Let’s not pretend that living in America’s hottest real estate market is a burden; still, the volatility can be maddening. Where else can you find yourself first in line at an open house, only to discover that the place already has three offers from an invitation-only open house the previous day? No place, that’s where. In what other city do they issue 27,000 permits for single-family construction in a single year? No other city. And where else does an oil company’s mass relocation lead to property values changing overnight? (Okay, there’s Fairfax, Va., but we mean change in a good way.) The fact is, knowing what and where to buy has never been trickier in Houston, which is why we polled dozens of real estate professionals for their expert opinions on the matter. Et voilà, the Houstonia guide to the 20 hottest areas of town, along with 5 up-and-coming neighborhoods whose pre-hot days are clearly numbered.

Up &
Coming!

Sharpstown

Though to some Houstonians Sharpstown still conjures images of gangs and other urban thuggery, this neighborhood of mostly ’50s ranch homes is forging a quiet comeback. Yes, many of the crime-ridden apartment complexes that laid low the area in the 1980s remain, but on the back streets, single-family homes on good-sized lots are being refurbished and increasing in price. (Four- and five-bedroom golf-course ranchers on large, treed lots in Sharpstown Country Club Terrace now hover near $150,000.) Only a quick freeway zip away from the Galleria, downtown, and the Med Center, Sharpstown is perhaps Houston’s foremost haven for adventurous economical dining, thanks to its vast Chinatown along Bellaire Boulevard.

Garden Oaks / Oak Forest

Where Inner Loop cool landed after bounding over 610

Residents of this patchwork of neighborhoods just north of 610 proudly and justifiably stake their claim as “honorary Inner-Loopers.” Heights chic, in the form of laid-back wine bars like Plonk, dive-y gastropubs like Petrol Station, and casually cool eateries like Shepherd Park Draught House, has successfully pole-vaulted over the North Loop.

Garden Oaks, established in 1937, is the wealthier and more redeveloped area of the two: beginning in the 1990s, a new generation of families discovered its rambling ranch houses and two-story, plantation-style mini-mansions sitting on huge lots amid mature oak, pecan, and magnolia trees. Homes here run a bit over $170 per square foot.

But Oak Forest next door, with an average price per square foot of almost $140, is no slouch. This ranch-house paradise, originally developed for returning World War II vets, is starting to resemble a baby Bellaire or West University, with some new homes cracking the $700,000 mark. Well-regarded Oak Forest Elementary is an added drawing card.

Since 2000, both neighborhoods have attracted lots of creative types, many either priced or sized out of the Heights or Montrose after starting families. Fashion designer and former Montrosian Bronwyn Lauder is one such Oak Forest arrival. “Living here, I’m a much more chill parent and the kids have definitely benefitted,” she says. “The space to grow food is a plus too. As is having twice the house for a fraction of the cost.”

Spring Branch

Where residents enjoy superior schools and superior kimchi, both at bargain prices

Up until the last decade or so, much of Spring Branch had a rural feel. It wasn’t uncommon to see pastures full of horses, relics of its past life as farmland tilled by generations of German immigrants (a past life still present at the 165-year-old St. Peter’s church on bustling Long Point Road).

The roughly 30-square-mile expanse is a hodgepodge of housing, from wood-sided bungalows in the neighborhood’s blue-collar eastern edge, to ’60s-era ranch houses in Spring Branch West, to new, half-million-dollar homes along Moritz Drive in the heart of the area.

It’s no coincidence that builders have moved in on Moritz. Debbie J. Callan, a realtor with Martha Turner Properties and area resident, says parents flock to certain pockets south of Long Point. The reason is simple: in subdivisions like Spring Valley and Hilshire Village, kids are zoned to coveted Memorial High School, where they get a south-of-the-Katy Freeway education at a relatively bargain price.

Spring Valley homes that cost $120,000 in 1996 have at least tripled in price since then, and in Spring Branch as a whole, the median price for homes zoned to Memorial and the better feeder schools has risen from $353,000 to $412,000, with new constructions often topping $1 million.

Meanwhile, the area’s become something of a foodie haven. Sure, Long Point might be gritty, but it offers some of the best interior Mexican and Korean fare in Texas.

