What It's Like To Live on Cape Cod

Get to know the sunny peninsula made up of charming towns and a picturesque backdrop.
By: Chuck Ross
Related To:
New England Home with Lighthouse

New England Home with Lighthouse

In many parts of the country, Cape Cod is synonymous with summer. The area has everything needed for a warm-weather playground, from gorgeous beaches, pond-filled parks and miles of well-maintained bike trails to dining options ranging from five-star fancy to fried-clam casual. But for those who've made this arm-shaped peninsula their year-round home, real living often begins the day after Labor Day, after they've waved goodbye to the last sunburned tourist. The beaches and clam bars may draw the day-trippers, but it's the hidden natural gems and surprisingly strong cultural community that tie the area's residents to this very special place.

A short lesson on a long history. Cape Cod's unique geography is key to its appeal. The 70-mile long peninsula — 20 miles wide at its base and less than a mile wide at its very tip in Provincetown — was formed by the retreat of glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Originally settled by natives of the Wampanoag nation, Cape Cod's first European residents were second-generation Pilgrims (in fact, Cape Codders are proud to point out that Provincetown, not Plymouth, was the first New World landing point for those English ex-pats). Many descendants of those "old comers" still call the area home, and most here cherish that long history and the sense of seclusion created by the need to cross a bridge to reach the rest of the world. 

"There's a certain level of identity that's historically very strong on the Cape — something very rooted in a region or a place," says Paul Schlansky, who moved to the town of Harwich with his wife, Marilyn, from the Hudson River Valley, in 2008. "There aren't many places in the U.S. where people have been there for 400 years." 

The earliest European settlers made their livings as farmers and fishermen. Some became wealthy owning and captaining international shipping vessels. The homes of these 17th, 18th and 19th century residents, both modest and grand, set the tone for architecture throughout the Cape and comprise a nationally recognized historical resource. The Old King's Highway National Historic District is the nation's largest, stretching along Route 6A through five towns on the north side of the Cape. 

"It's sort of a window on another time," says Doug Payson, a local realtor whose family has owned a home in Barnstable since 1969. "This is one of the few places that have stuck to that — that sense of place." 

Today tourism is the area's primary industry. As anyone who's spent time on Cape Cod knows, the peninsula — essentially a 70-mile-long barrier beach — features amazing access to water, from the tidal flats of Cape Cod Bay, to the warmer waters of Buzzard's Bay and the Nantucket Sound, to the protected ocean vistas of the Cape Cod National Seashore. And, scattered throughout, you'll find innumerable kettle ponds, freshwater jewels left behind millennia ago as parting gifts from the retreating glaciers. 

As a year-rounder, you also can tap into a deep artistic community that's been inspired by both the natural beauty and the sense of remove. What's it like living here? Well, read on to learn more. It's typical to find Cape Cod homes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Getting Around

Getting oriented. Newcomers to Cape Cod can be easily baffled by a road system whose routes trace back to 17th century hunting trails. Streets that you're sure are heading east-west, may start weaving to the north before leading you past a landmark you'll be sure you passed 10 minutes ago. And streets here have a dastardly way of changing their names after crossing what may seem to be an insignificant intersection. Instead of getting frustrated, it's better to consider this learning process an adventure. Just leave a little early to give yourself time to get lost and you're sure to pass some hidden pond or historic cemetery you'll want to visit again (if you can find your way back, of course). 

Locals use a bodybuilder's flexed arm as a model when describing regions of the Cape. The towns of Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth and Mashpee, are closest to the "shoulder" of the mainland and comprise the "Upper Cape." The Mid-Cape towns of Barnstable, Yarmouth and Dennis fall between the bicep and the elbow. The Lower Cape includes the lower-arm towns of Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown. (The last four of these also are sometimes called the "Outer Cape.") Many of the towns incorporate "villages," so, for example, the town of Dennis includes the villages of East Dennis, South Dennis, West Dennis and Dennis Port. 

