The couple had a few must-haves as they looked in Howard and Montgomery counties: a good school district, a two-car garage or space to build one, and gas heat.

Kristina Pannone said they didn't find much, despite following listings daily. Whenever they liked something, their real estate agent would check and report back that it was already in a multiple-bid fight.

The house they ended up getting under contract in July in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village — gas, two-car garage and a high school they liked — hit the market on a Thursday and had four offers by the following Monday. The Pannones barely had time to get house-savvy relatives in to take a look before making an offer.

But Kristina Pannone says she's happy with the house, on which she and her husband closed Thursday. "We love our jobs, we love the area, so we knew this was a place we wanted to settle down [in] and raise a family," she said.

The Pannones were thinking ahead when they prioritized school districts: They don't have kids yet.

That speaks to the enduring power of public education in the housing market. Linda-Lou O'Connor, an entomologist and mother of two, could see its impact as she looked for a home this year in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

"I found that houses in the not-really-good school districts seemed a lot nicer than the houses in the really good school districts," she said. "They were in better shape, better upkeep, less expensive. And then the houses in the good school districts would go super fast."

It's true that the supply of houses for sale varies in communities across the region — for reasons that include schools and waterfront settings. A Sun analysis of August home sales data from RealEstate Business Intelligence found that Baltimore's 4.9-month supply is the highest in the region, with Carroll and Harford counties close behind. The rest of the counties are all below four months.

The very low end of the range includes the 21046 ZIP code in Columbia, with just a 1.1-month supply, and the 21042 ZIP code in Ellicott City, with a 2.4-month supply. Among the places hovering around three months are Severna Park, Bel Air's 21015 ZIP code and a stretch of Baltimore that includes the popular Canton neighborhood near the Inner Harbor.

But West Baltimore neighborhoods south of Druid Hill Park had a seven-month supply of homes in August. The ZIP code that includes Cherry Hill in the city and Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel County was near that level, too.

Still, that's nothing compared with the bevy of choices for high-end buyers. Among homes priced at $1 million and up, the region's supply tops 20 months.

"In one of the areas that are in high demand, you might think, 'Wow, there's really low inventory,'" said Dominic Cantalupo, associate broker at Champion Realty in Pasadena and a longtime agent who works throughout the region. "But in other areas, you can find houses all day long."

Overall, prospective buyers remain far more cautious and selective than they were during the housing bubble, even with choices shrinking, he said. (The good news for buyers: Inventory still isn't as tight now as it was then. The region had less than two months of supply in August of 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, compared with four months now.)

Even in low-inventory neighborhoods, sellers can't set just any price, said Redfin's Ikle. Buyers are armed with information gleaned online about the house and its competition. The average price in August rose 3 percent over the year in the Baltimore area, a far cry from the 16 percent leap in August 2005.

"The market will tell you pretty quickly if you're at the wrong price," Ikle said.

O'Connor, who has daughters ages 11 and 13, ultimately bought in Severna Park — the schools there were a big draw for the family. She likes the area, too, and the woods next to her property.

The downside: The house, which she got under contract eight days after it hit the market, is smaller than she was hoping for and not as updated inside.

But she and her husband, Dennis, didn't have to pay at the top of their range — the sellers accepted a $510,000 offer, $40,000 less than their asking price — so she's planning upgrades. Like a third bathroom.

"It seems if you want a school district, there's things you have to settle for," O'Connor said. "But from what I looked at, I thought it was by far the best choice that I had."