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DREAM IN PROGRESS Maryland Home Builders Association late summer showcase is rising from the red clay of Odenton NINE WEEKS AND COUNTING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It looks like an ordinary subdivision construction site in Odenton, an Anne Arundel community where new homes are selling faster than nearly anywhere else in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

But this section has six different builders putting up homes that won't just have a few dozen people tromping through when they are finished in a few months.

In the last two weeks of summer, more than 50,000 may inspect the spacious foyers, cathedral ceilings, gizmo-laden kitchens, Jacuzzied bathrooms, tony master bedrooms and formal dining rooms in these upscale dwellings arranged around a circular roadway just off Piney Orchard Parkway.

From Sept. 9-24, these houses will be the centerpiece of the Home Builders Association of Maryland second annual Dream Homes show.

But now, in the enervating humidity of July, the site is still a dream in progress. Surely, when throngs pour in off Route 175 east of Fort Meade in September, the interiors will be chi-chi, the exteriors will be all twinkling windows and surprising details.

The state-of-the-art appliances, the innovative accents, the manicured lawns will make most other addresses seem down at the heels.

But not yet, not today. The site isn't much to look at. The front yards are red clay, weeds and scattered stone bearing the bulk of high-stacked 2-by-10s, wooden spools of ropy, plastic-clad power cable and other stuff that dream homes are made of.

Low, black mesh sediment-trapping fences skirt each lot, trying to keep the yards in the yards and out of the creeks that silt the Chesapeake Bay. The heavy, moist, motionless air is rent by the whines of blades making shorter work of pine and by the outboard gargle of generators keeping carpenters in business.

Garages are filled with tubs of Dryvit that will become the exterior finish of some homes. The insides of the dwellings are a nearly undifferentiated labyrinth of unsheathed 2-by-4s freshly joined to become the promise of walls. Only with a guide's help -- say, Patriot Homes' Billy Smith, its assistant production manager -- can you see that this clear spot over here will be the upstairs laundry room, and that thingie there is the coffered ceiling over the bed in the master suite.

In just under nine weeks, you won't need a floor plan to figure you're standing where the kitchen island will go. The lawns will be lush local sod, the cables will hum with juice to power turn-of-the-millennium, energy-saving appliances, and all the Anne Arundel County inspectors will be satisfied that the homes are owner-ready, should anyone want to stroke Dave Matthias that $369,000 check for the Fancrest model that his American Homes is building on Summer Shade Drive.

Mr. Matthias, who proudly estimates he has put up 3,000 homes in his 27 years as a builder, has never had any of his works receive the walk-through his 3,832-square-foot entry will get in the 16-day show.

"It's an excellent opportunity for any builder to get an awesome amount of exposure," said Mr. Matthias, an ever-present cellular phone in his shirt pocket and his utility belt carrying trademark blue crayon (for notes on floors and walls to carpenters) and measuring tape.

And that seems to be why the other builders are participating in this end-of-the-summer showcase in Piney Orchard, Anne Arundel's largest planned community and one of the fastest growing in Maryland. The other builders -- besides American and Patriot -- are CC Building Corp., Landmark Homes, Orion Homes and Ryan Homes.

"It runs 50,000 to 75,000 people through various housing products," observed Bob Coursey, regional marketing director for Ryan Homes. "That's a very large group of people. There's no way we could possibly get that many people through our models."

Agreeing was Rick Kunkle, president of Patriot Homes: "We're doing it for marketing purposes. It's a chance to show some of our design features."

Special details

Details such as the stairway that is turned sideways toward the entrance, a feature of many Patriot homes; the cathedral ceiling above the two-story foyer; a dining room with built-in cabinets that will allow it to be used for other purposes -- a home office or a study.

Features such as a family room with a built-in spot reserved for a large-screen TV, and false beams spanning the ceiling for a decorative touch. A gas fireplace in the master bedroom. A walk-in closet with three transom windows to provide light without taking away clothing space. A washer-drier room on the second floor to ease the running up and down. A wine cellar being built in the basement (not in the base price, sorry).

