The College Town
Swarthmore, Delaware County
[sidebar]Rambling Arts & Crafts houses, streets named for universities, and a hardware store that’s been around since time immemorial make this laid-back, intellectual-feeling square mile graciously tweedy.
Schools: Wallingford-Swarthmore; Strath Haven High School.
Commute to Philly: By car, 25 minutes; 30 minutes on the R3 train.
Things you get: Great public schools; access to Swarthmore College’s 300-acre arboretum; central downtown with a darling and reliable food co-op; family-friendly First Fridays; Saturday-morning farmers’ markets; the Hobbs cafe for lattes, Countryside Market for oversize sandwiches, and Rudi’s BYOB for date night.
Things you don’t: Access to the college’s workout facilities.
Betcha didn’t know: Fewer than one percent of houses here are new.
Residents you ought to know: Union soccer owner Jim Nevels; former poet laureate Daniel Hoffman; Swarthmore College prez Rebecca S. Chopp; John Glick, president of Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute and VP of the Penn Health System.
The future: Sustained real estate values; debates about the college’s plan to build an inn on what’s now an open field.
Meet the neighbors: Thirty-somethings Tom (an emergency physician) and Becca (a former teacher and full-time mom) Ball considered Wallingford before settling here. Says Becca, “We walk everywhere. The downtown is small, but there’s a little market, a pizza place, and a library with great children’s programs.”
Wanna buy here? “Swarthmore’s not the kind of town where you’re going to find a lot of steals. Sellers here are smart enough to wait for decent buyers,” says Baird and Bird’s Candy Brosnan.
Just sold: An Arts & Crafts four-bedroom with open porch, beamed ceilings, gardens and big kitchen, on Lafayette Avenue, for $500,000.
You might also like: Charming and urban Powelton Village, just blocks from Penn and Drexel.
Phoenixville, Chester County
Pre-war twins sit cheek-to-jowl with Victorians and new condos in a borough where CEOs and construction workers all shop at the same organic grocery. The small but flourishing downtown and a recent flood of young people up the cool factor, too.
Schools: High-ranking Phoenixville Area High School has a 15:1 student-teacher ratio.
Commute to Philly: 40 minutes by car; 20-minute drive to the Villanova train station, then 25 minutes on the R5.
Things you get: Housing from $150,000 to $600,000-plus; parks galore, including neighboring Valley Forge; 32 places of worship; Civic Center family nights; neighborhood hangs (Pickering Creek Inn, Iron Hill Brewery … ).
Things you don’t: A train stop. Every township along the 422 corridor wants a line, but it hasn’t happened yet. Also, good Chinese food.
Betcha didn’t know: Oft overshadowed by Colonial Theatre’s BlobFest, the Firebird Festival bonfires a locally crafted sculpture of a phoenix.
Residents you ought to know: David Friday and Lindsay Herman, owners of Bridge Street’s stylish Hipster Home (meet ’em on First Fridays); Dan and Marge Lejeune, who built Phoenixville’s private golf club, Rivercrest.
The future: More momentum behind Project Train. In the meantime, more bike paths and off-trail bike parking.
Meet the neighbors: “We bought 20 years ago,” says Greg Cordes, who lives with his wife, Linda, in a 1938 colonial, “and it turned out to be a gold mine. Down the street is Holy Family school, where our daughter went. We can walk to the theater, shopping, to eat. We’re selling our house — it’s too big for us now — but we’re staying here. Forever.”
Wanna buy here? “Prices are reasonable, especially with so many community amenities,” says Joseph Scott McArdle, of Prudential Fox & Roach. “But places priced the same can be in vastly different condition. Look at everything, and make sure your agent knows Phoenixville and knows a deal from … what’s not.”
Just sold: A new-construction one-bedroom condo with garage parking, hardwood floors and an eco-friendly kitchen, for $165,500.
You might also like: Manayunk … hardscrabble historic, community-oriented, close to Center City, and ready for a rebound.
