Moving to Greater Boston - Where's the suburbs?
May 7, 2015 6:30 AM   Subscribe

My wife has been told if she wants to be promoted she's coming to the mothership. That mothership is in Westford, MA. Now we have to find a place to live. But I can't find the suburbs. Not like where we're from in Santa Clara, CA.

So we prefer a shorter commute for her. I've been driving around the areas that are around 495, 3, 95, 93 but everything is so rural. No sidewalks, no fences, twisty two lane streets that are completely inadequate for the amount of traffic going through them. Then I got to Medford and it's suddenly packed in tighter than San Francisco.

Where the hell are the suburbs in this corridor? I'm trying to get within 30-45 minutes of Westford, counter commute avoiding the 95 if possible. We really want town sewer and a yard. We don't need three god damn acres of land. Budget is $500K if possible but we can stretch to $800K for the right place. I've been reading old questions but a lot of them focus on inner Boston not the Boston Metro Area.

I've looked so far in:
Lexington, Arlington, Concord, Bedford, Winchester, Burlington, Woburn, Wakefield, Stoneham, Wilmington, Billerica, Reading and Bedford. Wakefield and Stoneham seem promising but still feel so country.
posted by Talez to Home & Garden (55 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
So......from a Boston point of view, all those cities and towns that you list ARE the suburbs? I know that's not a helpful answer but that's the reality. Development patterns are really different in the older parts of New England from what you're used to, and you're not going to be able to find something comparable. That "rural" vibe is fiercely protected by the residents, even though there's nothing really rural about those communities. The closer you get to the village/town centers/squares, the better luck you'll have with sidewalks and walkability. Westford is pretty close to Acton/Boxborough, which have great schools and lower housing prices than Concord/Lexington, if that's a concern.
posted by chocotaco at 6:43 AM on May 7, 2015 [16 favorites]

Many of the towns here are 300+ years old and grew organically. So they don't look like the "suburbs" in other parts of the country.

I'm surprised you think Arlington is "country" - IMO it's pretty densely packed.

You could check out some of the communities closer to Lowell - they might have a bit less land, city/town sewers, etc. So maybe Chelmsford?
posted by sutel at 6:49 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

I grew up in a suburb of the St. Paul/Minneapolis area which is basically the definition of "suburb"-- whole towns built out of housing developments, strip malls as far as the eye can see, and Starbucks was the only place to hang out. The communities you listed are the suburbs around these here parts. There was never really a time for the 60/70s suburban sprawl to hit the Boston area like it did with the Midwest/West coast areas-- it's been too populated and too fiercely protected by residents who have lived there for a looooong time. The country towns are more like Hamilton, Wenham, Ipswich, etc.
posted by thefang at 6:52 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

All those places.

We don't have suburbs like the west coast. We have towns. If you want something walk-able you need to pick one of those towns and get very near the town center. I lived near the town center of Bedford, Waltham, and West Newton. To accommodate a split Boston-Worcester commute and loved all of them. Bedford being more rural and Waltham and West-newton more urban.

Is there a reason you're not just moving to Westford? Are you planning to commute into Boston?
posted by French Fry at 6:52 AM on May 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

What everyone upthread has said, & I think it's worth mentioning that Westford is pretty far from what I would consider the Greater Boston area. The immediate towns right outside of Boston are probably more what you are looking for, but are nowhere near Westford and probably would be too long of a commute.
posted by katemcd at 6:55 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yes, outside of 128 is too rural for my city-living-loving tastes, too. But if you stay on the inner edge of those inner suburbs, (Arlington, Belmont, Winchester, Newton, parts of Arlington), you get the town sewer, yard, sidewalks, etc.

Of course, they're also pricier than Bedford. Can you live near the town center of one of those outer burbs? That would also get you more of the amenities you want.
posted by ldthomps at 6:56 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yup, Arlington is not even remotely rural and has a direct, constantly-running bus to Harvard Square, Cambridge.

Basically, the closer you are to Boston the less rural. Yeah, Westford can be a little quiet. I work in Chelmsford next door, which is less quiet and definitely a "suburb" in these parts. Good luck in your search.
posted by Melismata at 6:57 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

So the first thing you need to be aware of is the traffic dynamics in this area. Westford is almost exclusively on 495. That means if you want to be in closer to the 128 belt, you need to drive on Rt 2 or Rt 3. Fortunately you are mostly opposite the traffic flows, but that's becoming less of an advantage, especially if you have to include 95.

