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Life on Vacation: Cape Cod is unique, famous and surprisingly affordable.

April 18th, 2013 by reverehouse

Story Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY

Cape Cod’s popularity as a second-home destination is not exactly recent: President Grover Cleveland had a summer house in Bourne more than a century ago, and the Kennedy clan has long vacationed at its famous compound in Hyannis Port.

But what is new are lower prices — you don’t need to be president of anything to buy here. According to The Warren Group, a New England real estate and financial information reporting firm, the Cape’s most popular towns have seen two-year drops of 11% to 23%, and these bargains have attracted buyers in droves. The area’s vast summer rental market also allows second-home owners to easily generate income.

The Cape is a 400-square-mile peninsula, separated from the mainland by the 17-mile-long Cape Cod Canal. Lined with 115 beaches and famed for antique shopping and cranberry bogs, the area also has an enormous tourist infrastructure of restaurants, water sports and 41 golf courses — not to mention nearly 50 miles of bike paths. Much of the land is protected, including Cape Cod National Seashore. The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are just offshore, linked by ferries.

“It’s a very unique peninsula with 15 towns, each with its own character,” says Jamie Regan, president of the Cape & Islands Association of Realtors. “It’s the kind of place where your vacation can have a different theme every day: boating, visiting the islands, going to the beach, golf, antiquing on Route 6, and so on.”

The Cape also enjoys a Gulf Stream microclimate that makes it warmer than the rest of New England. Beach season stretches from early spring to late fall. Indian summer regularly lasts into November.

To envision a map of the Cape, think of a body builder striking a classic pose with arms raised, bent at the elbow and fist up. The “Upper Cape” is the shoulder, the widest part, closest to Boston. The bicep and elbow is the “Mid-Cape.” The forearm and fist is the “Outer Cape.”

Somewhat counterintuitively, prices climb steadily farther from Boston, despite added inconvenience. This is because the Cape narrows, homes become larger, land is scarce, and more properties are waterfront.But prices are down everywhere, and, according to Dennis Murphy, owner of Donahue Real Estate in Falmouth, “it’s a great time to be a buyer.”

A look at three Cape Cod neighborhoods:

•Upper Cape. The most popular for second homes because of easy access, just 90 minutes from Boston’s Logan International Airport. The major town is Falmouth, which includes eight villages. Falmouth Heights, originally a beach-bungalow enclave, is one of the nation’s oldest planned vacation communities, and nearby New Silver Beach is similar. “Two years ago, you couldn’t find a single home in Falmouth for under $300,000,” says Dennis Murphy, owner of Donahue Real Estate. “Now there are about 20.”

•Mid-Cape. The main attraction is Hyannis, epicenter of ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Median prices in the lively village just dipped below $250,000. From Hyannis, the Mid-Cape extends to Chatham, at the “elbow,” where a new energy-efficient condo project, The Cove Ridgedale, has prices from $685,000 to $710,000. New Seabury, an exclusive second-home golf community, is the priciest spot on the Mid-Cape, with condos from the high $200,000s and houses from the mid $400,000s to nearly $4 million.

•Outer Cape. Scarce, less-developed land means higher prices. Orleans, Truro and Provincetown, the northernmost point on the Cape’s “fist,” are the most expensive towns on the peninsula, all with median house prices around $600,000.

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