Places with ZIP Location: It is the most important word in real estate, and the ZIP codes help us figure it out.

March 09, 1997|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the most popular places to live in the Baltimore metropolitan area is just west of Annapolis, an hour's drive from the Inner Harbor.

Stephen James didn't know that when he bought his house in St. Margarets in Anne Arundel County.

But he got an idea he was living in the midst of a real estate surge when he got a knock on the door. It was a stranger wondering if James was willing to sell his house. There was no advertisement, no sign posted, the man was just hoping.

In the ever-elusive world of the home-buying market, the commute to work as well as test scores in school districts are constantly redefining where people call home in the Baltimore area.

Even Annapolis, which has been sealed off in its own waterfront world, has joined the Baltimore-Washington Corridor with the extensions of Route 100 and Interstate 97. Builders saw this trend years ago and are now seeing the return of their investments in bedroom communities.

This new flexibility in the market is literally putting small blink-of-the-eye towns like Odenton or Abingdon on the map. A special study of 30 ZIP codes in Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties reveals that homebuyers are looking beyond established communities.

The survey, done by California-based company, Experian, the owners of what was TRW Redi, an essential database in the real estate world, is based on the number of mortgages for purchases recorded on deeds in courthouses. Because such data is gathered by hand and Maryland has a six-month backlog in recording time, the most recent yearlong statistics are from August 1995 to July 1996.

Although this list seems like a tribute to suburban living, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors said that city living is becoming more of an option. In 1996, Baltimore settlements were up 14 percent over 1995, second only to Carroll County, which had a 16 percent increase.

Experts who follow local real estate trends caution about turning the numbers into a horse race. ZIP codes vary widely in population and size. So it might be more significant that the Odenton ZIP code had 632 deed transfers, although it was ranked 11th while the most active, Annapolis, had 1,002.

Behind every blossoming neighborhood -- old or new -- there is a healthy commuter artery nearby and a stellar school district. And behind every hot community are real estate agents boasting the variety of their territory. But it's clear that each ZIP code offers a unique take on diversity, blending landscaping and roads with the intrinsic sense of safety and community. The following is a glimpse of what's making these the places with the most ZIP:

Annapolis: 21401

Just after James moved to St. Margarets three years ago, his neighbors came over and gave him salt, bread and wine for good luck. From that point, James, who lived in Los Angeles and Kansas, found himself immersed in a tight-knit community, playing volleyball and organizing Christmas parties for the kids.

"One of the nicest things is that total strangers, they will wave at you and say hello," said James, a financial analyst, who %o commutes the back roads past farms to an office in downtown Annapolis.

For James, St. Margarets offers small-town charm, with people pausing to talk between rushing around. Yet, he's still tapped into the urban culture with the museums of Washington and the eclectic flavor of Baltimore 45 minutes away.

Annapolis always has been defined by the water, but these days the roads (Interstate 97 and Maryland 665) are drawing in homebuyers who would have never considered the historic city before, according to Dawn Dougan, a Realtor for Champion Reality in Annapolis. "I find that a lot of people are buying a lifestyle," said Dugan. "They may work in the city, but people want to go home to a different environment where they can relax and enjoy the bay."

Pasadena: 21122

If Frank Barranco's walls could talk they would be asking for drywall right about now. But Barranco is more concerned about the view -- the lights of the watermen making their way to the bay -- than his creek-side home -- a restoration in progress.

Last year, Barranco, a WJZ-TV cameraman, braced himself to pay the big bucks for his waterfront dream house in the Annapolis area only to find a 1950s bungalow-Colonial off Bodkin Creek priced within reach. He gave up his five-room Timonium home and paid $217,000 to live campfire style, sleeping on a sofa bed next a pellet stove in the very much unfinished house perched on Bodkin Creek. But in this refuge there are no deadlines.

"It's like being on vacation all year," said Barranco, who has the kind of job that puts him on 24 hours' call. "I don't have to tell you how tranquil it is to be out on the water."

According to local Realtors, Pasadena is shucking the stigma of being a poor man's Annapolis, flaunting its eclectic character as a drawing power.

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