Telling It to You Square: Price per Square Data Shows Great Variation, Even in Expensive Markets

Price-per-square foot: the amount a certain area’s homes fetch-- per square-- tells you a lot about the market in that area, about how much the location means to the buyer. If people are willing to pay more for less space, that generally indicates a popular place in high demand with homebuyers.

Of course, we can look at metro level data, but it’s often not very surprising, because high priced markets generally command the highest prices-per-square foot as well. What’s more interesting is local market prices: the cities, districts and neighborhoods within a metro that fetch top dollar-- sometimes only a street or two away from another district fetching much less per square.

Today we look at 3 metros ZipRealty serves: Boston, MA; San Francisco, CA; and Long Island, NY. Each enjoys a median sold price well over the national median, so the price per square foot most often comes out higher than the national average as well. But on the micro level, we can see how very differently each city or district performs—a strong reminder of how important local Realtors ® are when it comes to understanding market conditions on the exact street, in the precise neighborhood, where you want to live.  

Boston, MA

The Boston metro’s median selling price for single-family homes in July was $420K. But that median combines all metro sales, so though interesting and positive overall, it doesn’t tell you much about the performance of individual markets. Let me exemplify with this graph:

price per square in NW boston

© ZipRealty, Inc.

Here, we see several areas within the Boston metro. These data indicate that buyers in the northern and western portions of the city will pay a lot more for a lot less (speaking in terms of physical space) to live in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, followed by the Waterfront district. Looking down the table, we see people opting for larger homes that cost less per-square foot. And at the bottom, witness a dramatic price difference.

The southern and eastern portions of the city tell the same story. Here I offer a few districts with disparate home values per square foot:

© ZipRealty, Inc.

Note than in all of these cases, the larger homes may sometimes command higher prices overall, driving the median sold price up in those districts where bigger houses sell more often. But that doesn’t mean those are the places where homes have the most value—not if we’re equating value with the amount people are willing to pay per square foot.

Check out all homes for sale in Boston, MA here.


San Francisco, CA

The median sold price for single-family homes in the San Francisco metro was $755K in July of 2012. But just like Boston, not every part of the metro is equally prized by buyers.

© ZipRealty, Inc.

In news that may shock the typical San Franciscan so used to famously high prices, it is not SF proper that commands the most per square foot, but rather Palo Alto, with its stately homes near Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. Interestingly, the least expensive area by the square is nearby (but worlds apart) East Palo Alto.

Search for homes for sale in San Francisco, CA here.


Long Island, NY

Long Island is in Westchester County. It’s among the pricier areas in the county, but as you see from our data, not every part of the city enjoys the same popularity with buyers. Manhasset wins the competition for most expensive per square foot and median price, and the homes there are also on the larger side. In stark contrast is Mastic, where a buyer could have a similarly sized house for a fraction of the cost per square foot.

Long island price per square

© ZipRealty, Inc.

Search for homes for sale in Long Island, NY

As a buyer or seller then, the lesson is clear: simply knowing metro level data isn’t enough to inform you about true market conditions on the street where you live—or want to live. Talk to an experienced local Realtor® for the true inside scoop.

Anna Marie Erwert writes from both the renter and new buyer perspective, having (finally) achieved both statuses. She focuses on national real estate trends, specializing in the San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. Follow Anna on Twitter: @AnnaMarieErwert.