The other part is that suburbs in California and suburbs in New England have a major insurmountable difference. New England suburbs have evolved from colonial times, where most Bay Area suburbs were planned. Ever see that image of an aerial view of Manhattan streets with the caption "New York, because we want to know where we are and where to go", and an aerial view of Boston with "Boston, because fuck you"? These are towns that evolved a certain way over the past 300 years and have fiercely guarded that look and feel, avoiding the sprawl feel of more planned communities in the West Coast. Also, it's not flat out here. It's glacially designed hills of granite and other bits of terrain that makes it really hard to build roads that don't conform to the terrain. So you get twisty little passages that look all the same sometimes. And we have a lot more trees and forests in our actual towns.

So given your budget, and time requirements, I would definitely recommend Chelmsford, Burlington, Waltham, Tewksbury and maybe some of the cheaper priced neighborhoods in North Andover. I live in Haverhill, commute to Boston, and trust me, you don't want to go too close to Boston if you want a half-hour to 45 minute commute to Westford.
posted by Leth at 6:57 AM on May 7, 2015 [17 favorites]

Where the hell are the suburbs in this corridor?

Those are them! Sort of. I grew up in that area (grew up in Boxboro, went to school in Acton, moved to Westford for senior year) and here is the problem.... a lot of those towns were rural farming-ish towns and it was only when 495 went through in the late 60's (early 70s?) did those towns become genuine option commuter suburbs. So BOSTON has real suburbs but you're sort of not in that area. You might be happier looking at suburbs of Worcester or Lowell which are also out that way. Suggestions

- Marlboro (has some really nice areas, very convenient to the highway)
- Hudson (maybe nicer than Marlboro overall but also sort of small and a little shabbier even though I love it)
- Littleton (definitely the closest and has a great downtown-y area with the fewest fuckity streets, awesomelibrary)
- Maynard (great downtown and affordable housing, you're not right on 495 to get to Westford so it's back roads but Maynard is really nice)
- Chelmsford (I love it but it has the fuckity streets problem)
- Lowell (some parts, Lowell can be touch and go but there are some lovely old houses there)

Honestly what some people do in that area is move to Nashua and get some of the benefits of living in NH and then drive down. Keep in mind that MA has some really tough winters so you'll want to minimize driving unless you're real snow jockeys or have the option to stay home if it's super sketch outside.
posted by jessamyn at 7:25 AM on May 7, 2015

Also, protip: no one out here calls it "the 95" :-)
posted by scolbath at 7:27 AM on May 7, 2015 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Is there a reason you're not just moving to Westford? Are you planning to commute into Boston?

No we really just don't like "middle of nowhere".

Everywhere I go I feel like I've stepped into the set of a Gilmore Girls episode.

Ever see that image of an aerial view of Manhattan streets with the caption "New York, because we want to know where we are and where to go", and an aerial view of Boston with "Boston, because fuck you"?

I went looking for this. I'm think I'm starting to understand.

I really struggle because even well to do areas have a lot of things that trip my "this is a shitty area and not a good place to live" threshold. No streetlights, no curbs, no sidewalks, poor roads.
posted by Talez at 7:28 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh the roads probably do seem super super shitty! For what it's worth, they are probably at their shittiest right now, due to the severity of the winter.

They won't get any wider, obviously, but some of them might get resurfaced in the next year or two. New England weather is very hard on the roads.
posted by mskyle at 7:35 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind that at this time of year, most places in the northeast have bad roads--it's not because they're not kept up, but because frost heave has screwed with them all winter. April/May/June see a lot of road work along the lines of patching potholes, etc. A bad road on the left coast does not equal a bad road in the northeast.
posted by MeghanC at 7:36 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah I have to keep telling myself that the ice plays absolute hell on the asphalt and I shouldn't hold it against the towns.
posted by Talez at 7:36 AM on May 7, 2015

I really struggle because even well to do areas have a lot of things that trip my "this is a shitty area and not a good place to live" threshold. No streetlights, no curbs, no sidewalks, poor roads.

You're going to need to recalibrate. These towns have been here for hundreds and hundreds of years, and when many of the homes and the plots were laid out were built sidewalks and streetlights were not even a concept that existed.

