With five new garage townhouses available at prices more than $60,000 below retail, Howard County housing officials might have expected an eager group of limited-income buyers, but only two out of the 10 qualified prospects agreed to buy a house.

"Several of the folks said they simply weren't ready to buy yet given the uncertainty of the economy and their own situations," said Tom Carbo, deputy county housing director, who Monday evening awarded two units in Ryan Homes' Belmont Station project. The other three units will be offered again in February, he said. Including Monday's homes, the county has awarded 10 units to limited-income buyers this year under the program for middle-income families, Carbo said. Most of the units in 2010 would probably be rentals, he said.

In Howard, developers are required to sell a small percentage of new homes to limited-income buyers in a variety of zones. It's a means of offering new units to civil servants and other middle-income families who might otherwise not be able to afford to buy in the county.

Maximum incomes to qualify for the program range from $56,936 for one person to $107,366 for eight people or more. A family of four can earn up to $81,338 annually, under county guidelines. With steep home-price escalation during this decade, many families with qualified incomes still can't afford to buy, even at discounts and with home prices that have dropped during the recession.

Housing officials said one pre-qualified family on the county's list had an increase in income beyond the Moderate Income Housing Unit's limits and found a place to buy on their own; another wanted a larger house, while a military family had moved and a fourth wanted to live elsewhere in the county.

"It ebbs and flows," Carbo said about the demand. Even though prices have dropped some, new homes are still expensive even with the county's reduced price, he said. The Belmont Station homes have been very popular with MIHU buyers in the past. The community is just north of Route 100 and east of U.S. 1 in Elkridge. It boasts a large community center and swimming pool, and some homes have decorative stone fronts. The 1,690-square-foot homes have three bedrooms and 2.5 baths, along with 9-foot ceilings and popular designs.

But instead of retail asking prices starting in the "upper $290s" according to Ryan's Web site, the county will sell the houses for $223,390, or $228,390 for units with a stone front, which means a monthly payment of $1,726 to $1,752.

"Oh, it would be a dream come true for me and my children," said Darnay Simms, 45, who now rents a townhouse in west Columbia for herself and her two children, ages 16 and 13.

Simms does document processing work for a Columbia firm, she said, and owning her own home has been seemingly unattainable since her divorce nearly a decade ago.

"I'm just happy," she said, after county officials picked her name first from a gold-painted cylinder in a third-floor classroom at the county's Gateway building, allowing her first choice on which of the available home lots she wants. "It's a blessing to me and my children."

The other home went to a county police officer and his wife and three children.

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