Newtown Boro, Bucks County
This closely knit borough dating back to 1683 may no longer be surrounded by bucolic farmland (more like Toll Brothers developments), but feels more enchanting than ever thanks to design-minded residents who’ve struck a careful balance between historic and artistic.
Schools: Public: Council Rock. Private: Newtown Friends, the George School.
Commute to Philly: By car, 40 minutes via I-95; by SEPTA, 15-minute drive to Yardley train station, then one hour on the R3.
Things you get: History, sure, but also designer Katra Michener’s Love Illuminati boutique, Trove’s rehabbed vintage furnishings sales, Bucks County’s cutest hardware store. Heck, even State Street’s Gap and Starbucks don’t feel chain-y. Plus, great, great parties: “porch fest,” library fund-raisers, movie-in-the-park nights …
Things you don’t: A SEPTA station.
Betcha didn’t know: Newtown Theatre, which showed its first film in 1906, is the country’s oldest movie house.
Residents you ought to know: Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane; photographers Emmet Gowin (a Princeton prof) and David Graham (a UArts prof).
The future: The old Acme on Sycamore Street is becoming “The Promenade,” a mixed-use development with Anthropologie as anchor.
Meet the neighbors: Kevin and Christine Edmonds moved their family of four here eight years ago. What they love: their house, which is old enough to have provenance and big enough for a disco party; October’s all-day Music in the Park festival; horseback riding at nearby Tyler State Park; and a parade for every holiday, in which “Kevin drives the mayor in his ’65 Lincoln Continental,” says Christine.
Wanna buy here? Realtor and historic home expert Mary Dinneen says to line up a mortgage lender and a home inspector who knows old houses, and be ready to jump. “Historic homes are typically one percent of all the properties for sale in Bucks County,” she says.
Just sold: A restored circa-1890 front-porched, black-shuttered brick Victorian on East Washington, with random-width pine floors, FIOS wiring and carriage house, for $440,000.
You might also like: Langhorne borough, for antique and pedigreed homes at lower prices — but less socializing.
The Next Big (City) Thing
Graduate Hospital, Philadelphia
Seventy square blocks of vintage rowhomes within strolling distance of Rittenhouse — without the Square’s tony tone or skyhigh prices.
Schools: Public: South Philly or Audenried for high school. Private: the Philadelphia School for PK-8.
What you get: Passionate community members; welltended window boxes; lowkey BYOBs (Pumpkin, Apamate), bars (Sidecar, Resurrection Ale House) and cafes (Beauty Shop, LaVa); great green spaces (the revitalized Julian Abele park and Schuylkill River Park); easy street parking.
What you don’t: Upscale grocer, retail, and safer streets.
Betcha didn’t know: There’s a naming crisis: Graduate Hospital is now Penn Medicine at Rittenhouse. Up for consideration: “South of South” and “Southwest Center City.” Not popular: “G-Ho.”
Residents you ought to know: Food Network cheftestant Katie Cavuto Boyle, whose Healthy Bites ToGo just opened on Christian Street; the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson.
The future: More hip redos, and a new South Street Bridge for easier Expressway entrée.
Meet the neighbors: Melanie Cohen, 30, and fiancé Jared Pontz, 29, bought a new townhouse last spring. What sold them was their block’s character, the proximity to Center City, and big homes with smaller price tags. “We’ll be here for a while,” says Cohen.
Wanna buy here? “Rehabs done in the past 10 years are still a great value,” says Elfant Wissahickon’s Chas Hendricksen.
Just sold: A year ago, Hendricksen listed a sparkling redone threefloor brick row with rear deck, bricked back garden and lots of closet space, on little Hicks Street, for $270,000. It sold in days for $295,000.
You might also like: Art Museum expansion areas Fairmount Avenue (around 16th Street) and from there to Brewerytown have similar vibes and price points, and many more condos.
Downingtown, Chester County
With standard Aframes, big ol’ colonials and not a few developments, this former mill town — the Brandywine runs through it — of 8,000is still somewhat worn at the elbows, but totally ready to bloom.
Schools: Ninety percent of the grads of Downingtown’s two high schools — East and West — go to college.
Commute to Philly: 45 minutes by car; 4065 on the R5 or Amtrak.
