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Fall House Hunt: Home buyers test-drive communities using Airbnb

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Courtney Hollands and her husband, Kevin Donovan, stayed in an Airbnb in Beverly Farms to check out the area.
Courtney Hollands and her husband, Kevin Donovan, stayed in an Airbnb in Beverly Farms to check out the area. Jim Davis/Globe staff

Watching trees and yards whoosh by, I listened to a podcast on the relaxing after-work train trip home from North Station. I hopped off at Beverly Farms with 15 or so smartly dressed commuters all streaming toward waiting cars or nearby houses and strolled the 300 feet or so to a bookshop on postcard-perfect West Street to browse before dinner — only to find it had closed at 5 p.m. A cafe and a clothing store? Also shuttered. Aside from a few dog walkers and couples checking into reservations at Cygnet, there wasn’t much main-drag action early on a Thursday evening.

Toto, I thought, we’re not in the city anymore.

Since April, my husband, Kevin, and I have been trying out potential new places to live by staying in Airbnbs along the North Shore; so far, we’ve taken Newburyport, Essex, and Beverly Farms for spins. Using a home-rental service — as opposed to hotels proximate to highways and strip malls — allows us to survey neighborhoods where we might actually reside and also bring our muppet-pup, Emerson, along for the test drive. Plus, because we’re renting our Somerville house on Airbnb at the same time, it has been a low- to no-cost experiment each time.

A little background: Kevin and I are in our mid-thirties and have adored hanging our hats in Somerville for the past dozen years. But as we consider growing our family, the siren song of more space and greener pastures has been increasingly hard to ignore. We both hail from semi-rural New Hampshire and spend many weekends skiing, hiking in the White Mountains, or visiting family in northern New England. The North Shore — en route to these destinations but still close to our Boston-area jobs — makes sense.

While it’s easy to picture ourselves on Cape Ann’s beaches come summer, we’re looking for a vibrant spot with some city amenities — bike infrastructure, good food, art venues — that appeals during the other nine months of the year, too. You can research school systems or chat with residents or a realtor, but living in a town via a short-term rental lets you experience it firsthand, warts and all. By sampling restaurants and grocery stores, testing commute options, and exploring open spaces and cultural attractions, we’re strategically pinpointing a permanent residence. Real estate prices and taxes will certainly be big factors in our final decision, but for now, we’re in the exploratory phase and getting to know the personalities of the communities. And since we don’t have relocation deadlines or kids to uproot, we can spend time finding the right fit.

It can be helpful to visit a town in “all times and all seasons,’’ said Marie Presti, principal broker of The Presti Group in Newton. Even before Airbnb existed, she encouraged clients to book a hotel room in prospective locales. “If you just go for two hours on a Tuesday and walk around with an agent, it’s going to be pretty quiet, because people are probably working,’’ Presti said. “You have to go in the morning and do the commute part of it. And you need to be there at night — both a weeknight and a weekend night.’’

Staying in a short-term rental also allowed them to test the commute. —Jim Davis/Globe staff

Landing on a new place to live can take her clients anywhere from a month to a year or two, she said. Either way, it’s never too early to start researching. “Some people call it due diligence, other people call it crazy, but whatever your passion is, evaluate the towns for that passion,’’ Presti added.

Evaluate we did. We stayed in Essex and Beverly Farms for a few days each — both have many checks in the plus column, including the stellar Manchester-by-the-Sea/Essex school system, marsh views, and Woodman’s of Essex (fried clams forever!), and the centrally located commuter rail, friendly locals, and the semi-private West Beach in Beverly Farms. Noisy, seemingly constant traffic on Route 133 in the former and the aforementioned early-to-bed main street in the latter were among the not-so-greats.

Our longest stint was in Newburyport during Boston Marathon week in April (always a fruitful time for renting out our city pad). Though we don’t necessarily select our apartments on looks, the historic cottage we booked was particularly charming and a short walk to downtown. A seven-minute bike ride down a paved, sculpture-lined path took me to the commuter rail station most mornings for a picturesque — but long — journey to my job downtown. Since I split my week between offices in Boston and Medford, I also tried driving the 38 miles at peak rush hour (ugh) and then staggering my commute to find the least trafficked windows. Leaving just after 9 a.m. was by far the smoothest trip.

We spent our early mornings ambling along the Harborwalk with Emerson or running the newly extended Clipper City Rail Trail; by night, we dined at Brine (pro tip: dollar oysters on Thursday) and The Paddle Inn or stopped by Newburyport’s two breweries. No one thing tipped the scales, but before long — commuting drama notwithstanding — Kevin and I started talking about when, not if, we wanted to flee Somerville for the sea.

According to Airbnb CEO and cofounder Brian Chesky, we’re not alone in our quest. Three years ago, he told Condé Nast Traveler that “thousands and thousands’’ of people were using the service to sample neighborhoods. A public relations contact at the company, however, couldn’t locate a New England-area example by my deadline. It wasn’t until I posted the query on Facebook that I found a friend of a friend who was utilizing Airbnb in a similar way.

When Eliza Marth, 27, left Allston and the Episcopal Service Corps earlier this summer after her contract ran out, she became northwest region missionary for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut — and she wasn’t very familiar with the Nutmeg State. “I knew nothing about Connecticut before I moved here except what I’d seen on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ ’’ she said with a laugh.

Because her work involves calling on parishes in a large northwest swath of Connecticut, Marth has some flexibility as to where she can live. She chose an Airbnb in Torrington for her initial trial. Not only has it allowed her to live cheaply while saving for a security deposit, first month’s rent, and furniture for a future apartment of her own, but Marth’s host also has introduced her to eateries and trails and even given her a driving tour of the former mill town.

Marth’s gamble paid off: She has fallen for Torrington and is putting down roots there. She signed a lease and moves into her new apartment Monday.

The whole idea of a family with 2.5 children and a white picket fence out front, “that’s just not really what I’m interested in,’’ Marth said. “I really like being part of a neighborhood, a community, a city, and a social network.’’

That sense of belonging is exactly what we’re looking for on the North Shore; a place where we can envision ourselves on summer weekends and February afternoons alike, as a couple with a dog and eventually with children. As we head into late fall and winter, the Great Airbnb Experiment of 2017 continues. Up next: Salem, but not until after Halloween.

Courtney Hollands can be reached at cahollands@gmail.com. Subscribe to our real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.