Patricia Mandell and her husband Eliot Lees wanted a home in the 'burbs. Their upper limit: $100,000. In March, they climbed into their Toyota and headed west of Boston.
''We were shocked,'' she recalls.
''We looked at a bungalow in Wayland no bigger than a garage. It was two feet from the road and they wanted $85,000. . . . In Weston we saw a $125,000 house with a view of beautiful Route 128 and a backyard as big as the driveway.''
So they went south - where home prices average more than 10 percent less than those west or north of Boston.
In the first three months of 1984, the average South Shore home sold for $74, 291. The average on the North Shore was $127,000, and west of Boston (including Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roxbury) it was $118,900, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.
''You'll save a minimum of $10,000 to $20,000 in the $100,000 class,'' says BenCollins of Richardson & Collins Realtors in Hingham.
And Patricia and Eliot did save. In June, they will move into a $97,000, four-bedroom Victorian home. The 100-year-old house is two blocks from the beach in Marshfield.
But such a deal means trade-offs - the Southeast Expressway for one. Realtors say poor transportation is the reason for lower prices here.
The congested Expressway is the only major highway into the city from the south. This lifeline is now being rebuilt (but not widened), and construction is scheduled to continue until November 1985. As the project began, dire predictions were made about the effect on commuting and real estate prices.
''There was a lot of hoorah about the Southeast Expressway and how we'd all be stuck down here for the millennium. But it's not that bad,'' says Patricia, who has lived in Scituate for almost three years.
In fact, housing prices are rising at an annual 15 percent clip, the same rate as other suburban markets.
And Expressway traffic is moving right along, too. Beefed up bus, train, and boat service has reduced the volume. This, coupled with an army of police on the highway, has kept tie-ups at a minimum. But some drivers complain that on weekends and during off-peak times, the pace drags.
Brokers say that with Expressway alternatives now in place, commuting from the South Shore has never been better. For commuters living in Hingham, Quincy, and Hull, the daily boat service means they can choose sea breezes over exhaust fumes. Further inland, two trains transport suburbanites to the Hub: one runs through Stoughton, Canton, and Westwood; the other stops at Attleboro, Mansfield , and Sharon.
Even though rail commuters are tied to a schedule (the last trains leave at 9 :45 and 10:50 p.m.), ridership has increased 20 percent annually for the last five years, says the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA is doing a feasibility study into opening three old lines that run to Hingham, Plymouth, and Middleboro.
''It makes sense to be looking at this now. Plymouth County is the fastest growing county in the state,'' says Patrick Jordan, MBTA assistant chief transportation officer. Preliminary results are due out in a month, but officials say it could be years before service begins.
If transportation is one trade-off, education may be another. For a family with children, shopping for a school on the South Shore must be done with more care than west of Boston. While rating schools is highly subjective, brokers and educators generally agree that Hingham and Sharon have good school systems. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hingham and Sharon fall in the upper-end of the housing price spectrum.
In general, real estate agents say homes in towns on the ocean side of Route 3 - Hingham, Cohasset, Scituate, Norwell, Marshfield, and Duxbury - fall into the $100,000-and-up (mostly up) category.
''When you get down to the coastal towns, there's restrictive zoning. The smallest lots are one acre, whereas in Weymouth, it's 15,000 square feet. That makes a big difference,'' says Marilyn A. Moran, executive vice-president of the Quincy & South Shore Board of Realtors. ''And where there's land to build on, prices go up. New housing pushes up prices on older homes in a town.''
Developments in Sharon have driven up prices there and in the nearby towns of Canton and Stoughton, says Florence Kates of Florence Kates Realtors, Canton. With their rural character and proximity to Routes 95 and 93, most homes in Sharon, Canton, and Milton cost between $100,000 and $200,000.
Richard Cayhill puts Weymouth and Quincy in the middle of the market spectrum (average price $74,900) with Braintree and Milton as upper-middle towns. Mr. Cayhill is executive vice-president of Jack Conway & Co. Realtors, the largest agency on the South Shore with 28 offices and 400 brokers.
At the less-expensive end of the spectrum, Cayhill cites Plymouth, Kingston, and Rockland with homes in the $65,000 range. Randolph, Holbrook, and Stoughton are included by other brokers.
Next: the North Shore.