Things you get: Large lots; proximity to the Turnpike entrance, corporate centers and Lancaster; great dining at Firecreek, Amani’s, Jasper; scenic jogs and bike rides along Struble Trail; drivethrough coffee shop Coppertown for vegan smoothies; a “fishing rodeo” at the duck pond.
Things you don’t: A finished product. A couple of beats behind West Chester’s development boom, this bargainfilled community still wants for retail and restoration.
Betcha didn’t know: Downingtown Middle School owns 75 bikes; for gym class on sunny days, kids pedal outside.
Resident you ought to know: Painter (and White House Christmas card creator) Adrian Martinez.
The future: Close to half a billion dollars is being invested in the 2.2-square-mile borough, via mixed-use development, a merger of the library and senior center, a bridge across the Brandywine to a revamped train station, gastropubs, diners, and, according to rumor, a Molly Maguire’s.
Meet the neighbors: Sunoco Chemicals business manager Jeff and wife Sandi Malcolm considered school district first when relocating their middle-school-age kids to the area. “When we were looking, West Chester residents were saying, ‘If I could do it over again, I’d move to Downingtown,’” says Sandi.
Wanna buy here? Re/Max realtor Jamie Wagner notes the variety. On the market: “Lots of new developments, a good amount of historic houses, old farmhouses, and homes that are new to 35 years old, with goodsize lots.”
Just sold: A twostory, 80-year-old Pennsylvania Avenue cottage with hard-wood floors, knotty-pine-walled family room and wood shop, for $226,000.
You might also like: Pitman, New Jersey, has that just-about-to-pop feel — plus a historic grove, great schools and wellpriced houses.
Merion Golf Manor, Main Line
This bucolic, historic Main Line neighborhood named for the esteemed golf club is the type of place where you can raise your kids — and where they’ll return to raise theirs.
Schools: Coopertown Elementary and Haverford High are great. Still, loads of MGM kids attend the Haverford School, Baldwin, Notre Dame, Agnes Irwin, Episcopal. …
Commute to Philly: 25 minutes by car via Walnut Street; 20 minutes on the R5 from the Ardmore SEPTA station, a five-minute drive.
Things you get: Top-notch schools; Karakung Swim Club; lil’ Merwood and ball-field-filled South Ardmore parks; instant entrée to country-club society; houses priced from under $500,000 to upwards of a million.
Things you don’t: There’s no downtown — you’ve got to steal nearby Ardmore, Haverford or Wynnewood’s.
Betcha didn’t know: Its roundabout intersections — a Main Line rarity — cut down on through traffic.
Residents you ought to know: Nicholas DeBenedictis, Aqua America president and CEO and Convention & Visitors Bureau board chairman; Joanie and Bob Hall, daughter and son-in-law of Vera Bradley co-creator Barbara Bradley Baekgaard.
The future: A large part of this neighborhood’s charm and appeal is its lack of forthcoming development. All of the land is mature and built; you’ll never see cookie-cutter stucco McMansions here.
Meet the neighbors: “We wanted to live in a friendly, walkable place where you really get to know your neighbors,” says Christine Mahan, 42, who moved in with her husband and two children this past July. “It just feels like a community.”
Wanna buy here? “There are three neighborhoods within Merion Golf Manor, each with its own distinct price point and style,” says Janis Nadler, a realtor with Haverford Station’s Prudential Fox & Roach. “There are the raised ranches on the lower end, colonials and split-levels in the middle, and then the over-$500,000 estate homes.” See something you like? Act fast. “There aren’t sales very often,” Nadler says. “People who live here stay.”
Just sold: A two-story, four-bedroom 90-year-old Tudor on St. Davids Lane, with vaulted-ceilinged family room, for $660,000.
You might also like: The rolling hills and beautiful stone houses in Penn Wynne — between Manoa and City Avenue.
Ambler, Montgomery County
This borough, along the Wissahickon Creek, covers less than a square mile, including a downtown that’s five blocks small. Young professionals and families are moving here for trendy nightlife and shopping, five (five!) parks, and a mix of century-old single houses and newer townhomes.