Montrose

Where the bobos really are in paradise

What $$$ will get you:

1614 Driscoll

Montrose

This sleek, four-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot home, built in 2010, features a pool, spa, water wall, and putt-putt golf course, right in Montrose. Price: $1,740,000

No Houston ’hood outside of the Heights inspires as much love and loyalty as Montrose, with its elegantly restored mansions, contemporary condos, and Craftsman bungalows; its walkable streets, nationally acclaimed bars and restaurants, and buzzed-about boutiques; and its history as Houston’s gritty street-culture hub. “Montrose is a lifestyle,” says area native Kevin McCarthy. “Many places try to imitate but nobody duplicates.”

Montrose was born in 1911, a streetcar suburb for wealthy Houstonians, but just 50 years later it became the white-hot center of pretty much every alternative lifestyle Houston has known: beatniks, hippies, gays and lesbians, punks, slackers, and hipsters. The area became one of America’s LGBT hubs beginning in the early 1970s, although now, post-assimilation and post-gentrification, it’s estimated that less than 10 percent is gay. Still, the annual Pride Parade, a huge, family-friendly, summer-evening soiree, remains one of the neighborhood’s red-letter nights.

Of course, the mainstreaming of Montrose has driven up property values. Bungalows and cheap apartment complexes are vanishing faster than bluebonnets in April, overtaken by pricey condos. Between 1994 and 2011, the neighborhood’s square-foot price catapulted from a shade over $75 to a sliver under $250—any house on the market here will likely see multiple offers. Many of the old guard are being priced out of the area.

Yet threads of the bohemian lifestyle remain in Montrose’s tapestry, particularly in the park-like environs of the world-renowned Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel. There, on the thick St. Augustine grass under the live oaks, couples and friends spread blankets, throw Frisbees, and read, before heading out for a beer at West Alabama Ice House. It’s comforting to know that while not everyone can afford a home in this wonderful neighborhood, everyone can afford a Lone Star in the city’s collective backyard.

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Up &
Coming!

Springwoods Village

This 2,000-acre community, currently under construction just south of the new ExxonMobil campus, will include a 150-acre nature preserve bordered by a flowing, kayak-friendly creek. “This is extremely unique for Harris County,” says Houston forester Bob Harper, who noted the tract is home to 100 different species of trees, including oak, magnolia, pine, and ash. “The nature preserve won’t be manicured to look natural. It will be natural and have the same variety of plants, trees, and animals that are there now.” Meanwhile, an urban slice of Springwoods Village will be organized into a series of walkable districts, including a mixed-use town center that sounds an awful lot like The Woodlands model just up the road. Of the 15,000 residents expected to begin moving into the community by the end of the year, planners say as many as 12,000 will likely work at the 385-acre ExxonMobil campus.

Washington Corridor

Where the road goes on forever and the party never ends

What $$$ will get you:

6038 Glen Cove St.

Memorial Park

This modern, 6,144-square foot home, near the edge of the Washington Corridor, has an infinity pool, outdoor patios, a workout room, and a sport court. Price: $3,895,000.

Only a portion of the four-mile-wide section of the city known as the Washington Corridor is an oontz-oontz party zone. Outdoors-loving Houstonians appreciate the Corridor’s proximity to Memorial Park. Just east of the park, an enclave of contemporary mansions makes the area feel almost like an extension of River Oaks. And artists and musicians love the Gulf Coast Colonial / Greek Revival homes in the Old Sixth Ward, Houston’s oldest intact neighborhood at 160 years of age.

But back to that party zone. Martha Turner, CEO and President of Martha Turner Properties, says Rice Military—the gentrifying neighborhood along the Corridor just east of Westcott Street, named after a World War I-era training camp that existed here—blows her mind. In recent years, hordes of upwardly mobile young professionals have descended here, and ramshackle old bungalows have given way to townhomes. “It’s a whole new area,” says Turner. Many of these residents enjoy Washington Avenue nightlife. “It’s a great area for young people and for couples,” Turner says. “They don’t mind the commotion and the lack of parking because they like to walk places and they want to be where the action is.”

