Searching for a lakefront home last summer, Steven Fabian combed through listings in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Then he discovered Lake Mohawk, a three-mile-long man-made lake in Sparta, N.J., bordered by the quaint White Deer Plaza shopping district, with lively shops, restaurants and a brew pub.
“There’s so much to do — it wasn’t like you’re going from New York City to sitting around a campfire,” said Mr. Fabian, 37, a correspondent with the television show “Inside Edition,” who paid $725,000 for a 1935 lakefront home. Mr. Fabian and his girlfriend, Thea Gallagher, 36, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ms. Gallagher’s 2-year-old daughter, Georgia, enjoy kayaking and fishing on the lake.
Lake Mohawk is the heart of Sparta, a 37-square-mile Sussex County township about 50 miles northwest of Times Square, with some 18,575 residents. About 2,500 of Sparta’s 6,700 households are in the Lake Mohawk Country Club community, which gives them access to 12 beaches. The township also has several smaller lake communities.
“People go to the Catskills, Poconos or Lake George to get away and go out on a boat, water ski or jump off the dock. That’s the kind of stuff we do all day long in the summers here,” said Marc Tremain, a resident who works as a real estate agent with Weichert. “You are every bit in the country, but you’re still accessible to Route 80 in about 10 minutes.”
Bill Volpi, 65, the owner of Urban Source, a company that represents home-products manufacturers, and his partner, Ed Bradley, 57, a special-education teacher, were living in New York City in 2016, when they discovered Sparta.
The couple walked into a midcentury-modern ranch house overlooking Lake Mohawk and “looked through the wall of glass at the lake,” Mr. Volpi recalled, “and Ed said, ‘This is it.’” They bought the house for $425,000 as a weekend getaway, but now live there full-time.
“Our friends came to visit and passed a sign for a pig farm. They said, ‘Never would we ever think this is where you’d end up,’” Mr. Volpi said.
But those friends have returned to visit often, he added: “They love the calmness of it — especially with the pandemic, getting out of the city.”
As in other suburban and exurban areas, Covid-19 has led to an influx of buyers from more densely populated areas like New York City and Bergen and Hudson Counties. “A lot of what we’re hearing is, ‘My company is virtual now, so I’m not worried about the commute,’” said Christine Tremain, Mr. Tremain’s wife, who works as a real estate agent with him at Weichert.
Just how hot is the market? Soon after Mr. Fabian closed on his home in January, the Tremains, who were his agents, received an email from a potential buyer who had spotted the sale and offered to buy the home for $125,000 over the price Mr. Fabian paid. His answer: No thanks.
What You’ll Find
Lake Mohawk was created in 1928, when the Wallkill River, which runs north to the Hudson River, was dammed in Sparta. Then Arthur D. Crane and Herbert L. Closs, property developers, built homes around the lake in a lively style that combined Tudor, Normandy and German influences, with rustic stone walls and half-timbered facades.
The Lake Mohawk Country Club community now has 2,500 homes surrounded by tall trees, on streets that wind through hills and rocky outcroppings. Some of the most luxurious are on Manitou Island, in the middle of the lake, connected by a bridge to the mainland.
Sparta has several smaller lake communities, including Lake Saginaw, Sunset Lake and Seneca Lake, as well as a number of subdivisions outside the lake areas, with large homes built over the last few decades.
What You’ll Pay
Compared with areas closer to New York City, “you get more for your money” in Sparta, said Mark Iussig, an agent with Coldwell Banker in the township.
A recent check of the Garden State Multiple Listing Service found 65 homes for sale, from a two-bedroom cottage in need of renovation, listed for $99,000, to a three-bedroom house on Manitou Island with 200 feet of lake frontage, listed for $3.35 million.
Both sales volume and prices in Sparta have risen in the past year. In the 12 months ending on May 15, 521 single-family homes sold at a median price of $431,000, according to the multiple listing service; in the 12 months before that, 379 single-family homes sold at a median price of $345,000.
The rising demand has led to multiple offers and quick sales, especially in the lower price ranges, said Lynn Garafola, an agent with Keller Williams. “Under $400,000 is crazy-insane,” she said.
Outdoor activity is central to life in Sparta — whether it’s kayaking, boating or swimming at Lake Mohawk or other lakes, or hiking in nearby open spaces like Kittatinny Valley State Park, the Paulinskill Valley Trail or Stokes State Forest.
Sparta has several strip shopping centers, including one with a small movie theater and a bowling alley. There are also popular White Deer Plaza establishments like Krogh’s, a restaurant and brew pub, and St. Moritz Grill & Bar.
Residents grab ice cream at Alpine Creamery and enjoy it on the boardwalk overlooking Lake Mohawk. Watching fireworks over the lake is a favorite Fourth of July tradition.
About 3,150 students attend Sparta’s public schools: three elementary schools, a middle school and the 1,100-student Sparta High School, where 90 percent of 2019 graduates continued on to college. In the 2019-20 school year, the average SAT scores were 568 in reading and writing and 572 in math, compared with statewide averages of 536 in each.
Sussex County Technical School, in Sparta, is a countywide public school serving ninth through 12th grades.
Private options include Hilltop Country Day School, serving prekindergarten through eighth grade, and Veritas Christian Academy, serving students in ninth through 12th grade.
Sparta is also home to a Catholic elementary school, the Reverend George A. Brown Memorial School, and to a Catholic middle school and high school, both named in honor of Pope John XXIII.
Before the pandemic, Lakeland Bus Lines ran buses from Sparta to New York City in the morning, and then back again in the evening. But those buses have not run for more than a year, and it’s not clear when direct service will return.
In the meantime, residents can drive 12 miles south to Rockaway Townsquare shopping center to catch a Lakeland Bus for a 90-minute trip to the city, at a cost of $13.05 one-way or $111.40 for a 10-trip package. Or they can drive a similar distance to Dover and take a New Jersey Transit train; the trip to Penn Station takes 90 minutes and costs $15.25 one-way, or $445 a month.
Driving to New York City takes about an hour with no traffic, but significantly longer during rush hour. Many commuters drive to jobs in other parts of New Jersey.
Mining — for iron, zinc and limestone — was part of Sparta’s economy for a century. In 1891, Thomas Edison started a business in Sparta that produced concentrated iron ore, with a complex that included mines, industrial buildings, 50 workers’ houses, a schoolhouse for workers’ children and two stores. At one point, the company, known as New Jersey and Pennsylvania Concentrating Works, employed 500 people. But after ore was discovered in Minnesota, it couldn’t compete, and the enterprise went out of business in 1900. Many of the workers’ houses were dismantled and carted away to nearby Ogdensburg. All that remains of the operation are crumbling stone walls, still visible in the woods.