Darlene Kegel of RE/MAX Advantage Realty, Westminster, says the housing market is “coming back” locally. Homebuyers coming to Carroll County like the country setting offered here.

Written By Barbara Pash, Photos by: Phil Grout

When Michelle and Nicholas Wood went house-hunting last spring, they knew what they wanted: an affordable single-family house in a good public school district. After an extensive search in Howard County, and particularly in Columbia, Michelle’s hometown, they found exactly what they were looking for – in Carroll County.

“We love the house. We love the neighborhood,” said Michelle, a teacher who, with her husband, a computer consultant, bought a resale single-family house in Sykesville.

Their commuting time has doubled to 40 minutes each way from the apartment they had been renting in Columbia to their jobs, she in Columbia and he in Annapolis Junction. But prices were $50,000 to $100,000 more in Columbia for a house of comparable size and school district.

“The houses we could afford in Columbia were in areas we didn’t like,” said Nicholas.

Carroll County’s residential housing market appears to be rebounding from the economic crisis and mortgage meltdown of the mid-2000s.

In August 2013, the most current figure, the median home sale price in Carroll County was $295,000, a 6.6 percent increase from August 2012, according to Real Estate Business Intelligence, an industry source. In August 2013, new listings increased more than 45 percent and homes sold on average in 79 days compared with 102 days during the previous year.

“At one point, we were down 30 percent from the height of the market,” Darlene Kegel of RE/MAX Advantage Realty, Westminster, a lifelong Carroll Countian, says of housing sales. “Now we’re coming back.”

Mark Karukas, sales manager of Powers Homes, a high-end customized home-builder, said new construction is picking up as well. Three years ago, he had one or two competitors in the upscale area, versus a half-dozen today. Karukas works out of the company’s model home in Eldersburg.

The big house-hunting season begins with the arrival of warm weather in spring. But the winter months offer a plus. “I tell my clients, you will have fewer showings but the people who look during that time are serious buyers,” said Kegel.

Karukas agrees. Powers Homes offers year-end incentives to spur sales during a traditionally slow period. “People who are out looking for a home during the winter holidays are motivated buyers,” he said.

Realtors make a distinction between “new” and “new construction.” The former refers to a purchase that is new to the buyer; the latter to buying a lot and building a residence on it. “Home” can mean any dwelling, including townhouses, condominiums, semi-detached and single-family houses.

In Carroll County, thanks to zoning regulations and infrastructure, the majority of housing stock is single-family homes. Moreover, because of the still-tight financing environment for builders, single-family houses on the market are predominantly resales, not new construction.

On the other hand, buyers are attracted to Carroll County precisely because of its single-family houses – “and at what might be townhouse prices elsewhere,” said Wendy Slaughter, a Carroll County native who heads The Wendy Slaughter Team in Howard County and with RE/MAX Advantage Realty, Westminster.

Slaughter says home-buyers can get a single-family house on a one-quarter-to one-half-acre lot for prices in the low $400,000s, even the high $300,000s; a bargain compared to Anne Arundel or Howard counties.

Even in the new construction market, prices differ significantly. In Carroll County, Powers Homes’ two-story Colonial-style house on one-and-a-half to four-acre lots sells for $500,700 to $600,720. In Howard County, the price would start at $750,000 and go to over $1 million, depending on lot size.

“Market demand for houses as well as land costs in Carroll County” account for the difference between the two jurisdictions, said Karukas.

Resources are available online for home-buyers. The Maryland Association of Realtors, for example, has a First Time Homebuyers Affordability Index of current loan terms and interest rates. It also has the MD Home Program, a listing of federal, state and local incentives for home-buyers.

Maryland’s state property tax is based on the assessed value of a residence. The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation publishes property tax records online. Carroll County government’s website offers real estate, water/sewer and personal property billing and tax information as well.

Working with a qualified realtor can refine the house-hunting process. “Our job is to ask the right questions, to determine housing style and location,” said Slaughter.

By the time home-buyers see lender Scott Berngartt, of George Mason Mortgage, a subsidiary of Cardinal Bank, they should have investigated affordability, taxes, loan terms and interest rates. Popular among home-buyers is a federal loan program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Based on the U.S. census and income eligibility, a family of up to four people that earns $92,000 per year is still eligible. “It is intended for rural areas, and most of Carroll County qualifies,” said Berngartt.

The county’s housing prices attract buyers, but that is not the only factor. The Woods, both in their 20s, married for almost two years with children in the future, researched the public school system. “It was important to us,” she said.

Last year, Audrey and Craig Sutherland sold their house in Eldersburg and moved into a larger, newly built house, also in Eldersburg. The main reason: schools. Staying in the same town meant that their youngest child, a middle school student, would not have to switch districts.

“We went from a one-half-acre lot to three acres,” said Audrey, which allowed her husband, Craig, a retired businessman, to build an enclosed three-car garage where he can enjoy his passion for restoring automobiles.

Jennifer Glass, of Long & Foster Real Estate, Westminster, says commuting is often a factor. Eldersburg, Sykesville, Mount Airy, Westminster and their environs are popular because of reasonable commuting distances to Annapolis, Baltimore, Columbia, Washington, D.C. and the U.S. military’s Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel County.

Realtors say home-buyers also talk about the county’s parks, activities like wine festivals, youth and sports recreation programs, and that indefinable quality called “lifestyle.”

“They like the country setting,” said Kegel.