Corridor resident Jay Rascoe rides his bike to destinations along Washington as well as the nearby Heights, downtown, and Montrose. “Whether you want to get some groceries, a haircut, or a cold sixer,” he says, “there’s no need to hop in a car and get stuck in traffic.”

Pearland

Where suburban über-diversity meets a relatively quick commute

What $$$ will get you:

2924 Green Tee Dr.

Pearland

This 6,983-square-foot residence has six bedrooms. The property surrounds a pool and sits beside a golf course. Price: $895,000

Not so many decades ago, Pearland was nothing but rice fields and a scattering of roughneck honky-tonks and not a pear orchard in sight (hurricanes and freezes had wiped them all out by 1916). But by offering solid schools, huge houses at budget prices, and a relatively short commute to downtown and the Medical Center, Pearland became a bona fide real estate miracle. Between 2000 and 2013, the city’s population increased from 37,000 to 104,000.

Today’s Pearland is a mighty array of subdivisions and big box retail, quartered by Highway 288 and FM 518. East of 288, a rural feel lingers, while west Pearland is the essence of modern suburbia. Both are more diverse than their lily-white reputations suggest: 62 languages are spoken in the school district, and not every Pearlander is upper-middle-class or wealthy, contrary to opinion. “My kids go to school with a broad socio-economic cross-section,” says Kevin Murphy, an attorney who loves the fact that he lives 20 minutes from the city but can still keep chickens on his acre of land.

Shadow Creek Ranch is the jewel in the crown of west Pearland. New homes start at less than $200,000 and range above $800,000 in this enormous development, where residents can frolic in 700 acres of green space and have access to four community recreation centers; jog, hike, or cycle 22 miles of paths; and shop at the adjacent town center.

Like Sugar Land, Pearland is graduating from bedroom community to job center: Kelsey-Seybold’s 170,000 square-foot, 800-employee administrative office building, for one, will open there later this year.

Westbury

Wherein a few setbacks precede a dramatic comeback and motley parade

A late-’50s creation of developer Ira Berne, Westbury came to a low ebb in the mid-’90s. Houston’s coolest-ever open-air mall, Westbury Square, was partially demolished. Area apartment complexes festered into free-fire zones. And Westbury High School had become unacceptable. Families moved out to Sugar Land if they could; only the old folks remained behind.

This was despite the fact that the neighborhood was convenient to downtown, the Med Center, and the Galleria, and abundant with relatively bargain-priced mid-century modern and ranch homes. But things began to turn around in the early aughts, after gay and lesbian couples moved into the neighborhood and people started calling it “Little Montrose.”

These days, everyone seems to love Westbury, despite the comparatively snug square footages, for its still-reasonable prices—the average three-bedroom rancher comes in at around $146,000, one of the best bargains around. Meanwhile, two of the neighborhood’s elementary schools, Kolter and Parker, are among the best in the city, completing Westbury’s trajectory as one of Houston’s most impressive comebacks.

Enticed by the location, the list prices, and the schools, technical writer Jeremy Hart moved here with his family in 2008, and he’s been pleasantly surprised by the area’s quirky traditions, including a yearly rodeo trail ride campout, karaoke night at the gay-friendly Cozy Corner, and the twisted Deck the Halls of Burlinghall holiday parade, which features Santa cavorting with Disney characters, Darth Vader, art cars, Boy Scouts, and Falun Gong followers. “It’s easily the most surreal holiday parade you’ll ever see,” he says.

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Downtown

In which a city realizes you can have the pedal sans the metal

What $$$ will get you:

914 Main St.

Downtown

This 2,412-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in the Commerce Tower, located near Main and Walker, comes with all the amenities. Price: $525,000

Anthropologists hypothesize that our forebears mastered bipedal locomotion perhaps 4.2 million years ago, a prehistoric practice Houstonians promptly forgot when the car came along. And yet downtown, like some alienated tribe attempting to recreate the ceremonial dances of their long-dead forbears, a growing number of residents are attempting this ancient form of movement.

That fact is not lost on Angie Bertinot of the Downtown Management District, who says that thanks to years of smart planning, residential downtown has at last reached critical mass with the arrival of parks, stadiums, and amenities like Phoenicia’s downtown market. Bertinot is further cheered by the numbers from this year’s Kinder Houston Area Survey, which once again found a strong preference among Houston-area residents for “walkable urbanism.” This year fully half of respondents indicated an interest in living in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops, and restaurants” rather than “a single-family residential area.” 