New England is not just a different place from California, its a different lifestyle, a different attitude. People who want to live in the city live in the actual city. People who want to live outside the city do so because they want land, they don't want to see their neighbors, they want to live in a community but also have a place to have a garden, set up a swingset, let the dogs run.

Also, its going to snow a lot and its a bit easier to plow a two lane road without sidewalks than it is to plow a big wide street, and then have to shovel out the sidewalks besides. And, yeah, the ice plays havoc with the asphalt. (Google "frost heave").

Do you have a realtor yet? It strikes me that you could really use the help of someone who knows the market and the neighborhoods, because I know plenty of people in that area who live in the kind of situation you're sort of describing - nice house on a small lot in the center of town where you can walk to get coffee. Whether or not those homes are for sale, though, is another question.

And, honestly? In the great Ask tradition of answering the question not asked - you seem really angry about this move. Maybe its just the frustration and the change, but yeah, it's going to be very, very different than where you were before, in a LOT of ways (not the least of which is the weather). You say Gilmore Girls like its a bad thing, but I think you'll find that despite the space between houses that you are coming to a place that puts a very high value on community. Its just a different community than you're used to, is all.
posted by anastasiav at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2015 [45 favorites]

Some people actually consider bad roads in residential areas to be a feature rather than a bug, because they discourage outsiders from using your little side street as a short cut. That's what Dad used to say, anyhow...
posted by jon1270 at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2015 [12 favorites]

Everywhere I go I feel like I've stepped into the set of a Gilmore Girls episode.

Soooo. This is not an accident. This is, in fact, incredibly, incredibly intentional, even/especially in the suburbs. If you're set on moving here, you may want to find a way to embrace this, or you're going to be miserable. Personally, I love that my town has a bed race and an annual bonfire of the Christmas trees, but I also know it's a little weird.

But you also need to recalibrate your "shitty area" meter. Roads and sidewalks are cracked because of ice heaves and the gorgeous, huge old trees, not because they are neglected (as I see has now been well covered). Quality of life does not map to shiny and new here.

You should look for homes that are very close to a town center if you value walkability, but realize you are going to pay an enormous premium for that.
posted by amelioration at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Just yesterday a California friend told me that y'all have more sidewalks than we do here in MA. I was amazed because in North Carolina, where I lived for two years, there were even fewer sidewalks! Try to stay positive. I also hate living in places without sidewalks, but with your housing budget you should be able to get something in a town center.
posted by chaiminda at 7:58 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see you're planning to buy but would you consider renting? I think you should probably rent for a year, because there's going to be a lot of recalibration.
posted by mskyle at 8:06 AM on May 7, 2015 [20 favorites]

Really and truly, this is going to come down to dealing with your culture shock. New England and California really might as well be different nations. (Hell, in Europe they absolutely *would* be.) You wouldn't move to Norway and wonder why it doesn't look like Santa Clara--you'd expect it to be wildly different in architecture, layout, and vibe. You're going to have to apply this same logic to your move and try to stretch your conceptions of "how people live" or it's gonna be like banging your head against a brick wall, every day, forever.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:07 AM on May 7, 2015 [15 favorites]

I just want to tell you I understand. I don't really like the East Coast "rural-suburb" thing either (I live on the East Coast but in the city) and it sucks you can't just move to Boston because the commute is too long. Maybe you can find a good town center and maybe you and your wife will stay a little while and then go back to California because that's what you like. But I don't think you should feel bad about being used to one thing and sad you can't find it. When I have that problem, I try to be a little anthropological about things and consider it an investigation into foreignness; maybe that will help.
posted by dame at 8:07 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

First things first: We don't use articles with our roads here. You're trying to avoid a commute on 95 or 128. And I should let you know, there's a saying in New England: You can't get there from here.

