Home costs go north

Part 1 of 3

The people migrating to the little town of Sykesville nowadays aren't like the sort who've lived there for years. They call town hall to report dead squirrels in the road. They demand that dandelions be removed from the parks. They expect more.

But then, they've paid more, too. Average home prices shot up 75 percent between 1999 and last year in this rural-turning-suburban Carroll County community.

Fortunately for town manager Matthew Candland, he bought his Sykesville house a decade ago, before the shift. "What's funny is, I couldn't afford to move here now," he said.

People who can afford it - and are moving there with increasing frequency - work in and around Washington. They earn fatter paychecks than their Baltimore-area counterparts. There are many more of them, too, thanks to fast job growth.

Some are heading farther into the Baltimore region than ever before in an attempt to escape rapidly rising prices around the nation's capital. Others, by bidding up prices in the Washington region, have set off a domino effect, which has rippled into Howard County, which has rippled into Baltimore, and so on.

Together, they have helped to fuel an unprecedented acceleration in local housing values during the past five years.

Welcome to the Washington suburbs, Baltimore.

An analysis of five years of home sales and other data by The Sun found clear signs that proximity to D.C. is driving the boom in Baltimore and its five surrounding counties, over and above what extraordinarily low mortgage interest rates have achieved nationwide.

This region's fastest appreciation came in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, which border the traditional edge of Washington's reach. Prices there jumped 75 percent combined during the past five years - compared with 41 percent nationally. Together, the average price in those counties rose to about $340,000 last year.

Three-quarters of the Baltimore-area ZIP codes with the biggest price increases since 1999 sit in those three counties. That includes some communities once considered far beyond the boundaries of Washington, such as Sykesville, 50 miles distant. Closer to Washington, the southern Howard County community of Fulton enjoyed price increases of more than 160 percent, the highest in the region.

But the entire area is feeling the ripple effects of that wave, from Baltimore to Harford County. The increased demand for a limited supply of houses is pressing local residents to pay higher prices or pushing them into areas as far away as Pennsylvania, where homes are more affordable.

"Counties that really never perceived themselves as in the orbit of the Washington metropolis are clearly now within it," said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "We need to redraw the map of how far north the Washington metro reaches."

Roads, trains and buses tell part of the tale: The number of Baltimore-area residents working in the Washington region increased by 21,000 in the 1990s, the most recent census data show.

Moving vans tell another, more recent chapter. More than 80,000 people moved into the Baltimore region from the District of Columbia and its Maryland suburbs - Montgomery, Prince George's and Frederick counties - between 1999 and 2003, according to Internal Revenue Service statistics. The actual migration over the past five years may be significantly higher than that; the IRS statistics do not include 2004, the biggest year of the housing boom, or any movement from Northern Virginia over the four-year period.

The number of people who made the move in 2003 was 12 percent greater than in 1999, the IRS statistics show.

The Washington effect helps explain why the 1,300-space parking lot at the commuter rail station in Odenton, in northwestern Anne Arundel, overflows every morning with people who overwhelmingly head south to work, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.

And why first-time home buyers are giving up on Howard and trying Baltimore County. The less you earn, the more trapped you may be.

"It's likely to price Baltimore residents working in Baltimore out of the housing market," said Stephen S. Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "There aren't as many high-paying jobs in the Baltimore region as there are in the Washington region, so all the way along, people are pushing people further north."

The D.C. effect is changing the culture of some communities, as Sykesville knows well, adding credence to the idea of Baltimore and Washington becoming one common market. The boom has made homeowners feel rich on paper, though many are paying higher property taxes as a result. And it has made others richer in reality.

Jennifer Bouck and her husband, Mark, decided to cash in after watching the value of their house in Clarksville, in southern Howard County, almost double between 1999 and September. They had intended to move to North Carolina one day; the boom let them do it much sooner. And the $835,000 selling price put money into their children's college funds.

"People can't keep paying more and more and more - I mean, they have been, but at some point it has to stop," said Bouck, 32, a mother of three.

Many economists agree. The point of contention is whether prices will drop or return to a normal rate of appreciation. The good news is that experts doubt that the Washington effect will cease. The bad news is that this virtually guarantees that if the nation's capital is caught in a real estate bubble, as some insist it is, a slump there will radiate here as well.

Washington buyers

To chart the area's boom, The Sun spent the past five months examining average sales prices for all types of residences - from one-level condos to detached houses - between 1999 and last year by county and ZIP code. They were collected by Rockville-based Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which operates the multiple listings service in Washington, Maryland and nearby states.

Because the sales are handled by real estate agents, the numbers do not include for-sale-by-owners or most new homes - which would likely press prices higher, according to real estate experts.

Though there's a clear difference between the parts of the region that are relatively convenient to Washington and those that are not, there is a spillover effect. Every county topped the nationwide average of 41 percent appreciation over the five-year period. Even Harford, farthest from Washington and with a job base centered on Baltimore and points north, saw home prices rise an average of 57 percent, to about $230,000.

