You're driving down a rural route in Howard County and there they are -- mammoth houses set on huge pieces of land that, until a few years ago, produced nothing more spectacular than corn and soybeans.
In a matter of minutes, you pass six, eight, 10 mega-houses, each bigger than the next and more grand than anything you've ever set foot in. You look at the four-car garages and think, "My whole house would fit in there!"
Then you turn to your riding companion and say: "Who the heck lives in these humongous houses?" -- which is the million-dollar question, give or take a couple hundred thousand.
According to real estate agents in Howard County, there is no shortage of clients looking in the upper end, which they define as more than $500,000 and generally more than 4,000 square feet.
Kathy Via, a mortgage consultant for Chesapeake Mortgage Services Inc. in Columbia who specializes in jumbo mortgages, said her clients are mostly people who own their own businesses.
"They tend to be entrepreneurs or professionals, particularly professionals married to other professionals," she said. Real estate agents say they have sold these homes to doctors, accountants, financial planners, hospital administrators, CEOs of companies large and small, and owners of businesses ranging from electrical companies to food services.
In more than 15 developments in Howard County -- including The Chase, The Preserve, Hedgerow, Waterford and Ridgewood -- residents have built homes far bigger and more luxurious than anything the county has seen before.
Real estate agents in other counties, such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel, say some mega-houses are still being built there as well, but for the past few years, Howard County has been the hotbed of mini-mansion construction.
"Howard County is sort of becoming the land of the huge house," said David H. Gleason, a Baltimore-based architect who has worked on large houses in Baltimore City and surrounding counties. "They all want something that knocks your socks off."
Keith Risser, who owns American Building Products in Jessup, is building an 11,000-square-foot contemporary home in Columbia, complete with an indoor racquetball court. The Rissers, who have three children age 10 to 18, want a home in which they can entertain and have relatives visit comfortably.
"This was always a dream of ours," said Mr. Risser, who had lived in a much smaller house in Columbia since 1971. "Where I live now, I don't have any place to put any of my brothers when they visit.
"I want a place where I can pursue my hobbies," he continued, which include working on his boat and antique car in an indoor workshop. The house, which is appraised at $1.1 million, also includes a 1,400-square-foot "sport room" for the ping-pong table, pool table and shuffleboard.
Elaine Northrop, a real estate agent for 23 years who specializes in upper-end sales, says Howard is a mecca for business owners and CEOs looking for mansion-sized houses because it is halfway between Baltimore and Washington, has easy access to BWI airport, has a reputation for top-notch schools and has more available land and a lower tax rate than neighboring counties, such as Montgomery and Baltimore, where most upscale housing used to be built.
The new high-end houses have huge interior spaces and numerous amenities and extras, like wine cellars, exercise rooms, party rooms with dance floors, elaborate security systems, second kitchens for caterers and suites for live-in help and guests.
Master bedrooms, once the largest bedroom in the house with a private bathroom, have developed into elaborate affairs with private dens and offices, exercise rooms, multiple bathrooms, fireplaces, wet bars, refrigerators and closets larger than secondary bedrooms.
After collecting ideas from other people's homes for years, Ms. ,, Northrop was bitten by the big house bug herself and started building an 11,000-square-foot mansion with husband Rick Menz two years ago.
"I call this a Great Gatsby house," she said of the $1.5 million house, being completed on six wooded acres in The Preserve in central Howard County. "I wanted to have a house that looks like the movie stars' homes of the 1920s."
The house, which resembles a French Chateau, is finished in a lavender-tinted, stucco-like substance. The first-floor master bedroom suite contains an anteroom, large bedroom, den, exercise room, room-sized closet, master bath with additional his-and-her baths and private patio.
The kitchen has two sinks, two garbage disposals, two stove tops (one electric and one gas) and the largest refrigerator made. In the middle of the 1,300-square-foot party room on the basement level the couple had a 15-ton rock dropped in by crane before the first floor was completed. The huge rock, surrounded by a stone wall, will be transformed into an indoor waterfall when the house is completed.
