Pam Gotthard and her husband, Eric, knew it was time to leave the city when they found themselves living in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side while expecting their second child. But both had jobs in Manhattan and family on Staten Island, so they didn’t want to go far.
Middletown, N.J., occurred to Ms. Gotthard, not just because they had visited her employer there a few years earlier, but because, like many of the people she grew up with on Staten Island, she had spent summers passing through the 41-square-mile Monmouth County township en route to beaches along the upper Jersey Shore.
Finding a house there wasn’t easy. But after losing several bidding wars, they met the owners of a four-bedroom 1970 colonial house in September 2015, when Ms. Gotthard was eight months pregnant, and offered the asking price of $664,000. They moved into their new house, in the Chapel Hill neighborhood, the following November.
“It’s a perfect spot,” said Ms. Gotthard, 39, who left her job working in health insurance after her son, Lucas, was born a month before they moved in. “You can really tell when you cross over into Middletown — it’s so different. It has that old-fashioned feel, but everything is still up-to-date.”
Ms. Gotthard can now drive to her mother’s house on Staten Island in 30 minutes, while her husband’s commute to his engineering job in Lower Manhattan takes 40 minutes by ferry. That easy commute — with a choice of ferries, buses or trains into the city — is a major draw for many of Middletown’s 67,000 residents.
Among the township’s other attractions are the varied natural landscape, a wide range of housing options and proximity to downtown Red Bank, as well as several popular beaches, including Sandy Hook, a six-mile barrier island that is part of Middletown but run by the National Park Service.
“It’s a beautiful town, but some people don’t know about it,” said Fran Judas, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker who has lived there for 44 years. “We have horses, we have water. There’s fishing and golf. We have good schools. There’s really nothing more you need.”
Middletown’s highly rated schools were an important factor for Alyce and Sean Sparandero, who have five children between the ages of 5 and 22. They also liked the wealth of activities and the easy beach access.
In January 2017, they left a three-bedroom house in a dense Staten Island neighborhood for a five-bedroom colonial on a half-acre in Middletown, which they bought for $550,000. Now their three daughters no longer share a bedroom, Ms. Sparandero said, and their sons have gotten involved in wrestling and track, sports that were not readily available in their Staten Island neighborhood.
“I wouldn’t go back to New York,” said Ms. Sparandero, 42, a registered nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick. “I’ve gotten so used to the spaciousness. It’s a different culture, a slower pace, and I like it.”
What You’ll Find
Middletown has 12 ZIP codes, many of which are shared with adjacent towns, sometimes causing confusion about what is and is not part of Middletown. Four areas along Sandy Hook Bay — North Middletown, Port Monmouth, Belford and Leonardo — are often mistaken for being part of the boroughs of Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, with which they share a somewhat laid-back, fishing-village feeling. These northern neighborhoods, which are gaining in popularity, are dotted with small beaches and marinas, and contain a mix of older bungalows and newer houses and condominiums, including the 123-unit Dunes at Shoal Harbor.
To the south — along Navesink River Road and in the Locust neighborhood — vast waterfront estates look across the Navesink River toward Red Bank. Farther inland, in the Chapel Hill area, large horse farms offer residents riding lessons or boarding for their horses. The hilly, heavily forested Oak Hill section appeals to families looking for newer homes on sizable lots.
The center of town is one of Middletown’s two historic districts (the other is the Navesink area bordering Atlantic Highlands), with several 18th- and 19th-century houses and churches, as well as more modern municipal buildings, the train station and the Middletown Arts Center.
Bisecting the town on a diagonal is Route 35, the main commercial artery. West of the Garden State Parkway, which also cuts across Middletown, is the Lincroft area, with the large Brookdale Community College campus.
What You’ll Pay
As of early October, there were 256 homes on the market, for a wide range of prices: The highest was a 20,000-square-foot house on 3.5 acres facing the Navesink River, listed at $12.699 million; the lowest was a 1908 three-bedroom bungalow in North Middletown, listed at $185,000.
“The appeal in Middletown is that the spectrum is so broad,” said Chris Walsh, 38, a broker with Re/Max who spent his teenage years in Middletown and returned in 2008 to start a family. “A first-time buyer can purchase a home for $300,000 and be in a really good school system in a safe community, and still have access to all the town’s great features.”
The median sales price for homes sold through Oct. 9 was $419,000, compared to $405,000 for the same period in 2017, according to the Monmouth/Ocean County Multiple Listing Service. Middletown has a few rental options, including Knollwood Gardens, where units rent for $1,100 to $1,600 a month, and Bayshore Village, a new 62-and-over development with 110 units, where rents start at $755 a month.
Depending on which part of this sprawling township you are in, the scene varies — from the funky beach and marina communities that line Sandy Hook Bay to the horse farms and large riverfront estates in the south and the collegiate atmosphere around the Brookdale campus.
While many residents travel the short distance to Red Bank, across the Navesink River, or a little farther to Asbury Park, for restaurants and night life, Middletown is home to one of the state’s top-ranked restaurants, Restaurant Nicholas. (Although it has a Red Bank mailing address, it is actually in Middletown.) There is also Big Mike’s Little Red Store, a breakfast-and-lunch spot in an 1860s former general store that Michael Metzner, formerly a chef at Nicholas, opened in September. (It is also technically in Middletown, although often mistaken for being part of Atlantic Highlands, because of a borrowed ZIP code.)
Middletown has 12 elementary schools, three schools serving students in sixth through eighth grade, and two high schools: Middletown South, with 1,430 students, and Middletown North, with 1,375 students.
Average SAT scores for 2016-17 in reading were 562 at Middletown North and 569 at Middletown South, compared to a state average of 551; in math, SAT scores were 565 for Middletown North and 580 for Middletown South, compared to a state average of 552.
Through a program called Early College Academy, students can earn an associate degree from Brookdale Community College while simultaneously getting a high school diploma. Middletown students can also apply to one of Monmouth County’s five specialty high schools focusing on high technology, biotechnology, health sciences, marine science and communications.
New Jersey Transit trains from Middletown to Penn Station take 67 to 83 minutes and cost $15.25 one way or $445 for a monthly pass. Academy Bus provides transportation from the Leonardo area and Exit 109 of the Garden State Parkway, in the Lincroft area. Travel times range from a little over an hour to an hour and a half; tickets are $17 one way or $385 monthly from Leonardo, and $19 one way or $400 monthly from Lincroft.
The fastest route to New York City is by ferry. New York Waterway’s ferry rides take 40 to 65 minutes from the Belford port in Middletown to Lower Manhattan or Midtown, and cost $21.50 one way or $635 monthly. Seastreak Ferries offers similar fares and schedules on boats from Highlands or Atlantic Highlands.
Most people refer to the Seabrook-Wilson House, a restored bay-shore structure built in 1720, as the Old Spy House, because of a rumor that when it served as a tavern during the Revolutionary War, Thomas Seabrook, the owner, would get British troops drunk enough to spill their strategic plans, which he would then pass along to American troops. After the British were defeated at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, their troops marched through the center of Middletown on the way back to their ships at Sandy Hook.