Suburbia pioneers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Todd and Nancy Armstrong found themselves in a suburban twilight zone this spring when they ordered a pizza the first night after moving into their newly built townhouse near Aberdeen.

It took three hours - and a lot of help over the telephone - for the delivery driver to find their place.

That was just the beginning. For the next few weeks, they couldn't get their mail forwarded, or change the billing address for their credit cards, because the Postal Service had no record of their street.

Nancy Armstrong had to drive nearly 40 miles to Hunt Valley to pick up a package United Parcel Service couldn't deliver.

What's more, they and the other pioneers who were first to settle in the brand new Ryland Homes community of Holly Woods had no trash pickup. The couple said they resorted to slipping their household refuse into the construction-debris containers around townhouses still being built.

The delivery and pickup have been sorted out, for the most part - though the community remains terra incognita to MapQuest, the Internet mapping service.

"Everything's getting to normal," said Nancy Armstrong. Normal if you don't mind waking around 6 a.m. to the rumble of earthmovers and hammering, as building contractors take advantage of every scrap of daylight.

"It's noisy but you expect it," she said, sipping a Coke on her front steps one evening recently. Across the street, a power shovel took bites out of a pile of dirt at the end of another row of unfinished townhouses.

Despite the noise and mess, being the first into a new development has its advantages. Builders tend to price lowest the first houses in a development, or add extra features at reduced cost, in order to lure occupants who make a community appear lived-in and attract other buyers.

"They want to have cars parked in the driveway or on the street to show, 'By God, there's some people buying in here! Looks pretty good to me,'" said Pat Turner, a senior residential appraiser from Richmond, Va.

Though builders might knock 5 or 6 percent off the total sales price for the first handful of buyers, Turner said, they still make money - and more on subsequent sales because prices typically escalate rapidly.

"Every building I've sold has gone up $5,000 in price," said Yvonne Pettitt, one of Ryland's two sales managers for the Holly Woods project.

Early birds also can set the tone for the neighborhood, by helping to shape homeowner association rules, for instance, on exterior appearance issues such as the style of backyard fences.

But for the home-buying vanguard, the thrill of being the first on the first block in a new subdivision might be tempered by the stress of coping with the disruption and debris of living in a construction zone.

At the Ryland development off Old Philadelphia Road, orange stakes still mark the corners of some yards, dollops of mud cake the streets, and straw blankets patches of bare earth.

Eventually, Ryland plans to build more than 500 townhouses, villas and condominiums on 300 gently rolling acres. So far, only about 40 are finished, with 30 more in varying stages of completion. A mound of dirt and a gap in the woods mark where Burnt Hill Trail, the main drag, is being extended to allow construction of future phases of the community.

"It's the fastest-selling community in Harford County," said Pettitt.

That claim is hard to verify, but the community's popularity no doubt stems from its location ---two miles from Interstate 95 and a few miles from Aberdeen Proving Ground.

There's also a pent-up demand for housing in the area, with new home construction limited because of overcrowded schools in the Aberdeen and Bel Air areas. Thousands of new workers, meanwhile, are expected at APG in the next few years as a result of a nationwide military base realignment.

Under those circumstances, so attractive were the Holly Woods townhouses, the most basic of which sell for about $230,000, that prospective buyers lined up overnight last year for a chance to put a deposit down and reserve a lot before the first nail was driven, Pettit said. Most are first-time homebuyers, and many are in the military, she said.

Todd Armstrong, 35, said he stumbled on a sign trumpeting the future community one day while driving home from APG, where he is an instructor at the Air Force technical school. "This was still forest," he said. "They hadn't even cleared the land yet." But he jumped at the chance to shorten his commute from 25 miles to about three, he said, and to stop writing rent checks.

Though all the lots in the initial section had been spoken for by then, Todd said they lucked out when a buyer backed out. After plunking down their deposit, they drove to Ryland's home design center in Ellicott City for a three-hour shop-athon to select appliances, flooring and other features. That part was fun, they said.

Then the waiting began. Todd said he stopped by the construction site often to check on progress on their new home. Months after they expected it, the place finally became theirs at the end of March - Nancy figures they were the third buyers to move in.

The Armstrongs say they have gotten acquainted with their neighbors - they even inherited a sofa from one when it wouldn't fit down the neighbor's stairs. But the neighborhood still is somewhat sparsely settled. "For rent" signs hang in a few front windows near them. Those places apparently were snapped up by investors who hope to cash in on the area's hot housing market.

"I'm just looking for a return on my investment, and it looks like a good spot," said Shawn Fortney, a real estate broker from Ellicott City who owns one of the townhouses for rent.

The community remains a work in progress. The entrance off Old Philadelphia Road, marked by a real estate sign, is a washboard of dirt and gravel that gives Todd Armstrong qualms every time he rides over it on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. Concrete pipe and construction equipment sit on either side of the entryway.

Such minor irritations aside, the Armstrongs say they're satisfied.

"The house is great," said Nancy, 38, who is studying to be a medical transcriptionist. "We're happy as can be, and our three dogs each have a floor [to roam]."

They say they've actually enjoyed the relative quiet - and uncrowded parking - of being the first residents of the new community. But company is on the way.

The next batch of townhouses is nearing completion. Fabi Nathan and Jill Whippo will be in the new wave of settlers. The women now share a townhouse in Perry Hall, but they found Holly Woods last year after deciding their current community was too congested.

Now, with moving day near, Nathan and Whippo are busy packing and planning how to furnish the new place - a process Nathan describes as both "exciting and stressing." They've picked out a sofa and had window blinds made. And they're visiting their new home every few days, bringing friends to show it off - and assure they'll know how to find it.

"As you're pulling in, it's kind of neat seeing [the community] come to life," said Nathan, 44. "It's really beautiful and it's quiet."

The sense of solitude might disappear as more people move in. But for now, at least, when the construction crews go home for the night, the only sound serenading the Armstrongs as they sat on their deck on a recent evening was the singing of birds in the nearby trees.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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