Where to Live as a Family

So you are in. You are ecstatic. Your whole family is ecstatic. The one year old is so happy (no doubt imagining the high-end Gerber products he’ll be swimming in when you land your post MBA signing bonus) he practically forgets about jamming Cheerios into the light sockets.

In the midst of your glee, you may pause, glancing around your no doubt spacious home or apartment and wonder; “How am I going to move all this stuff?”

Please be assured that those concerns will quickly melt away once you’ve had a chance to evaluate your family’s housing options here in Beantown. There are several possibilities for the vast majority of your family’s accumulated “stuff,” none of which include moving them into your new place.

  • Garage Sale. Good option to raise cash to fund babysitters in Boston. Figure two nights out for every $1,000 netted.
  • Storage. Not a strong option. The cranberry leather sectional couch set will not fly in your Investment Banking circles upon graduation anyway. No sense incurring the storage costs.
  • Bonfire. Consider possibility of “legend” status in leaving your neighborhood in a blaze of glory. Be sure to attain all relevant permits.

    Seriously, there are many viable options for families to choose from when coming to HBS, but it is expensive. Unless you’re coming from New York, San Francisco, London or Tokyo, you’ll get a new definition of sticker shock. We expected a hike in housing costs coming from Portland, Maine. However, we were (and still are) a bit amazed to have swapped, straight-up, a brand new three-bedroom Colonial on two acres for 380 square feet. Having sufficiently scared you, let’s get to the good stuff.

    Start Early: One Realtor told us that the typical vacancy rate in Cambridge and surrounding areas is as low as 1-2%. To say it’s a seller’s market would be a gross understatement. Whether you live on-campus or off, be prepared to pay a few months’ rent before you actually move here, just to nail a place down. It’s a pain, but many people have to do it. Some people are able to sublet their apartment during these months before coming to campus, but again, this has its hassles.

    On-Campus vs. Off-Campus: The first, and perhaps most important, choice in living is whether to be on- or off-campus. This may or may not be your decision. On-campus housing, consisting primarily of two apartment complexes — Soldiers Field Park and Peabody Terrace — is limited and assigned through a lottery.

    The housing office will send you information on the lottery so we won’t go into detail. Be aware, however, that even if you get shut out in the lottery you can sometimes grab an unexpected vacancy by pestering the housing office regularly (one student, working in California prior to HBS, reported setting her alarm for 6:00 am every morning for a month so she could call the housing office when it first opened to check on new vacancies). Also, if you are coming with two or more kids, be persistent, as the housing office is generally sympathetic.

    There are some fundamental trade-offs in the decision as to whether you want to be on- or off-campus. Harvard Planning and Real Estate (the on-campus landlord) has figured out the supply and demand curves on HBS housing, and they take full advantage of it. For example, we pay $1,590 a month for a two-bedroom shoebox in SFP. Tack on $105 a month for parking per car, and you’re taking a pretty big hit on the budget (I know you’re not going to Sloan, but you can do the math.) While no housing in the area is cheap, you can generally get more square feet of apartment per dollar off-campus than on-campus. The extra space can be helpful; if you have even half as many toys as we do, you’ll need it! You might even get a few square feet of yard for outdoor play.

    There is little doubt that on-campus housing is more convenient, especially SFP, which is literally right on campus. If you turn your head for ten seconds, your two year-old can reach the new Spangler Center. Aldrich Hall, where all classes are held, is a stone’s throw away.

    Peabody Terrace is just across the Charles River, an easy five-minute walk to campus. Peabody Terrace is slightly cheaper than SFP and the apartments are similar (although the exterior isn’t much to look at). The proximity to campus can be very important for maximizing family time. I make it home to see my youngest nearly every day at lunchtime and usually take kid duty after class in the afternoons while my wife heads to Shad.

    Even if your partner works and the kids are in day care, it will make it easier to spend time together when you have to be on-campus in the evening or attend a recruiting event. Many of the off-campus families I interviewed reported that it was much more difficult to take full advantage of the things HBS offers (e.g., Shad gym, speaker series, social events).

    If you live on-campus, your life tends to revolve around HBS. This can be good and bad. On the downside, it can be somewhat stifling at times. Every time you walk out of your apartment, you are going to see fellow HBSers. It’s probably better for one’s mental health to change the scenery periodically.

    There are additional advantages to living on-campus, especially in SFP. Most important, it makes co-op baby-sitting very convenient. The partners often trade kids for a few hours to go to the gym, go shopping, or just grab an hour of silence. Families also trade kids for evenings out, a very cost-effective way to find baby-sitting. There are numerous playgroups and movie matinees for the kids. Also, there are a couple of playgrounds and sending the kids off to play “Survivor” in the tunnels is always a good way to burn some of their excess energy.

    Finally, there are many on-campus social events that both you and your spouse may want to take advantage of, including a happy hour hosted every Friday by the Student Association. Some of the married couples who chose to live off-campus report that it has been more difficult for their partner to integrate into the HBS social scene. As with everything, though, if one puts forth the effort, it can be done no matter where you live.

    Off-Campus Options: If you decide to live off-campus, you have some work to do in order to find a good place. You’ll probably need to work through a Realtor, which can cost you half to one month’s rent in fees (yes, the renter pays the agent — we didn’t get it either).

    There is also a major issue with lead paint in many of the older buildings in the area. By law, owners cannot rent to families with kids under six if they have lead paint in the home. They are also prohibited from discriminating against such families. Thus, the prospective tenant can demand that the owner de-lead the apartment, an expensive and time-consuming process. We were led to believe the owners would find subtle ways to prevent this (sure, you can have the apartment, it will be ready in 18 months). You should investigate the lead issue carefully before selecting an apartment.

    Finding a good agent can be critical, particularly because the lead issue makes some agents shy away from families with kids. Again, start this process as early as you can.

    There are several neighborhoods near HBS that are popular with off-campus students. Closest to campus are Allston and Brighton, both easy, five-minute drives to campus, with reasonably priced housing. You’ll need to look carefully in these areas, as some neighborhoods are nicer than others.

    Four other suburbs that are slightly farther out, but also a reasonable commute are Brookline, Belmont, Arlington, and Watertown, roughly in descending order of price. One student said his search found that approximate monthly rents for two-bedroom apartments with one bathroom, washer/dryer (often hook-up only), and off-street parking were:

    Belmont: $1,400 – 1,700

    Arlington: $1,200 – 1,500

    Watertown: $900 – 1,400

    So take a deep breath and remai
    n calm. You will find housing, everyone does. If for some reason you don’t, section mates will be more than willing to put you and your family up on a rotating basis.