Warren, N.J.: A ‘More Interesting Option’ for Telecommuters

Last fall, when Saumil and Krupa Patel and their two daughters left East Brunswick, N.J., for Warren, about 20 miles northwest, they found themselves trading up in terms of housing, lifestyle and even the family car.

In need of more room to accommodate working from home, they went from a 1,700-square-foot house in a tightly packed neighborhood to a 4,500-square-foot colonial on an acre, which they bought in November for $1.15 million. From their new home, which sits on a mountaintop, they watch the sunrise over Washington Valley, Mr. Patel said, and they hike on nearby trails.

As for their new Audi? It soon became a necessity, and not just to navigate the snowy inclines, which their old Honda Accord couldn’t handle. “The neighbors were all driving Range Rovers and Audis, and my wife said it was time for an upgrade,” said Mr. Patel, 44, an information technology manager for the global insurance company AXA. “Then our car was skidding in the snow, and we had to switch to an all-wheel-drive S.U.V.”

In the past, the Patels considered the commute to New York City a top priority in selecting a home, but they were able to expand their house-hunting radius after Mr. Patel’s job went fully remote last year. The network of major highways passing through Warren was especially attractive to Mrs. Patel, 42, whose work as a clinical adviser for United Healthcare has her visiting nursing homes throughout the region.

“I said, ‘Let’s think outside the box and move to an area that gives us more bang for the buck — along with serenity and beauty,’” Mr. Patel said.

That’s a sentiment Cathy Cooper, a real estate agent with Weiniger Realty, said she is hearing from many clients these days.

“People were already starting to flock this way,” said Ms. Cooper, who moved to Warren from New York City 17 years ago. “In the normal world, people were looking for commuter towns. We’re not necessarily the best commuter town, but for those who are now telecommuting, we’ve become a more interesting option. People are looking for more space and property, and realizing they may not be going back in 100 percent.”

In business since 1904, the family-run Bardy Farms offers fresh produce at its farmers’ market, an extensive garden center and seasonal products like summer fruit, pumpkins and Christmas trees.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

A little more than 30 miles west of Manhattan, this 19.6-square-mile, once-rural township in northern Somerset County is the quintessential bedroom community, with many residential neighborhoods and developments, numerous parks and recreational sites, and a central commercial corridor dotted with shopping plazas, restaurants and a busy municipal complex.

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Like the Patels, Betty and Jose Galvan had more flexibility as they considered moving last year, thanks to the changes brought about by the pandemic. The Galvans, who were living in a small house with their three sons in New Providence, N.J., wanted to shift to a three-generational household, so they suggested that Ms. Galvan’s parents sell their retirement home in Arizona and join them in New Jersey.

They found a five-bedroom house on 2.5 acres in Warren — with enough space not only for Ms. Galvan’s parents, but for home offices for Mr. and Ms. Galvan, who are now working remotely — and bought it for $1.35 million just before Christmas. In early April, the reconfigured basement apartment was ready for the grandparents to occupy.

“Everyone got what they wanted,” said Ms. Galvan, 42, the founder of My Friend Betty Says Digital Marketing Studio. “We needed a lower-level walkout for my parents. We each got our own offices. My husband now has a six-car garage. And the boys have a lounge with lots of windows that look out to the woods all around us.”

16 WILLOW WOODS TRAIL | A five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bathroom house, built in 2003 on 1.39 acres, listed for $2.195 million. 908-300-6802Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

What You’ll Find

Spanning the tops of the First and Second Watchung Mountains, with Washington Valley in between, “Warren is one of the most geologically interesting places” in the state, said Alan A. Siegel, 81, a lawyer who is president of the Warren Historical Society.

The township began as a collection of rural villages in the 18th century, and it still feels spread out, although much of its agrarian nature was lost in the 1980s, when the completion of Interstate 78 spurred investors to buy up farm tracts and begin building large homes on lots that now average 1.5 acres. It is now home to almost 16,000 people, with a median household income of $170,264 — more than double the state’s median household income, according to the U.S. census American Community Survey of 2019.

But all that math is about to change. Warren plans to add 1,060 new housing units over the next five years, increasing the population by 20 percent, said Mark Krane, the township administrator. The building boom is a result of an affordable-housing settlement the township reached with the state’s Fair Share Housing Center in 2018. “Warren is moving from the rural community that it was 40 years ago,” Mr. Krane said. “And we continue to become a bit more suburban as time moves on.”

