Housing prices are climbing

May 04, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

Christine Millman looked for the American Dream for at least a year before she finally found it for $99,000 along Md. 68 west of Hagerstown.

Millman, 29, estimates she and her husband drove by 100 houses and toured 15 to 20 in the past year before they found their new single-family two-story colonial.

"We weren't really trying to be picky about it," she said. The couple, who were expecting a child when they were house hunting, wanted a two- to three-bedroom home in the area surrounding Hagerstown.


The couple wanted to keep their mortgage payments reasonable so they were looking at houses priced up to $110,000 - a price that's become increasingly difficult to find in recent years for a single-family home in Washington County.

"A lot of people trying to keep payments at a comfortable level are not having as many choices outside the city limits as they are inside the city limits," said Hagerstown Home Store Housing Advisor Barb Spielman.

"It's that $100,000 barrier. There's just not that many things out there in the county that are out there for under $100,000," Spielman said.

House prices have escalated in the last few years as land prices have risen and a tight seller's market has emerged with historically low interest rates and people trying to get more house for their money.

The average sales price for a home in Washington County increased from $113,834 in 1996 to $144,207 last year and continues to rise, according to data provided by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

More houses are being sold and more of them are selling quickly. Last year, 664 of the 1,524 houses sold spent a month or less on the market, according to MRIS data.

While houses are selling fast and there appears to be plenty of new housing going up or in the pipeline, there's some question as to whether the housing needs of the community are being met.

New construction tends to focus on homes for empty-nesters, higher-end single-family housing, or mixed developments with single-family homes, townhouses and possibly apartments.

What's left - in affordable housing for the county's median annual household income of $44,450 or less, tends to be existing housing in and outside city limits, according to Realtors and Home Store officials. Most often, existing housing in the affordable range are duplexes, townhouses or older single-family homes that require substantial renovation.

"I think people want the single-family house with the white picket fence. That's hard to find under $140,000," said Patricia McMillan, director of the Hagerstown Home Store.

Needs being met?

Whether new construction and existing housing and apartments are meeting needs in the county are answers Washington County Planner Robert Arch said he hopes to discover through a housing needs study.

Arch said he expects to ask the County Commissioners to approve going forward with the study before the end of June, after they are done preparing the upcoming fiscal year's budget.

If the study finds that neither existing housing nor new construction are meeting the needs of people looking for affordable housing, county officials might consider requiring new housing developments to include some affordable housing, Arch said. For example, a developer building homes in the $200,000 range might need to include some homes in the $100,000 range, he said.

Some counties, such as Montgomery County, Md., have provisions within their development regulations that require a certain number of moderately-priced townhouses or single-family homes, Arch said.

Neither Arch nor Hagerstown Planning Director Kathy Maher said they know whether such a provision will one day be needed in Washington County, but Maher does know the city will need the county's help to provide more affordable housing in the area.

The county's comprehensive plan recommends low-density housing for a large proportion of the urban growth area, Maher said. Such low-density housing is not likely to result in affordable housing outside the city, she said.

Currently, Hagerstown is the major base of affordable housing in the county, with 15 percent of housing units subsidized for low- and moderate-income households, Maher said. Subsidized housing includes public housing, Section 8 and housing paid for with tax credits, she said.

Another form of affordable housing in the city is rental units, with 58 percent of the city's housing units being renter-occupied, Maher said.

Hagerstown officials have been working for about a decade to reverse the city's homeowner-to-renter-occupancy ratio, yet the percentages have only inched closer by a couple percentage points.

City officials have made moves toward limiting the ability to create new apartments in certain zoning designations, including the downtown area, in an effort to reverse the trend, Maher said.

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