I would argue that the Boston definition of suburbs is pretty much "Does the T go there?" Arlington and Medford (and Malden, really) are somewhat borderline cases - the T (or a frequent bus) goes there, parts of the town are densely populated, parts are typical suburban streets. If you want to be an area where you can regularly go to dinner and a movie while being able to park (maybe) those are probably your best bets. That said, $500K isn't going to get you anything in Arlington and in Medford it's only going to get you a fixer-upper. Housing here is less expensive than the Bay Area, but it's still one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, especially north and west of Boston. Westford itself is fairly rural looking, but doesn't have a ton of farmers living there either. It's a bedroom community. As are Acton, Concord

Keep in mind that you are looking at a part of the country developed in a different period based on a different culture and in a completely different time scale than the Bay Area. There are far fewer housing developments here. There were no ranchos - towns formed with small city centers surrounded by farms with woods and swamps undeveloped. Those towns grew (mostly) slowly 300-400 years. City centers filled in and farms grew smaller or, come the 50s, became older developments than the ones you are probably used to. We certainly have cookie cutter McMansions and half-acre three bedrooms street after street, but there's no Daly City here. This part of the country was limited by pre-existing growth, but not penned in by mountains like the greater Bay Area. The development is just completely different.

You probably want to look between 495 and 95/128 (which are the same road). Burlington actually seems like a reasonably mix of suburb and not-dead. Closer to Boston I'd say Winchester, Stoneham, Melrose, and maybe Waltham? (I don't know anything about Wakefield or Chelmsford) seem like the sort of suburb you might be looking for, but they won't be an easy commute. TBH, nothing will be an easy commute. The roads are too small for the traffic because there's no room to expand the roads because the roads were built 300 years ago and everything was built around them by 200 years ago.

And honestly, if Stoneham isn't suburban enough for you, there's not much I can say. Stoneham is pretty goddammed suburban. If you want something more urban than that, you're going to have to go into Medford/Arlington.
posted by maryr at 8:19 AM on May 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

One more thing: FWIW, the "bad roads" are, in terms of paving, particularly bad right now. They are not normally this awful. This winter took a toll on the roads like nothing I've ever seen. Hopefully the *Federal Disaster Relief* money the area got in response to this winter's storms will provide some funding to fix a LOT of potholes. Of course, that will mean a lot of construction...
posted by maryr at 8:22 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Have you looked at Melrose? Great downtown area, very walkable, and close to the end of the Orange line (MBTA) and commuter rail. Many parts of Stoneham and Melrose have sidewalks, streetlights and decent sized backyards. It all looks a little Gilmore Girls, because that's what you're going to get in small town New England (so many cute town greens with gazebos). Stoneham is a quick (non-rush hour) trip down 93 into Cambridge and Somerville, for when you need to flee the suburbs for civilization.
posted by ants at 8:37 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Concord, Bedford, Lexington have bad roads and no sidewalks, few streetlights and they are some of the wealthiest, most prestigious bedroom communities. Welsely also.

Newton/Waltham is not an awesome commute to Westford but it might best suit what you're looking for. Especially West Newton or Newton center.
posted by French Fry at 8:38 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was going to say what others have said --- I'm confused about what make the towns you listed NOT suburbs.....

I think for your purposes, Melrose or North Andover would be decent choices, and I think you should try make an attempt to come out before moving to look at a couple of places in a weekend. Cities and towns are so different in New England. Ones right next to each other will have a completely different community culture in how the approach everything from schools to backyard chickens to public library hours to the kinds of developments they do and do not allow.

I once had a friend who grew up in CT who spent nearly a month in a rural part of Indiana. She posted to her social media account after three days, "I can't believe I'm experiencing culture shock in my own country!" I think you should prepare for some culture shock. Other friends of mine who moved from Western MA to San Jose took close to a year to just get used to how different things are from the routine social interaction to how people drive. They're still not fully used to it several years later.
posted by zizzle at 8:45 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

The thing is, a lot of those towns you list as being too rural do actually have a thriving downtown area with sidewalks, street lights, shops, apartments, bars, churches, whatever you want in a downtown. The issue is that the only houses near those downtowns are old and expensive or chopped up for small condo-living. Standard houses are farther from the downtown and aren't laid out for an urban feel. Try going into the town center of the places you deemed "too rural" and looking at condos.
posted by aimedwander at 8:50 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