Busing and biking. While most people depend on their car for errands and outings, the Cape does offer a couple of mass transit options. The Plymouth & Brockton bus line, with a hub in Hyannis, offers local, inter-city service out to Provincetown and off-Cape to Boston. And the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority provides fixed-route and dial-a-ride services throughout the Cape. Many of the CCRTA buses are equipped with bike storage, so you can be dropped off near one of the many bike trails that traverse the peninsula. 

These bike trails are one of the joys of Cape Cod for cycling enthusiasts. Many are like mini-highways for bicycles, built on former railway rights of way. For example, the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth runs more than 10 miles through bogs and marshes, with a short stint along Vineyard Sound, from North Falmouth into the village of Woods Hole, and it's a great alternative to driving if you want to get into that world-famous center of ocean research in mid-summer. Nickerson State Park, a 1,900-acre tent-camping park, features eight miles of paved bike and walking trails connecting to numerous kettle ponds. And the Cape Cod Rail Trail stretches 28 miles, from South Dennis to Wellfleet, and connects to the National Seashore, for access to its trail network and, of course, its world-class ocean beaches. 

Getting off-Cape One attractive feature of life closer to the two canal-spanning bridges, in towns like Barnstable, Sandwich and Bourne, is easy access to both Boston and Providence, and all the cultural amenities those cities offer. Both are just about an hour from the bridge (depending on traffic — travel to and from Cape Cod can be slow-going during the high-summer season). Coach-style bus service is available to both cities (as is short-hop plane service, from airports in Provincetown and Hyannis). 

"If you want to go to Boston or Providence for a daytrip or a weekend, it's very easy to do," Doug says. He's a member of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and frequently attends lectures at that city's Kennedy Library. "I think that makes this a very desirable place to live."Hunting trails from the 17th century paved the way for routes that might be fairly confusing to tourists or new residents. 

Owning a Home

Finding your roost. While many people think of Cape Cod as a single place — or, even, a single town — in fact, it's a region with sub-cultures. In its 70-mile length, you can find commuter-style suburbia in Bourne or Sandwich (where some residents commute daily to Boston or its corporate-park suburbs), a classic New England-style town center in historic Barnstable village, beach-community casualness in Dennis Port or Harwich port, upscale sophistication in Chatham or wintertime tranquility in Wellfleet, Truro, and off-season Provincetown. 

When Marilyn and Paul Schlansky began their real estate hunt, they initially thought of Mashpee, but their dedicated realtor pointed them farther out, to Harwich. "I think she drove us around for two years before we found something," Marilyn says. While nature is all around them, conveniences now are much closer than they were in their former Hudson River Valley home. 

"Where we were, everything was a 15-minute drive, here it's three minutes," Paul says. "Plus the town has a nice historic district and a great community center." 

Traditional leanings. As mentioned, Cape Cod architecture leans toward traditional New England design, at least on the exterior. The two predominant styles are the classic Cape, which grew out of the simple cottages constructed by the area's earliest colonists, and Greek revival, favored by many of the sea captains and merchants who became wealthy off sea trade in the early- to mid-19th century. You'll also find fine examples, old and new, of Georgian, and federal styles. 

In fact, you could even have a chance to own your own piece of history, by purchasing an antique home. It's not unusual to find 150- to 200-year-old homes available for sale. Thorough inspections are warranted on these properties, though, to ensure the structures are solid. And you may need to grow a set of sea legs, as years of settling can make for slanted floor lines in even the most secure residences. 

Another common style in less expensive homes is what locals call the Cape ranch, which proliferated during a building boom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These single-story homes have lower-sloping roofs than traditional Cape (so there's less attic space for second-floor expansion). But they're often more affordable than other styles and offer plenty of room for entry-level homebuyers and empty-nesters. 

Location, location, location. Yes, that old real estate maxim is especially true on Cape Cod. Certain towns, such as Chatham and Barnstable's village of Osterville, carry brand-name premiums. But throughout the Cape you'll find even modest homes carrying astronomical price tags if they feature private beach access or, at least, good water views. Marsh-front homes also can be more expensive, because of their sometimes stunning views, as are homes with access to a swimming pond. 

Developable land is at a premium in many of the towns, as zoning often calls for minimum lots of an acre or more, so tear-down purchases are common, especially in already built-out waterfront areas. Towns are becoming stricter about replacement-home sizes in such cases, so you'll want to investigate any possible restrictions. 

