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For Home Buyers, a Lesson in the Price of Popularity

Even Close-In Counties Offer Range of Choices

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page SM22

Covet a cute 1940s brick Cape Cod house in Bethesda with loads of original detail, from crown molding to built-in shelves to crystal doorknobs? Plan to pony up at least $500,000. But move 13 miles east to University Park, and a nearly identical solidly built Cape may cost as much as $150,000 less.

Still, both are likely to sell quickly. Buyers in sought-after communities have helped fuel steep rises in prices throughout most of the Maryland suburbs. In Montgomery County, the median price of a single-family house or townhouse rose from $199,900 in 1999 to $392,000 in 2004, according to statistics compiled by the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors and Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

In University Park, buyers can find small-town touches such as these painted street signs -- for far less than in Bethesda or Chevy Chase. (Emilie Sommer For The Washington Post)

In neighboring Prince George's County, median prices for the same type of house increased from $140,000 in 2000 to $240,000 last year.

The median is the point at which half the sales prices are higher and half are lower.

Combine a streak of low interest rates with plenty of new construction, and the number of sales has also been pushed to record heights. In Montgomery County in 2000, 11,603 single-family houses and townhouses were purchased, while eager buyers snapped up 13,668 last year. In Prince George's County last year, buyers purchased 12,940 single-family houses and townhouses, up more than 4,600 from just five years earlier.

David and Maura Kunz recently moved from a rental in Arlington to a single-family house they bought in University Park, near the University of Maryland.

"We had looked in Alexandria and Arlington, but once we became familiar with the neighborhoods in Prince George's County, we decided we could buy a lot more here," said David Kunz.

Proximity to downtown Washington and Metro have helped make both University Park and Bethesda hot, each in its own way, according to real estate agents.

"Downtown Bethesda is a city in itself now. You see people sitting outside, just walking around. It's a place people want to be," said Weichert Realtors agent Polly Driscoll.

Also on Driscoll's list of popular Montgomery County neighborhoods are the leafy Chevy Chase areas of Somerset and Martin's Additions, because of their early 20th-century charm and their proximity to the District. She also pointed to Kentlands and King Farm, planned communities built within the last 10 years in Gaithersburg and Rockville, as hot neighborhoods in the county.

"They are creating little town centers, where you can stop for ice cream or to buy a book, and then walk home. It's almost like living in a small town," she said.

In Prince George's County, Hyattsville and College Estates near the University of Maryland are drawing more buyers than they used to, said Dixie Meadows, a Re/Max agent. West Riverdale is another such neighborhood, she said.

"These neighborhoods are very solidly built, with interesting homes with nice detailing," she said.

Houses in Maryland to both the north and south of the two inner counties are also appreciating. The median cost of a single-family house in Howard County in 2000 was $195,000. By last year, it had risen 78 percent, to $347,350.

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