In the city of Baltimore, where values had been battered by years of population drain, prices rose 59 percent. Boosters credit some of that turnaround to Washington interests.

"They can look at a shell that's 125 [thousand] and know that 300 [thousand] needs to go into it, minimum, and not bat an eye," said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that markets city living - most notably to those in the D.C. area. "They can see the potential better than, I think, a lot of the people that are here."

And they're often willing to pay more, real estate agents say, because chances are, they make more.

Workers employed in the Baltimore region earn an average weekly wage of about $800. The average weekly paycheck is about $200 more in the Washington region - and $400 more within the nation's capital.

And the number of jobs there has been growing at triple the pace of the Baltimore area's since 1999. That is drawing tens of thousands more people to work in Washington, people who need to live somewhere.

Some of that increase is driven by the federal government, as officials contract out highly skilled work in technology, homeland security and other fields. Federal procurement spending in the Washington area rose by $6.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended in the fall of 2003, creating a net increase of 42,500 jobs just in those 12 months, according to Fuller's most recent study.

All told, there are 300,000 more jobs in the Washington region than there were five years ago.

Home prices in Washington have doubled since 1999; residences were selling for an average of $450,000 last year. Across the district and Montgomery, Prince George's and Frederick counties, prices rose 75 percent - compared with 63 percent in the Baltimore area.

The average D.C. house costs 2 1/2 times what Byron K. Abaidoo and his wife, Kendra, paid for their house in Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood in September.

"We were looking at it like it was a bargain - it really is," said Abaidoo, 33, a construction quality control manager who works in Prince George's County. "The prices in D.C., to us, are just ridiculous."

Abaidoo, who used to live in Washington, thinks he got in just in time: His home cost $185,000 - nearly 50 percent more than the last owner paid in 2000. And that's just about average growth for Ashburton, according to Live Baltimore, which tracks neighborhood sales.

Real estate agent Creig Northrop of Long & Foster, who sells in Howard and Carroll counties, said that at least a quarter of his customers hail from the Washington area. It was no more than one out of 10 before the boom, and he's sure that is what's making the difference.

"Before it was 'them' and 'us,'" said Northrop, who has worked in real estate for two decades. "Now we welcome them because it's certainly appreciating our values."

Growth in migration

Welcome or not, they're coming.

The 80,000 people who moved here from Washington and its Maryland suburbs between 1999 and 2003 would be enough to buy nearly half the homes sold in the Baltimore area during that period. That is in the unlikely event that all of them purchased homes and everyone did so individually. Migration to the Baltimore region from the Washington region is growing faster than the movement within the Baltimore region, according to IRS data studied by the Maryland Department of Planning.

The demand from the south is concentrated in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. Carroll County is also seeing an increase and attracting a large number of residents moving from Howard County.

That could explain the widening regional price gap.

In 1999, the average home in those three counties cost about $46,000 more than the average home in Harford and Baltimore counties. By last year, the difference had more than doubled, to $107,000.

That price imbalance appears to be influencing many decisions about where to live.

Just before the boom, more people were moving into Howard and Anne Arundel from the rest of the Baltimore region than the other way around. Now residents are more likely to leave those counties and head north - even into Pennsylvania, where builders are marketing to Baltimore buyers priced out of this market.

Laura Butka and her husband, Paul, came back to the area last June after a year in Texas, and she had been hoping to find a house in Baltimore County. They had rented a house at the city-county line before leaving. But this time around, all the neighborhoods they could imagine living in - the ones they could have afforded before they moved out of state - were too expensive.

So they went to Harford. And still ended up paying $25,000 more than their $200,000 goal.

Butka, 29, a nurse who works in Baltimore, is happy with the townhouse and the Abingdon neighborhood. But "we put a lot of miles on our car," she said.

Abingdon is popular with workers looking for affordability and easy access to Interstate 95 so they can commute south, generally to the city. Home prices increased more than 65 percent during the five years.

Closer to the Baltimore-Washington epicenter, in Catonsville, is an even more pronounced boom: Prices jumped more than 85 percent.

Some of that is Washington commuters moving in. The community is close to I-95 and a crowded commuter train stop; the census counted more than 350 residents working in D.C. in 2000.

But the price increases in Catonsville are also a ripple effect of quickly rising prices in Ellicott City and Columbia, close by and even more popular with southbound commuters.

Residents across the Catonsville community are feeling the stealth impact: Additions are going up everywhere because homeowners can suddenly afford it - and often bemoan that they can't afford to trade up.

"A lot of the houses were older and they needed some rehab work ... but they have so much character," said Eileen Farmer, 38, an attorney. The equity leap paired with low interest rates enabled her to add 1,000 square feet to her family's four-bedroom Catonsville home.