As a resent transplant to the Boston area, maybe I can give you some thoughts.
As a few posters have said, you are dealing with one of the first areas colonized in the U.S.A.
As such, the streets all started out as cow paths that continued to be developed.
All the cities/town in the Boston area were a 1 days horse ride apart.
If you what a city atmosphere, downtown Boston is where you need to be.
Although all the cities/towns around Boston seem out in the country, you are never truly very far away from anything. We moved into a southern suburb called Holbrook which is only 7 square miles but we are less than 15 minutes from anything you can think of and less than 30 minutes from downtown Boston on a really good day.
Each city/town has its own emergency services and school system. If you have children, you will want to be in a community with a good education system.
Commuting by car sucks in the Boston area but they do have a fairly good public transit system in the area. I would look for a short commute by transit but the T and commuter rail all look at getting you to and from Boston.
You have moved to an area completely different from California. You are not going to find California out here. We moved from the west coast of Canada a year ago and I am still adjusting. It is a great area to be in but different from anything I have experienced.
This is a link to the top 25 places to live in MA:

Good luck on your search and welcome to Massachusetts.
posted by BostonCannuck at 8:53 AM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Another thing to keep in mind is that weather has an enormous impact on the commute. As in, on a rainy day a 30 minute commute can turn into 45, and when it snows it can literally take hours. Also, as the school year winds down, traffic in Boston gets lighter; it will pick up substantially in September.

All of which is to say, do not be misled by how long it takes to drive from, say, Melrose to Westford on a nice dry Spring morning - the commute will be much longer for much of the year.

If I needed to commute to Westford I'd stick to towns on the NW side of Boston.

Also, a lot of the housing stock is old - as in, 18th or 19th century old - and this is especially true of modestly-priced housing near the center of the suburban towns, which is where your other criteria will be leading you. I've owned 3 houses in the Boston area, and none was built after 1920.
posted by mr vino at 9:12 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live in Waltham and we like it a lot because it's a good mix of urban/suburban - walkable downtown, we have sidewalks, street lights, we are on the bus line and commuter rail, etc. The schools are pretty decent, too. There's a lot of things to do IN Waltham, which is much different from where I grew up (one of the outside 128 towns). But I would not want to commute from here to Westford - I think you'd be looking at least an hour each way.

I would also suggest renting at first so you can get a feel for the area.
posted by sutel at 9:12 AM on May 7, 2015

It may be helpful to realize that there's a long WASPy tradition of shunning ostentatious displays of wealth in New England. The wealth is there, it just may not be as conspicuously displayed with shiny cars and flamboyant clothing and large homes.
posted by jaguar at 9:24 AM on May 7, 2015 [12 favorites]

Find a real estate agent you trust, and they can help you navigate the area. They will be able to help you identify places that meet your needs, especially because your shitty area meter is off.

I had the exact same problem when I went to Europe and the UK. I had no idea what shitty public housing looked like there and had no reliable sense of what a safe neighboorhood was based on architecture alone. No regrets, but I lived in some really slummy areas that wouldn't do for me now.
posted by Gor-ella at 9:25 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree it's going to be a huge culture shock, & urge you to rent rather than buy. I moved from Boston to Los Angeles, &, at first, it was like being on a different planet. I HATED it my first year, but then I grew to love it. I'm currently back in Boston, but could see myself back in California in the future. So, you may totally hate it, especially since you are so far away from Boston proper, but give it time. There's a lot to love about the area, too. It's too bad the Mothership is in Westford. I'm from here & wouldn't want to be that far out either, even though it's a perfectly lovely area for some people. All of my suggestions in that direction that best fit your vision of a suburb (such as Wellesely, Newton, Natick, Framingham, Watertown, & Waltham) are probably too far for a Westford commute. By the way, will you be commuting anywhere? You should take that into consideration, too. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 9:33 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

It may be helpful to realize that there's a long WASPy tradition of shunning ostentatious displays of wealth in New England. The wealth is there, it just may not be as conspicuously displayed with shiny cars and flamboyant clothing and large homes.

Probably worth noting that some of these towns that are tripping your "don't live here!" are among the wealthiest in the state. A road not having curbs just means it isn't in the center of town here.
posted by maryr at 9:45 AM on May 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Nthing what everyone else said about how this is just what our suburbs are like. Instead of housing developments, we have tiny towns that run together.

But I also wanted to add, no matter where you decide to live, I would suggest you find a home *between* Boston and wherever you and your wife will work. The commute into Boston from everywhere, even New Hampshire and Rhode Island, is soul-destroying. You want to be driving away from Boston in the morning and towards it in the evening.

FYI, Melrose and Stoneham are basically one big sprawly town with two town centers and lots of neighborhood areas in between. Melrose has the nicer Main Street by orders of magnitude. Both have great access to 93, which is a main artery into Boston.

