Home ownership in Md. a `big' deal during '90s

Trends: Houses, mortgages and monthly payments increased in the past decade, according to the 2000 census.

May 30, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Fueled by nearly a decade of prosperity and low interest rates, Marylanders "upsized" their homes during the 1990s. New data released yesterday from the 2000 census show that they moved into larger houses, took out bigger mortgages and paid more every month for the privilege of living large.

Bill and Mary Brown embodied that expansiveness. They bought a small, three-bedroom house in Elkridge five years ago and within a year began to add on, doubling the size of the place and adding three rooms.

"Yeah, it is a lot of house for two people," Mary Brown said. "But we have a need for openness and space. It's our little piece of paradise."

At the same time, the Census Bureau's new data show that a significant number of Maryland residents, motivated by necessity or convenience, bucked the trend to bigness and moved into very small homes - one- and two-room apartments, condominiums and retirement units.

"I don't want to go back to a house," said Helen Davis, 77, of Parkville. In 1991, she and her husband, Norman, 80, traded their five-bedroom house in Carney for a two-room apartment in a retirement community. "I liked my house, but after the children are gone, a house isn't a home anymore. It's just a house."

The new numbers - compiled from the "long-form" questionnaires completed in April 2000 by one household in six - also spotlight trends in commuting and vehicle ownership in Maryland, as well as in employment, income and poverty. The statistics will be mined by government planners, businesses, advertisers and academics seeking to learn how we lived in 2000, and how we have changed since 1990.

The results are estimates and therefore subject to sampling error, as well as errors in reporting by the people who filled out the forms. The bureau has released data for only 30 states and the District of Columbia, so national comparisons aren't possible yet.

Marylanders' desire for bigger digs pushed the median size of the state's homes from 5.9 rooms in 1990 to 6 rooms in 2000. (Median means that half the housing units had more rooms, and half had fewer.)

Howard County had the highest median - seven rooms. Worcester County, perhaps skewed by thousands of Ocean City condos, had the smallest at 4.8 rooms, followed by Baltimore City at 5.5 rooms.

"An affluent society demands more space," said T. Kevin Carney, owner of Thomas Builders in Columbia and former president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

With incomes up and interest rates down, the number of big houses, with nine or more rooms, increased by 38 percent during the 1990s - from 232,000 units (12.3 percent of the total) to nearly 320,000 units (15 percent).

Families who can afford it want bedrooms for the kids and home offices for Mom and Dad, Carney said. At the same time, "the counties are requiring larger and larger lots, and you can't build a small house on a big lot."

Marc Witman, an associate broker with Long & Foster's Greenspring office and a former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said the buyers are generally families with two working parents. "They're for the most part either professional, or business or medical people," he said. "Add together a couple hundred thousand in income, and it makes it real easy to buy a half-million-dollar house."

Pam and Dave McCue don't fit that picture. He's an industrial steamfitter, and she works part time at Howard County General Hospital.

But they moved 3 1/2 years ago, after making a nice profit on their small, four-bedroom house in Elkridge. With three kids, one now grown, Pam McCue said, "We just outgrew the rooms."

Their new place, in the Cattail Woods development in northwestern Howard County, has five bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, two family rooms, a living room, a dining room, a library and two kitchens - one in a basement apartment that they've built for her father.

The McCues' monthly payments more than doubled, and the 1 1/2 acres of grass is a lot of work. But they figure the place has gained perhaps $150,000 in value, and they have no regrets. "It's just perfect for us. We're very, very fortunate," she said.

John Kortecamp, the home builders' executive vice president, said studies suggest that 80 percent of the population would "upsize" if they could. "People associate value and appreciation with a larger home," he said. In a prosperous time, "people feel pretty confident they will be able to handle the mortgage."

With more people moving into bigger houses and taking out second mortgages or home-equity loans, monthly housing payments grew as well, by more than 10 percent statewide, even after adjusting for inflation.

Median monthly costs grew from $1,174 to $1,296 in constant dollars. (These costs include first- and second-mortgage payments, taxes, insurance and utilities, and condo or mobile home fees.)

Statewide, the percentage of mortgaged homes grew from 72 percent to nearly 78 percent during the decade.

Smallest dwellings

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