A Home of Their Own

Get a glimpse from the driveway, and you’ll think Tom and Lisa Ragan have it made in Marlborough. They live with their three children in a sprawling clapboard house surrounded by maple trees on more than an acre of land just a short drive from Interstate 495. There’s a swingset on the lawn to one side, a ceramic deer in the shade on the other. The back yard is a wide, grassy swath with plenty of room for the kids to run around with their new puppy, Lou. And the backdrop is woods as far as you can see.

As Tom gives a tour on a recent Saturday morning, his wife listens to the compliments and sighs. “It would be perfect,” Lisa says, “if it were ours.” In fact, it’s her parents’ house, where she grew up. And 31-year-old Lisa and 45-year-old Tom occupy one small piece of it–what used to be her grandmother’s “in-law” apartment, which is attached to the main house where her parents live. Inside, it has the feeling of a country cottage–dark wooden cabinets in the kitchen, exposed beams in the bedroom, bouquets of paper flowers on the walls and doors. They even have a couple of skylights.

The Ragans don’t want to sound ungrateful. They know they are lucky to get the bargain rent of $575 a month. And they know where they’d be without it: Their last apartment had a leaking roof and lead paint. But the place is cramped for a growing family, even with the renovations that Tom did when they moved in. He and Lisa sleep in a converted porch (thus the skylights), which 9-year-old Collin has to walk through to get to his room above the adjacent garage. And the girls share a small bedroom off the kitchen/living room area, which is the family’s only other space. At the end of a stressful workday, there’s nowhere to be alone to unwind. They have no laundry hookup, so they do the wash next door. And Grandpa always seems to want to power up the chainsaw when 2-year-old Gabrielle goes down for a nap. The Ragans desperately want a home of their own.

“It’s beautiful and it’s safe, but we’re just putting rent out…and we’re not gaining anything for our future,” Lisa says, Tom nodding in agreement. “We’d have our own little investment and more than anything our own little piece of something.”

For a long time the Ragans didn’t ask for anything more. On a combined income of $40,000 a year–Tom is a self-employed carpenter; Lisa is a preschool teacher who earns $16,000–they didn’t think they could. But whenever Tom’s carpentry services were in high demand, they put away some money toward a down payment. Last October, they had $10,000 collected–enough that they decided to see what was on the market in their price range. The answer stung. The decrepit old farmhouse they visited was like a bad joke at their expense. There was no electricity, so they had to use flashlights to look around. The walls were crumbling, the second floor was unheated, and squirrels had apparently eaten through the roof, leaving nuts and seeds strewn about. It was clear the place needed so much work they would have been better off building from scratch.

A full year later, the Ragans are still looking. They have combed the real estate ads, called agents, and sought help from friends, but have been unable to find anything decent that they can afford, even with financial assistance from the city’s first-time homebuyer program. The few houses they have seen seem barely bigger than their apartment, are filled with lead paint, or, like the farmhouse, are in such bad shape they’d have to spend as much to fix up as to buy.

“It’s just a seller’s market,” Lisa says, clearly exasperated. “We’re looking for a house in the range of $100,000. They just don’t exist….We’ve looked in Grafton, Hudson, Marlborough. There was nothing,” she says. “We couldn’t even touch Northborough, Westborough, or Shrewsbury–any of that,” she adds, referring to the area’s more affluent suburbs that seem to be filling up with mini-mansions complete with three-car garages and Jacuzzis. And any towns closer to Boston than their current 45-minute drive? Forget it.

“We’re a basic all-around family trying to squeak by on a limited income,” Lisa adds later, pausing to figure out how to explain what she’s been feeling. “It almost makes you feel that because you’re in a certain income bracket…you’re pleading for someone to give you a break because you’re not making enough money…. You’re working and you’re paying taxes and doing everything but can’t get everything together. It’s frustrating…. For any of us that are stuck in this $30,000 and $40,000 area…it seems there are no breaks.”

Good news & bad news

Good news about housing, the mainstay of the American Dream, seems to be everywhere these days. Fueled by a roaring economy, low interest rates, and new ways to finance, the nation has been experiencing a home-buying boom. Homeownership rates are at an all-time high, with nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households owning a home. Indeed, home sales in the Bay State by the middle of the summer had hit their highest levels since the late 1980s. More than 14,300 single-family houses were sold in April, May, and June–roughly one every nine minutes. News stories abound about the “red-hot” market and its prime signs–jam-packed open houses, dueling offers above the asking price, and properties swept up in just a few days.