Also, Melrose is a lovely place to live. Most streets have trees, sidewalks, and street lights, and are walkable to and from the adorable downtown, which also has all of those things.
posted by kythuen at 9:46 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Honestly, I feel like everything outside of 95 (and even certain areas inside 95) has that "middle of nowhere" feel. A Bay Area comp might be "west of 280, but with some houses," dotted with the occasional couple-of-blocks-of-a-town-center.

Westford is a town with 20k people 30-odd miles outside of Boston. It might be considered a suburb of Boston (more likely, a suburb of Lowell, stretching some definitions), but it's not big enough to have things that would be considered suburbs of it. I have friends who own a farm (with chickens! and soon, sheep!) on the 495 corridor just south of Westford. Anything west of 495 is pretty darn rural in the eyes of most Boston-area dwellers.

The reason your wife's enterprise's mothership is in Westford is because land is/was significantly cheaper out there than closer into Boston; there's an entire "tech belt" along the 95/128 corridor full of suburban/rural corporate campuses and nothing else, and same with patchier areas along 495. Even given that commuting to Westford will most likely be a "reverse" commute for your wife no matter where you land in the area, it's still 45 minutes outside Boston without any traffic or weather. Will you need to commute, too? (That being said, as awful as Boston-area traffic is, day-to-day, Bay Area traffic is worse - though Bay Area commuters tend to cover longer distances than Bay Staters do, and there's not really a Bay Area equivalent of a Nor'easter at rush hour.)

The dropoff between urban and small town/rural *is* really dramatic; you're not imagining things, and there just aren't "suburbs" here that match suburbs in the Bay Area. I live in Arlington; I would consider that suburban-urban borderline, relatively speaking, but there are more dense areas where everyone's in multi-family houses, and then more spread-out areas where more people are in single-family houses than not. Same with Medford. The next ring of towns out is more suburban-rural, where multi-family housing isn't the norm, and really by the time you get beyond 95, you're in the area where towns may list a large square mile area, but the actual town center covers a few blocks at best. I'd also consider Burlington and Reading suburban, but in a different way - they're so mall- and strip-mall centric. The rest of the towns on your list are primarily, as you put it, "Gilmore Girls."

I strongly suggest renting until you learn the area - you're looking for an environment that's pretty rare out here.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 10:12 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Ok starting to get a feel. So it's not my imagination. It's literally a drop off from rural to urban. I think I need to go back and look at previously written off places and just take advantage of the area, grab a reasonable amount of land for a cheaper price and make sure we stay close to 3 or 93 to get in and out.

Can someone please explain the deal with fences? We want a dog and privacy. But mostly the dog. That will require a fence. Nobody has them. Will people be mortally offended if we put one up? Will we be breaking some apparently unwritten rule that the backyards of everyone is common land?
posted by Talez at 10:42 AM on May 7, 2015

You might find this a bit illustrative about suburbs in California vs. suburbs in the Northeast -- I'm also someone who grew up in suburban California and subsequently moved to the Northeast and had the exact same reaction as you when I first went to the suburbs here ("there are so many trees! this is the middle of nowhere!").

Incidentally, I think that the Boston suburbs, outside of the pre-war town centers and such, are actually much sprawlier than the Los Angeles suburbs -- the checkerboard, small-yard but unmistakeably suburban development of a place like Lakewood (near where I grew up) or Sunnyvale isn't really anywhere around here. It seems to be either cute pre-war town center or houses separated far apart on winding roads. (The center city is something else altogether, of course).
posted by andrewesque at 10:54 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I haven't noticed any issue with fences. Several houses in my neighborhood (Melrose) have them. One is a very high wooden fence with a little puppy porthole for looking through - it's kind of adorable. Our next door neighbor has a fence, and we adore him and his family, so it has caused no problems at all for him.

I think most people with fences tend to do backyards rather than front yards, but I've seen both.
posted by kythuen at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Take a good look at Lowell. While there are not-so-great parts, I've lived in the "Highlands" part for the last 6 years and it's pretty good and quite affordable. The houses are packed in and almost everyone has a fully fenced in yard (on my street at least). A commute to Westford is quite reasonable from here. You're right at 3 and 495, so it's quite easy to drive anywhere, and a train into Boston should you need it.
posted by disaster77 at 11:10 AM on May 7, 2015

Fences can be a little odd to put up in some towns. So generally you don't have full property fencing, and in some towns zoning regulations will determine the type and height of the fence you can put up. My experience growing up here is you might see hedges and such in the front yard, stockade fencing around dog areas or kid areas in the back yards.

