$1 million for house may not get a `wow'

Top-dollar homebuyers bid high to get water view, land, privacy


For $1 million, you might get a new Colonial on about 7 acres in Carroll County. But it might buy you only a two-bedroom, two-bath Cape Cod with a picket fence on less than an acre in historic Annapolis. Or an 18th-century stone cottage in Ellicott City.

In a real estate market in which prices rose more than 18 percent on average in the past year, million-dollar houses are no longer just those with 7,000 square feet, six bedrooms, gyms and custom wine cellars. They've become, perish the thought, almost commonplace. Last year, 10 homes a week sold for $1 million or more in the Baltimore area; only six years ago, it was fewer than two a week.

"A million-dollar house is not a big deal anymore," said Tim Rodgers, president of Hill & Company Realtors, whose office sells 30 or 40 houses for $1 million or more each year. "It will be a nice house, but it's not `Wow.' The `Wows' are $2 million and up.

"If you're in Annapolis, a million dollars doesn't even get you on the water unless it's a shack, and you probably wouldn't even get there then. It would be $2 million or $2.5 million to get on the water."

Water is a common feature in seven-figure territory. So is land - often acres of it, far off the nearest road and out of sight of neighbors. A single factor such as a trophy school district can inflate a price 10 percent or more.

But sometimes, real estate agents say, the million-dollar prices are applied by sellers whose houses are really worth $850,000 or $900,000 but who can't resist tacking on an extra digit - just because they think they can.

Often, they can because buyers are as willing to get into the $1 million range as sellers are. They have mountains of equity in their current homes, and the proliferation of interest-only and other exotic loans makes a stretch into seven figures seem attainable for many more people than was the case a few years ago.

To some buyers, even $1 million is ordinary. Real estate agents dealing in high-end homes say the million-dollar house of five years ago costs $1.5 million or $1.6 million today.

Douglas W. Trees closed on his $1.01 million home in Bel Air in December - a bold step up from the $455,000 home where he'd lived for 17 years. His house payment doubled.

What $1 million buys

"I looked at a few houses in the $1 million price range," said Trees, 46, who owns an auto repair and sales business. "The ones I looked at were not anything that was close to being worth $1 million. They had Corian instead of granite counters; the master bedrooms and master baths weren't very big for a $1 million house. They had more land, but I'd rather have the amenities. I wanted at least a three-car garage."

His nearly 6,000-square-foot Colonial stands on about an acre, while the other houses he toured were roughly 1.5 acres, he said.

"I feel I worked hard for many years, six days a week," he said. "I got to the point where I thought it would be nice to have something as beautiful as this."

Anne Arundel County was home to nearly half the region's houses that sold for $1 million and up last year - 256 out of 527, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a Rockville company that tracks houses sold through the multiple listing service. The water there adds to both the panache and the price. In Baltimore County, 129 houses sold for $1 million or more. Howard County saw 103 sales. Baltimore City had 28, Harford County had seven and Carroll County had four.

The most expensive house sold through the multiple listing service last year was a $6.5 million Colonial on the waterfront in Anne Arundel County. It came with a 4,500-bottle wine cellar and a wine-tasting room.

Much of what drives the cost of houses is the price of land. "The house is probably 60 percent," said John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland. "The land is 30 or 35 percent, and the remainder is the fees."

Those who come to the Baltimore region are often impressed with how much house - even the $1 million variety - they can get for their money.

"I think they're dirt-cheap," said Stephen G. Israel, president and broker of Bethesda-based Buyer's Edge Company Inc. "You can still buy a 6,500-square-foot house in Howard County for $1 million. You'd pay $2 million to $2.4 million for a 6,500-square-foot new house in Bethesda."

The proximity to Washington, with prices three times Baltimore's, contributes to price increases here, Israel said. "The same homes that we were selling in Howard for $600,000 five years ago are now $1 million to $1.2 million," said Israel, whose average home sale is $1.3 million.

Not only are higher-end houses what buyers are seeking, but they also offer more profit for builders.

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