For lower-income families, finding an affordable house is nearly impossible in much of Massachusetts–but not all.

But these rosy statistics mask a gloomy reality for many Bay State residents, especially those still trying to make their way into the middle class. It is extremely difficult –some would say impossible–for low- and moderate-income families to find a decent house at an affordable price in much of Massachusetts. That’s despite a huge increase in the amount of financial assistance available for first-time homebuyers, and for lower-income families in particular, since the beginning of the decade. While middle-class buyers may be settling for less–smaller houses, fewer amenities, or second-choice locations–many families earning below the Boston area’s median income of $60,000 a year are settling for nothing at all.

“The good news is that interest rates are low and…Massachusetts [has] programs for first-time homebuyers that reduce the interest rate even lower. That’s about it for the good news as I see it,” says Rachel Bratt, chairwoman of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy at Tufts University. “The bad news is that… the supply of low-cost housing is at a premium…. Housing is way beyond the reach of a low-income person or even a moderate-income person.”

Debbie Kidd, who runs first-time homebuyer programs for Quincy Community Action Programs, an anti-poverty agency serving the South Shore, says many families have been looking for a house for months or longer without luck. “The real estate market has gone up so much it’s bumped a lot of families out,” she said. “It’s the worst market we’ve ever seen,” agreed Joe Richer, a Quincy real estate broker who’s been in the business 20 years. “In the ’80s there was inventory. Here there isn’t any inventory.”

Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, an advocacy group, says he is concerned. “We’re watching it closely,” he said. “The prices are starting to go up dramatically….There are the extreme examples of the Wellesleys and Westons,” the most affluent, “desirable” suburbs. “But it’s also the Weymouths,” he added, referring to working-class towns.

Soaring prices have been putting even the most modest homes out of reach. In the first six months of the year, the average statewide sale price for a detached single-family home was $212,693, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. In Greater Boston it was $282,032. Meanwhile, few first-time homebuyer programs, which offer a variety of financial aid such as low-rate mortgages, can be used for existing single-family houses above $144,000. Many programs maintain price limits that are even lower.

It’s no wonder that the Massachusetts homeownership rate is below that of 42 other states. Home prices here are among the highest in the country. (See charts, p. 17.) Still few officials, academics, or even advocates seem ready to call the housing crunch a crisis–no matter how bad it may be for families like the Ragans. Some people who study these issues say they are far more concerned about the lack of affordable rental housing in the Boston area, especially given that the state’s new two-year time limit on welfare benefits kicks in for many families Dec. 1. It’s these people who are most at risk of homelessness, they say. So that’s where they want to focus attention.

There may be another reason as well: If you look at the state as a whole, there are still plenty of affordable houses for sale–in places like Worcester, Springfield, Pittsfield, Fitchburg, and New Bedford. They just happen to be located far from Boston, the state’s economic and psychic hub. And that raises another little-discussed problem that deserves attention: The confluence of social and economic factors has produced a “bifurcated housing market,” according to Karl “Chip” Case, a professor of economics at Wellesley College and partner in a real estate research firm. In fact, the state can be seen in two parts: unaffordable Massachusetts, which consists of most of the area east of Route 495 (getting less affordable the closer a community is to Boston), and affordable Massachusetts, which consists of most of the rest of the state and the inner-city areas inside the 495 belt.

“The market has made the desirable areas, the hot towns that have good school districts, very inaccessible and very expensive. But if you shop around, there are some pretty good homeownership opportunities,” Case said. “The sad part is we’re becoming a much more segregated society… squeezing out people of middle and lower income. That’s a problem. The opportunities are there but they’re in towns that people with a lot of money tend to avoid.”

“Housing opportunities are there but in towns that people with a lot of money tend to avoid.”

Bargain in New Bedford

Sixty miles southeast of Marlborough, Route 140 passes Lakeville and Freetown, then ends abruptly at a stoplight. Welcome to New Bedford, the one-time whaling capital of the world. There’s a gas station on one corner, a strip mall down the street. Drive past a Dunkin’ Donuts, a diner, and a couple of drugstores, turn right at the Irish Immigrant Pub, and you’ll find Reed Street.

