Most people looking to buy a house make lists, research neighborhoods, consult real estate agents and, at the very least, visit open houses.
But Chris and Rob Brennan did things a little differently. They bought on impulse and instinct. "When we drove through Old Catonsville, we just fell in love with it. We didn't know a thing about it, but we just wanted to buy here," explains Ms. Brennan, who moved into an 80-year-old home in the community 10 years ago.
She concedes choosing a neighborhood on a first-time impression may not be the smartest way to make such a big investment. But it's worked for the Brennans.
"We really wanted an old house. My husband's an architect and we didn't want tract housing," she says. "It was a culture shock at first, because Catonsville really is a mix of people and houses. . . . But I've found I really love it here. I always tell my husband, you're going to have to take me out in a pine box."
Like many new families moving to Old Catonsville these days, the Brennans were most attracted by the old houses, mature trees and convenient downtown area. Dubbed "Old Catonsville" by residents who view it as the core of the larger Catonsville area, which sprawls north, south and west of the older part, the 19th-century village spans both sides of Frederick Road just west of the Baltimore Beltway in southwest Baltimore County.
Kirby Spencer, president of the Old Catonsville Neighborhood Association, says she and her husband, John, were attracted by many of the same features that hooked the Brennans. The couple relocated from Frederick six years ago, buying a seven-bedroom Victorian house built in 1898.
The couple had considered suburbs closer to Washington because Mr. Spencer's job was in Bethesda at the time. But their 3,500-square-foot house on one acre would have cost at least $100,000 more in those suburbs, Ms. Spencer says. "These houses are selling for about $300,000 now," she says, referring to the largest Victorian homes in the area. "They'd cost at least $500,000 closer to D.C."
Housing values in Old Catonsville are one of the top selling points in the community, along with top- notch public schools, real estate agents say.
"People come in asking to be in the Hillcrest [Elementary] school district," says Nancy Davis, who owns N. A. Wilson and Associates on Frederick Road. "People also like the older houses and older trees, that sort of appeal. It looks sort of like you're in the country when you're not."
Ms. Davis describes housing in Old Catonsville as diverse, with smaller Cape Cods and ranchers starting in the $120,000s to mansion-sized homes in the Oak Forest section running up to $400,000.
"The bulk of the market is in the $150,000 to $225,000 market," she says. "I've shown a three-bedroom cottage in Old Catonsville for $159,000 and a four-bedroom Colonial for the same price."
Only 1.5 miles from top to bottom and an equal distance end-to-end, Old Catonsville is bounded roughly by Edmondson Avenue to the north; North Rolling Road and Patapsco Valley State Park to the west; Park Grove Avenue, Brook Road and South Rolling Road to the south; and Bloomsbury Avenue to the east.
Residents may quibble over whether streets north of Edmondson Avenue or west of South Rolling Road in the Oak Forest subdivision, are part of Old Catonsville. But generally speaking, older streets in the center of town are considered part of the neighborhood. "If it's old, it's in. If it's new, it's not," Ms. Brennan says.
The land on which Old Catonsville developed originally was owned by the Baltimore Iron Works Company, which divided its landholdings in 1810, transferring much of this land to Charles Carroll of Carrollton.
Mr. Carroll eventually gave a large home on Beaumont Avenue and much of the land to his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Richard Caton, from which the community takes its name. Mr. Caton later subdivided the property and the village of Catonsville began to develop.
By the late 1850s, the small but bustling village had "four taverns, twelve rum mills, six stores, two blacksmiths, two wheelwrights, four shoe shops and a harnessmaker," according to "A History of Baltimore County" written by Neal A. Brooks and Eric G. Rockel.
Today, many large Victorian, Colonial and American four-square houses built from the late 1800s to early 1900s sit on large lots on narrow, tree-lined streets. Although newer houses have been built on many "in-fill" lots since then, the area maintains its old-time feel due to mature landscaping, big front porches on many houses and easy access by foot to the downtown, still referred to as "the village" by natives.
The half-mile stretch of shops, banks, gas stations and restaurants along Frederick Road is included in Baltimore County's commercial revitalization program, which targets 13 older urban centers in the county.
Susan O'Neil, commercial revitalization coordinator for the southwestern area, says the county has approved $1 million for a Catonsville street-scape project, which might include such improvements as new benches, trash cans and lighting. A committee referred to as the Catonsville 2000 group is holding meetings to gather ideas for the design plan.
The project includes a formula to encourage business owners to invest in facade improvements to their buildings. And the county, Catonsville 2000 committee and business owners and residents have invested $19,000 in a study, conducted by ZHA Inc. of Annapolis, to determine the best uses for vacant properties along the commercial strip.
Anchor stores, family-oriented restaurants and retail stores that would enhance the commercial "clusters" already in town, such as music stores and interior design and crafts outlets, are high on the list, Ms. O'Neil says.
Another large-scale project in the works is a research park planned for 93 acres adjacent to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, southeast of Old Catonsville. University officials, who want to put 12 buildings on the parcel eventually, have lined up a drug development company as the park's first tenant.
Opponents fear the project, which just received approval from a county zoning commissioner, would cause too much traffic on already congested roads. But proponents say the project could bring as many as 2,000 jobs over 20 years and add a much needed economic boost to the region.
P. Michael Carey, a Catonsville Community College dean and president of Catonsville 2000, supports both the research park and downtown revitalization project.
"We're really poised for a new era," says Mr. Carey, a 27-year resident of Old Catonsville. "We have some strong institutions -- the university, community college, [Lockheed] Martin . . . And we have extremely strong public schools. We need to build on these strengths."
* Population: 5,160 (1990 census)
* Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
* Commuting time to Washington: 45 minutes
* Public schools: Hillcrest and Catonsville elementary schools; Catonsville Middle School; Catonsville High School
* Shopping: downtown Catonsville, with banks, gas stations, restaurants, hair salons and retail shops; 40 West Shopping Center with Super Fresh; Wal-Mart plaza with Giant Food
* Nearest mall: Security Mall, 5 miles north; Westview Mall, 3 miles northeast; The Mall at Columbia, 10 miles west
* Points of interest: University of Maryland Baltimore County; Catonsville Community College; Patapsco Valley State Park; historic Ellicott City with antique and specialty shops, three miles west; Lurman-Woods Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater with a summer concert series; Catonsville Community Park and Senior Center
* ZIP code: 21228
* Average price of a single-family home: Old Catonsville -- $176,950 (4 sales. May not include all Old Catonsville sales); Oak Forest -- $198,012 (16 sales)*
*Average price of homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service over the past 12 months.