Last January, the Edward Stuckraths bought their colonial-style home in Crofton in Anne Arundel County, 18 miles from Washington.
This week the Ronald Marcolinis are moving into their new home-a virtual duplicate of the Stuckraths'-on a quiet, wooded suburban street in Bowie, also 18 miles from Washington.
Both houses are four-bedroom colonials built by Levitt & Sons six or seven years ago. But the Stuckraths paid $77,900 for theirs, nearly $9,000 more than the Marcolinis are paying.
The difference in price could have been greater. A look at a computer printout of "matching properties" offered for sale from Feb. 15 through May 11 shows that 24 four-bedroom colonials with two-car garages were sold in Bowie. The top price was $78,500; the lowest $60,500. In Crofton in the same peirod, nine houses of $99,500 ot $75,900.
There are a number of reasons for the difference. Two major ones, according to home buyers, real estate experts and elected officials, are taxes and schools.
Anne Arundel taxes are roughly half those in Prince George's. Some home buyers say Prince George's court-ordered busing for racial balance in schools has frightened them away.
Then there is demand: Crofton is growing rapidly, but real estate agents tell of keeping lists of names of people who are waiting for homes to go on the market there.
When the homes in Crofton were built, construction costs there played a small role in boosting prices.
Another factor is the community's exclusive past - bygone days when guards kept the gates and potential buyers had to get approval of the Crofton Community club.
Today that exclusivity has faded, although the image persists, as townhouses spring up on the outskirts of the circle-shaped community and lower-cost developments dot the surrounding country-side.
A comparison of Crofton and Bowie shows the following:
The increasing demand for services in Crofton, dictated by the community's growth, may force an increase in the county's tax rate, now one of the lowest in the state.
Parents who picked Crofton to ensure that their children would go to neighborhood schools may see them bused anyway, as those schools become overcrowded.
Although some school children are bused in Bowie, the perception of the community as a place where school busing is inevitable is false.
Bowie offers cash-pinched families a place to get more for their money.
The Stuckraths name schools as a central reason for moving to Crofton after looking around Annapolis, where Stuckrath, a Marine major, teaches computer programming at the Naval Academy.
When Ed Stuckrath got his trasfer from Virginia Beach, he and his wife Linda Briefly considered Bowie because oflower house prices. "We were told they were $20,000 cheaper," he recalls. "We looked into the housing situation. The taxes and the busing basically scared us off. We were looking for a communty where we were assured our kids would go to school and play in the community."
Linda Stuckrath says good schools are particularly important to children of military families, who move frequently. "We aren't against the kids being bused within a reasonable distance," she says, "but when my child has to get up at 7 in the morning to be bused, way over, I don't think that's right."
Her feelings are echoed by a neighbor who moved from Bowie a few months after court-ordered busing began in 1973. "They said they would be reevaluating schools every year. We didn't want our daughter shifted around year to year," said the neighbor, who declined to be identified.
She and the Stuckraths insist that race played no role in their decision. "A black family lives down the street," the neighbor says.
The Stuckraths say they also considered investment potential in picking Crofton.
They expect another transfer - and another move - in four years. "With the busing problem in Bowie, in four years' time, if the situation didn't imporove, we've got that house," says Linda.
Ed paints the investment in dollar terms: appreciation on a $70,000 house should yield a bigger return than on a $50,000 one.
But the biggest selling point, the Stuckraths say, was Crofton itself. "It's a super community," says Ed, who coaches softball for his 11-year-old daughter, Tracy. Nine-year old son Eddie plays baseball. And there's the garden club, the Civic Assocation, the village green, swim and tennis club.
Similar attractions drew the Marcolinis to Bowie. After friends and a real estate agent steered them to the area, "we were slanted toward Bowie," says Ronald Marcolini, a Coast Guard lieutenant who is leaving the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut for an assignment in Washington. "We looked in Virginia, and we looked in Anne Arundel . . . there weren't too many houses available."
The houses in the Marcolinis' price range in Anne Arundel Count were located in the Four Seasons development. Marcolini's wife, Pat, says she thought that smaller-lot neighborhood was "much more congested" than Bowie.
"In Bowie, you get more house for your money," says Ronald.
One of his new neighbors agrees with this view. "The houses are considerably less (in cost) than what they were in Virginia," says Bruce Gillett, an Air Force major who paid $65,125 a year ago for his four-bedroom colonial around the corner from the Marcolinis' new home.
"The same model in Fairfax was $12,000 more," Gillett says.
The Marcolinis have two children-Timothy, 6, and Tracy, 3-and a third due in October. They say their tracy, 3 - and a third due in October. They say their if he is bused.
"People are spoiled" about their children walking to school, Ronald says. "I never walked to school."
"I wouldn't like them to be bused to a city," says Pat, adding that if her children went to "a decent school," busing wouldn't matter. "If it were a terrible school, I would take other provisions."
Children in Bowie are not extensively bused, according to school officials. Most pupils go to the nearest school. But three elementary schools serving Bowie-area children have closed in the past two years because of declining enrollments.
Meanwhile, Crofton's housing boom has swelled enrollments. Anne Arundel school officials say 807 is the ideal enrollment for Crofton Elementary; this fall projected enrollment is 850. At Crofton Woods Elementary, the difference is more dramatic: 880 pupils projected for an ideal of 736. If more students enroll, they will be bused to the nearest school with openings.
Investment value also played a role in the Marcolinis' choice. Ronald says he expects to be transferred in four years and "you have to be sure you make some money on the house. The ability to sell is important . . . You've got to be in an area where you can sell it."
The yearly taxes on the Marcolinis' new home are $1,152, double what the Stuckraths are paying. Anne Arundel's tax rate is $2.51 per $100 of assessed value; Prince George's is $4.10.
"Prince George's taxes are higher," says Charlotte Miscavich, the Marcolinis' broker, "but the county has many more benefits . . . tennis courts, playgrounds . . . that you don't find in Anne Arundel."
"I don't think that any community compares with Bowied, in organized benefits, youth recreation, cultural and arts programs," says Audrey Scott, Bowie mayor.
She believes that the residents of Anne Arundel someday will have to pay for the new schools and other services needed for their increased growth. "What they haven't encountered is the impact of increased population. Their taxes will probably surpass Prince George's."
This view is echoed by Gerard T. McDonough, the Prince George's county councilman representing Bowie. "Anne Arundel is like Prince George's County in 1959 and 1960. The reason our taxes are high is people come in and demand the services." He points out that the same homes sell for different prices within Prince George's County. "The exact same house by Washington Homes in the Largo area is $70,000, and not seven miles away, off Enterprise Road, it's $80,000."
He finds the reluctance of some home buyers to settle in Prince George's troubling. "Prince George's gets a bad rap. We are where it's happening . . . I would hope the next generation would not repeat the mistakes of the past because of apprehension over economic class . . . It's an economic class fight."
A. James Golato, Prince George's school board member representing Bowie, believes the county must take steps to lure middle-class residents into the county. He is proposing that the school board study ways to return children to neighborhood schools.