Whether a mailbox is shaped like a fish or encased in brick, homeowners willing to invest several hundred dollars in one are offering passers-by a glimpse of their personality or boosting the curb appeal of their home.
A largemouth bass has swallowed a standard black mailbox along Mountain Road in Fallston. A brick mailbox on Harford Road near Fork was built to look like the house it serves and to protect the mail from vandals who knocked over its predecessors with baseball bats.
"It makes us feel good about the house," said Kelli Dial, who with her boyfriend had a brick mailbox installed last summer because vandals batted down four $8 mailboxes in a year. "It was just becoming a real pain. We just got tired of going to Home Depot."
No one suggests that homebuyers make their decision based on the mailbox. But real estate experts insist that curb appeal is the most important and least expensive way to sell a house.
Potential buyers often decide within the first few minutes of driving up to a home whether they want to purchase. They traditionally spend the walk-through time trying to find things in the house that reinforce their initial impulse. And some buyers relate to sellers who have similar interests - a fisherman, for example, might appreciate a mailbox that shows off his hobby.
Not everyone is persuaded that spending more on their mailbox is the way to go: The $5 galvanized steel mailbox remains the most popular choice of Americans. But designs and styles have transformed the postal aisles at hardware stores, and they keep changing. And local hardware stores said their busy season for mailbox and post sales is emerging along with spring.
Seven out of 10 mailboxes in the country are sold by Solar Group Inc. of Taylorsville, Miss. The company regrouped about five years ago to expand its product line so consumers would have more to choose from than the plastic or steel, black or white mailboxes that have dominated the country.
The company now makes mailboxes from cedar, cast aluminum and brass.
Costs range from $5 to as much as $200. The fastest-growing category is the locked mailbox, given security concerns.
And the company sells a lot of mailbox posts, too, because of that age-old ritual among generations of teen-agers who have been known to test the strength of a box with a firecracker or club of some sort.
"When you just look at other categories of home improvement, mailboxes just really needed a shot in the arm," said Bart Majors, Solar Group's director of marketing. "Baby boomers are now buying second homes and they've got more disposable income. They're able to spend more money and just like the other things that they're doing - light fixtures, the type of trashcan - they're willing to spend a little bit more. I think that holds true of mailboxes as well."
With the recent boom in real estate - sales of existing and new homes have broken records during the past two years - the mailbox became one more item that homeowners could personalize or try to outdo their neighbor with. That's as long as the homeowners association in the neighborhood allowed the variations.
That also has provided a big business to masons and mailbox post installers, who have found lucrative contracts in providing the curb box for entire developments. Those neighborhoods governed by neighborhood associations also provide strong follow-up work to certain builders to repair and replace the mailbox that was toppled by a snowplow or something else.
"I just think it adds to the property," said Rodney Clayton, who owns R&C;'s Masonry and builds brick mailboxes for developments throughout the Baltimore region. He charges about $750 for a castle-top brick box that includes a slot for a newspaper. "People have put a lot of investment in their house, and the mailbox is the first thing you see when you get there."
The Postal Service has 22 pages of regulations on what is allowed and prohibited when building a mailbox. Manufacturers who build those bass fish boxes, the ones shaped like dolphins or golf balls, have been through the government's regulations to make sure they comply with the standards of postal carriers.
But letter carrier Gerald Bryant said his favorite style is the larger box where he can easily place magazines and packages. A carrier for 41 years, Bryant started seeing more decorative mailboxes a few years ago along his route near Loch Raven Reservoir, but that quickly changed.
"The kids are out destroying them," Bryant said. "The one that stands out is the one that they're going for. You almost have to fortify them."
Sales of novelty mailboxes also have mushroomed during recent years.
The Internet helped the novelty business expand, and homebuyers can choose from practically anything they want when it comes to choosing the right box. Manufacturers said the East Coast favors lighthouse designs, while Midwest homeowners like boxes shaped like animals. Security boxes sell better out West, and the striped bass remains one of the most popular.
Lisa Kirchner paid $129 for the fish mailbox as a gift for her fiance, Brian Pirog, who likes to go fishing and crabbing.
The box, which often slows cars along Mountain Road as drivers get a glimpse of the green fish, is the second one the couple has placed along the busy highway. The first one was stolen last year, a few weeks after they placed it. The replacement is fortified in concrete.
"He loves it," Kirchner said. "He said it's the best gift he ever got."
A box like that, however, would no doubt have trouble passing neighborhood guidelines in a community like West Gate in Bel Air. There, each mailbox in front of the rows of Colonials is encased in the same brick color of the house it serves.
"It's pretty," said Kara Gray, who has lived in West Gate for six years. "And it looks nice at the end of the driveway."
Homebuilders said streetscapes always are important when designing a community and mailboxes often play into those decisions.
"We take a look at street signs, lighting as well as mailboxes and any fence detail so you get a little nicer feel when you drive down the street," said Diana Van Stone, marketing manager for builder Beazer Homes.
"You shouldn't judge it all on the curb appeal but you can't help it. We look at it like it only helps enhance the sale."