When Dan and Vicki Shivery decided to build a house in 2000, they had two requirements: It had to be a log home, and it had to be on the largest piece of land their money could buy.
The Shiverys lived in Havre de Grace. They searched for land on which to build their dream house in Harford County, but after seeing how much further their money stretched in Cecil County, they bought 22 acres in Rising Sun, where they built a 3,500-square-foot modern log cabin.
"We wanted to give our kids a place to run around," said Vicki about their decision to move to a more rural environment.
The Shiverys are not alone. Beginning in the mid-1990s, an influx of homebuyers moved to Cecil County from as close as Harford County and as far away as Washington and New York. They traded proximity to jobs, shopping and entertainment for inexpensive land and a dream of rural living.
Home sales in Cecil County doubled from 1996 to 2003. The new buyers drove up prices. The median price of a home increased from almost $107,000 in 1996 to $127,000 in 2000. In 2003, the median price hit $167,000.
"It's a fantastic market," said Evelyn Berry, a real estate broker with Long and Foster in Elkton. "A builder could price a house at $250,000 last year, sell it, and the buyer would make $50,000 during the year it was being built."
The Cecil County boom echoes the experience of Harford County in the 1980s and early 1990s, when masses of city dwellers fled to the county to buy bigger homes with larger yards.
"It's the same thing you had in Harford County," said Dale Hevesy, vice president of Gemcraft Homes. "People moved over from around Baltimore when affordability became an issue. They wanted a little more land and a little more house for the price."
But as Harford County developed, prices rose and land to build on became scarce. By 1996, the median price of a home in Harford County was $127,000. In 2002, it was $142,000. In 2003, it jumped to $170,000.
Developers and real estate agents say they expect prices to continue to rise in Harford County as open space for building vanishes. Residential building is now prohibited in several areas of Harford County because schools are overcrowded.
"The cost of land in the few areas where you can now develop is skyrocketing," Hevesy said.
Gemcraft is building fewer homes every year in Harford County, while orders in Cecil County are rising. Hevesy said an identical home in Cecil County on the same amount of land costs $25,000 less than in Harford County. For many, the cost break has been enough to extend their commute to Baltimore.
But home sales have not dried up in Harford County. From 1996 to 2003, yearly sales jumped from 2,275 to more than 3,500.
Mick Curtis, a real estate broker with Long and Foster in Bel Air, does not expect an exodus from Harford County to Cecil County. Some people may be willing to commute into Baltimore for work, shopping and entertainment, he said. But for most people, owning a larger house is not worth the drive.
"You can be at a ball game in a half hour from Harford County, but from Cecil County you're an hour and 15 minutes away. That's it. That's what it's all about," Curtis said.
And like Harford County, land prices in Cecil County are expected to rise as land designated for development becomes scarce.
Builders and real estate agents say they expect another 10 years of strong growth before they face space restrictions similar to Harford County, but they are already facing opposition from some who want to limit development.
The Shiverys have watched happily as the value of their log home has risen since they moved in. Both Vicki and Dan work from home, so commuting is not a concern. But they worry that too many others might follow their lead, overcrowding Cecil schools, adding traffic and destroying the rural character of the county.
They have heard rumors that 250 homes are set to go up in a nearby development.
"It concerns me," said Vicki. "That's a lot more people."