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baltimoresun.com

As Catonsville skews younger, housing market heats up, schools overflow

By Julie Baughman, jbaughman@tribune.com

6:00 AM EDT, July 25, 2013

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For Catonsville residents, "Life is Great in 21228" is more than a slogan on a bumper sticker.

It's the walkability from their homes to restaurants on Frederick Road, the Catonsville Library and area parks. It's the weekly free concerts in the summertime, the annual Fourth of July Parade, the Santa House and not one, but two weekly farmers markets.

Catonsville's collegial atmosphere combined with a proximity to Baltimore City and schools that have consistently earned high marks have madearea real estate, especially in recent months, a hot commodity.

Though there is no conclusive data to back the notions that Catonsville is an increasingly desirable place to put down roots, data from Realestate Business Intelligence reports that home sales are on the rise.

"What I see occurring in Catonsville is a transformation of younger people wanting to move into Catonsville, or return to Catonsville and live after they've been away," said George Moniodis, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in Catonsville. "It's a magnet."

"We wanted to stay in 21228," said longtime Catonsville resident Maureen Sweeney Smith.

The 58-year-old and her husband Rick Smith, 50, decided about three years ago that they had outgrown their single family home on Smithwood Avenue, but they weren't ready to leave Catonsville.

"Basically, we wanted something smaller," she said. "We didn't need to be heating and cooling five bedrooms."

Their home sold just two days after it went on the market.

It was bought by a young couple with a growing family, much like Maureen and Rick had been when they first settled on Smithwood as one of the youngest couples on the block.

When they decided to leave the neighborhood and move to a condominium on Kenwood Avenue, they were one of the oldest couples on the block, Sweeney Smith said.

"Behind us, there's been a lot of new kids that have come into the neighborhood," she said. "You see houses kind of wearing down with the older people in them and when the new people come in they get a fresh coat of paint. It really re-energizes the neighborhood."

Sue Poandl, 35, and her husband, Dave Perez, 39, moved from California to Catonsville nine years ago.

"I grew up in a small town that's very similar to Catonsville," Poandl said. "(Catonsville is) just a small town with lots of people who know each other.

"We just loved the area," she said. "It was more about the area for me than the house."

After moving from their first Maryland residence at Montrose Manor Apartments in Catonsville to a row house on Circle Drive in Arbutus, the couple decided to move back to Catonsville to settle down and raise their three children.

"We had the little boys by then and we were looking for a bigger house," Poandl said of sons, Owen, 8, and 6-year-old twins Ryan and Noah Perez. "We ended up coming back to Catonsville."

The decision to return came after months of house hunting as far away as Pennsylvania. The close-knit feel of Catonsville won out.

"When we moved to Arbutus, at the time we weren't sure if we were going to stay in Maryland," Poandl said. "We really hunted all over and never found a place we liked better than Catonsville."

They bought their house from Rick and Maureen Sweeney Smith.

Same neighborhood, different house

Marybeth Brohawn, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in Catonsville for 25 years, has helped many young couples like Poandl and Perez move into the area, especially recently.

"I feel like the development along Frederick Road, and the village center have attracted much greater numbers of single people and newly married people before their kids are born," said Brohawn, who has been living in Catonsville for 32 years. "They love what's going on."

Data from Realestate Business Intelligence supports Brohawn's observations that Catonsville home sales are on the rise. In the first six months of 2013, there were 35 more homes sold in 21228 than there were in the first six months of 2012. Previously, between 2011 and 2012 overall residential home sales in 21228 dropped from 433 to 419.

Brohawn said she has noticed that when younger families with elementary-age children move into Catonsville, they are staying for good.

"People used to move out to Howard County (when they started or grew families)," she said. "But now they're not. They're staying. They're upsizing.

"So often we sell a house to a couple and then they have a kid or two and then they upgrade, but stay in the area," Brohawn said.

That is what Kelley Shaw, 37, and her husband, Dan Shaw, 38, decided to do when, along with their two sons, students at Hillcrest Elementary School, they began to outgrow their house on Locust Drive two years ago.

"We loved our neighborhood at Locust Drive and our house, but had been there 11 years," said Kelley Shaw, who said her husband grew up in Catonsville. "We were making the decision of whether we wanted to add on to our house and do a big project with an addition or if we could find something in the neighborhood that was a natural upgrade."

In February 2012, the family moved a few streets over to a house on Forest Drive, where they currently live.

"It's a great home, it's a little bigger, and it has a bigger yard," she said. "It's just where we see ourselves being, forever really."

Shaw said she knows a number of other families making similar moves from smaller homes to larger ones within Catonsville and that, since her family relocated, she has seen another shift in the area's population.

"Just in our street in the last year, two homes, in addition to ours have turned over from retired couples ... to families," she said.

The fact that families like that of Poandl and Shaw are choosing Catonsville as they grow might account for a recent jump in elementary school enrollment in the area.

According to Maryland State Stat — a website that compiles state information of the 49 ZIP codes in Baltimore County — 21228 had the fifth highest number of residential sales in 2010 with 402.

Perhaps related to that, most of the elementary schools in Catonsvilleare above state capacity for enrollment, prompting Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to include funding for 500 new elementary seats in Catonsville in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

History repeats

Ed Orser, a professor of American Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said this isn't the first time Catonsville has seen a demographic shift that brings a surge of school-age children to the area. The current boost is similar to the one from a century ago, Orser said.

Until 1910, there was only one school for grades K through 12. That same year, the county built a new high school on Frederick Road to serve as a high school — now Catonsville Elementary School —and accommodate the area's growing population.

"By 1925, that school (enrollment) was too big," said Orser, who lives in Baltimore near the Catonsville border. "They built the new Catonsville High, which is the building on Bloomsbury, in 1925."

"Catonsville has this sort of unique blend. There is sort of an old character, it's a historic community and people come and they stay," he said. "And then everybody's little kids become middle schoolers and high schoolers and there's not a lot of young people."

The 2010 Census data shows Catonsville's age demographic almost parallels that of Baltimore County. American FactFinder shows that 44.9 percent of Catonsville's population is younger than 34. According to the most recent census data, of Catonsville's total population of more than 47,500, nearly 8,000 are younger than 14.

"I think a couple of things are involved here," Orser said. "One is that Catonsville is an attractive place for families, and there are good school options, and the other is that Howard County is still so expensive by comparison."

Catonsville's elementary schools have consistently made good marks on the Maryland State Assessment tests, with several scoring the highest possible score in both math and reading. 

Catonsville schools might be crowded, but that doesn't diminsh the area's appeal, George Brookhart, owner of Maryland Residential Realty, said.

"The homeyness of Catonsville, people like — especially the younger generations," said Brookhart, a former president of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

He said he has also seen a generational shift.

"What you've got is an older generation which is retiring and either going to Charlestown to live or putting their homes up for sale," Brookhart said. "That's when (younger families) want to come in to fix it up, to improve it, to make it really nice."

He said Catonsville's proximity to Baltimore combined with its neighborly character provides the perfect place for families to move in and stay for good.

"We're close enough to the city that it's easy to get in and out of Baltimore quickly," he said. "They can walk to places like Atwater's (coffee shop). You have Frederick Road Fridays (free concert series) every Friday during the summer. You have the Lurman Woodland Theatre (free concert series)."

"Those are all the kind of things that happen here that make it great," Brookhart said.

"It brings the community together," he said. "There is a strong family atmosphere."