Even though it is the second largest city in Marin, Novato, existing on the border of Sonoma County far up Highway 101, is often not given its due in the lexicon of Marin cities. But Novato has changed much in the last 10 years and is breaking out of its role as gateway to Sonoma and Napa counties.

“We don’t use the word gateway anymore,” says Denise Athas of Athas and Associates Realty. “We want people to come here and experience Novato for themselves.”

Athas, who always came to Marin to do her shopping anyway, finally moved to Novato from El Cerrito 15 years ago after meeting her husband at a Pacific Sun singles party. “It was love at first sight,” she said of the meeting. “And moving here was the best thing I ever did.”

When selling real estate in Novato Athas points to strengths like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (coming soon) and destination stores like Target and Costco at Vintage Oaks as well as street and facade improvements and beautification programs that have brought new life to shopping districts like the one along Grant Avenue. “The city stands behind its businesses,” she says.

And Athas should know, as the current president of the Downtown Novato Business Association and a city council candidate in the upcoming November election.

“There are so many wonderful things here; I always bring clients to experience it firsthand,” she points to a full roster of community activities such as Tuesday evening farmers’ markets, outdoor movies, parades, and festivals like the art and wine festival and nostalgia days.

Mayor Jim Leland, who moved from Larkspur to Novato in 2002 for the warmer weather, chose the community for the way it differs from much of Marin.

“Novato is full of families and kids of various ages; it has a whole different feel,” he says. “We found all that excitement and a different kind of neighborhood and lifestyle here.”

“There are not a lot of opportunities for young families to buy in Marin,” he adds. “But with the military base conversion in the late ’90s we have constructed a lot of new housing and office space by Marin standards and it has really changed the complexion of the town, allowing younger folks to move here.”

Hamilton Field was a base used by the army, air force and Coast Guard (the Coast Guard remains) and was one of the first in the nation to be decommissioned when it went out of service in 1974. Since that time new housing has been constructed and cutting-edge technology and biotech companies have moved into the converted hangar spaces. The hangars now contain companies such as ImageMovers, Disney’s 3-D animation studios, Birkenstock Distribution, Sony ImageWorks, Smith & Hawken, Oracle, Activision and Cytograft Tissue Engineering as well as a library, the Marin Community Foundation and the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, located near the entrance to the hangars.

“All this has attracted younger workers,” Leland says. “There is a different energy in Novato than there was 10 to 15 years ago. It has changed a lot in the last 10 years and most people think it is for the better.”

Marketing guru Kristi Frlekin, owner of Kristi Frlekin Advertising and Design, has seen the change for herself since moving to Novato from San Anselmo in 1977. “It is beautiful and wide open; I have always been a champion of Novato,” says Frlekin, who did early branding work for the downtown area and now handles Novato clients such as DriveSavers. “Now people are starting to notice how great it is. It has great merchants and restaurants and there is a reason to come from out of town and visit.”

According to Frlekin, the quality of some of Novato’s homes is a little-known secret. “Some of the most incredible homes in Marin are in Novato,” she says. “Real hidden treasures.”

But how much is it going to cost to get you into one of these homes? According to Athas, most of what is selling are condos, bank-owned and short-sale properties. Over the last year the low end for condos was an “unheard-of” $140,000 sale, while the high end topped out at $599,000. Houses over the last year hit a low of $135,000 for a one-bedroom fixer-upper and ranged all the way up to
$2.2 million. Over the last year 395 homes sold, and as of press time there were 140 active single-family home listings and 42 active condo listings.

Athas says she sees a huge difference in the market and feels that it is improving. She has one piece of advice for those who wish to purchase in Novato.

“We have hit bottom, so if you want to get involved, you better do it now,” she says.