Nancy Richardson, a first-grade teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary, learned her lessons well while living in Howard County.
After four years of renting, she moved to Baltimore, rented another year, and then purchased a home in Canton in 1998 for $60,000. She spent another $20,000 to renovate the kitchen and bath and came to this conclusion:
"There's no way I could ever have afforded to own a home in Howard County," said Richardson, who is single. "Most of my friends who rent in Howard County are paying more than my monthly mortgage."
So, while the booming economy and soaring housing costs are good news to those putting a house on the market, it's not necessarily hot news for municipal employees, particularly teachers, who have learned that housing prices in Howard County are generally out of their reach.
Traditionally, one of the biggest drawing cards for Howard County is its well-regarded school system, said Biff Bartholomew, an associate broker in the Ellicott City office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "Yet, it's kind of tough for a single teacher to afford a home here," he said.
"It's very difficult for them, very difficult," said Kevin Carney, president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "They have to buy an existing home; they are pushed out of the n-home market in [Howard], because their incomes can't afford the price of those houses, and they are forced to live in jurisdictions where they don't work because of that. I see it all the time."
The problem isn't just in Howard County. Its symptoms can be found in many of the nation's metro areas - notably in California's Silicon Valley - where the economy as well as supply and demand have sent home values soaring. Last spring, Santa Clara-based chip maker Intel Corp. and local school officials introduced a mortgage-assistance program to help teachers in the Santa Clara Unified School District buy homes in the nation's most expensive housing market.
Santa Clara County's median home price was recently pegged at $550,000. A local teacher's average annual salary was $40,000.
Earlier this month, North Carolina's newly elected state treasurer proposed offering below-market mortgages to attract an estimated 70,000 new teachers over the next decade.
The program is similar to Maryland's Homeownership Opportunities for Teachers Initiative, which was approved by the General Assembly and went into effect July 1.
So popular was the program, which offered 5 percent fixed-rate mortgages through lenders to newly hired teachers, that it ran through its initial $25 million and an additional $15 million in funds by the end of October. According to the state, 20 Howard County teachers were able to take advantage of the program, borrowing $2.24 million in mortgage money. Despite its popularity, a state spokesman said there are no plans to revive it next year.
Colleen Morris and her husband - both Howard County teachers - managed to buy a home by moving in with her mother, rent-free, for a year.
"Our incomes only qualified us for a mortgage of $190,000, which was the price of some of the older homes," said Colleen Morris, a teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary. "But they needed several thousand dollars' worth of work."
The house that the two purchased about 18 months ago was a single-family dwelling that sold for $238,000. Their $48,000 down payment was achieved by banking as much of their salaries as possible.
"We estimated that it would take us two years of living with my mother," said Morris. "But my father died and left me some stock, which I sold. We were very lucky - a lot of teachers didn't have the options we did."
A big problem educators have to overcome is how to recruit new teachers to high-priced areas and then retain them.
"We do know that the cost of housing along with salaries affects whether people take jobs here," said Joseph Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association and a former teacher.
Many young teachers, however, have more immediate concerns about paying off college loans than purchasing homes or even finding a place to rent.
For Sally Lawrence, a York College graduate in her first year of teaching at West Friendship Elementary, it's back to bunking with mom and dad with an eye more toward paying off student loans, rather than buying a home.
"I'm living at home because I can't afford to move out - I'm paying back my student loans," she said. "A lot of the other teachers live at home - one of my friends lives in White Marsh and commutes to Howard County, which is quite a haul, and another lives in a townhouse with several roommates."
Bartholomew, of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, said his daughter teaches in Howard County, but lives in Carroll County.
"For first-time homeowners, it's hard to get into single-family homes," he said. "Most of the first-time homebuyers that I encounter work in electronics and communications."