Clutching the keys to her new home and surrounded by her children, Bonita Hall thanked a long list of volunteers who made homeownership a reality for her family.
"Thank you all for blessing me with this house," said Hall, standing on the front porch of a modest rancher in a quiet Aberdeen neighborhood Friday.
Less than a week ago, there was nothing but a hole in the ground surrounded by a muddy lot.
Early Monday morning, all that a crew of about 50 had to work with was a foundation on an unimproved lot provided by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps needy families achieve homeownership.
Four days later, Hall, 43, was cutting a ceremonial ribbon and leading tours of the four bedroom, two-bathroom home that has a patio, a landscaped yard, a soft gray exterior and energy-efficient amenities.
"I never expected they would get it done so quickly," Hall said.
Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976, typically provides the land, house plans and the foundation. Prospective owners must show need, a willingness to work and the ability to pay a mortgage.
Construction is often handled by volunteers, but the Harford chapter of Habitat brought in more skilled labor that could work faster.
The chapter orchestrated a constructive competition between Bob Ward Cos. and Pulte Homes' Maryland division. The teams became part of the nationwide Home Builders Blitz 2006, an event expected to result in 400 homes for about 1,000 people.
Five other homes were built last week in Maryland as part of the event, two in Anne Arundel County and one each in Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties.
Crews from the two Harford builders worked 12-hour days and finished a day ahead of the five-day deadline, locked in a tie.
"You can do it, but it takes a lot of coordination and cooperation," said Joe Gregory, project manager for Bob Ward homes. "It's like a sandbox where we all have to play nice. Normally contractors like to have a house to themselves. Here we crammed together, and nobody cried."
Danny Foltz finished what is usually an eight-day drywall job in eight hours.
"All you need is quick-set mud and 20-minute joint compound, and you're set," Foltz said.
At the Pulte Homes' site about a mile from the Halls', painters put the final touches on the interior of the three-bedroom home while workers had time to build a toolshed in the yard.
"We had people from the office who never swung a hammer and wanted to do something," said Dave Guttman, Pulte project manager. "We have opportunity and resources. Why not build a house for somebody who really needs one?"
Pulte crews built a cozy rancher for a 37-year-old single mother of two, who was only identified as Nicole because she has fled an abusive relationship. With a tool belt strapped to her waist and a hardhat protecting her head, she hammered nails into the shed.
"These are wonderful people who work together so well," she said. "I love the house. It's so beautiful. It's something I can invest in and my children can grow up in."
Lou Baker, president of Pulte's Maryland division, said, "Nicole is all over the sweat equity component. She has really earned this house."
Both new owners juggled jobs, children and college classes while volunteering 250 hours to build homes for others.
Nicole had completed her hours but insisted on helping the Pulte crew. Hall fulfilled her labor contract by landscaping and painting other Habitat homes, skills she can put to use in her new home.
"It will be good to be in my own place that I can afford," said Hall, who has moved three times in four years. "This place is going to change our lives. It will be a blessing just to get in and enjoy it."
Habitat for Humanity, which built its first Harford house 12 years ago, will probably finish six homes this year, bringing its total to 30, said Joann Blewett, executive director of the county chapter.
When the blitz program was announced, Blewett's staff fielded more than 100 inquiries, met with 60 potential owners and reviewed 20 applications. The committee chose the two working, single mothers.
"This is not about who has the saddest story," Blewett said. "It is about families doing everything they can to own a home."
Ward and Baker have promised Blewett more houses. They have challenged colleagues in the industry to follow their lead.
"Homeownership is near and dear to all of us," said Ward, who came to the dedication wearing a Habitat T-shirt over business attire. "I am proud to wear this T-shirt today. How could we not help?"
Hall has already assigned her children their bedrooms, telling her 14-year-old twin sons that they will share space.
"I don't mind sharing," said Romell Hall. "I am just happy we finally got a house."
Nicole will wait until move-in day later this month to decide which bedrooms her two sons will occupy. But the boys took one look at the backyard and decided the family needs to grow by one.
"They want a dog," she said.