Bubble warnings

Don't bank on such astonishing increases in the future, even with Washington buyers in the mix, economists say.

Some call housing the new speculative bubble, propped up by unusually low interest rates, 100 percent financing and money pulled out of the stock market after the dot-com debacle.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C. think tank, is so convinced that Washington in particular is heading for a fall that he sold his home there last May.

It had nearly tripled in value in seven years. Now he's renting in the same neighborhood.

"You have a lot of people who are heavily in debt in their homes because they were willing to borrow based on the assumption that home prices would keep going up," said Baker, who thinks residents of the increasingly Washington-influenced Baltimore area should be careful.

Washington and its environs are often thought to be slump-proof, thanks to plentiful federal jobs, but that's not always a guarantee. After the last housing price run-up in the '80s, the Baltimore and Washington regions largely stagnated in the 1990s. It would have been worse if more people hadn't held on to their homes to ride it out.

Still, most economists take a milder view than Baker's, projecting a sharp slowing of appreciation but not a drop in home values - or at least not much. There isn't an oversupply of housing, they believe, because growth restrictions have held builders back.

And some economists, like Fuller, argue that prices are going to keep marching upward in the two regions because local regulations prevent home construction from keeping pace with job creation.

Carroll is getting it from all sides. It has building restrictions, limiting supply. It has also seen a tripling of its net population gain from the Washington area over the boom years because it's still less expensive than places to the south.

Becoming suburban

More house for the money is part of what sold Michael O'Donnell, 38, on Sykesville, though he works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. The 50-minute commute doesn't bother the former Ellicott City resident, and he's hardly alone. Even in 2000, nearly as many people in town worked in Washington as in the county seat of Westminster, according to census numbers analyzed by the Maryland Department of Planning.

And every day, it seems, O'Donnell's house rises in value. It cost him $339,900 in 2003; a home sold on his street last July for nearly $130,000 more.

"I heard ... and I couldn't believe it," he said.

The town's historic Main Street - similar to Ellicott City's, though smaller - is part country, part urban chic, a perfect place to see the transition from old to new in Sykesville. There's a Southern States farming co-op outpost, a model train store and a barber shop; there are also four antique stores, a boutique full of luxuries like herbal soaps and a salon where customers relax in leather chairs before their massage appointments.

When Craig Taylor opened antique store Alexandra's Attic with his wife 12 years ago, Main Street was more than half vacant. Now it's just about full.

"We're getting a lot of customers from the Washington suburbs," he said. "I advertise in Montgomery County. They're an affluent crowd, and they like antiques."

Expansive "executive" housing is rising on hills outside the town. Residents marvel at starting prices of nearly $800,000.

"This was not a rich area," said Taylor, who moved to town 20 years ago from Baltimore. "This was farm country."

Candland knows it: The town manager never used to get complaints about dandelions.

The town council, which made "changing expectations" the subject of its annual retreat the past three years, recently hired a full-time employee to direct that sort of work. Now the town treats and fertilizes some of its parkland in a nod to the weed-hating new residents.

This gentrification is bringing in more tax revenue, more investment in old homes, more money to Main Street. It has left Candland so flush with equity that the father of six could afford to turn the little rancher he bought in 1995 into a 2 1/2 -story gabled house.

On the other hand, it's forcing first-time buyers who work in the area to look elsewhere for living quarters.

Either way, the prices are no longer small in this small town.

"I get a phone call all the time: 'Is there anything under $200,000 in Sykesville?'" Candland notes. "I say, 'There may be - but good luck.'"

Most expensive

These communities posted the highest average prices in the region last year among areas with at least 10 sales.

Glenwood, Howard Co. (21738): $817,600

Fulton, Howard Co. (20759): $802,900

West Friendship, Howard Co. (21794): $747,000

Cooksville, Howard Co. (21723): $722,800

Dayton, Howard Co. (21036): $704,700

Harwood, Anne Arundel Co. (20776): $701,200

Highland, Howard Co. (20777): $688,900

Glyndon, Baltimore Co. (21071): $673,300

Davidsonville, Anne Arundel Co. (21035): $664,900

Glenelg, Howard Co. (21737): $659,900

Most rapidly appreciating

These communities posted the highest home price appreciation in the region between 1999 and 2004 among areas with at least 10 sales.

Fulton, Howard Co. (20759): 163 percent

Lothian, Anne Arundel Co. (20711): 151 percent

Fells Point, Baltimore City (21231): 146 percent

North Beach, Anne Arundel Co. side (20714): 137 percent

Canton/Highlandtown, Baltimore City and Co. (21224): 131 percent

Glenwood, Howard Co. (21738): 120 percent

Hampden, Baltimore City (21211): 117 percent

Harwood, Anne Arundel Co. (20776): 114 percent

Savage, Howard Co. (20763): 108 percent

Tracy's Landing, Anne Arundel Co. (20779): 108 percent