Census reveals area as state's roomiest spot

Average of 7 rooms per dwelling tops other places

`Houses look like palaces'

Renovations to add family space are popular

July 07, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Years of fast-paced development in Howard County have left residents with less room to roam - but more rooms.

Breakfast rooms. Game rooms. In-law rooms. Computer rooms.

Lumping together the mansions and the studio apartments, the 2000 Census calculated that the median residence in the county has seven rooms - more than the median anywhere else in Maryland.

It's simply the logical extreme of a nationwide drive for more interior space, even as lots shrink. From 1987 to 2000, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the average house jumped from 1,900 square feet to more than 2,200.

In Howard, that has translated into some interesting rooms.

"I've seen some recently with au pair suites and theaters in the basement," said J. Michael Evans, director of the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, who has walked through 8,000-square- foot houses.

He's even seen a bathroom with a fireplace.

"Howard has a very high median family income," Evans said, by way of explanation. "There's an absolute correlation between the size of house and the income of family."

Realtor Creig Northrop has a 12-room house in Ellicott City, not including spaces the Census Bureau doesn't count (bathrooms, porches, balconies, foyers, halls and half-rooms). It's got six bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, dining room, family room, clubroom and study.

But he won't have that house for long. He's building a bigger one elsewhere in town.

"I've got God knows how many rooms," he said, laughing, before tallying it at 16. "The new homes give you the open space and the 9-foot ceilings. That's why we're doing it: More space and bathrooms for the kids."

Maryland's median residence has six rooms, balanced out by counties such as Worcester (4.8) and other roomy places such as Carroll County (6.8). In other Baltimore-area jurisdictions, the median number of rooms ranges from 5.5 to 6.5.

Nationally, the median home has 5.3 rooms, according to data drawn from the 2000 Census "long-form" questionnaires sent to one household in six.

Census workers found that Howard also has the largest proportion of substantial houses - residences with nine or more rooms. Twenty-five percent of its homes are that large, compared with 15 percent statewide.

Even retirement housing restricted to people ages 55 and older isn't as compact as one might expect. Some such homes in the early stages of development in the county are two-story affairs.

Bypassed by boom

Dorothy "Dottie" Moore, who lives in a five-room condominium in Columbia, finds the Howard statistic breathtaking.

"These houses look like palaces," she said. "I guess they'd think my little condo is a matchbox, but I think it's spacious. That's all I need as a single woman."

Still, as executive director of the poverty-fighting Community Action Council, she figures she could make good use of a mansion. Four families could comfortably share that space, she says, or maybe even five.

She wants people to know that even in house-rich Howard, people are homeless. Others are squeezed into spaces far too small, several families in the same apartment.

"They're sleeping on the floor ... and it's happening right here in Howard County," Moore said.

She sees people come to the community assuming it's a land of plenty only to find that it's hard to be poor amid wealth. Rent is expensive. Food is expensive. Gas is expensive.

More than 300 households sought help from the Community Action Council's food bank last month, capping the end of a fiscal year in which 4,256 families came in for sustenance.

About 520 residences in the county are exceedingly small - with one room only - but the vast majority are at least as large as Moore's condo. About 80 percent of the units had five rooms or more, according to the 2000 Census.

`Renovations are big'

Ilene Kessler, a real estate agent for 17 years and past president of the Howard County Association of Realtors, said it is not just new houses that are getting roomier.

People are adding on to older homes, in part because they don't have many options in new homes now that Columbia is nearly built out.

"People are buying things knowing they're going to change this, they're going to change that, they're going to add this," she said. "Renovations are big."

People often want offices for telecommuting, she said, or they want nanny suites because the husband and wife are working outside the home. Some families are simply looking for a little more room.

Dennis and Lynne Rochester, who have lived in an older Columbia neighborhood with modest two-story homes for nearly 25 years, once considered moving on for extra space. Their son and daughter didn't want to leave, so they enlarged the kitchen and added a family room.

Dennis Rochester can't imagine living in a Howard mansion. "If you buy something that big and that expensive, are you home to enjoy the house?" he asked.

Long-term thinking

Manon "Mo" Roderick, who is selling houses in the county priced near the million-dollar mark, said many of her customers are thinking long term - moving in straight from a townhouse while they have small children. Often there's one stay-at-home parent.

"They want more recreational space for the family," said Roderick, sales manager for Selfridge Builders. "It's family, family, family."

In their Woods of Wellington subdivision, a small Glenwood development that just got under way and is already half sold out, the typical house will have 14 rooms. That's more than Roderick's high-end houses once had, but the interior isn't getting bigger - the rooms are getting smaller, she says.

`Cozier' confines

Instead of sweeping staircases, huge foyers and living rooms with two-story-high ceilings, people are looking for nooks and crannies, she said.

Call it big masquerading as small.

"The houses are a lot cozier," Roderick said.

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