Residents praise the Mercer County borough’s ‘idyllic feeling.’ It’s no surprise that the housing market is very competitive.
After having two children in five years, Pooja Raj and her husband, Joe Russo, were ready to move out of their apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and leave the city where they had lived for 15 years. Well, sort of ready.
“My husband has been over living in New York,” Ms. Raj said. “Brooklyn felt like home for me. I was adamant in having a house in a town that felt not that different.”
E. BROAD ST.
Ms. Raj grew up in Princeton, N.J., where her parents still live, so the couple began looking in the surrounding area (but not in Princeton, Ms. Raj said, because “I needed a different address”). They checked out various areas nearby, including Pennington, Lawrenceville and Hopewell Borough, which quickly became their favorite.
Ms. Raj, 41, a stay-at-home mother, and Mr. Russo, 44, a professional drummer, ended up buying a circa-1850 Victorian on East Broad Street, the main thoroughfare in the borough, paying in the low $600,000s for the five-bedroom, three-bath house with a big front porch. Their timing — they closed in December 2019 — was fortuitous. Since the pandemic, the market in Hopewell, as everywhere else, has become incredibly competitive.
“There was something about Hopewell every time we drove into town,” Ms. Raj said of the Mercer County borough, which is situated within in the township of Hopewell. “It has this small-town charm and an idyllic feeling. You can walk out and get a coffee; you’re not reliant on driving everywhere. We have a coffee shop, a library, a deli, all within five minutes’ walk.”
The borough may be in New Jersey, minutes from the cookie-cutter developments and traffic-clogged commercial strips the state is known for, but “it screams Vermont,” as The New York Times wrote some years ago, calling the village of around 2,000 residents “the most un-Jersey-like town in the state.”
Residents cherish its walkable streets, historic housing and plentiful open spaces, like St. Michaels Farm Preserve, a more than 400-acre former orphanage and school saved from development in 2010 thanks to the fund-raising efforts of citizens, local government and a land trust, D & R Greenway, to buy the land.
“From my house, I can hike several miles over a beautiful ridge and get to a very large preserve,” said Ryan Kennedy, a borough councilman and area native who lived in urban North Jersey before returning to raise a family. “And if I go two blocks the other way, I’ve got no less than five or six dining opportunities.”
Laurel Cecila is the chief marketing officer at Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty in Princeton, which frequently sells homes in Hopewell Valley — as the borough, the surrounding township and the neighboring borough of Pennington are referred to — to buyers from other central Jersey communities or returning natives like Mr. Kennedy. Now, an increasing number are coming from New York City and Philadelphia.
Like many you speak with about Hopewell, Ms. Cecila was quick to mention residents’ pride and their neighborliness. “The people who live there love to live there,” she said. “There’s a little bit of that throwback to the ’50s. Somebody moves into the community and it’s, ‘Let’s take them a casserole.’”
If that sounds like realtor hyperbole, it seems to be true. When Jeff and Jennifer Chiusano, both 29, closed on a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath center-hall colonial in December, moving from a newlyweds’ apartment in Bordentown, N.J., they were immediately welcomed to the neighborhood, even during the pandemic.
“We had a neighbor send us Christmas cookies,” Ms. Chiusano said. “Our next-door neighbor made us dinner the first night. We’ve never owned a home. It was nice to get that community feel within days of moving.”
What You’ll Find
Hopewell Borough — which is in the northeast corner of Hopewell Township, although separate in its governance — lies between the metropolitan suburb of Princeton to the east and the rural farmland of Hunterdon County to the west. In geography and feel, it bridges the gap between town and country.
The mile-square borough has a main street lined with old houses, some lovingly restored, some a bit tired, as well as small businesses like Sourland Cycles (named for nearby Sourland Mountain), Tipica El Quetzal, a clothing store, Boro Bean coffee house and Hopewell Antiques. One of the most handsome buildings along main street is the Hopewell Public Library, housed in a brick former bank building from the early 1900s.
The median household income in Hopewell Borough is $109,231, according to the most recent census data. The racial makeup is 92 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian and less than 1 percent Black.
It’s common to find multigenerational families among the residents, and the community “wraps its arms around one another,” said Michele Hovan, the borough administrator since 2003.
Ms. Hovan cited as an example a construction project outside the borough a few years ago that closed a bridge and cut off traffic. “There was a rallying around the businesses, saying, ‘Make sure you don’t forget our local restaurants and shops,’” Ms. Hovan said. “People were inviting their friends to come to Hopewell.”
That community spirit has limited the economic damage from the pandemic. The local government developed an outdoor-dining waiver before it became an executive order in New Jersey, and Aunt Chubby’s luncheonette, along with other participants, have held ongoing food drives.
“In the past few months, we’ve started to make little day trips into the city, but we always feel ready to come back,” Ms. Raj said. “There’s something warm and fuzzy about it, and that’s part of what we love.”
