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Looking for experiences with Boston’s western suburbs
January 21, 2014 9:05 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are planning a move to Boston’s western ‘burbs in the next couple of years (think Newton, Wellesley, Needham, etc.). We are looking for a community connected to downtown Boston via some form of public transportation, and with good schools. We do not need an interesting town center, and are happy to walk a mile or so to get to public transport (provided that there is a sidewalk). Since this is surely going to be a backbreakingly expensive purchase, I need the advice and anecdotes of random strangers on the internet to help us focus our search.

Mostly what it says on the tin. We’re both, broadly defined, “liberal intellectuals,” to the extent that matters, but we’re not BMW-driving strivers. We also are serious nesters, and we don’t need good restaurants or entertainment locally. We don’t have any family or friends in any particular towns we’re trying to be close to (or far from). Public schools are important to us, as is public transportation.

We’ll likely work with a broker or two to get the lay of the land, but there are so many towns and neighborhoods that I hoped you could share some of your local knowledge (e.g., Newton Center is for first time buyers and the houses are smaller, and Newton Highlands suffers a lot of power outages, and Newton R'lyeh is home to the Elder Gods and also where the one good Indian place is).

We’re starting from square one here, so even your basic knowledge of these towns and neighborhoods is greatly appreciated.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
How far out are you willing to go? That is, do you have a maximum commuting time to downtown? I commute from a more-distant suburb along the commuter rail line with good schools that is much more affordable, although it sounds like you're aware of the cost you're going to face in those towns.
posted by theredpen at 9:08 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

How far out are you willing to go?

I don't know yet--we'll have to see how the housing stock lines up with what we're looking for. One helpful thing I've found is this time-based presentation of the MBTA regional rail map (click to enlarge).

We both work downtown (convenient to the lines that terminate at South Station). Our commutes currently are about 45 minutes door to door.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:14 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Oh, that's funny—I was going to mention that map. I'm on the Fitchburg line, but that goes into North Station. Good luck!
posted by theredpen at 9:17 AM on January 21

Keep in mind that if you're looking to live near a direct route to downtown Boston, your rebellious teenage children will also have that route.

If you're not a BMW-driving striver, I'd stay away from Wellesley. Newton is your best bet, as in my experience it's the most intellectual. Plus it's on the Green line, which your other two cities aren't.

If you can stand living with both intellectuals and townies, how about Waltham? There's a bus that goes directly to the Red Line at Central Square, Cambridge. A tad cheaper too.
posted by Melismata at 9:17 AM on January 21

My girlfriend's parents live in Newton Highlands and love it. You can walk to Crystal Lake, the Whole Foods, the T, Newton Highlands and Newton Center easily. They liked their elementary and middle school options and I think that Newton North and Newton South are both excellent high schools.

If you can get a place anywhere near Coldspring Park or Crystal Lake that would just be awesome.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:17 AM on January 21

I doubt living in west Cambridge/Somerville would be that much more expensive. If you can find somewhere within walking distance or a mile from Davis/Porter/or alewife on the red line, then you will be in a prime location that is outside of the city but easy to commute to.

As for Newton, the eastern part has access to the 57 going from Watertown to Fenway, connecting you to the green line, Allston (dive bars and music venues) and to kenmore for downtown traveling.
posted by jbreyfogle at 9:17 AM on January 21

When you say you want public transit, do you mean "I want to take the train to work" or "I don't want to own a car"? As you get further out into the suburbs, it's going to be harder to find things like grocery stores within walking distance.

If you will be having a car, consider that many commuter rail stops offer parking. Where I grew up, most people drove to the train station and rode the train in.
posted by catalytics at 9:21 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

"I want to take the train to work" or "I don't want to own a car"

I had been thinking I would walk or bike to the train station--but if this is just silly, let me know. We have a car, and we like driving around; we just don't want to drive downtown during rush hour.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:31 AM on January 21

Natick is one town west of Wellesley (so, an extra 5-10 minutes on the commuter line) and has a MUCH more laid-back vibe, is way cheaper than Newton and Wellesley, and (although you say you don't care, these things are still nice to have) has a nice, very walkable downtown a couple of blocks from the train that has a town square, good library, nice cafe, restaurants, ice cream shops, Casey's, etc. There's also a lot of nice Victorian housing stock if you care about that. Worth a look.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:36 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

I grew up outside Boston and basically did what you describe for several of my undergraduate years: walking about a mile to the commuter rail, and from there forty-five minutes into Boston. I carried a guitar and school books most days. My opinion is that this scheme works really well as long just as you're okay with both walking and commuting. I know people who get antsy if their overall commute exceeds twenty minutes, and I had exercise-averse neighbors who drove to the same route to the same T station. "YMMV," as folks say.

My general input is that if you move southwest of Boston, you gain a couple advantages. Being equidistant to Providence is great. The farther you get from Boston, the less chance there will be traffic at the end of your driveway at 9 am and 5 pm. And maybe best of all, and the reason I recommend going southwest rather than any other direction, is that if you need to drive into Boston, you have more options than somebody coming from the north or south. Flip on WBZ, listen to the traffic report, and pick a route that isn't jammed. It's not a silver bullet but it's better than being stuck in, say, Hanover with one highway that's either moving or not.

When it comes to the commuter rail, the advantage to being farther out is that you'll get a seat in the mornings. This will vary depending on the line. My local line fills up about halfway along its route. Some folks have a shorter and slightly cheaper trip, but they spend it standing. I'd rather sit because that allows me to spend the time productively. As for the afternoon commute, board at South Station and you'll get a seat, board at Back Bay and you may have to wait a few stops before one opens.