Schools: Public: Wissahickon School District has five elementary schools, one middle school, and a high school Newsweek ranked in the top 1,300 nationally in 2008. Private: Germantown Academy in nearby Fort Washington.
Commute to Philly: 35 minutes by car; 30 minutes on the R5.
Things you get: Keller Williams realtor Pam Butera credits the 2003 renovation of the Ambler Theater for the influx of dining (try recently opened wine bar Deterra, and Trax for seasonal fare) and boutiques (green shelter shop Verde, Laney’s Kids Boutique, and a Free Shop outpost) in the Main Street area. Locals also love Twisters Wellness Center for yoga, and Barrymore Award-winning Act II Playhouse.
Things you don’t: The hefty price tags of homes in similar areas. Butera says prices are significantly lower here than in, say, Conshohocken, which she claims is already discovered: “Ambler is getting discovered. From an investment angle, Ambler is a no-brainer: great location and good school system.”
Residents you ought to know: Eight-time Gold Glove winner Bobby Shantz; State Rep Rick Taylor.
Betcha didn’t know: Ambler’s gone green. Eco-initiatives include a movement to banish plastic bags, and plans for an earth-friendly community center in Knight Park.
The future: Platform renovations to the train station, designed to improve traffic and pedestrian safety on Butler Avenue, are set to wrap in July.
Meet the neighbors: Weekends, you’re likely to catch six-year residents Kenny Hanson, 32, and his wife strolling downtown, or having dinner at Bridgets Steakhouse. “Since we moved here, we’ve seen tons of new restaurants and stores open,” Hanson says. “Friday and Saturday nights, the sidewalks are packed with people walking down Main Street.”
Wanna buy here? Don’t hesitate. “Right now, prices in Ambler are really affordable,” says Butera. “Once we get through the depression, people are going to kick themselves if they didn’t buy here.”
Just sold: A sunny three-bedroom 1930s bungalow on Ridge Avenue, with sunporch, fenced front yard and all the modern fixings, for $310,000.
You might also like: Narberth is a more finished version of the above — just with higher taxes.
Moorestown, Burlington County
Still boasting its national “best place to live” standing from a 2005 Money magazine survey, this Jersey ’burb blends small-town charm and urbane intellectualism.
Schools: Public: The eponymous district ranks among Jersey’s best. Private: Highly regarded and pricey ($21K-plus a year for high school) Moorestown Friends is PK through 12.
Commute to Philly: 25 minutes by car; 45 by NJ Transit.
Things you get: A Thornton Wilder Main Street, children’s sidewalk lemonade stands, Norman Rockwell-esque architecture, and a theater company that this year will stage The Music Man and Oklahoma! Bonus: 51 miles to LBI.
Things you don’t: Great restaurants or nightlife. The mall (Piercing Pagoda, Spencer’s, Boscov’s) is … well, you get the idea.
Betcha didn’t know: Stokes Hill, which faces the former estate of Samuel Leeds Allen — the inventor of the Flexible Flyer — is beyond famous for sledding.
Residents you ought to know: Eagles QB Donovan McNabb; former Commerce Bank CEO Vernon Hill, whose nearly 46,000-square-foot house is Jersey’s biggest.
The future: A new $15 million municipal complex is in the works, to replace the town hall, leveled in a 2007 fire.
Meet the neighbors: Saralee Smith Michaud, 43, lives in town with her husband, David, 48, and their three children, ages six through 13. She loves the schools (“Education is a major priority”), the easy access to Philly and New York, and the strong sense of civic pride.
Wanna buy here? Weichert realtor Kate Morra says the true gems are hybrid homes, “updated so they aren’t just old and historic, but have new, functional bits, too.”
Just sold: A 164-year-old eight-bedroom, seven-fireplace manse with grand foyer, butler’s pantry, sleeping porch, new kitchen, new pool and sport room, for $1.2 million.
You might also like: Collingswood. The Camden County burg doesn’t boast the posh schools, but it’s closer to Philly and has net property taxes averaging around 45 percent less than Moorestown’s.
