Homebuyers drawn to Howard's perks

Top schools, convenient location among area's most attractive features

March 21, 2004|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Scott and Kyri Jacobs did not think they would call Maryland home for long.

It wasn't that they had anything against the state; the couple thought they would stay just long enough for Scott Jacobs, who is in the Coast Guard, to serve his time. Then, they figured, they would head back to Pittsburgh, where they grew up.

That was 10 years ago, before they moved to Howard County.

"It's the friendliest place in the world," said Kyri Jacobs, a vice president at an Owings Mills marketing and communications company, who lives in a townhouse outside Columbia with her husband and two children. "We immediately decided this was the place for us."

That passion for living in Howard County is not uncommon.

With top schools, lots of amenities and a great location, people are clamoring to get in, pushing home prices to some of the most expensive in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"Our homes have been appreciating at a very high rate," said Patty Smallwood, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors. "But does that mean they have stopped buying? No. We still have many multiple offers on homes."

Howard County was the most expensive county in the Baltimore area last year for existing residential housing, with an average sale price of $296,274, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which tracks the sales of existing homes.

In Anne Arundel County, the average was $282,640; in Baltimore County, existing homes averaged $194,575; in Carroll County, the average was $251,509; and in Harford County, the average was $197,669.

"Columbia has so many types of housing and we have an agricultural area of the county. So there is a little bit of everything here," said Smallwood. "Geographically, being centrally located between Baltimore and Washington helps a lot."

Even homes in neighborhoods that traditionally might not have been thought to sell well are surpassing everyone's expectations, said Smallwood.

One example is the Emerson community in the Laurel area of Howard County. Now under construction by different builders, the development consists of 570 acres that will include single-family houses, townhouses and multifamily structures. Once complete, Emerson will contain 1,200 housing units, including 400 single-family homes.

The Emerson Corp., an affiliate of the Rouse Co., is developing the community.

"That has been way more successful than everyone thought," said Earl Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Ryland Homes. "Most longtime Howard County residents didn't think that area could support the pricing. But the community is gorgeous. Rouse has created a market there."

Ryland Homes has almost sold out its single-family houses and townhouses for the first phase of the Emerson development, which consists of 50 single-family houses and 63 townhouses. Detached homes in the community are selling in the $500,000 range, while townhouses are in the $400,000 range, according to Ryland's Web site.

Another of the company's current projects is the redevelopment of property along the lake in the heart of Columbia. Lakeside at Town Center will house 48 condominiums. Not expected to open until fall, almost half of the units -- with prices in the high $300,000 to mid-$500,000 range -- have been sold, said Robinson.

Charles Lewis, division sales manager for Columbia-based Patriot Homes, said the county's school system is the driving factor behind the hot market.

Patriot Homes is building 27 single-family homes in Emerson. The homes are priced in the low $500,000 range, and 18 have sold.

"Regardless of where you are in Howard County, it's a good investment," said Lewis.

In late spring, Patriot will begin development of Autumn View, a community of detached homes in the Ellicott City corridor. The prices are expected to start in the high $500,000 to low $600,000 range.

Pat Hiban, a Realtor with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia, says the county is extremely attractive for homebuyers because of its many amenities -- recreation, restaurants and shopping -- as well as its convenient location.

"You have both the Baltimore and Washington markets, so if you ever want to change jobs you don't have to relocate," said Hiban. "It's a really great place to live. People love it."

The county generates loyalty among existing residents as well. The Jacobs family is a prime example.

After outgrowing their townhouse, the Jacobses agreed they would move only if they found a home within Howard County. When former neighbors called in the fall and told them a house in the Hammond Village neighborhood was about to come on the market, they jumped at the chance. The day the house hit the market, the Jacobses took a look and put in an offer. They will move next month.

When they were new to the area, "we thought we would do our time and go home," said Kyri Jacobs. "Then we realized home was here."

But there is a downside to that popularity. Moderately priced homes are hard to find, pricing many people out of the market, Hiban said.

"There are people lined up," he said. "If there is a listing under $200,000, then many times we have 14 and 15 offers. It's incredible."

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