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BUYERS FACE 'THE LINE' DILEMMA Prices, taxes weighed in Baltimore vs. county


The Line. It bifurcates the homebuyers' world as neatly as it separates Baltimore County and Baltimore. Susan Ayd knows all about it.

She looked for her first house on both sides of The Line, in Parkville and in the Hamilton section of Baltimore, where she grew up.

The 24-year-old nurse, engaged to a 31-year-old medical student, learned firsthand about such issues as home prices, taxes and insurance -- key issues for people looking at otherwise similar neighborhoods on either side of the line.

And like everyone else, she had to make a choice.

"We found nicer houses in the city," said Ms. Ayd, who has signed a contract on a house on Westfield Avenue in Hamilton. "They're bigger, and they had nicer yards. . . . We were looking at older houses, and they have more character than the newer homes."

All along the line between the city and the county, similar neighborhoods sit cheek by jowl. They often have similar homes, are close to the same shops and about the same distance from work. But financial incentives push different people in different directions.

"It depends on the price range of the house they're looking at," said Diane Schatz, the agent at O'Conor Piper & Flynn who worked with Ms. Ayd. "If they're looking over $100,000 they're more likely to end up in the county. . . . They would rather spend the money on the price of the house than the taxes and insurance. The expenses are gone, but the house is going to appreciate."

The stereotypes are these, and they are usually accurate: You get more house for your money in the city, but you may give the savings back in car insurance premiums and taxes. In addition, parents in the city may choose to send their children to private schools -- which could cost from several thousand dollars to $10,000 extra.

In the end, homebuyers decide what is most important to them.

"At first I was worried about taxes," Ms. Ayd said. "But for the price we paid, we couldn't find as nice a house."

Her price range was the low $90,000s, and the cheapest houses Ms. Ayd and fiance Erik Eways looked at in Parkville were around $98,000. Even at the higher prices, they weren't the same, she said.

In Parkville, $105,000 was going to buy a house with only two bedrooms instead of three in the city house they have agreed to buy; on-street parking instead of a two-car garage; an old kitchen vs. a larger one remodeled four years ago.

In Parkville, $98,000 would also get them a semidetached house with tiny bedrooms, sporting smart '70s-era paneling. "Why people do that [install fake wood paneling], I don't know," Ms. Ayd said.

What Susan Ayd discovered is fairly common all along the city-county line. For example, in the Cedarcroft section of North Baltimore, a three-bedroom house can be had for an average of $96,251, according to settlement data provided by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

A rowhouse east of York Road, a main drag that divides Cedarcroft into tonier and more modest sections, current listings for three-bedroom rowhouses begin at $79,500.

But in Rodgers Forge, a county neighborhood about a mile away, a three-bedroom rowhouse on Regester Avenue lists for $116,000. The average price for three-bedroom Rodgers Forge homes over the last year is $117,253, the Board of Realtors reports.

As Ms. Ayd discovered, the difference in prices for what is functionally the same house can blunt the difference in taxes between city and county.

Baltimore's property tax rate is $5.90 per $100 of assessed value, almost double Baltimore County's rate of $2.865 per $100. So in theory, you'd expect a home shopper to be looking at twice the tax bill in the city.

You would be wrong. Ms. Ayd's taxes will be $1,888 annually, but she said she looked at homes in the county where the taxes ranged from a little over $1,000 to as high as $1,400, all for homes smaller than the one she is buying.

The reason is simple: A house in the county, where home prices are higher, means the lower tax rate is applied to a higher value, reducing the tax savings.

To calculate property tax due, the tax rate is applied to only a percentage of the estimated value of the house.

A $600-a-year difference in taxes would cost Ms. Ayd $70 a month. Matching her house in the county would cost "at least that, I would think," she said.

But Ms. Ayd said she didn't check out the cost of auto insurance before committing to the city, figuring that as she turned 25 and got married, her rates wouldn't be a big problem. She may be in for a surprise.

A married couple driving two fairly modest cars -- a Mazda 626 and a Hyundai Excel -- and with no moving violations in the past three years would pay $1,177 every six months for a standard package of car insurance in Ms. Ayd's new ZIP code, compared to only $672.70 in Parkville, according to information provided by GEICO.

In Cedarcroft, the tab matches Hamilton's rate; the same couple in

Rodgers Forge would pay the Parkville rate.

On the west side of the Beltway; rates are higher in both the city and the county.

That same couple would pay $1,518.50 every six months in Hunting Ridge, a city neighborhood close to U.S. 40 and to the county line. In Westview Park, on the other side of the line, the same couple would pay $1,103.30.

The question to answer is whether the bigger in-town house makes the bigger auto insurance bills and higher taxes worth it.

And no one knows better than Susan Ayd that not everyone makes the choice the same way she did. All she has to do is look at the people selling their house to her.

"They're moving to Harford County," Ms. Ayd said. "Like everybody else."

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