When Rafael Ferrales was called to Naval Reserve duty for six weeks, friends and neighbors in Ho-Ho-Kus jumped in to cook dinners for his wife, Karina, and their four kids, including a set of triplets.
“People say it’s a small town, and I guess there’s good and bad in that,” says Karina Ferrales, a stay-at-home mom whose husband is a partner at an accounting firm. “Everyone knows what’s going on with each other. The beauty of that is that people really kind of come together and help each other out.”
That warmth and support, residents say, reflect the hometown spirit of this northern Bergen County borough of 4,100, which this year clocked in at number 1 in the New Jersey Monthly Top 100 Towns ranking.
The 1.74-square-mile municipality captured the top spot—which it also reached in 2011—as a result of its low crime rate, well-regarded schools, relatively reasonable taxes, and most of all, rising home values. The median price of the 59 homes sold in 2016 was $800,000, up 22 percent from 2014, as buyers competed for a small inventory of properties.
Ho-Ho-Kus—the name has Native American origins—is split by Route 17. West of the highway unfolds an ideal of small-town America: downtown shops and restaurants surrounded by walkable neighborhoods. This older part of town includes the Cheelcroft section, where storybook Tudors and other architectural gems were built beginning in the 1920s by developer Harold Cheel.
The west side is popular with many millennial homebuyers, according to Kristin Gildea Fox, a Ho-Ho-Kus resident and an agent with Marron Gildea Realtors in Ridgewood, Saddle River and Ho-Ho-Kus. “People are staying in Hoboken or New York City much longer” before starting families and moving to the suburbs, she says. Once they make the move, they are drawn to pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods where they can stroll to stores and restaurants.
Robert Abbott, broker at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Abbott Realtors in Ho-Ho-Kus and Wyckoff, adds that property values in towns along commuter train lines—such as Ho-Ho-Kus—have risen faster than in other towns. (The train ride to New York City takes about an hour; commuters can also catch the Manhattan-bound bus from the nearby Ridgewood park and ride.)
Ho-Ho-Kus residents also enjoy relatively affordable property taxes (an average of $15,580 in 2016) because the town doesn’t have its own high school. Students attend the highly rated Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale.
Homes in Ho-Ho-Kus generally sell for about $500,000 to $2 million, according to Fox. A recent check of the multiple-listing service found the lowest-priced home on the market was listed at $480,000, while the priciest was offered at $3.5 million. The least expensive home sold in the first half of this year was a two-bedroom bungalow that went for $400,000; the costliest was a five-bedroom, shingle-style house that sold for $1.98 million.
Home buyers looking for more property gravitate to the east side of Route 17, which has postwar houses on wooded lots—many of them an acre or more—along winding roads.
Townspeople insist the two sides of Ho-Ho-Kus mesh together seamlessly, in part because the younger children attend a single school, the Ho-Ho-Kus School, which serves about 600 students in grades pre-K through 8.
“With one school, you really get to know all the families and all the kids,” says Liz Willkomm, a mother of four who formerly worked in investment banking and whose husband works in finance.
“The school is the pride and joy of the town, and the parents are very involved,” says Bob Wilderotter, 55, a mortgage-company manager, who with his wife, Margie, has triplets who are about to turn 18. He says the triplets, who were born prematurely and are now thriving, were helped by the school’s special-needs pre-K services. Moreover, he says, the track program at the Ho-Ho-Kus School sparked his daughter’s passion for running. Now she’s hoping to run at a Division 1 college.
Ho-Ho-Kus also cherishes its rich history, which dates to colonial times. One of the most powerful symbols of that history is the Hermitage house and museum, a 250-year-old National Historic Landmark. During the American Revolution, the house was owned by Theodosia Prevost, who hosted George Washington and several aides, including Alexander Hamilton, for four days in 1778. Theodosia also had an affair with Aaron Burr (you can hear all about it in the musical Hamilton), and the two were married at the Hermitage after Theodosia’s husband died.
The success of Hamilton has attracted more visitors to the Hermitage, and in response, the museum is mounting a new exhibit highlighting the home’s Revolutionary history.
“You can’t tell the story of Hamilton without telling the story of Burr,” says Victoria Harty, the museum’s executive director.
Another 1700s-vintage stone building sits in the heart of downtown: the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn, which has been a restaurant for generations. Longtime Ho-Ho-Kus residents Gordon and Laurie Hamm have been the Inn’s proprietors since 2009, when they spent seven months and $1.5 million on renovations. They’ve decorated some of the rooms with paintings and photographs showing the history of Ho-Ho-Kus, including memorabilia from the horse and auto racetrack that operated here from 1879 to about 1938 (and is commemorated in the name of Racetrack Road).
The rest of the downtown consists of small storefront restaurants, shops and salons. Janet and Ernie Garbaccio, owners of Garbo’s Deli and Pizza, have been in town for close to three decades and count among their regulars many people who grew up in town and have returned to raise families here.
Another downtown business owner, Eric Altomare, is betting big on Ho-Ho-Kus. He started with one hair salon in town, added another as business boomed, and recently opened a vegan cafe, Alt Eats.
“This town has a ton of potential—not even potential; it’s here, it’s arrived,” says Altomare, who moved to Ho-Ho-Kus from New York City with his partner several years ago.
Aside from the downtown businesses, Ho-Ho-Kus has little commercial development. Unlike other Route 17 communities, it does not allow businesses along the highway.
“That’s by design, to preserve the bucolic nature of the town,” says Mayor Thomas Randall, who leads the all-Republican town council and has been in office for 14 years.
While the town’s housing stock is almost exclusively single family, state and local officials recently reached an affordable-housing settlement, agreeing to allow 30 affordable units—17 of which have already been built. The rest will be fulfilled over the next several years, largely through construction of affordable units near the NJ Transit train station and at the mixed-use Ho-Ho-Kus Crossings development on North Maple Avenue.
Crime is not much of an issue in Ho-Ho-Kus. Police Chief Christopher Minchin says the police department’s 16 officers spend much of their time on traffic, along with responding to medical emergencies and home alarms. “I’ve even changed light bulbs for elderly people,” the chief says. There were a couple of intruders reported in town recently—a bear and a coyote. But neither bothered anyone, and the bear was later apprehended in Fair Lawn.
At about 83 percent non-Hispanic white, Ho-Ho-Kus is less diverse than New Jersey as a whole. But it’s in line with the demographics of most neighboring towns, according to the U.S. Census.
“We’re a Hispanic family. I grew up in Hudson County in a very diverse neighborhood,” says Karina Ferrales, whose family moved to Ho-Ho-Kus a decade ago and recently traded up to a larger house in town. “You have to find ways as a family to bring that diversity to your children.” To that end, she has brought her children to volunteer at shelters in Paterson through their Scout troops and church.
“It’s a little bit of a bubble,” acknowledges Lauren Rosato, 34, who grew up in town before attending Penn State, working in finance in New York City, and returning to Ho-Ho-Kus in 2015.
“I’m glad I went to Penn State,” says Rosato, who has two small children. “I experienced all different wealth levels and different backgrounds. I think I did a lot of growing up in college because I had a little more of a sheltered upbringing.”
But she also treasures that small-town childhood. Her pals from elementary and high school remain her closest friends.
“I love this town,” she says. “I’m trying to convince all my friends to move here.”
Kathleen Lynn is a writer and editor based in northern New Jersey.Click here to leave a comment