Skippack, Montgomery County
Rolling farmland transformed, via benevolent developer Dave Markel, into a quaint, modern community featuring ample dining, good shopping, and New Hope-esque summer traffic.
Schools: Public: Perkiomen Valley School District. Private: nearby Valley Forge Baptist Academy (K-12).
Commute to Philly: 45 minutes by car; no public transit.
Things you get: Lovely old stone homes; lots of new construction; cute-as-a-button municipal park; community pool (with wi-fi!); the Perkiomen Trail for hiking and biking; Spring Mount for skiing (of a sort); Evansburg State Park for trout fishing, picnicking, horseback riding and golfing; the Playhouse community theater (in a converted barn, natch).
Things you don’t: Reality. Lord Markel keeps his properties in tiptop shape even in a recession.
Betcha didn’t know: Skippack was Grand Central Station during the Revolutionary War; George Washington camped his army alongside Skippack Creek seven times.
Residents you ought to know: Graterford Prison is right outside town. But don’t worry; former Montco D.A. and current county commissioner Bruce Castor lives here, as does his old buddy, fellow former D.A. Michael Marino.
The future: Markel shows no signs of running out of dough. His luxe new Hotel Fiesole, on the site of the old Trolley Stop restaurant (the trolley’s still there), cost $8 million and took seven years to complete.
Meet the neighbors: Stephanie Wolsky, 47, moved here with husband Jamie in 1994; they have three teenagers. “Our development backs right up onto Evansburg State Park,” she reports. “People keep horses in their backyards. The village is really cute. I’m in a bocce league the township runs.”
Wanna buy here? Re/Max 440 realtor Dale Joy points out new developments near the village, including an over-55 community. Taxes are lower than elsewhere in Montco, and layoffs at nearby pharmaceutical firms — which include Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline — could mean bargains.
Just sold: A five-year-old, 3,600-square-foot stone-and-stucco four-bedroomer with morning room, giant master suite, three-car garage and outdoor pool and waterfall, on 1.4 acres, for $637,500.
You might also like: Collegeville, 15 minutes away, with its own Main Street and strip-mall conveniences, is less twee, but namesake Ursinus College has an art museum, outdoor sculpture on well-groomed grounds, great sports teams — and babysitters galore.
The Model Suburb
Drexel Park, Delaware County
The old stone houses in this charming section of Drexel Hill were mostly built in the late 1920s and early 1930s — and still boast neatly trimmed lawns and a neighborhood Fourth of July extravaganza with fire trucks, kids on bikes, and the world’s shortest parade route (one square block).
Schools: Public: Upper Darby. Private: Catholic Holy Child Academy (PK-8) is close by.
Commute to Philly: 20 minutes by car, or a trolley and a short El ride.
Things you get: A warm, family-friendly feel; a trolley that makes commuting into town a breeze.
Things you don’t: There’s no town center, and the high Upper Darby/Delco real estate taxes can take a bite out of your budget.
Betcha didn’t know: The Park has its own green-and-yellow street signs, paid for and maintained by the neighborhood’s homeowners’ association.
Residents you ought to know: Former Kixx goalie Peter Pappas; Fox 29 anchor Joyce Evans.
The future: If all goes well, exactly the same as the past. The Park has recently been trying to replace some of its aging trees.
Meet the neighbors: “I just can’t get over how friendly people are,” says Shannon Gordon, 36, a jewelry designer who moved here three and a half years ago with her attorney husband, Jimmy, and their three kids. “We’ve made these great friendships, and now people are convincing each other never to move.”
Wanna buy here? As with many neighborhoods, prices have dropped in the past couple of years, says Weichert’s Skip Millier (who not only sells here, but lives here). So you can get plenty of house for a lot less than you’d spend in, say, Wayne.
Just sold: A center-hall stone colonial with hardwood floors, marble baths, stone fireplace and five bedrooms, on Kenwood Road, for $302,000.
You might also like: Neighboring Lansdowne, with big Victorian homes, an easy commute to the city, and an on-the-verge-of-a-comeback main street.