If you're looking specifically in the Newton area, others can be more helpful; but if you're interested in areas further out, feel free to MeMail and I'd be happy to help however I can. Good luck with your search.
posted by cribcage at 9:46 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

I grew up in Newton Highlands and my parents both worked in Boston and didn't use their (one) car to get to work. We only ever had one car growing up and could easily walk to Elliot or Newton Highlands green line station. They moved there (from Boston, somewhere into my dad's residency) in no small part because of the schools.

It's been a long time since I lived there, but I found it pretty great as a kid. But it's pretty expensive.
posted by Pax at 9:47 AM on January 21

I lived for several years in east Arlington. It's a nice area, and it's within walking distance of Alewife station on the Red Line. Basically, the area around Spy Pond. Rents are a bit high, but the houses are really nice (mostly duplexes).

I was very happy there.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:50 AM on January 21

If you haven't seen it, just published their annual list of Top 25 places to live in MA. Won't give you your answer, but might give you some things to think about.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:54 AM on January 21

Ok, so let's make life slightly easier. If you are intending on training in and you aren't going to live directly in the city, you may want to look Natick and Westward. The main reason is otherwise you'll be looking at express trains passing you by.

In terms of MA, Wellesely and Natick are excellent towns with excellent educational systems as well as services, but check the tax codes and real estate markets carefully because you'll find that unless you are a multi-millionaire you can't afford to live in Wellesely and it will be unexpectedly harder than you think in Newton as well. The area has excellent schools; however, it also has a very... influential and involved parental base... I've heard from a former teacher that when she started one of the parents walked up to her and said "We're all Type-A people here." After a few years she changed school districts, because... wtf. Also, in her assessment the kids were overly stressed, but hey - they are ranked #7 in the state.

If you are looking for a slightly quieter end, with a good school system, take a look at Grafton and Southborough areas. Both have excellent schools and a little less... pushy parents... Southborough has some pushy parents, but less so than Newton / Welleseley.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:23 AM on January 21

I'll second everything oinopaponton said about Natick. Natick's major downside is "that's where the malls are", though they're really tucked into one corner of the town near Framingham. Traffic in Natick (really, all of the area) SUCKS during the holiday season but can mostly be bypassed. Of course, some people think of the malls as a good thing. They're nice to have when you need them, I suppose.

There are two commuter rail stations in town, both served by local and express trains. From downtown Natick to S. Station on an express would be under 30 minutes. The local trains would take longer, of course, but would still clock in well under an hour.

Biking or walking to those stations is totally doable, though you have to deal with typical suburban roads and traffic. Depending on where you're coming from, the downtown station can be accessed by back roads. The rest of the town, especially the southern section and neighboring towns have some great bike routes. There are hiking trails and you can paddle in the Charles River or the many lakes.

There will hopefully soon (soon being anywhere from 5 years to infinity) be a rail-trail going from downtown over to Framingham, past the lake and the malls. It'll be nice whenever they actually get around to doing it.

They're in the early stages of re-planning the downtown station and will hopefully incorporate the rail trail into the plan. Again though, this is a few years off.

It's a great family town, and also a perfectly fine town if you just want to stay at home and do nothing. Good access to major routes (Mass. Pike, Rts. 9, 30, 135, 16) and you're ten miles away from Rt. 95 or 495.

Decent, move-in-able houses range anywhere from $250K at the low end, to maybe $400K on the average, to 1 million+ in certain areas of town.

Because of the aforementioned malls there are all manner of chain restaurants but there are also some decent non-chain places and plenty of good ethnic food to be had, though keep in mind it's not Cambridge. You said you don't care about such things but there is also a great arts center that gets some pretty decent acts.

MeMail me if you have any specific questions.
posted by bondcliff at 10:25 AM on January 21

and are happy to walk a mile or so to get to public transport (provided that there is a sidewalk)

Just noting what you likely already know - many MA locations that have sidewalks from April-November suddenly cease to have sidewalks December-March. Keep in mind that your mile may get a lot less friendly once the snow starts.
posted by kythuen at 10:42 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Are you wedded to west-of-Boston?
I just moved to Melrose, and it has 2 (or 3?) commuter rail stops, including one I could walk to from my house if I were still working in Boston. Neighbors/friends with kids seem happy with the schools.
posted by maryrussell at 1:49 PM on January 21

I have a good family friend who grew up in the town of Wellesley. She grew up not locking her front door, and leaving her keys in the car. Oddly enough, the town of Wellesley doesn't offer trash pick up service (at least at that time). The town of Wellesley has a bit more intellectual vibe than one would expect since it has Wellesley College and the Dana Hall School. Re public transit: I believe that Newton is the last town to get MBTA bus service in the Western direction; moreover, the commuter rail gets expensive quickly.
posted by oceano at 9:27 PM on January 21

My brother and family moved to W. Newton 8 years ago now from NJ. When they told me that they were expanding their search to Newton I scoffed, not realizing that there are some pretty fun, relatively inexpensive, and diverse parts of Newton. All three of the commuter rail stops around there are near a range of housing, and the schools are great. They settled on Newton because of the schools, and West Newton has turned out to have a great mix of incomes, family-types, and homes.

Extra bonus: the bikeride in along the river is something I wouldn't want to do every day, but my brother does it 2-3 times a week in nice weather and loves it.
posted by ldthomps at 1:32 PM on April 3

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