10 SPRING LANE | A five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house, built in 1963 on 2.58 acres, listed for $799,000. 908-370-1123Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Construction has already begun on more than a dozen sites, mostly on the east end of town. About a third of those units will be affordable, with apartments and townhouses for rent and for sale.

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At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Krane said, Warren’s Open Space Trust Fund has bought and preserved more than 500 acres since the program began in 1997, with the township-owned land being used for passive and active recreation.

What You’ll Pay

As of mid-April, there were 58 homes on the market in Warren, from a four-bedroom 1960 split-level on 1.81 acres, listed at $525,000, to a 1988 expanded five-bedroom Cape Cod on 34 acres, listed at $5.5 million. An additional 54 homes have recently gone into contract, said Judith Weiniger, the broker-owner of Weiniger Realty.

From April 2020 to April 2021, 220 homes sold in Warren at a median price of $750,000; during the previous 12 months, 198 homes sold at a median price of $825,000, according to the Garden State Multiple Listing Service.

At present, Warren’s condominium and rental market is almost nonexistent. Town Center, a 55-plus community in downtown, has condominiums that list for around $300,000 and rental apartments starting at $2,100 a month, although none are currently available. Rental apartments in Liberty Village start at $1,850 for a two-bedroom, but there are currently none available.

Warren’s former rural character can still be experienced on long stretches of roadway lined with white picket fences, as on this section of Broadway Road.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The Vibe

Although Warren’s residents are spread out over several square miles, they come together when disaster strikes. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for more than a week, Ms. Weiniger started the Warren Township Community Forum on Facebook, so neighbors could help one another recover from the storm damage. Over the years, the forum has evolved into a site for job postings, finding lost pets and supporting local businesses, which became the primary thrust of WarrenCares, a group of 200 volunteers who sprang into action during the pandemic. By last summer, the group had raised $43,000 to buy 7,250 meals that were distributed to the area’s service providers.

“We had one set of volunteers buying food at local restaurants to help them get through that initial period, when the loss of business was so devastating,” said Ms. Weiniger, a 23-year resident of Warren. “Then a second group of volunteers delivering those meals to emergency medical workers. It was very successful.”

Similarly, gardeners leasing plots at Wagner Farm Arboretum’s community garden grew more than 60,000 pounds of produce that they donated to local food banks last year.

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Much anticipated public events, like the annual Lions Club Expo carnival in June, may be postponed again this year because of Covid-related restrictions.

The Schools

Public school students in Warren attend one of four elementary schools from prekindergarten through fifth grade, then go on to Warren Middle School for sixth through eighth grade.

High school students go to Watchung Hills Regional High School, in Warren Township, which also serves students from neighboring Watchung, Green Brook and Long Hill. With 1,936 students, the high school offers 24 Advanced Placement courses, plus 65 clubs and extracurricular activities, including Model United Nations, robotics and an award-winning performing arts program. The average SAT scores for students at Watchung Hills in 2019-20 were 594 in reading and writing and 596 in math, compared with state averages of 536 in both.

Among the private school options, a popular choice is the Pingry School, a 160-year-old coed day school in Basking Ridge, with 1,100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 55-acre Codington Farmstead includes a farmhouse built by Isaac Codington in 1742, where visitors can get docent-guided tours, view historic farm equipment and hike on nature trails.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The Commute

The Lakeland Bus Lines express service into Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, with a free park-and-ride commuter lot, was placed on hold last spring because of lack of ridership during the pandemic, but Mr. Krane said the township hopes to resume service in the future. Commuters into the city now have to go to a neighboring town to catch a train, or drive, the more popular option.

New Jersey Transit provides train service from Berkeley Heights, Gillette and Stirling to Penn Station; trains take just over an hour and run direct or with a stop in Summit or Newark. Fares range from $11.75 one-way and $336 monthly from Berkeley Heights to $14 one-way and $393 monthly from Stirling.

The History

The industrialist Nathan Hofheimer moved to Warren in 1915 and built a family compound that included a 21-room house and a grotto. Modeled on a site he had visited in his native Germany, the man-made grotto sits atop an abandoned copper mine, with a ring of layered stones surrounding an 18-foot-deep pond. Now overgrown, the grotto is on the grounds of the Watchung Hills Elks Lodge, behind the municipal complex. The township bought the Hofheimer estate in 1956, and the house served as the town hall for the next 60 years.

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