What You’ll Pay
Hopewell Borough has long been a bargain compared with Princeton, just seven miles away. While the average sale price in Princeton in 2020 was more than $1 million, in Hopewell Borough it was less than half that, $464,000, said Ms. Cecila, of Callaway Henderson.
“People’s first point of reference is often Princeton, but when they see how far their money goes elsewhere,” she said, they often widen their search.
From March 2020 to March 2021, the average sale price in Hopewell Borough climbed to $502,134, said Lynda Schreiber, an agent with Weidel Real Estate, who has been selling in Hopewell Valley for 30 years. But these days, the greater concern is availability.
With roughly 800 homes in the borough, inventory has always been tight, and in any given year there are about 30 sales (compared with around 300 in the township). But this year, through March 15, inventory in Hopewell — in the borough and township combined — has been down 19 percent year over year, while pending contracts are up 30 percent, Ms. Cecila said: “That’s a huge swing. The inventory is getting eaten up as soon as it’s coming on.”
The charming, walkable borough tends to be more desirable than the sprawling township with its newer developments, Ms. Schreiber said.
There is a wide mix of architectural styles: Homes date from the 18th century up to the present day, and there are farmhouses, Victorians and tract houses, sometimes side by side. Ms. Schreiber’s last transaction was a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath colonial built 17 years ago that sold for $585,000.
In April, houses for sale included a three-bedroom, two-bath colonial built in 1939 and occupied by the same family since 1948, listed for $489,900; a contemporary three-bedroom, three-bath house, listed for $895,000; and a three-bedroom, three-bath Victorian-style home that comes with an adjacent commercial space occupied by a hair salon, listed for $475,000.
“There are probably 10 buyers for every home currently,” Ms. Schreiber said.
Fifteen years ago, downtown Hopewell looked sleepy, with dusty antiques shops and empty storefronts. That began to change, in part, with the arrival of Jon McConaughy, an area native who left Wall Street and returned to become a farmer, working 800 acres of land surrounding Hopewell.
In 2015, Mr. McConaughy and his wife, Robin, opened Brick Farm Tavern, a farm-to-table restaurant that draws diners from as far away as Philadelphia. They also own Brick Farm Market, which houses an upscale grocery and butcher shop, in a former Chevrolet dealership on Main Street, as well as two more buildings in the borough — an old dinner theater and a converted gas station — with creative tenants like architects.
“Hopewell, although tired, had character above and beyond all the other towns in the area,” said Mr. McConaughy, who grew up in Ringoes, N.J, adding that it’s “one of the few small towns with commerce downtown as well as a residential community that locks together.”
In recent years, the borough has become a dining destination, with spots like Nomad Pizza, the Blue Bottle Cafe and the Peasant Grill, in addition to Mr. McConaughy’s restaurants, which bustle on weekends.
If residents aren’t socializing at one of the local eateries, they’re out under the open skies, often on large tracts of preserved land. Sourland Mountain and the Lawrence Hopewell Trail are close by, while popular cycling routes bring a stream of cyclists through the borough on weekends.
“The traffic on the trail has spiked up exponentially during the pandemic,” Ms. Cecila said. “All those places are invaluable at a time like this.”
Hopewell Valley Regional School District, which serves Hopewell Borough, ranks in the top 20 percent of schools statewide. The district has an enrollment of 3,537 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, with a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1. Students can walk to Hopewell Elementary School.
Hopewell Valley Central High School enrolls about 1,110 students. In 2019-20, 198 students took the SAT exam, averaging 601 in reading and writing, and 605 in math, compared with state averages of 541 and 540. Among the class of 2020, 93 percent went on to postsecondary education.
There are several private schools in the area, including Princeton Day School and the Lawrenceville School, in nearby Lawrenceville.
Hopewell Borough, situated about 55 miles southwest of Manhattan, does not have a train station. The nearest New Jersey Transit stop is in Princeton Junction, 12 miles away. Travel time from there to Penn Station in Manhattan or 30th Street Station in Philadelphia (which requires a transfer in Trenton) is about 80 minutes.
The drive from Hopewell to New York City takes about an hour and a half; Philadelphia, less than 50 miles away, is a little over an hour’s drive.
While some residents commute to New York or Philadelphia, many are employed by the nearby universities (Princeton, Rider and the College of New Jersey) or by one of the Fortune 500 companies in the area, including Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America.
“One of the things that were very noticeable with the pandemic is how many people already work from home,” said Ms. Hovan, the borough administrator. “There’s an artisans and artists congregation here.”
Hopewell Valley is rich with history dating to the founding of the country. George Washington crossed the Delaware into Hopewell Township. A recent project excavated one of the state’s oldest African-American burial grounds.
A museum in town is devoted to Hopewell’s history, and the old Hopewell Station, built by the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad in 1876, now houses a community center.
“Anything we’re doing always has an eye on, ‘Are we changing or keeping the character of the community?’” Ms. Hovan said. “By and large, Hopewell today looks like Hopewell always did. You can easily see what it looked like when it had a trolley car in the center of town.”
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