area is the key to picking the best Boston neighborhood. The various areas of Boston are vastly different from one another, and you should pick which area best suits your needs.

Some of the districts in Boston such as Cambridge and Medford are highly urbanized, and thus come with all the elements you would expect in a big city. Space is a premium, sure, but you’ll also be within spitting distance of shopping centers, schools, and business areas. On the other hand, areas like Stoneham and Sudbury are more suburban and laidback. In those areas, you’ll find larger housing options such as duplexes and garden apartments.

Interestingly enough, Boston is one of those rare major U.S. cities where you might find it cheaper to rent closer to the business district. Since housing options in further areas are larger and geared more towards families, they’ll be priced accordingly.

Once you’ve armed yourself with enough information about the various Boston districts, it’s time to narrow down your choice to finding a Boston neighborhood for you.

Visit the Areas Personally if Possible

One of the best things about choosing a Boston neighborhood is that you can find significantly different environments in each area. South End, for instance, is filled with singles and young professionals, while North End is more known for being a tourist destination. Somerville and Cambridge are your typical “college towns”, so if you’re looking for good school districts or you’re a huge sports buff, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to sports bars. 

While the Internet is your friend when it comes to finding a Boston rental, nothing beats a personal visit. You’ll get to meet the people living in the area (remember, these people are your potential future neighbors), and you’ll get the general vibe of each neighborhood. Even if you’re moving for work, getting a feel for the community is an essential step.

If you have the time, try visiting the area more than once, or at least, during different times of the day. You’d be surprised how different a certain neighborhood can be in the morning and once the sun goes down. You can also get an idea of the relative safety of each location, especially when you consider factors such as cleanliness, building maintenance, and visibility at night.

Paying a personal visit also gives you a feel for the “spirit” of the community. Are the locals warm, friendly, and inviting, or does everyone seem to be more focused on their own business? Do you feel welcome or out of place? These might seem like trivial things, but when you’ve taken the plunge and signed the lease, there will be no backing out!

Consider the “Trifecta”

In the service industry, there’s a trifecta you need to consider: cheap, fast, and good. It’s impossible to satisfy all three, and you need to pick two. For example, if you want it cheap and fast, the service won’t be good. If you want it fast and good, it won’t be cheap.

You get the picture.

When it comes to finding a Boston neighborhood, there’s an almost similar trifecta you need to consider: spacious, affordable, and ideally located. Now, there is a chance that you find a Boston neighborhood that satisfies all three of these characteristics, but the probability is wicked low.

It’s a Boston thing, don’t worry, you’ll get it soon enough.

In all likelihood, you’ll be able to satisfy at least one of your needs in that trifecta, but you’d best be prepared to make sacrifices in terms of the other two factors. If you’re looking for an apartment that’s close to amenities or schools, your best bet would be in Cambridge or South End. However, rent will take its toll, as it’s around 10-20% higher in those areas.

If space is your top priority, check out apartments in neighborhoods such as Milton or Arlington. You’re more likely to find bigger and more affordable apartments, but be ready to face a long commute to get around.

Speaking of apartments…

The Type of Apartment Available can Depend on the Neighborhood

If you're lucky enough to find the type of apartment you want in the Boston neighborhood that you’re eyeing, then good for you! However, this is not always the case. Each neighborhood in Boston has a “common” type of apartment that you would normally see in the area. More often than not, the type of apartments that you will find in the area largely depend on the demographic of the locals.

Take Allston, for example. Allston has a quirky, vibrant, and Bohemian vibe that is attractive to young professionals and college students. Thus, you’ll typically find studio, 1-bedroom, and junior-1 apartments since they are the most affordable.

Back Bay, on the other hand, has a more upscale and elegant environment. Since the typical residents here are established professionals and well-to-do families, common apartment choices include duplexes and classic sixes. You can even find the odd penthouse here or there.

Finally, if you take a stroll around the North End, many of the housing options are made from renovated warehouse buildings. This means that walk-up apartments and lofts make up the bulk of apartment choices.

Buckle Down for Crowds

While you already know that Boston is a pretty crowded city, most of the time you won’t really feel the density of the population because of how spread out the neighborhoods are. However, there are times when crowds descend into Boston, making it difficult to move around, get restaurant reservations, or visit popular tourist spots.

Some of the most popular events in Boston include the Boston Marathon (the oldest marathon in the USA) and St. Patrick’s Day parade. During these two events, thousands of tourists come from out of town to visit Boston, and you’ll certainly feel the difference!

Of course, there are also districts in the city that are crowded pretty much year-round such as Brighton and Fenway. Fenway, in particular, gets borderline chaotic during sports seasons especially when home teams are playing in the stadium. If the Sox or the Celtics are playing, you can be sure that every restaurant, sports bar, and AirBnB within a 5-mile radius around the stadiums will be fully booked!

Account for Transportation Availability and Distance

Speaking of getting around, Boston locals know that public transportation (or more affectionately known as the T) isn’t exactly one of the best transits in the country, largely due to its age. What’s more, driving around in Boston can be challenging for people who don’t know the layout of the city, particularly because it doesn’t follow a grid like New York. Furthermore, Boston has the dubious honor of having the worst traffic rating in the whole country, so you might think twice about getting a private car.

Neighborhoods in and around high-traffic areas such as school and business districts have more public transportation options. It’s easiest to get in and around Downtown, of course, but areas like Back Bay and Fenway also have good transit scores.

While you could use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Trip Planner to help you get around according to schedule, there really are times when public transit isn’t all that reliable. Keep this in mind when choosing a cheap apartment that’s far from bus or train stations.

Taxes Also Play a Huge Role

Boston ranks 8th nationwide when it comes to property tax. Even if you’re just renting an apartment, you should still be concerned because your landlord can pass along this expense in your rent. This is why it’s important to know your tenant rights as a Boston renter.

There is one silver lining: property taxes vary from one neighborhood to another. You can get lower property taxes if you play your cards right. SmartAsset has a handy online tool that lets you calculate how much you’ll pay in a particular neighborhood.

It’s important to note that neighborhoods with the most expensive average rent do not necessarily have the highest property taxes. Cambridge, for example, might be one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Boston to rent an apartment, but it also has the lowest property tax rate in the state.

Don’t Forget the Weather

Considering that the average Boston winter is “just below freezing” with the temperature dropping to 5℉ not uncommon, you’d best learn how to layer your clothing before moving to Boston.

The cold weather doesn’t only take its toll on your heating bills, its effects can also be felt around the city. Commute times take significantly longer during the winter, especially for neighborhoods further away from downtown.

If you’re living in neighborhoods such as West Roxbury or Hyde Park, commuting can be a challenge because the bus stops and train stations are quite far from each other. It’s no wonder that in these two areas, more than 70% of the residents own a private vehicle. Can you imagine walking five or more blocks in below freezing temperatures to get to work, go to the store, or run some errands?

Final Thoughts

As Sun Tzu stated, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Moving to Boston might feel like an uphill battle with everything that you need to think about, but preparing beforehand means you’ll be able to tackle any issues you might encounter.

Picking a Boston neighborhood might not be easy, but this guide will help you make an informed decision. Or, as the locals would say, a “wicked pissa” of a decision!

It’s a Boston thing.