On a sunny Friday morning in August, the scene at No. 377 is a bit chaotic. Pickup trucks are parked outside and men in T-shirts and shorts are walking up and down the front stairs. Amy Atkins and Mark Delisle moved into the pale green, four-bedroom house near Buttonwood Park in May, and they’re still doing renovations. It’s more than 100 years old, but the price was right: $67,000. Even with rehab costs, the total bill of $84,000 was within their budget.

Today they’re having a $700 alarm system installed, complete with motion detectors that will alert them to any would-be burglars but won’t pick up the movements of their two cats. Sitting in their spacious kitchen, they have to speak over the men drilling holes and pounding nails at the front door, but they barely seem to notice the noise. Three months after the closing, they’re still reveling in their recent change in status from renters to owners. Amy drops a pile of envelopes on the table and asks Mark if he’ll have time to mail them later. They are invitations to a house-warming party (At Amy & Mark’s new pad!), she explains, and she wants to make sure they go out soon.

“I could tell Amy liked the kitchen right away,” Mark, 34, recalls about the day they first stepped inside the house last fall. “I tried not to smile,” laughs Amy, 33. “You try not to show it on your face if you like it…. This house had everything we wanted.”

Both tired of renting, they had planned to buy a house before they got married. But two weeks before the closing, Amy lost her job when the health food store where she was manager was bought out. Two years later, they were living on less money–about $26,000 a year–when a friend told them about “Neighborhoods First,” a city-run, first-time homebuyer program for low-income families. It offered up to $10,000 in a no-interest rehabilitation loan that would be forgiven if they stayed in the house 10 years–part of an effort to revitalize decaying neighborhoods in this old industrial city. The couple got a $63,000 mortgage from a local bank to buy the house and do other major renovations. With help from their parents, an uncle, and a book on thrifty living called The Tightwad Gazette, they had $10,000 for a down payment and were ready to make an offer. Their total mortgage payments? About $560 a month. The first moment they felt like homeowners? “When we went to Home Depot and spent, like, $200 in an hour,” Mark says.

From the street, their New Bedford neighborhood looks a lot like working-class neighborhoods in Cambridge or Somerville. Boxy, wood-frame houses, separated by metal fences, nudge the sidewalk. Some seem well tended, with flowers brightening up the yards; others a bit neglected.

Step inside and you immediately notice the shiny hardwood floors and curving wooden staircase, then the bay windows in the living room and the beautiful wood trim. Amy is a hand weaver, Mark a painter, and the decor is as earthy as the artists in residence: quilts draped over furniture, plenty of plants, a lava lamp, and a scratching post for the cats. The front room is filled with boxes of paintings. Amy’s loom is upstairs with boxes of yarn.

As much as they love the house itself, one of their favorite spots is the back yard, where they have strung a hammock between two trees and planted a vegetable garden, strawberries, raspberries, shrubs, and flowers. “When we first woke up here, we looked out and saw the trees and heard the birds, it was almost like we were in the country,” Mark says. Indeed, if you avert your eyes from the dilapidated garage next door, it seems quite suburban.

Amy is from Milton, just south of Boston, but she fell in love with this part of the state while studying textile design at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass-Dartmouth). Mark, who grew up in nearby Fall River, another former industrial center, already planned on sticking around. Both rave about their new neighborhood. Amy has a five-minute walk to work at Down to Earth, a family-owned natural foods store. Mark has a 10-minute drive to his job in Fairhaven where he helps people with developmental disabilities find employment. On days off, they can stroll over to Buttonwood Park, a 97-acre landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. (The park’s zoo, which for now has two elephants and little else, is to be rebuilt by the year 2000.) Or they can visit downtown New Bedford, which has cobblestone streets, antique shops, and fishing boats on the harbor, as well as the expected empty storefronts. They also like the “ethnic feel” of the city–the mix of white, black, and Portuguese families on their block and the ethnic festivals throughout the year. The burgeoning arts community–with galleries, museums, and music festivals–is a welcome bonus.

