Late at night, her legs aching from another 12-hour work day, Debra Kepner used to climb the rickety stairs to her apartment and wearily imagine that something better waited.

But she always ended up opening the door to the same, cramped living room. Kicking off her shoes,she would tidy up a bit to keep her tiny quarters looking cozy.

For years, Kepner regularly would flip through the real-estate ads, dreaming of owning a home, a real house with a porch and back yard.

But even though she was working two jobs, however, the 37-year-old mother of two teen-age boys couldn't afford the mortgage on the cheapest homes.

"I always wanted to have a house for my kids, but you can't find anything for under $50,000," she said. "I gave up looking."

Kepner reluctantly settled in the upstairs apartment of a Curtis Bay row home, about 20 minutes away from her jobs at the Maryland Gazette and Kiddie City in Glen Burnie. Her sons, 15-year-old Scott and 14-year-old Bobbie, share one of the two bedrooms. She took the smaller bedroom and covered the walls with bright posters to give it a cheery appearance.

She had learned how to avoid bumping into fixtures in the closet-sized bathroom when she first heard of Habitat for Humanity. The program sounded almost too good to be true: a group of people wanted to build her a home that would cost less than she was paying in rent?

"I was like, 'Oh, God, I could never afford a house,' and then there's this great opportunity," she said, remembering how she went to fill out an application in 1989.

Two years later, her dream came true. The Anne Arundel County chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a nationwide volunteer group dedicated to eliminating substandard housing, is building Kepner a home on Point Pleasant Road in GlenBurnie.

The house was sold by the state through its noise-abatement program when Baltimore-Washington International Airport expanded its runways. Jerry Matyiko, a home mover who lives in the county, bought the house and donated it to Habitat.

Volunteers from area churches plan to renovate the home and add a third bedroom, second bathroom and porch. When Kepner heard she would have a porch, she nearly cried.

"I was like, yeah, I have arrived," Kepner said. "You don't really have a house until you have a porch."

She and her sons will put in 500 hours of "sweat equity," work on the home that Habitat requires as a down payment. When the house is finished and covered with new vinyl siding, it will be worth about $90,000, said Mark Evans, whois coordinating construction. But Kepner will only pay a $325 monthly mortgage to Habitat.

The Kepner home is the fourth project for Anne Arundel's five-year-old Habitat organization, said Beth Zehe, a county social worker and volunteer. The 500-member group intended to build a house on the Point Pleasant lot several years ago after buyingit from the county for $1, she said. But the property's awkward shape meant spending up to $25,000 to install sewer lines.

Matyiko's donation allowed Habitat to save the cost of starting from scratch. Intwo months, the group hopes to have the sewer lines installed and the house refurbished from top to bottom.

For Kepner and her sons, the best thing about the house is that it will be theirs. Surrounded by trees and near Marley Creek, it will be their own private refuge.

"For the first time, I won't be renting," Kepner said with a broad smile. "This will be the first time that my kids will have their own home. It's just incredible."

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