Hours on road to live in Harford

Commuters savor the good life at affordable prices

January 19, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Boasting a 78 percent homeownership rate, Harford County has long been the destination of choice for value-minded homebuyers in the Baltimore region.

Not only does Harford beat the state's homeownership average of 67.7 percent, but it also outpaces its neighbor to the south, Baltimore County, by more than 10 percent.

Since the late 1970s, one of Harford County's hallmarks has been its wide range of affordable, if largely undistinguished, new housing. Another is traffic - almost half of Harford County's 72,000 workers commute out of the county to jobs, according to U.S. Census figures. Congestion, especially along the Route 24 corridor, grows worse each year, as more homes are built. A commute into Baltimore that took 35 minutes a decade ago now can take more than an hour.

But it's a tradeoff that many homeowners are willing to make for what they perceive as good value. And the area now sees more expensive homes being built as residents who moved to the area years ago for affordability want larger houses.

John Zader, supervisor of the contracts group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, spends approximately three hours a day traveling to and from work. Still, he and his wife, Jenny, wouldn't have it any other way. They bought their current home - their second in Harford County - in 1993 for $310,000.

"We've lived here since 1982, when Bel Air was a small town growing up and my commute used to take 45 minutes," Zader said. "Now it's over an hour each way on a good day. But we looked at homes in Howard County and figured it would cost us another $300,000 to get the equivalent of what we have here."

Kay Deitz, who owns and operates an independent real estate agency in Bel Air, began selling houses in the area in 1985, around the time the Zaders bought their home.

"My average sale price in Harford County that year was $87,000," Deitz recalls. "And that bought you a four-level, split home in Bel Air with four bedrooms at the end of a court, a nice yard and maybe even a little stream. People flocked here for the prices. There was simply nothing comparable in the region for new homes."

20 years of change

During the past 20 years, thousands of moderately priced townhouses, apartments, condominiums and single-family homes were built in former cow pastures and cornfields, transforming the once sleepy agricultural county into a sprawling bedroom community for Baltimore.

In 1987, at the height of its moderate housing explosion, Harford County issued 2,746 residential building permits in a single year. Fully 48 percent of its 83,146 existing residential housing units were built after 1980.

The county is known for its sprawling developments such as Constant Friendship, located just minutes from Interstate 95, where $150,000 would buy what Bel Air's Deitz characterizes as "bread and butter housing."

A slower trend to catch on was luxury housing. During the past few years, developments such as Glen Angus, Todd Lakes and Woods Brook have been built with prices routinely topping $500,000. But real estate agents said a growing number of homeowners are seeking to trade up in quality and room, while remaining in the area.

Steve Knight, a vice president with A.G. Edwards in Bel Air, purchased a home in Glen Angus with his wife, Suzanne, for "just over $500,000" a year ago. It was Knight's fourth home purchase in Harford County since moving to the area from Laurel in 1989.

"A home of this quality in Baltimore County would have cost at least 25 percent more," Knight said.

Home construction continues apace in Harford County, to the chagrin of many residents.

The higher-end construction is seeing prices that start in the high-$400,000 range and climb to more than $1 million.

Of the 1,785 residential building permits issued by the county last year, 1,202 of them were for single-family homes, while 445 were for townhouses. Builders said they suspect that many of those units are destined for the luxury market.

Changeover period

"Harford County's real estate market is in a real changeover period," said Clark Turner, president of Clark Turner Cos., which is building a waterfront residential and commercial complex in Belcamp.

Turner, whose Water's Edge townhouses and condominiums have sold briskly for prices as high as $450,000, said Harford County's proximity to Interstate 95 and the East Coast's major cities, as well as its growing economic base, is attracting a new breed of buyer.

Whether it is buyers such as Knight, who already live in the county, physicians at the 2-year-old Upper Chesapeake medical campus in Bel Air who want to be close to the hospital, or well-to-do retirees who want smaller homes, the luxury market is growing, experts said.

Tom Sadowski, Harford County's director of economic development, attributes the growing luxury market to a stronger local economy. He said that since 1998, Harford County has attracted more than $390 million in new investments and created 4,500 new jobs.

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