This will be the HBAM's second Dream Homes. The first was held last July with the creation of Woodridge in northwestern Baltimore County, on the Carroll County border.

The homes in the first show were substantially pricier than this year's. The most expensive, by Landmark Homes, came in at $775,000 and boasted 6,000 square feet.

This year's event is pegged to a broader market. Landmark's base price is $254,900 for a 2,900-square-foot model. Orion has a base price of $290,000 for its model.

"We didn't want to outprice the market," said Cynthia L. Wick, public relations director for the HBAM. "I don't think it would make sense to put an $800,000 home in Piney Orchard." Homes in Piney Orchard range from $80,000 condominiums to single-family homes in the mid-$200,000s.

"I think when it's all said and done, you won't see anyone over $375,000," Mr. Matthias predicted. "Last year they missed the mark. The builders decided each one was going to outdo the other."

At the American Homes site, weather permitting, the roof is ready to go on, said Meredith Matthias, Dave Matthias' daughter and president of the firm. "And we've got our plumbing guy here today," she said.

If the Matthiases are feeling any pressure with the opening nine weeks away, they don't show it. Dave Matthias busily points out the features that make him proud.

"See that up there," he motions to sheets of plywood. "That's fir plywood. It's the best plywood you can buy." He chats with gusto about personally checking the workmanship of his crews with framing squares and levels, of the 2-by-4s he spaces closer together than the code requires, of the extra layers of studs that make it easier to attach crown molding, of the plywood wall sheathing that makes a house more secure from intruders.

"This is the most critical part of the house, the framing," Mr. Matthias says.

Luring buyers

While the builders are pricing their wares more conservatively than last year, they are still scrambling to install features aimed at convincing show-goers that it's way past time to buy a new home. Or, as Mr. Coursey puts it: "How can I demonstrate what are some of the reasons they might be willing to move."

There seem to be some common features. Most of the kitchens have islands, although cooktops are not included in all. Libraries or studies are in all the models. Skylights and an assortment of ceilings -- cathedral, vaulted, tray, coffered, sloped -- run through the homes. The amenities that make a house comfortable and convenient -- ample pantries, decks, mudrooms -- are much in evidence.

Ryan's Mr. Coursey said his company's design reflects the demographic tides that have washed over the American family. The study on the first floor may be used as a study, or it may be occupied by parents.

With the growth in the 65-plus segment, it's becoming more typical for baby boomers to have aging parents move in, Mr. Coursey noted. Similarly, he said, the difficult economy is bringing many children home after college to live with their folks for several years until their careers take off.

Not long ago, people saw homes as a "steppingstone to the next house."

"Now people are looking to stay planted," Mr. Coursey said. "They're less willing to compromise. It's not just an investment that they live in. There's a desire for a home that's versatile and expandable."

So studies are becoming "mother-in-law suites," homes are coming with partially finished attics, basements are being built with plumbing, and garages have the potential to be converted into bedrooms.

Ryan is the Baltimore region's second-largest builder, capturing 8.4 percent of new home sales in the first quarter of this year, trailing only Ryland Homes (12.8 percent market share), according to the Legg Mason Realty Group.

Patriot is the No. 5 builder, with a 2.2 percent market share, and Landmark is the No. 10 builder, with a 1.9 percent market share.

Going upscale

The houses being built at the Dream Homes site are on the upscale edge of the Baltimore region's new home market. The average price of a Ryan Homes detached dwelling in the first quarter was $182,409; Patriot's average single-family dwelling sold for $201,929, according to Legg Mason.

Landmark's average of $258,196, however, is more expensive than the $254,900 base price of the Monterey Dream Home under construction.

Still, Mr. Coursey said that even though Ryan's projected Dream Home sales price is in the low $300,000s, "It's not one of a kind. It's right out of our product line."

Piney Orchard, developed by Constellation Real Estate Group, sits in the booming Odenton/Crofton market of northwestern Anne Arundel County, a section that led the Baltimore region in new housing sales in the first quarter of this year.

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