A funny thing is happening amid all the worry about Columbia sagging into middle age - some of its oldest townhouses are selling like hotcakes.
Multiple buyers are competing to pay asking price or more on the first day a decades-old townhouse hits the market.
"It's like the old days," said Lanny Morrison, chairman of the Columbia Council, who reminisced about a time decades ago when eager buyers camped out to buy those same houses new.
"Anything you put on the market is super hot and going quickly," said Realtor Louis M. Pope.
Older townhouses "are just being vacuumed up," said Jim Bodine, another real estate agent.
According to the Metropolitan Regional Information System, which tracks real estate sales, 30 percent more Columbia townhouses were sold from April 1 to Sept. 30 this year at an average price 17 percent higher than two years ago. Sales rose from 347 units in that time period in 1999 to 451 units this year, and the average price rose from $129,322 in 1999 to $151,425 this year.
The Howard County boom has been part of a larger swell - home sales and prices have been moving higher across the region and the nation.
Patrick Welsh, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said "there is clearly a shortage of housing," adding that low interest rates are keeping demand high for all kinds of housing. "The whole principal of Smart Growth is not to walk away from these older communities," Welsh said.
Nationally, sales of existing homes set a record in August, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the National Association of Realtors. Sales were up 5.8 percent over August last year, with national average mortgage interest rates down to 6.95 percent, from 8.03 percent a year ago.
But the climbing sales and prices have been particularly good news in Howard County - a community worried about its fate beyond the first wave of development.
"I think it's a really tremendous boost," said County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat and a Longfellow resident. "These houses are still extremely attractive."
The trend is welcome because of fears over the past few years that as Columbia approaches age 35, some neighborhoods are becoming less attractive while prosperous young families buy new, detached homes in outlying areas.
Preservation of older neighborhoods was a major theme in the county's new 20-year General Plan, as Howard's leaders prepare for slower growth and an older population.
The hot townhouse sales mean more homeowners, fewer rental homes and better-tended older areas, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, but the trend will hurt the supply of affordable housing.
"It's good for the neighborhood to have more owners. It's good for the community that [houses are] selling quick," said Matt Fatig, president of the Cradlerock Mews Homeowners Association - a townhouse group near the east Columbia library in Owen Brown.
Ironically, the county's plan to slow development is partly responsible for the buying frenzy, some say.
To preserve the rural west Howard area, officials won't extend public water and sewers beyond the eastern third of the county, and they've cut the number of new homes allowed during the next decade. That's made buildable land scarce - and pricier.
"New construction is being put on land that has so drastically escalated in value," said Linda Odum, a veteran real estate agent who is also the Columbia Council representative for Long Reach village - where one of the county's several crime HotSpot programs operates.
Even with starting prices of more than $270,000, new townhouses in River Hill, Columbia's newest village, are "tight" on space, Odum said.
By comparison, existing homes have larger rooms and "people are doing nice things to their older homes," by renovating kitchens and bathrooms, adding decks and built-in cabinets.
Older neighborhoods also have "beautiful trees, landscaping" and convenience working for them, she said.
And people keep moving to Howard County. Despite worries about older areas, "our lowest-performing schools and highest crime areas are a dream come true in most jurisdictions," Rutter said.
Low mortgage interest rates are helping too, said Kevin Roth, a senior economist with the National Association of Realtors in Washington. And because many first-time buyers "are on the cusp of not being able to afford anything," Roth said, low interest can make a home affordable.
Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, said that because of the limits on development, "I'd say Howard County's future lies in their older communities. That reinvestment is where the county is going to see its growth."
And Columbia's strict design standards have kept older neighborhoods attractive as they age, he said.
People recently moving to Columbia said they were attracted by the same characteristics that drew people decades ago - good schools, racial diversity and plenty of bicycle paths, lakes and recreation facilities.