That can be one of the less charming bits of owning property in New England, some towns have regulations written into the deeds of very old houses that describe what you can and cannot do to and with your house. Fences and signage and things are usually in town zoning rules, but can also be in deeds as well.
posted by Leth at 11:19 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Everywhere I go I feel like I've stepped into the set of a Gilmore Girls episode.

Not an unreasonable feeling...until you hear the locals talk. :7) Hah! I don't kid!

I also grew up Not Around Here and found the abrupt transition from the metro area (meaning "Cambridge & downtown Boston" into the areas inside Rte. 128) to those closer to 495 to be quite jarring. Oh, I got over it, and now live in northeast Rhode Island, but something from my childhood in a gridded town still nags at me when I notice there's no damn sidewalks anywhere.

Here: a college friend got married to a guy who is a software maven. He already owned a big ol' house out west of Worcester, Mass. They have three beautiful kids now, and he doesn't mind the drive back in toward the city on the days that he has to go. And that might be another important data point: a lot of folks find the Not A City-ness of central Mass. and the outer suburbs to be precious, and will structure their time so as to limit their trips into The City-ness.

Do you have a realtor who specializes in relocation? I might vaguely know one u there, and definitely know one in my own town; a huge company should have one of their own and smaller companies may be able to suggest one. Anyway, their specific skill is to help you understand what the new area has to offer, while understanding the context from which your culture shock springs. :7)

Good luck, it'll all work out!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:41 AM on May 7, 2015

(Also, some towns attract more transplants because of nearby big companies -- e.g., Fidelity or, in my area, CVS -- and many of those people bond in reaction to the alienness. This offers an immediately welcoming community as you all agree, "WTF with New England, man?" -- but beware of the vicious circle that develops if you fail to deliberately splice yourself into the community. I am emphatically not a New Englander, and won't ever be one, but when we bought a house we made sure that we joined a parish, met the neighbors, got a library card (and chatted a lot with the librarians), and the like, and as soon as the kids were old enough we had them in a local day care and signed up for teams, schools, Scouts, et al.)
posted by wenestvedt at 11:47 AM on May 7, 2015

It's literally a drop off from rural to urban.

It's funny you say this, because I think it's the opposite. To me, the Bay Area has that drop off - it's city-city-city until you hit mountains. Here we have Boston proper, immediate "suburbs" that in another place would have been incorporated into Boston (Cambridge, Brookline, Quincy), inner dense suburbs (everything inside 95), and outer, more spreadout suburbs (inside 495).

Both are still less weird than Texas. Houston (2.2 million) borders Katy (15,500) borders Brookshire (5,000).
posted by maryr at 11:56 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Can someone please explain the deal with fences? We want a dog and privacy. But mostly the dog.

A lot of people in my neighborhood in Chelmsford have electric "invisible fences" for their dogs in the front yard.
But there are plenty of physical back yard fences.
posted by jozxyqk at 12:17 PM on May 7, 2015

A lot of people use electric fences because physical fences (especially nice ones) can take a beating in the winter and make snow removal harder.

Realize we just had 110 inches of snow this winter. That was a crazy amount but 90 inches wouldn't have been.
posted by French Fry at 1:35 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Will people be mortally offended if we put one up? Will we be breaking some apparently unwritten rule that the backyards of everyone is common land?

- Most people with larger lots don't fence off the entire thing. They landscape their front yard and fence in a smaller portion of their back yard. So, lots of times the fences are there, you just can't see them from the road.

- Your assumption that land not fenced is "common land" is false. We know where our land ends and the neighbors begins, we just often use plants and landscaping to mark the boundary. I would no more walk into my neighbors unfenced yard uninvited than I would walk into their home uninvited.

Take a look at the aerial view of Westford. There is no question which plot belongs to which house - there are just mostly trees in between instead of fences. (But when I zoom in I also see a LOT of fences, just mostly in the back.)