But there are other, more pragmatic reasons for settling on the state’s South Coast, as well. A house like theirs would probably cost twice as much in a suburb to the north. “I knew we could get a much better deal down here–a much bigger house for the money,” Mark says. “We probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house outside of this area. And we really wanted to own.” And the lower cost of living in New Bedford extends to other items that they enjoy, not the least of which is the price of a lobster dinner–$8. (“And that’s with chowder,” Amy says.)

But Amy and Mark are not unabashed boosters for the city–and not only because they want the lobster place to themselves. While much of the state enjoys the boom times, the economy down here is still depressed. Unemployment is more than twice as high as in the Boston area, and incomes are about 60 percent lower–a difference, on average, of about $16,000 a year. Amy tells of a friend who had her house on the market for seven years before finally selling this summer and taking a $20,000 loss.

It’s almost 11 a.m., so Amy packs her lunch in a canvas shopping bag, kisses Mark goodbye, and gets on her way to work. Mark, who has the day off, finishes a tour of the renovations in progress. They have already paid to replace the heating system, plumbing, and all of the front windows and to rebuild the back stairs. But there is definitely more to do. The current project is converting one of the bedrooms into a second bathroom, which they’re attempting themselves with help from a friend. Later, they’d like to do more decorating.

Mark pauses at the top of the staircase and points out the slanted, oval-shaped ceiling where he hopes to paint a mural. “It’s nice to feel we can settle into a place and do our own thing,” he says. “It’s a little overwhelming with how much there is to do,” he adds, laughing. “But it’s definitely much better than renting.”

Supply on demand?

Moving to New Bedford–or any of the state’s other low-cost locales–obviously can’t be the answer for everyone looking for an affordable home in Massachusetts (though some advocates say more people should consider that option). The fact remains that the Boston area offers a lot more job opportunities than a city like New Bedford. What policies speak to the needs of those who have work or family in the prosperous areas and who can’t afford the $200,000 and $300,000 houses?

Most public and private efforts to increase the number of working-class families who own homes fall into two categories: programs to help low- and moderate-income people buy a house and programs to spur the development of new, low-cost housing. State officials say they are doing plenty of both. “There are a lot of resources this agency has available for affordable housing,” Jane Wallis Gumble, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, told CommonWealth. “Have they been higher in other years? Yes. Have they been lower? Yes.”

By September, the Weld-Cellucci administration was saying it had helped more than 4,300 low-income families own their own home since 1991 using more than $27 million in state and federal funds. (The state can’t claim sole credit for any of the programs, which are jointly operated–and sometimes funded–with a variety of other entities, including local governments, community groups, quasi-public state agencies, and banks.) While eligibility rules vary, the state generally considers a family to be “low-income” if it earns less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, which amounts to about $48,000 a year in Greater Boston.

The vast majority of the first-time homebuyers who have received state assistance in the past eight years–about 3,250–received a low-interest loan known as a “Soft Second” mortgage. The program helps people who earn $15,000 to $40,000 a year overcome what is often the biggest obstacle to homeownership–qualifying for a mortgage–by splitting the loan in two and letting buyers qualify based on 75 percent of the purchase price. Many buyers with Soft Second loans also receive state or local subsidies to help pay off the second mortgage, which amounts to 20 percent of the house price. (A down payment covers the remaining 5 percent.) Several hundred other first-time buyers received state grants to help them cover down payment and closing costs.

Other families to benefit from state housing programs did not get any money themselves; they bought reduced-price houses from developers who offered them at a discount. Some of the developers received state subsidies that helped cover their costs, such as land acquisition or property rehabilitation.

But many developers did not receive any money at all. Rather, they were able to keep costs down by taking advantage of the state’s “Local Initiative Program,” which allows local communities to waive certain zoning rules for developments where one-fourth of the units are sold at below-market prices. For example, developers may be able to get exemptions from minimum lot size requirements, which would allow them to build more houses on a particular piece of land and offer each at a lower price. The program has helped create another 736 affordable homes this decade.

Jane Gumble, the housing agency’s director, said the biggest obstacle to developing more affordable housing is the availability of land–something she says the state has little control over. “I can’t manufacture land, and when you look at some of the Greater Boston suburban communities, there isn’t a lot of land that’s currently available for development because it’s privately owned,” Gumble said. “Robert Parrish [the former Boston Celtics star] wants to keep his 20 acres in Weston for whatever reason and it’s none of my business.” She added: “Everybody can’t have their first house be in Weston. Mine wasn’t…and yours probably won’t be either.”

