Sign of the Times: From Zillow to Walk Score

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A few years ago, during headier times in the real estate market, we were all checking Zillow every 15 minutes to find out how much our housing values had increased. But in a sign of our strapped times, with gas prices skyrocketing and global warming a looming concern, another website is set to become a national obsession: Walkscore. 

The idea is this: we’re all fat, cash-strapped, and concerned about rising sea levels, bat fungus, and the disappearance of the bees. In times like these, we have learned to look beyond whether a house has central air-conditioning or a heated garage. Now we’re thinking about environmental sustainability, minimizing our gas usage, and reducing our expanding waistlines. Nothing makes a house more sustainable than being located in a walkable neighborhood where you can park the car and use your feet. (Hey, you can also dump that expensive gym membership, too!)

If you go to Walk Score and type in your address, you come up with a score for your home’s “walkability,” along with a street map of nearby businesses. Scores run from 0 to 100, with 90 to 100 being a walker’s paradise, where it’s possible to live without a car. On the other end of the scale is 0 to 25, meaning driving only. (My Brighton condo came in at 82, by the way, which means it’s possible to get by without a car — which I do.) A neighborhood is considered walkable if it’s got a discernible center with a shopping center, is fairly dense, and if schools and workplaces are close enough that most people can walk from their homes. Naturally, once I heard about this little toy, I spent my whole weekend rating the “walkscores” of all my friends. (My folks’ Las Vegas home had a pitiful score of 23.)

 Will this site (debuting last summer) take off as a new real estate tool? Hmmm.. not so sure about that. I think most people have a really good idea of a neighborhood’s walkability when they begin a housing search. For example, I wouldn’t even THINK of living in the suburbs, and didn’t look at any houses there, even though I could have bought three times the amount of space. I realized several years back that I could live more happily without a car and have organized my life accordingly. Others, meanwhile, are choosing neighborhoods based on school districts or proximity to I-495, and are organizing their lives accordingly.  In the long run, however, maybe this site will help raise awareness among the suburban set about the high costs of living in a place where you are completely car-dependent. (Housing prices are dropping most precipitously, by the way, in these sorts of places.) Maybe it will encourage developers to build mixed-use developments that don’t force people into cars.

But whether this comes to pass or not, at least worrying about your home’s walk score is a whole lot healthier than worrying about your home’s property value!

29 Bigelow Street, #2, $359,000
BEDS: 2/BATHS: 1
SQ FT: 1000
WALK SCORE: 66 (Some walkable locations)

147 Kelton Street, #510, $330,000
BEDS: 2/BATHS: 2
SQ FT: 1000
WALK SCORE: 82 (Very Walkable)

2 Priscilla Road, #1, $374,000
BEDS: 2/BATHS: 1.5
SQ FT: 1144
WALK SCORE: 77 (Very Walkable)

46 Broadlawn,#B, $499,900
BEDS: 3/BATHS: 2.5
SQ FT: 1730
WALK SCORE: 23 (Driving Only)

  • Mike

    Those listings you just named range from $288 to $359 per square foot (or around $325/sq foot on average). What suburbs “did you not even consider” where you can buy 3 times more house for the money?! I just bought a house in Natick, which is one of the more affordable suburbs west of Boston and we paid $250/sf. That’s a far cry from the low $100-125/square foot you’re talking about.

    Also, we’re in the middle of a family neighborhood (i.e. suburbia) and our walkscore is still 66 which isn’t that bad, right? Everything I need is within a 1/4 mile walk except for my work, which is 1 mile.

  • Josh

    Oh boy. Another way for the city folk to rationalize their purchase of a “garden-level” condo with no dishwasher.

    My place in Newton scored 82.

  • Pam

    Mike,

    We actually never seriously considered the suburbs because we made a decision several years ago to live car-free, and even the most walkable suburb would have been inconvenient. But I’ve had plenty of friends escape from the city to vastly cheaper suburbs. The most prominent example are friends who moved from their tight one-bedroom condo in Cambridge to a huge house on several acres of land in Carlisle. What they paid for it wouldn’t have even gotten them a two-bedroom in Cambridge! Other friends have moved to Taunton, where they bought a huge, new 4-bedroom house for the cost of a condo in Dorchester. The trade off, of course, is the long, slow commute into Boston each day for work. (I haven’t checked out their walkscores, but it would be very LOW!)

  • http://www.thebrooklineconnection.com Greg Kiely

    Woohoo, I got a 98!

    This is actually a good tool for those who are moving into towns like Brookline where, in most cases, they haven’t lived before.

  • Mike

    Pam: A typical house on a couple acres in Carlisle will set you back $1 mil. I’m sure you can find a 2 bedroom condo for half that price in Cambridge. All I’m saying is this: in general, living in the suburbs is not that much cheaper than living in the city. Each family has different priorities, and price often doesn’t even come into the picture until after they decide if they want an urban or suburban setting.

  • Mike

    Also, my current Newton apartment (which I’m moving out of this week) scored an 86. I think Newton has the best combination of suburban and urban walkability, hence the $$$ of housing.

  • http://boston.redfin.com/blog/author/pamela.reynolds pamela.reynolds

    Hi again Mike,

    I think in general you certainly get more for your money in the suburbs, although I agree with you that some of it will depend on which city neighborhood you are comparing to which suburb. (All I can do is look at housing prices in Taunton and cry!) In the case of various friends, they were clearly getting more in the suburbs for their housing dollars. Most of my friends who moved to the suburbs also had (or were planning to have)children, which also was a big factor in their decision.

    I used to live in Newton and thought it was truly the best of both worlds. I was a few blocks from the Green Line and could walk to a “town center.” Aside from its great school district, I agree with you that its walkability and connection to public transportation has been critical in its desirability. In fact, I think ‘walkability’ and public transportation is going to separate the wheat from the chaff in coming years, with some pretty significant price deferentials in walkable communities versus the strip mall type. It already seems to be happening.