Off the party room is a commercial-sized kitchen for caterers, a powder room designed in a perfect circle because Ms. Northrop likes rounded surfaces and a back staircase leading to the four-car garage.
Such luxuries are not uncommon in upscale houses these days, Ms. Northrop explained, because people see their homes as an expression of their status in society.
"You are where you live," she explained. "So you should build the biggest and best house that you can."
Changes in tax laws have also prompted successful people with large incomes to invest more in their homes than ever before, she said. "Your home is your last reliable tax shelter," she said. "At least with your home, you have something to show for your money."
Something to show, indeed.
Sherry Gardner, who represents Lawson Custom Homes, has been showing a $1.16 million brick "transitional" home in the Hedgerow development in western Howard County which features 12,500 square feet of finished space, a three-story circular oak staircase, two kitchens, a butler's pantry with dishwasher and sink, seven full bathrooms (one for every bedroom and a couple thrown in for good luck), four fireplaces, two laundry rooms, three wet bars, marble flooring, Surroundsound in the family room and many other amenities.
Her "serious" lookers to date have been business owners from out-of-state and within the county who "want a house that will wow their clients, business associates and friends."
They are not looking for bigger houses because they need more space, she added. "I've found the bigger the house, the fewer the number of people living in it," she explained.
Terrence E. Deal, who studies and writes about human and organizational behavior, said people believe homes symbolize who they are and therefore are willing to invest heavily in their residences.
The problem comes when people mistake bigger for better, said Mr. Deal, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
"Unfortunately in America, more is better. People are getting caught up again in keeping up with the Joneses without really thinking of the ramifications.
"They build these huge houses to impress clients and business associates but don't want their employees to know. They're afraid the employees will say, 'Here I am working for a pittance and your house is 25 times as big as mine.' "
Mr. Deal said houses should reflect the tastes, values and personalities of their owners and many homes -- large and small -- do. But many of the nouveau mansions being put up today look alike -- large brick transitionals with peaks and gables -- and size seems to be more important than style.
Mr. Gleason, principal of David H. Gleason & Associates, said large homes can be built with grace and style but many of the newer mansions "have not been well thought out and conceived."
Rather than hire an architect, he said, many customers buy "pattern books" and alter the plans themselves or with a builder, adding rooms or expanding others, changing windows or other architectural details.
"They bump something out here, put something else there. They put in any type of window they happen to like. The cornices and eaves are not well proportioned. . . . It comes out looking awkward," he said.
Some builders and real estate agents said these criticisms are too harsh. Many of the new mega-houses simply reflect evolving architectural taste and style, they said.
"They reflect what people want today," Ms. Northrop said.
Susan Brown, who runs Century 21 H. T. Brown with her husband, said the mansion boom in Howard is part of a natural cycle in the housing market and nothing to get worked up about. "These are your younger, middle-aged entrepreneurs who like large rooms and open spaces. They like to entertain," she said. "But after a while, you realize the maintenance, whether you do it yourself or pay someone to do it, is just too much and you start thinking about scaling down."
Clients in the upper-end market finance their homes using a variety of "loan packages." Here, Kathy Via of Chesapeake Mortgage Services Inc. in Columbia gives three examples of how a client might finance a $750,000 mega-house, putting down $187,500 (25 percent) and financing $562,500.
* Using a COFI * loan with an interest rate of 4.95 percent: #F Principal and interest payment is $2,990, taxes are $750 and hazard insurance is $60, for a total monthly payment of $3,800.
* Using a 15-year, fixed mortgage loan with an interest rate of 7.38 percent: Principal and interest is $5,143, taxes are $750 and hazard insurance is $60, for a total monthly payment of $5,953.
* Using a 30-year, fixed mortgage loan with an interest rate of 7.78 percent: Principal and interest is $4,052, taxes are $750 and hazard insurance is $60, for a total monthly payment of $4,862.
* Cost of Funds Index loan, which is fixed for three months, then floats with the market on a monthly basis thereafter.