Despite that problem, Gumble said there are existing “starter homes” affordable to low- and moderate-income families if they take advantage of the myriad first-time homebuyer programs offered throughout the state. She acknowledged that some communities have “an absolute inventory problem,” and not only the most affluent suburbs. But Gumble added that is not a big concern, even for people who grew up in a particular community but can’t afford to buy there. “If your starter home is one town over, is that a bad thing? From a state public policy point of view, I’m saying that it’s not,” she said. “With limited resources, we’ve got to do the best we can to help people get to a place where people can become first-time homebuyers. And I can’t necessarily do that in every city or town initially.”

More money will be coming Gumble’s way thanks to the state’s first housing bond bill since 1994. The Legislature and Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci this summer gave the O.K. to borrow as much as $296 million to help pay for a multitude of projects over the next five years. (See related story, p. 11.) Though most of the money is earmarked for rental housing, there will be $3 million to $6 million available to expand the “Soft Second” loan program for low-income buyers and to help nonprofit developers acquire land for new construction.

It is important to note that Massachusetts has many forces besides state government involved in helping working families find affordable homes to buy, ranging from small local banks to large nonprofit organizations. The Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, a quasi-public agency that uses no taxpayer money, has provided below-market-rate mortgages for 20 years–typically about 1,700 a year. Many of the other programs were developed since 1990, when affordable housing advocates focused public attention on racial disparities in mortgage lending by Boston banks. The state also is home to a large network of nonprofit groups that work to develop affordable housing, through new construction, the acquisition of foreclosed properties, and the renovation of rundown buildings.

Rachel Bratt, the Tufts University professor who chairs the school’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy, says there’s a simple reason that most commercial developers don’t build affordable housing on their own in Massachusetts or in other parts of the country. “It’s a very rare builder–a probably-doesn’t-exist builder–who can put together a deal. The numbers don’t work, the financing doesn’t work,” she said. “The problem is it’s very hard to bring down the cost of the housing. The math doesn’t work for new construction without a subsidy.” Bratt notes that the raw cost of land and supplies, plus the “enormous” number of necessary subcontractors, make each unit of new housing a high-priced product. “And,” she adds, “each one of these people of course is looking to make a profit.”

“It’s very hard to bring down the cost of the housing. The math doesn’t work without a subsidy.”

Massachusetts housing prices have not always been so out of line with the rest of the nation. Prices here were only slightly above average in the 1970s, but soared above the rest of the country’s during the 1980s.

In 1980, the median sale price of an existing single-family home in Massachusetts was $79,300–about 28 percent higher than the national median of $62,000, according to Regional Financial Associates, Inc., a Pennsylvania consulting firm that tracks prices for the National Association of Realtors. But over the next decade, Massachusetts prices more than doubled–and, by some measures, almost tripled. By 1989, the median sale price of an existing single-family home in Massachusetts was $177,100–about 90 percent higher than the national median of $92,900. “There was a big run-up in the ’80s,” explains Kevin McIntyre, a senior economist with Regional Financial Associates. “House prices tend to reflect what’s going on in the rest of the economy…. It was a by-product of the good economy at the time.”

With a growing number of people getting high-paying jobs, the demand for housing grew, McIntyre said. At the same time, the state did not add much supply to the housing stock, in part because the regions experiencing the fastest economic growth were already almost fully developed. That, in turn, pushed up prices.

The way Karl Case of Wellesley College sees it, the run-up of the ’80s was caused by more than just an energetic economy. “It was really a psychological event, with prices rising far faster than incomes and any other fundamental determinant like housing demand,” he said. “The whole boom took on a life of its own…. That’s when we became an expensive place to live.”

Though Bay State prices dropped in the recession of the early 1990s, they picked up again within a few years and have been setting new records since 1996. Last year, the median house price in Massachusetts was $186,800 – the second highest in the country, after Hawaii. (See charts, p. 17.) Boston-area prices are even higher, while other parts of the state lag far behind. For example, while the 1997 median price in the Boston area was $194,500, it was only $105,800 in the Springfield area.

