America's Most Expensive Cities: How to save on rent in Boston


Jeanne LeeContributing WriterJeanne Lee is a freelance journalist with 16 years of experience writing about personal finance and small business. Her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Fortune Small Business, and Financial Planning, among others.

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Welcome to Expensive Cities, a new series designed to help renters find affordable apartments in the nation’s most unaffordable metros.

A post-recession boom has put Boston’s rents among the priciest in the country. With a thriving biotech industry and dozens of premier colleges and universities, Boston is currently the fifth most expensive big city for renters, according to apartment listings site Zumper. With rents in central Boston up nearly 55% since 2009, “affordability is a greater problem than ever,” according to Northeastern University’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2017.

Consider the South Boston waterfront. Once a bleak collection of warehouses and shipping docks, the are has been entirely redeveloped, at a cost of billions, into the hip and trendy Seaport district.

“There’s a Warby Parker, an Equinox and seasonal farmers markets. Even the barbershops are expensive,” says Wade Vaughn, a spokesperson for Zumper. One-bedroom apartments there now? A cool $3,200 a month.

How much does renting cost in Boston?

Across Boston, median rents are up to $2,300 for one-bedroom units. In posh Beacon Hill, with its Federal-style row houses, one-bedroom apartments cost $2,550 a month.

Renters in Back Bay, near the Eataly food hall in the Prudential Center and the art galleries of Newberry Street, can expect to pay $2,675. No wonder one in four Boston renters spends half their income on rent, far more than the 30% of income experts consider prudent, according to Boston Magazine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Boston renters don't rate among the nation's savviest tenants. For more on why, check our the Policygenius Renters Index.

Why is the rent in Boston so high?

In all fairness to Bostonians, they face some unique challenges that renters in other pricy cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, are less apt to face.

If you’re apartment-hunting in Beantown, you might know some of these quirks. For one thing, there’s intense competition: About 70,000 off-campus college students badly skew the supply-demand equation, keeping rental prices inflated.

Plus, to accommodate the academic calendar, “about 70% of the apartment leases start on September 1, which means you have to sign leases, hire movers and get moving permits from the city, all extraordinarily early,” says Vaughn. To get a jump on the competition, some renters start their apartment searches as much as four months in advance. (We can help you quickly compare and buy renters insurance quotes here.)

Worst of all, it’s tough to find a no-fee apartment.

“Some 90% of the privately-owned apartments require you to pay an agent. That's another month's rent,” says Vaughn.

How to find affordable rent in Boston

Fortunately, there are some wallet-friendly neighborhoods that offer value and fun. If you’re on a limited budget, check out some of these expert-recommended affordable neighborhoods in Boston.

1. Cross the river to East Cambridge

If your job is in Cambridge, consider rentals in the neighborhood of East Cambridge, where a typical one-bedroom goes for about $2,000.

“For that side of the river and south of Somerville, East Cambridge is your best bet,” says Vaughn. “Great restaurants are popping up and a lot of the bars have a warm vibe in an industrial setting.”

Close to Kendall Square and the multitude of eateries along Cambridge Street, East Cambridge has deals as low as $1,800 a month if you’re willing to take a basement unit. For ground-level apartments, expect to pay a minimum of $1,930, Vaughn says. Act quickly, though, as he predicts rents will increase to $2,150 by September 1.

2. For near-beach living, head to Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill is another affordable option. Located in South Boston, or "Southie," this neighborhood is extremely walkable, with a mix of low-rise apartment buildings and condos near the water. You’ll have access to authentic Italian food, without being swarmed by tourists in the North End.

“For the four or five months out of the year that it's not snowing, you can go to the beach!” Vaughn says.

Typical one-bedrooms rent for around $2,100, though a recent search turned up a listing for a sunny one-bedroom, with in-unit laundry, for $1,800, including heat and hot water.

3. Consider the Streetcar Suburb Jamaica Plain

“JP,” as everyone calls Jamaica Plain, is a progressive, family-friendly part of town with lots of green space, including portions of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century. The neighborhood was one of the U.S.’s first streetcar suburbs to develop after the Civil War.

Many of the units are in former single-family-houses that have been converted into three-unit apartments, says Vaughn.

“While JP feels more suburban than other neighborhoods in Boston, it’s still relatively close to downtown,” says Joshua Clark, an economist at HotPads, a map-based apartment search website that is part of Zillow Group. One-bedroom units rent for around $1,750.

4. The best neighborhoods for students? Allston & Brighton

The adjacent neighborhoods of Brighton and Allston are popular with millennials and students alike. Median rents for one-bedrooms range from $1,835 to $1,920.

“These areas are affordable, with great nightlife and public transit access to downtown, which can appeal to younger professionals and recent graduates as well,” says Clark.

With excellent walk and bike scores, easy access to transit and plenty of entertainment options, Allston-Brighton jointly ranked as one of the 20 hottest urban neighborhoods in the country, according to study from Chicago-based Hotspot Rentals.

5. Bonus tip: Arrive prepared

Whichever neighborhood suits your needs, one thing is certain. With the Boston apartment market so competitive, you’ll want to move decisively once you find an affordable place that you like. Be sure to bring along your essential documents — credit score, paystubs, references and checkbook — so you’re prepared to secure the apartment of your dreams.

Wondering what neighborhood in Beantown pays the most? Check out our list of the highest-paying ZIP codes in each state.

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Contributing Writer

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Jeanne Lee is a freelance journalist with 16 years of experience writing about personal finance and small business. Her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Fortune Small Business, and Financial Planning, among others.

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