Buyers pay for not doing homework about land plans Lyonswood neighbors unaware of road extension project


Dazzled by his spacious new house in an upscale Owings Mills neighborhood, Mark Seals could hardly wait to move in. But the investment counselor was shocked by what he saw at the settlement table: maps showing a long-planned, four-lane road running straight through his community, virtually sideswiping his house.

"I said, 'Huh? What is this?' " recalls Seals, 31. Still, he went through with his purchase. "At settlement you're happy to be getting a home. You think it's too late to back out. You're just there to sign the papers."

Now, three years later, Seals and his neighbors in the Lyonswood community are finding that when it comes to buying a home, what you don't know can hurt you.

They say no builders or sales agents told them that an extension of Owings Mills Boulevard would one day barrel through their placid neighborhood, and they never checked the array of public records that would have revealed the plans.

As plans for the road edge forward, their predicament illustrates the importance of homebuyers doing their homework -- even as it highlights the ethical and legal responsibilities of real estate agents and home builders. From Cockeysville, where homebuyers got a water tower instead of a wooded area, to Howard County, where residents saw vacant strips blacktopped for roads, many are outraged to discover that not all greenspaces are destined to stay that way.

Officials, however, are sometimesastounded by complaints.

"What did you think that 300-foot swath right in the middle of your subdivision is there for? It's not a linear park," says Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard County's director of planning and zoning, recalling his reaction to some of the grousing he's heard.

"They'll check every consumer report for the past three years to buy a $15,000 car, but they'll impulse-buy a $150,000 house."

When they lead with their hearts, homebuyers can be left disappointed and angry, planners in the Baltimore area say.

"People are infatuated with the model home they have seen," says Arden C. Holdredge, Harford County director of planning and zoning. "Remember when you were 16 and fell in love for the first time? It's an infatuation similar to that."

Complaints are particularly common in fast-growing suburbs. People seek out new homes and open spaces -- but find that roads and stores quickly follow.

Recently, for example, some homeowners in a new neighborhood in the Forest Hill section of Harford County discovered that the "community business" zoning designation on nearby lot permits a supermarket. Initially outraged, residents have accepted the inevitable and are working with developers to ease potential traffic problems, Holdredge says.

Three years ago, some Carroll County homebuyers gambled that a long-dormant road project would never be built in the Heritage Heights neighborhood in Eldersburg. Others, like Mary Arther, had no idea that the road had been included in the county's master plan for nearly 30 years.

"This being our first house, I never even knew there was a master plan," says Arther, adding that residents have been told that their bid to halt the road "was too late."

Some homebuyers even dismiss obvious signs of change. In Howard, some bought homes near an unopened section of Route 32 that was already paved. When the road opened, they complained about the noisy traffic. "Why do you think the lots were cheaper?" Rutter, the Howard planner, says he was tempted to ask.

In Cockeysville, plans for the Abbey at Sherwood community showed that a lot would be deeded to Baltimore County for use as a water tower. But homebuyers say the builder's sales agent told them the land would remain a "forest buffer" or "bird sanctuary."

Residents complained to the state department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which licenses real estate brokers. The department is investigating, says spokeswoman Karen Napolitano.

By law, real estate agents must tell potential buyers pertinent information that they know -- or should reasonably be expected to know -- or risk losing their license, says Billie D. Landbeck, a real estate agent in Harford County and chairwoman of the state real estate commission.

Agents for homebuilders generally are not licensed real estate brokers, but their actions are regulated by laws against unfair business practices, says Rebecca G. Bowman, a lawyer in the consumer protection division of the state attorney general's office.

But it can be difficult to prove intentional deception. Landbeck advises homebuyers to conduct their own investigations. A good place to start is in the county planning office, where officials can help homebuyers decipher master plans, maps and charts.

Gilbert D. Marsiglia, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, adds, "A standard response I have to any buyer is, 'If you see a piece of vacant land, you know it isn't going to stay vacant. If what might happen is a concern to you, let's go down to the county courthouse and check it out.' "

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