Just how pricey can Columbia get?
A new luxury housing development there called Forest Glen will reach the limits of the region's residential real estate market. Home prices will range between $600,000 and $1 million -- three to five times greater than the $203,621 median price of a new detached home in Howard County.
"It's golden," said Louis Siegel, whose Owings Mills firm is joining the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, to break ground today on the project.
The 70-acre project is further evidence of the growing concentration of wealth in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- and especially in Columbia -- economic development officials say.
Howard County -- which, according to the 1990 Census has the second-highest median family income in the state, $54,348, and the sixth-highest in the nation -- is fast attracting wealthy homebuyers out of the Washington market, said Richard E. Story, director of Howard County's Economic Development Authority.
"They'll pay the high home prices, because you can still get a lot of elbow room here," he said.
As evidence, real estate professionals and developers point to similar estate communities just west of Columbia, including The Preserve, The Chase and Farside, where minimum lot sizes are 3 acres and prices range from $500,000 and $950,000.
In Baltimore County, similar exclusive communities include Anton Woods in Pikesville, Woodbrook near Ruxton, and Laurelford just north of Lutherville.
Mr. Story and David E. Forester, vice president and senior development director at Rouse, say the trend toward upscale housing in the Columbia area is being driven by two forces:
* The emergence of families in which both parents work at high-paying jobs in Baltimore and Washington. They want to live in communities where crime is low, schools are good and there is easy access to jobs in either Baltimore and Washington.
* A change in the county's zoning laws in 1985. Under the new regulations, the county began allowing homes to be built in largely rural western Howard, opening up land for high-priced housing, said Mr. Forester.
Mr. Siegel said his company's research for the Forest Glen project showed that 75 percent of the potential buyers for homes priced above $500,000 in Howard County would be married couples in their 40s and 50s, both of whom are employed. Their combined annual income is $250,000.
In the last 15 months, 27 homes with price tags of more than $600,000 have been sold in Howard County. "That tells you something about the wealth concentrating near Columbia," Mr. Siegel said.
"It will be very interesting to see how well Forest Glen does," said Ken Stiehl, a real estate agent with American Properties in Columbia and president of the Howard County Association of Realtors. "Other developers have tried this market in the county and have not done as well as they expected."
But he and other real estate experts say that while The Rouse Co. has never built such an exclusive community before, the nationally recognized developer never makes a move without exhaustive research.
"If Rouse thinks there's a market for these homes, then it probably is there," said Emily Lincoln, an agent with Re/Max in Columbia and an 18-year veteran of the Howard County real estate industry.
Said Mr. Forester, the development director at Rouse: "The market for homes in these price ranges is not deep, but it is there."
Forest Glen is the latest high-end Rouse project in the Columbia area. Two of the company's most recent developments are Hobbit's Glen, a golf course community, and the new Village of River Hill. Home prices in Hobbit's Glen have averaged between $400,000 and $600,000 and homes in River's Hill are averaging above $400,000.
"What all this says is that Columbia -- Howard County for that matter -- has become so expensive," said Ms. Lincoln, the Columbia real estate agent. "People like me who have lived here a long time hate it, but that's that way it is."
In its research, Rouse found that potential buyers for homes in such an exclusive community could be tapped in three markets, said Mr. Forester.
The lion's share of potential buyers -- as much as 70 percent -- already live in Columbia or nearby, Rouse said. They have owned their current homes for many years. And the Columbia buyers prefer to remain in or near the unincorporated city of 80,000, Rouse officials say.
What buyers in Forest Glen will get for their money is a community of 30 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot homes, all served by public water, sewer and gas. The homes will be on 1- and 2-acre lots bordered by massive stands of old woods and hedges and winding, tree-lined roads and stone-covered culvert bridges.
"If you're from Baltimore, this would top the scale in price, but if you're from Atlanta, it might be true sticker shock," said Mr. Story.