After six years working in real estate, Paula J. Reno knew precisely what to do when her family decided to move from the crowded suburb of Alexandria, Va., to a quiet retirement in Harford County.
Since January, she has arrived at her office early each morning, checked the housing listings before anybody else, and telephoned her husband, who's stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, to inspect the potentials. Above all, she told him, do not hesitate.
"It's kill or be killed out there," Reno said.
The Renos are looking for a three- or four-bedroom colonial in Aberdeen or Bel Air, something in an older neighborhood with plenty of trees and a good school district. That, as it turns out, is asking a lot.
Like countless others, the Renos are discovering that buyers greatly outnumber sellers in Harford County real estate. No matter how many gloomy reports about layoffs or stock market plunges have appeared in the news in recent months, Harford real estate agents say the market here is hotter than ever.
Sales of existing homes are up everywhere in the Baltimore area, but nowhere more than in Harford County. April sales were 30 percent higher than a year ago, according to statistics from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the multiple listing database used by real estate brokers.
The number of pending contracts is up, the average sales price is up and the number of days houses stay on the market is down.
"Houses, if they're priced right and in a good location, are selling almost before the signs go up," said Patricia G. Young, president of the Harford County Association of Realtors and a 14-year veteran of Harford real estate.
Pressure on buyers is so high that they have to act immediately - Young said she recently took a client to a home and was turned away because the owners had shown it 35 times in the two days it was on the market and already had four offers. Yet prices have not escalated uncontrollably (they're up 4.7 percent), and buyers are still willing to do what it takes to buy.
To County Executive James M. Harkins, such news counters the criticism he hears from developers that not enough new housing lots dot the landscape.
Harkins points to new housing permits, which have dropped from about 3,000 a year during the ro- bust 1980s to 1,394 last year. That reflects, he said, his strategy to control growth.
"Despite the gloomy economic reports, it's good to see that reasonable interest rates and available financing have people feeling good enough to buy homes at a record pace in Harford County," Harkins said.
Real estate agents and homebuyers in the county said the draws are easy access to Baltimore, a sound public school system, a calmer pace of life and a wide variety of housing choices. The buyers come from everywhere: Baltimore City, other suburban counties, other neighborhoods in Harford County and out of state.
"Potential homebuyers are seeing Harford County as the ideal bedroom community to Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia," said Moe Davenport, administrator of development review in Harford County.
In addition to quality-of-life issues, Davenport said, prospective Harford homeowners happily anticipate lower property taxes than in neighboring jurisdictions to the south.
"We still are considered an agricultural county with our development envelope pretty much defined," said Davenport. "An overwhelming percentage of the county is still green, about 75 percent of it, through Smart Growth planning."
Some Harford residents do complain of crowded schools in developed areas such as Abingdon. Others lament the rush-hour traffic jams leading to and from Interstate 95.
Douglas O. Keithley, a 35-year-old sergeant with the Harford sheriff's department, said he is moving his family from a Bel Air townhouse to a single-family home in nearby Forest Hill. "I'm born and raised in Harford County, and there's still lots to like about life here - the schools for my two children, access to I-95 for my wife, who works in Baltimore, and a larger, affordable home in what is still somewhat of a rural area."
But, Keithley adds, "You will find yourself in the middle of traffic congestion where you least expect it. It's really booming out here."
Traffic or no, homebuyers and agents said that Harford County seems to have something for everyone, from small towns to farms to brand-new subdivisions.
Hilary P. Talbot, who just sold her townhouse in Havre de Grace, said she never wants to live anywhere but Harford County. Real estate agents said that many people, like Talbot, say that Harford County reminds them of home, no matter where that is.
In Talbot's case, Ireland.
A civilian employee at Aberdeen Proving Ground, she decided it was time to move to a house with a garden and a yard for her son, but she was dead-set against moving to a new development.
She found what she wanted in Aberdeen: a two-bedroom, red-brick Cape Cod with a half-acre lot, large trees, a mahogany staircase, wood floors, dormers and a balcony. She slept there for the first time last night after searching for a mere two years.
She had been through many a house and put in contracts before, only to be outbid. But when her agent, Young, called, she knew that this was it.
"I love it," Talbot said. "It may just be me, but I knew that day that I just had to have this house."