Last spring Michelle and Joe Dent decided it was time to change from being renters in Perry Hall into becoming homeowners.
They thought they had found a home to buy in the Woodcrest subdivision of Fallston. It was a beautiful four-bedroom Colonial with a two-car garage on a wooded, half-acre lot. But it came with a $300,000 price tag.
Even though the Dents liked what they saw in Fallston, they decided to drive about 20 miles north, over the Susquehanna River into Cecil County, to look at the same model in the Beacon Point subdivision, a fast-growing Cecil County development.
To their surprise, the same Colonial in Perryville, overlooking the picturesque Susquehanna where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, cost about $98,000 less.
"It was a big difference," said Michelle Dent, a designer for Accent Display in Baltimore. The Dents and their son, Collin, 7, moved into their house in Beacon Point off Route 222 in early December. "In the Bel Air area we couldn't get a quarter of an acre for what we paid for this house."
Cecil County is beginning to draw the interest of more homeowners from the Baltimore area, who say they are eager to find a rural area with more-affordable house prices.
Realtors sold 920 existing homes in the county last year, eclipsing the record 705 homes sold in 1997, according to preliminary figures from the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. Homebuilders obtained 537 permits to build single-family homes in 1998, the most since 1990, according to the county's permits and inspections office.
"My feeling is that we are feeling the squeeze from Harford County to the west, New Castle [Del.] to the east and Pennsylvania to the north," said Alfred C. Wein, Cecil County's director of planning, zoning, and parking and recreation.
Squeezed by a lack of land for development and tighter controls on land that is available, several Baltimore-area developers are heading north to Cecil County.
"As Harford County runs out of [developable] lots in the next year, it will increase the interest in Cecil County," said Bill Luther, president of Gemcraft Homes, a Baltimore County-Harford County builder constructing houses in six developments in Cecil County.
"Cecil County is the next logical market for all of us," said Luther, president of the Cecil County Home Builders. "Besides, it's a very pretty area, and when people go up there, they are surprised by what they see -- and it's a bonus when they see the price."
Baltimore land developer Morris Wolf plans to begin grading land next month for a 400-house, golf course community on 350 acres between Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 near Elkton. Geared toward second-home buyers, people who want the benefit of living next to a golf course, and empty nesters, houses in the as-yet-unnamed community will start at $150,000, Wolf said.
"We're able to offer a lot more in Cecil County than we would if we did this closer to Baltimore or Wilmington," said Wolf, noting that land costs about $30,000 to $40,000 an acre in Cecil County. In Baltimore and Harford counties, an acre typically costs between $60,000 and $80,000, he said, unless it's in the northern part of both counties where land costs drop by 20 percent or 30 percent, but where development is more restrictive.
With drive times of about 60 minutes to 75 minutes from Baltimore, 25 minutes from Wilmington, Del., and 35 minutes from Philadelphia, Wolf sees a greater market for the golf course community than would be available in Baltimore or Harford County. But since it's the first development of its kind in the county of about 80,000 residents, Wolf has concerns.
"Cecil County is not a proven residential sales success yet," Wolf said. "There is a chance that we're overestimating the market's potential."
Wolf's concerns have not stopped Ryland Homes, the second-largest builder in the Baltimore area, from agreeing to build some of its lines of single-family houses in the Wolf development, according to Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland.
"Cecil County seems like a natural expansion area for us," Joyce said.
Cecil County is "unique" in that the land prices are good for the tristate market, Joyce said. The golf-course development will appear in the company's Baltimore advertisements, but won't be the focal point.
"I think there are people that will move out farther [from Baltimore] to have these sites on a golf course," Joyce said, suggesting that people who work in Harford County or White Marsh are more likely to buy in the development. "It's not that much farther than White Marsh, Bel Air, Havre de Grace or the northern part of Harford County for them."
But not all Baltimore-area developers are paying the $2 toll at the Hatem bridge on U.S. 40 and Tydings bridge on I-95 to set up housing developments in Cecil.