For the dog you might look into an invisible fence, a dog run, or just train the dog not to leave the yard (not hard to do).
posted by anastasiav at 1:48 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

A lot of people with larger yards use electric fences which is easier to deal with weather-wise and not that expensive or difficult in terms of training your pet. Backyard fences are pretty normal in southern New England (I live in VT now and that's where we have the "everyone walks through everyone's yard" stuff, not down in MA) and front yard fences if they're high can seem standoffish and are likely to have issues with snow/plowing/other stuff.

I'm unclear if you have a job in Boston or just want easy access to the city from wherever you live? I second what everyone has said about longer commutes really being wretched in bad weather and assessing how close you need to be to Boston compared to, say, close to work. I'd focus on places that were maybe nearer to your wife's job that were also close to a commuter rail station (Littleton again!) so you'd have easy access to the Boston area without thinking of driving in (which is about as fun as you've noticed). If you'd like some contacts for people in that area, I know a great librarian who lives in Westford and works in Chelmsford who would probably be happy to answer some questions. Feel free to drop me an email.
posted by jessamyn at 2:01 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My wife has a job in Westford. She's the wage earner of the family so I follow her and I'll find something when I get here. Westford itself is pretty gorgeous too so maybe we'll just screw the commute altogether.
posted by Talez at 2:17 PM on May 7, 2015

I live in Lexington and I'm scratching my head and wondering, what information are you looking at because what you're saying about this area is just SO WRONG. You also seem kind of angry.

It's literally a drop off from rural to urban.

No, it's not. Lexington, Arlington, Bedford (for example) are towns that have roads and sidewalks and tons of houses with fences, both visible and not.

The area here does in NO way drop from urban to rural. Boston is surrounded by suburban bedroom communities, not farm area. And all the towns you mention have town sewers.

The towns you mention in your question ARE the suburbs. And as a sidenote, $800k couldn't buy you close to three acres in most of the towns you mention; you definitely need to recalibate THAT thinking.
posted by kinetic at 2:23 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you want Melrose. Or maybe parts of Arlington, Belmont, or Watertown. But really Melrose. Specifically Melrose between Main St. and the Fells. Sidewalks and streetlights everywhere.
Putting up a dog fence will probably not be a problem, but I would bring it up politely to neighbors and not just surprise them with it.

oh my god where in Melrose is there a puppy porthole I must know please tell me
posted by Adridne at 2:38 PM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm in Melrose. It's a lovely little community. But where is this puppy porthole?!
posted by sarcasticah at 4:02 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

The puppy porthole is at the corner of Whittier and Baxter Street. W. Wyoming to Whittier, Whittier one block to Baxter. :)

I'm sad to report that we don't think any actual puppies live in the house with the puppy porthole fence anymore - but the entire concept is still pretty awesome. The puppies that used to live there were Samoyeds and PARTICULARLY CUTE IN THEIR LARVAL FORM (pics courtesy Wikipedia).

Talez, it looks like if you chose Melrose, you'd be in plenty of good, dog-loving mefite company!
posted by kythuen at 5:18 PM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

BTW I moved to Melrose a couple of years ago, and I really like it. (Will now hunt down the puppy porthole).
I bought a house with a small yard near the town center. It was just below your price range. I can get into Boston in 20min, but I can do my shopping near home.
You should be able to find something that works for you guys, particularly with the price range you give. Find a good real estate agent! You need someone with local knowledge to advise you on commute times, local resources, trade offs, etc.
New England is not California; embrace the differences. Welcome (potentially) to Massachusetts!
posted by maryrussell at 6:53 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ok, my husband and I are from the Boston area and we have no idea what you are talking about. The best we can guess is that you consider housing developments (popular in California) to be suburbs. Bostonians consider towns that surround cities to be suburbs. All of these typically do have sidewalks though, so sort of still perplexed. Housing developments are not popular in Massachusetts, and there is a lot of conservation and activism around keeping them out. They are considered ostentatious, unsightly and wasteful.

Also the roads are always going to be terrible in the Spring - especially now because they just got 100 inches of snow!! Don't judge a town by the roads.

Lexington and Concord are both really fantastic towns that fit your requirements - if you are near downtown it is more walkable. Keep in mind though that a couple feet of snow makes everywhere a little unwalkable for part of the year. Also, have you considered Ayer? Because you can't get to Ayer from he'ar! (hahaha - sorry, I'm being an Athol - another town in MA).
posted by Toddles at 10:15 PM on May 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

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