As of now, only about 3,500 people call downtown home, but Bertinot expects that number to double in five years, with the construction of large residential properties on Main Street, in the old Texaco building, and across from Minute Maid Park. Two new downtown hotels and a new building for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts are also underway. Meanwhile, an enterprising group of Houston restaurateurs (including the folks behind Anvil, Grand Prize, Oxheart, and Barnaby’s) has turned its attention to the historic district surrounding Market Square Park, driving even more foot traffic to the area.

“What makes downtown stand out from Montrose and even the Heights”—wait for it—“is that it’s really walkable,” Bertinot notes. “The downtown resident is someone who walks to the theater district, the park, Sundance Cinemas, and the Bayou, which has a huge recreational component. Those things are right in your backyard.” Anything else? “You can walk to work!”

Up &
Coming!

Riverside

Home to some of the city’s finest late Art Deco manses and mid-century mod showpieces set on tree-lined streets, Riverside Terrace seems poised, now more than ever, to enter the Inner Loop gentrification derby. After all, it’s convenient to everything the Inner Loop has to offer. It also offers a lot of bang for the buck: “It’s one of the last places inside the Loop where you can get an acre-or-more lot, and it won’t cost millions of dollars,” says Gerald Womack of Womack Development. Home to Houston’s Jewish elite in the 1930s, and prosperous African-Americans in the late ’50s, Riverside saw its fortunes decline in later decades. But since the early ’90s, it has been on a slow and steady rebound, and on the neighborhood’s backstreets, buyers are restoring old homes to their former glory, complete with the old hardwood floors, solid-wood doors, and crown molding.

River Oaks

Where two little words still command a cachet like none other

Is River Oaks, a place where it can feel like lawnmowers outnumber actual residents, still Houston’s most prestigious neighborhood? Or is such a distinction still relevant when a successful young Indian doctor is just as likely to settle in upscale West U or polyglot Sugar Land than in the affluent Houston of yore, its mansions as frozen in time as its country-club ambience?

These are the questions that bubble up as you navigate the neighborhood’s serene streets. Oh, and here’s another one. With prices skyrocketing and wealthy enclaves like The Woodlands beckoning, surely demand for this blue-blooded barony has dipped, right?

An expert weighs in:

“Buying a house in River Oaks is more expensive and harder than it’s ever been,” says Mary Hale McLean of Martha Turner Properties, who has lived in the same River Oaks home for 45 years. “Homes are going faster and inventory is lower than it was during the boom in the early ’80s.”

Really?

McLean says homes in the $1 to $4 million range are receiving multiple offers and selling within days of hitting the market. Prospective buyers will often make offers even before they tour a home, so desperate are they to land in the neighborhood. After all, if they lose the River Oaks cakewalk, where will they go?

The answer, of course, is Southampton, Tanglewood, and West U, perhaps even the Galleria. But for those determined to be lucky—and when a neighborhood has just 1,600 homes, you’ve got to believe luck plays a part—River Oaks is still the ultimate address. And why not, given its beautiful streets, close proximity to downtown, the Galleria, the Medical Center, and some of the city’s best private and public schools?

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Bellaire

Where small town meets big city

What $$$ will get you:

544 Chelsea

Bellaire

The price of admission gets you 7,686 square feet of Bellaire house, including five bedrooms, a media room, and a pool with outdoor kitchen. Price: $1,175,000

Okay, so maybe it’s trite and a little bit of a stretch to use a sports metaphor here, but it’s so perfect we can’t resist. If the city of Bellaire were a player for the Houston Rockets, it wouldn’t be a ball-hungry scoring type who demands attention and plays with panache. (Think James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Montrose.)

Bellaire would be … Chandler Parsons, a well-rounded glue guy with few great strengths but even fewer weaknesses, who is quietly, if arguably, the most complete player on the team.

Bellaire, known for its City of Homes moniker and rebounding ability, is neither flashy nor exclusive, unlike its Inner Loop rivals, but its mix of location, price, schools, and recreation opportunities make us think it’s still underrated.