Water, water everywhere. Water treatment also is becoming a hot-button issue in the area. Most homes have septic systems to treat waste water, but nitrogen escaping from those systems is damaging area waterways. Several towns have major sewer systems under construction or in planning, and the entire Cape faces mandatory sewering if nitrogen levels can't be otherwise controlled. Because artificial fertilizers add to the problem, homeowners are being urged to limit use of these chemicals, cut back on non-native lawns and incorporate native plants accustomed to the area's sandy soil.

Cape Cod is made up of sub-cultures — from suburban neighborhoods to beach communities. 

Finding Fun

Cape Cod's natural setting makes finding fun easy for any outdoor enthusiast. Doug spends as much time outside as possible. "I'm a gardener, and this is a fabulous place to garden," he says, noting the moderating effect the surrounding waters have on seasonal change. This geography does extend winter's rawness through much of the spring, but it also means summertime warmth lasts well into the fall. "Because of the lingering fall you can grow things you can't grow anywhere else in New England." 

And Doug's harvesting efforts extend into the water. He has a shellfishing license (a common — and inexpensive — addition to many Cape Codders' wallets), and gathers clams and quahogs (hard-shell clams) throughout the year. "You don't really know Cape Cod until you see it from the water," he says. 

Cultural cornucopia. Beyond these obvious delights, the Cape offers tremendous cultural opportunities. In fact, the Schlanskys — long a one-car couple — had to buy a second vehicle because the retired pair now has such busy social lives. Marilyn sings with the Chatham chorale and takes printmaking classes at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis. Paul is active in two Buddhist groups and the Cape Cod Astronomical Society. Both volunteer at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster and take classes on topics like art history and the history of the English language at a nearby library. 

Ballpark fun. Residents and summertime visitors, alike, also enjoy a trip to the local ballpark, thanks to the Cape Cod Baseball League. The league's 10 teams, partially supported by Major League Baseball, draw top college players from across the U.S. Locals are proud to note the large number of Cape League alums who have gone on to major league teams — in 2008, alone, 205 of them were playing or on injured reserve for a big-league team. You'll often see major league scouts taking notes and measuring pitching speeds along the games' sidelines. 

Labor-less fall. But for many local residents, September is the golden month. The summer crowds have left, but many of the restaurants too crowded to enjoy just a few weeks previous are beckoning. And that lingering summer warmth makes for appealing beach and swimming conditions. Nothing is better than a sunset walk out on the low-tide flats of Cape Cod bay, with seasonal seagulls the only remaining tourists in sight. 

Lingering summer warmth and various outdoor activities keep Cape locals very active. 

Overall Cost of Living

A moving target. Ask any local, especially a long-time resident, how expensive it is to live here and you'll likely hear horror stories of un-affordability. But those who've moved recently from outside the region can have a very different opinion. 

"Frankly, it's cheaper than where we came from," says Marilyn. Their property taxes are a third of what they paid for a similarly valued home in Upstate New York, though their home insurance is more expensive. (Because insurers see the area as a major hurricane risk, even inland policies are pricey here.) All in all, the couple figures they're ahead a few thousand dollars, compared to their previous annual expenses. "When you're retired, that's not a trivial thing." 

"Property taxes are dramatically less expensive," Doug says, describing the experience of many of his real estate clients. "And it's a more casual lifestyle," so wardrobes can be downscaled quickly. 

As in the rest of Massachusetts, there is no sales tax on non-luxury food and clothing, which can make for a pleasant surprise in the check-out lane. 

Paying the bills. The biggest affordability challenge for those who aren't retired is, simply, finding work. Tourism is the primary economic driver, and those jobs are primarily seasonal and, oftentimes, low-paying. And the housing collapse has crippled what was a thriving contracting industry. One trend demographers have seen since 2005 or so is a growing number of new residents who are self-employed or otherwise able to work independently. Bringing your work with you when you move onto the Cape is one way to insulate yourself from the need to cobble together multiple jobs to make your monthly bills. 

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