An abode worth waiting for

Patience: Hopeful buyers forgo the comforts of home and line up for the house of their dreams.

April 03, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Gloria McKethan is ready to settle in her dream house.

So ready, in fact, that she has been camped out in her Volvo since Monday -- her husband takes the night shifts -- waiting to pay $550,000 for a future home at the Saddlebrooke development in Gambrills in Anne Arundel County as soon as it goes on sale today.

"We've been looking since January, and when we saw the model here, we decided we didn't want to wait any more," the Fort Meade resident said Wednesday morning, huddled against the 40-degree chill with another woman who has been waiting since March 25. "It's a new community, and the builder has a reputation for quality."

The McKethans, a military family who have spent the past 16 years on bases from Germany and Panama to Fort Meade, aren't alone in their willingness to camp out for a luxury home. The phenomenon is spreading in Anne Arundel County, and it's old news in Northern Virginia, where Alexandria officials last month shut down a sprawling line of people waiting to buy luxury townhouses.

The frenzy has even reached former bargain areas such as Harford County, where people recently lined up to buy $400,000 waterfront condominiums at the Water's Edge development on the Bush River.

Real estate observers chalk it up to a scorching-hot market fueled by low interest rates, as well as to a shrinking supply of lots in desirable locations.

"It's crazy. ... You align all the stars, and this is what comes with it," said Rich Pezzullo, marketing manager for Koch Homes, the Anne Arundel builder that is constructing Saddlebrooke. "It's a good problem to have."

Susan Stroud Parker, co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, predicted that "with the competition for lots, we're probably going to see more and more of this. ... It all goes back to the depletion of inventory.

"As long as interest rates keep humming along, we're going to see more examples like this," she said.

Nicki Kaukonen, president of the Anne Arundel County Association of Realtors, laughed when told about the line at Saddlebrooke. "There's very high demand, which makes it hard to get homes of choice ... but I haven't heard about it in those extreme terms," said Kaukonen, who has sold homes in the area since the 1980s.

Baltimore-area real estate sources said they have not heard of people camping out to buy luxury homes in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties.

Saddlebrooke frenzy

But Pezzullo said prospective buyers have lined up repeatedly to buy homes at Saddlebrooke.

When the initial lots went on sale in 2002, one family set up an RV so it could pass the days in comfort. Last year, a man endured Tropical Storm Isabel in a trailer rather than give up his spot in line. Only 34 of the 119 lots in the subdivision remain, and demand seems more intense every time Koch releases a few more, Pezzullo said.

He said buyers have also waited for days at Koch's Fourwinds development in Severn.

Gazing at the unremarkable exterior of Saddlebrooke, a passer-by could hardly guess at the buying frenzy.

The houses are two stories with brick fronts, beige siding and expansive windows on the second floor. Koch has a good reputation, and the neighborhood is an attractive one, served by well-regarded schools and with quick access to Route 32 and Interstate 97.

The subdivision features no waterfront views or classic architecture, the traditional hallmarks of high-end real estate in Anne Arundel County.

Bill Ballard, who bought his house at Saddlebrooke last year, said he and his neighbors were amazed to see people camping out. "It's hysterical," he said.

He said the new houses are selling for $90,000 more than he paid for his house.

`The right thing'

The McKethans, who are pre-qualified and ready to lay down a deposit today, have few reservations about snapping up a home at Saddlebrooke. Both adults work at Fort Meade, about seven miles away, and their two children, ages 10 and 16, attend county schools. That makes the subdivision perfect for the family, despite a price tag that would seem hefty for many, McKethan said.

She said several Saddlebrooke neighbors have stopped by in the past few days to tell her she won't regret her purchase. "They say, `You're doing the right thing. It's so worth it,'" McKethan said.

McKethan passes the days lounging in her car and watching talk shows and news broadcasts on a battery-operated television with the woman who is perched in front of her in the line. Sometimes, she sits in front of the fireplace in the model home for a few minutes, chatting with Koch salespeople.

At night, her husband arrives, ready to tuck into the sleeping bag laid out across the back of the Volvo.

After today's expected purchase, the McKethans will probably have to wait until the end of the year to move off Fort Meade and into their new home. But McKethan said she couldn't be happier.

"The military has been very good to us, but I'm really looking forward to settling," she said. "This is the place."

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