“You’re in Houston—a giant city—but you’re living in Bellaire and you have this small-town feeling,” says longtime Bellaire resident and Martha Turner associate, Hedley Karpas. “The local pharmacist knows you. The store and restaurant owners know you. It’s a wonderful little community.”

Thanks to its proximity to 610, the Medical Center, Galleria shopping and downtown, as well as some of the city’s best schools, it’s also an increasingly popular one. Rigid construction standards and 14 parks are big draws for families, and while Bellaire has never been a bargain destination, newly constructed homes often start at about $400,000. Sales lagged during the recession there as elsewhere, but with price points like that, small wonder that demand has now reached levels Karpas says he has never before seen in his 30-year real estate career.

“If you look at what you can buy in Bellaire dollar-wise compared to comparable neighborhoods in the city, you’ll end up with $50,000 to $60,000 more value here,” he noted. “As soon as any decent property comes on the market it’s gone. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Up &
Coming!

East Downtown

It was Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who originally gave this area life and color, and when they relocated to southwest Houston in the ’90s, EaDo became a graveyard of abandoned supermarkets and restaurants. No longer. The neighborhood is now in the midst of a major makeover, attracting everything from sports bars like Little Woodrow’s to a multiplying supply of olive and russet-colored condos. Discovery Green is within walking distance, as is the Dynamos’ new home, BBVA Compass stadium. “With the Dynamo stadium we’re seeing a lot of growth in the residential sector,” says Paige Martin of Keller Williams. “They’ve got a wonderful hike-and-bike trail, and they’re really working to make the area east of downtown integrated into a larger downtown play area. In the near future we’re going to see entertainment, restaurants, all within walking and biking distance of downtown.”

Cinco Ranch

Where’s life’s a (manmade) beach

If Cinco Ranch were a stick of furniture, it would be a La-Z-Boy—oversized, feather-pillow-soft, easy to fall asleep in. It’s hardly surprising then that splashed across the front of the neighborhood’s official brochure is a single phrase: “comfort zone.” Nothing stands out more about this master-planned community of 18,000 people southeast of Katy, the shining star of Newland Communities, than its devotion to ease and reassurance.

What does comfort look like, you ask? Try this: pick a street—any street—in sprawling, 8,100-acre Cinco Ranch, and you can guarantee three things: the grass will look manicured, the streets quiet (sometimes unearthly so), and the homes inviting.

Chances are, you’ll also be within walking distance of a park, a tennis court, a bike trail, a meandering waterway, or one of 10 recreation centers (including a beach club complete with a manmade beach), which gives this neighborhood an active, lived-in feel often lacking in other suburban hamlets.

For retirees, there is Sunrise Senior Living Center, for kids, a children’s garden and top schools in the Katy school district. There is a golf course. There is La Centerra, a 34-acre town center with shopping and restaurants. Nine centers of worship are also sprinkled throughout the community, and that doesn’t include the yoga studios.

Yes, friends, all this can be yours, but you must act now. Cinco Ranch was the No. 4 top-selling community in the United States last year, right behind The Woodlands. Maybe that’s because Cinco’s a relatively short commute to the energy corridor, making it popular with those in the industry. Maybe it’s the prices, which can go beyond the $1 million mark but start at the $180,000s, or maybe it’s the variety in housing stock, running the gamut from one-story patio homes to estates.

Or maybe one shouldn’t waste time speculating and get over there before the place fills up completely.

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Memorial City

In which the view changes from block to block, and so does the city. 

Sometimes trekking around Houston can feel like peering through a microscope. Pick a new area, focus the view, and you’re likely to stumble upon another city altogether, probably one with its own brand of cuisine. Memorial City may be the best example of this phenomenon. The area is comprised of dozens of subdivisions and six different townships, each with its own government, police, fire department, and personality.

Serving as the area anchor is CityCentre, something of a kid brother to the Galleria—an upscale, mixed-use development with office buildings, apartments, a hotel, and movie theaters. Rising in dramatic fashion across the street is the futuristic Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, whose campus already includes a hotel and a retail center.