Although Massachusetts workers do earn more than their counterparts across the country, incomes are not high enough to make up for the difference in the cost of housing here. In fact, Massachusetts was the second least affordable state in 1997, according to a “housing affordability index” developed by Regional Financial Associates that takes into account median home prices, median incomes, mortgage rates, and other data. The firm says that a family earning the median income in Massachusetts last year would have been able to purchase 82 percent of a median-priced house, compared to a national average of 128 percent.

Given all of this, many affordable housing advocates say the state government should be doing more to help. Tom Callahan of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance contends that the current administration has virtually abandoned state housing policy of any kind. Callahan, whose organization co-sponsors the “Soft Second” low-interest loan program, points out that the state was much more generous with funding for affordable housing in the 1980s. The Dukakis administration secured housing bond bills in 1983, 1985, and 1987 and created new construction programs, according to Callahan. When Former Gov. William Weld and then-Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci took over, that commitment disappeared, he says.

“This administration has absolutely no interest in housing,” Callahan said. “The Weld administration, and now Cellucci has continued it, did not feel state government had a legitimate role in housing policy. I don’t think that’s overstating it at all. They certainly acted that way.” While some of the Dukakis-era construction programs were dependent on the real estate market, which collapsed in the late ’80s, Callahan argues that the state’s strong economic recovery provides the perfect opportunity to create new ones. “That was eight years ago,” Callahan said of the market problems. “And since then, the current Weld-Cellucci administration has not come up with any more ideas.”

‘We’ll rent forever’

Tom Ragan strides around his Marlborough kitchen in work boots. He doesn’t like to sit still, especially for questions about the family’s finances. He checks on Gabrielle, napping in the next room, wipes up a puddle near the leaking refrigerator, and then begins to pace. Lisa Ragan sits at the kitchen table, ready to talk. She hopes that if others read about her family’s experience and understand how tough it can be then at least something will have come of their search for a house.

After seeing the sagging farmhouse last October, she explains, they decided not to look at any more properties for a while. But in March, they read something in The Middlesex News that got their hopes up again–an affordable housing lottery for low-income families. “And I said, ‘Finally, that’s our income!’ Lisa recalls. A local developer was selling two reduced-price houses to qualifying families selected in a random drawing. It turns out they had two friends who previously bought houses through a lottery in the same development–a huge, mixed-income complex across the city near the Sudbury line. The price? $94,500, for a house that normally would sell for $150,000.

Lisa visited three mortgage companies and two credit unions before finding a bank that would pre-approve the couple for a loan. But she was thrilled. Their monthly payments would be just $585 – barely more than their family-rate rent. Lisa says the lottery organizers at Fafard Realty told her that since they lived and worked in Marlborough and had three children, they had a good shot. So they visited the Village at Rose Pointe and toured a couple of the model homes. The tiny yards gave them pause, and the homes were built “so close together it’s almost like a townhouse,” according to Lisa. But they loved the idea of being in a quiet, residential neighborhood where their kids could make friends and play safely in the street. “We were so pumped up. We really thought we had a really good chance,” Lisa says.

But months went by without a word. In July, the Ragans heard that one of the two lottery houses had been sold to another family. In early August, they heard they were next in line for the second. But a few weeks later, it was sold, too.

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The rest of their search has been equally agonizing. Each week, they scour the ads and drive by anything in their price range, usually finding it in sad shape or, once inside, just too small for a family of five. They’ve included townhouses and duplexes in their hunt, with similar results. One two-family on a rundown street in downtown Marlborough left them stunned. Definitely not a neighborhood for raising kids. “My husband and I were cracking up. We thought, ‘We’ll rent forever, thank you,’ ” Lisa recalls, laughing at the memory. “People in our income bracket have to have some standards.” Any affordable house that looks livable has already had an offer by the time they reached the broker, sometimes within a week of going on the market.

The Ragans have thought about moving to a more affordable part of the state, namely Worcester, 17 miles west. But they’ve been put off by fears of lower-quality schools and higher crime rates. They have even considered other parts of the country, including Pennsylvania, where Tom grew up, and Vermont, where friends recently bought a three-bedroom house on an acre for $101,000. But they have a big reason to stay in Massachusetts now that Tom’s carpentry business is starting to take off. “So we’re renting still,” Lisa says. “And it may be forever.”