There is nothing particularly unusual about the planned subdivision not far off Route 103 in Ellicott City. There is a blacktop road that extends for one-tenth of a mile and ends at a cul-de-sac, flanked by giant yellow earthmovers and mountains of green pipe waiting to be laid.
Nothing unusual, that is, except for the row of vehicles - each attached with a large white sheet of paper and boldly inscribed with a number: "#1" and ending with "#4." These represent the right to get a lot and, ultimately, a new home at Dennis Preserve, a Ryan Homes development in Howard County where houses push $600,000 for starters.
Five lots will be released this morning. To ensure that they are among the fortunate, several people have camped out 24 hours a day on the parking lot fronting a white trailer that serves as Ryan's information center.
One man has been there for nine days.
The newcomer, Joe Fazio of Hanover in Anne Arundel County, began his vigil Monday.
That was not his plan. Fazio, regional manager for a trucking company, knew the housing market was tight, and figured he would have to get in line last night. But when he and his wife drove by the subdivision Monday, they spotted three cars in line and realized they had to act immediately, or put on hold their plans for one of the homes and, then, very likely face a stiff price increase.
Fazio has eaten dinner and slept overnight in his car at the development's site since then, spelled during the day by his wife and sister-in-law. He has been there around the clock since Wednesday night.
"If we live there 25 years and enjoy it, it will be a funny story some day," he said. "And if we save $10,000 or $15,000, then it's worth it."
His sister-in-law began her stint at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday and was relieved by Fazio almost 12 hours later. She spent virtually all of the time in a Ford Econoline because of a persistent drizzle. She read the newspaper, played a hand-held electronic game of Yahtzee and took care of personal bills.
There's a portable toilet that the campers may use. Other than that, they are on their own.
Food and drinks are brought in by relatives or kept in bags and containers in the vehicles.
Fazio spent the first night in his Trailblazer - snacking from a bag of miniature carrots - but found that cramped. A friend lent him the more spacious Econoline. He has slept in the back on a cushioned waffle pad, with a couple of quilts for warmth. He has passed the time by listening to jazz or vintage rock 'n' roll on the radio, or talking with family and friends on his cell phone.
Bonded by mutual motivations and misery - they describe it as "adventure" - camaraderie has developed among the campers. They refer to each other as "neighbors," which they might actually be one day. On Tuesday, when the weather was agreeable, they pulled out lawn chairs and chatted, just as people do over a hedge or from a stoop.
They even laugh at themselves for doing what many would consider bizarre. The first to arrive, who thus has "#1" taped to his windshield, isn't even in the market for a house.
"This is for a relative of mine," he said through a deep chuckle, declining to identify himself at the request of the hopeful buyers, his sister and brother-in-law. "They have jobs and they're trying to get a house. I had some time off, so I'm trying to help out."
The campers share an unshakable yearning to move up or out, no matter the temporary discomforts.
For the Fazios, the motivation is the Howard County school system, for which they are willing to give up the Ryan home they purchased barely more than a year ago in Anne Arundel County.
"Our children are in private schools, and we wanted to move to Howard County where the public schools are better," Fazio said.
If it requires a few nights of sleeping in the car, so be it. "There is an acute shortage of housing in Maryland," he said. "So when they do build, it's different than before. It's much more precious than the '60s and '70s. ... The builders used to sell the houses first and then build them. The contractors have learned they can sell two or three houses at a time and then raise prices."
A spokesman for NVR Inc., the parent company of Ryan, declined comment.