The gloss abruptly disappears a few blocks south of I-10, replaced by the Memorial West area; think Pleasantville on steroids. In Houston, there is arguably no neighborhood outside The Woodlands where it’s easier to get lost among endless blocks of manicured lots and large, single-family dwellings. It’s an area far from the city’s chaos, and one that’s also in transition. 

“We’re seeing young couples with kids who used to own a townhome in the Washington Corridor flock to this area for the schools,” says Julianna Lind of John Daugherty Realtors. “They love the area because the homes are older and they’ve got the energy to pull up the carpet and remodel the home, making it hip.” Lind said older homes range from $300,000 to $500,000, while newer ones can top $1,000,000. 

Throughout the area, for-sale signs and construction projects abound, with contemporary, Restoration Hardware-inspired revivals replacing vintage versions almost everywhere you look. This time around, the footprints are bigger, as are the price tags.

Up &
Coming!

Brooke Smith

It may not have quite the cachet of the Heights, its immediate neighbor to the west, but Brooke Smith is coming back, cottage by century-old, wood-framed cottage, street by shady street. Unlike so many Inner Loop areas, it’s as much a remodeler’s paradise as a teardown/rebuild ’hood. “The houses aren’t so big – they don’t cover the entire lot,” says Christian Busker, owner of Renovative Thinking, which specializes in the area. “You get a yard, some history and some architecture, and it’s close to I-45, 610, I-10, the new train line and downtown.” Always more blue-collar than the Heights, Brooke Smith offers picket-fence charm and front-porch-swing grace to empty nesters and small families. And prices are skyrocketing, going from $40 per square foot in 1994 to over $160 in 2011.

Timbergrove / Lazybrook / Shady Acres

Where, not far from the Heights, some find the courage to resist McMansionism

These three post-war ranch-house neighborhoods tucked in the northwestern corner of the Inner Loop are enjoying their own scaled-down versions of booms in adjacent neighborhoods like the Heights, Garden Oaks, and the Washington Corridor.

In part because of its proximity to Heights amenities, Shady Acres, a working-class neighborhood that predates Timbergrove and Lazybrook, is seeing the most teardowns. Whole streets of nondescript clapboard two-bedroom homes on cozy lots are giving way to row upon row of condos in the $350,000 to $400,000 range.

Meanwhile, after years of graying, Timbergrove is seeing an influx of new families—some remodeling the two- and three-bedroom postwar ranchers, others tearing them down and rebuilding. In something of a departure, at least for Houston, many of the replacement homes are not gargantuan McMansions but homes that actually fit their lots.

Timbergrove is an Inner Loop haven for nature lovers: a creek bisects the neighborhood, and West 11th Street Park offers 20 acres of relatively unspoiled Texas forest. Homes here range from about $250,000 to $500,000 for a new construction, while similar properties can be had for about 90 percent of that price in Lazybrook, Timbergrove’s slightly younger sister to the north.

Most residents of these neighborhoods look to the Heights for nightlife and dining, although the area boasts a few excellent, low-key bars such as Shady Tavern, Big Star, and the wildly popular beer garden Cedar Creek, as well as some of the best barbecue and burgers in the city at Gatlin’s and Hubcap Grill, respectively.

Cypress

In which a sizzling neighborhood gets all hot for teacher

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD was named the Best Large School District in all of Texas last year at the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards. “Schools are the main reason people look out here,” says Jim Mulholland, a broker with Mulholland Realty.

In 2000, just under 350,000 people lived in the Cypress area’s ten zip codes. By 2010, 587,000 called the area home, in part because it offers more bang for the buck than comparable neighborhoods such as Katy.

It’s no wonder that Cypress is pushing against its boundaries. To the west, the Bridgeland subdivision, currently in development, will one day comprise 11,000 acres. Since 2012, The Woodlands Corporation has had a hand in the project, hence the area’s buried utility lines and what will be 60 miles of interconnecting hike-and-bike trails. Also tennis courts, pools, and man-made lakes—not to mention a full-time social director, who is not to be confused with subdivision mascot “Bridgeland Bill,” a dancing duck in fishing attire.

Now home to 5,000, Bridgeland is forecast to have 65,000 residents in four distinct “villages” by the end of the project’s 25-year build-out. Currently available three-bedroom homes start at $269,000, while mansions top $1,000,000.

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