Median home sales prices grew last year in Howard County, as low mortgage rates and the county's reputation for good schools and a strong quality of life lured new residents.

The median price rose 9 percent, to $225,000, from 2001 to 2002, according to a Washington Post compilation based on county records. The analysis included single-family houses and townhouses but not condominiums. The number of home sales, however, fell 12 percent, to 3,976.

The latest round of property assessments increased 30 percent to 35 percent from 1999, with much of that increase centered in Howard's southeastern portion, including East Columbia, Elkridge and part of Ellicott City, said Howard Levenson, supervisor of assessments for Howard.

Because less land is available to develop on the county's east side, Levenson said, home resales are higher there than in western Howard, which still has room for construction. Except for the new Emerson community, a 570-acre mixed-use development, and the planned Maple Lawn Farms development, both in southern Howard, little space is left for new large residential tracts.

The demand for homes still outpaces the county's supply, local real estate agents and Howard officials said. "There's only two more areas that are being built, then there's hardly anything left," Levenson said.

Even with fewer homes being sold in 2002, the county's revenue from the property transfer tax was about 20 percent higher last year, county Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks said.

"For whatever reason, fewer homes are on the market, probably because the ones that are on the market don't stay long," Wacks said.

Sales have slowed for houses priced above $500,000, he said, while those priced below $200,000 are drawing multiple offers.

Across the county, houses have sold within days, many for thousands of dollars more than their asking price, local agents reported. Some of the county's most expensive areas include western Howard county, Zip code 21036, where the median price last year was $454,000, down from $539,668 in 2001, and the Clarksville area of Columbia, including River Hill, Zip code 21029, where the median price climbed 21 percent, to $490,000. In the West Friendship area, Zip code 21794, the median price rose 9.7 percent, to $476,950, according to The Post compilation.

In Columbia's Town Center and Long Reach Village, Zip codes 21044 and 21045, median prices also rose, to $235,000 and $196,000, respectively. The areas offer a mix of condominiums, single-family detached houses and townhouses, said Debbie Burchardt, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential in Ellicott City

"The density there is significant," Burchardt said. "The number of possible homes to buy and sell is stronger there than in the outlying areas. These are very important areas because they offer the most affordable housing in the whole area."

Burchardt attributed the county's appeal to growth in area jobs, including many tied to the federal homeland security program; the school system's reputation; and Howard's location between Washington and Baltimore.

But housing is so limited that some people are renting apartments or looking for housing outside the county, she said.

"It's very sad when you have to break the news to a buyer that they weren't the selective offer," Burchardt said. "There are a lot of tears right now."

John Hurly, a Long & Foster agent in Ellicott City, said his agency is averaging about one-third of the home listings it usually has. Some prospective new-home buyers are being forced to wait at least a year before they find a house, he said, leading some to seek resale properties.

Hurly recently listed a townhouse for $168,000, and the owner received several offers in a week, pushing the price to $185,500.

The owners, however, took the townhouse off the market temporarily because they were afraid they would have to move before they found another home, he said.

"They got so nervous because their home went so quickly," Hurly said. "They opted to wait to see if they could buy something."

Some newcomers are surprised that they have to move so quickly to stake a claim on a home, Hurly said.

"They have a hard time understanding that their window is so short," he said. "They have to come in understanding that if they see what they want, they have to act on it and offer at least the list price and be pre-qualified."

Charles and Michele Ruetsch, an Ellicott City couple, count themselves among the lucky. After living in a townhouse in Howard for four years, they started looking aggressively in February for a home in the county, where their daughter Lauren, 2, could attend school.

In two days, they listed and sold their 2,500-square-foot townhouse and called home builders, hoping to find new homes even before they were listed.

They settled on a new 2,800-square-foot home in the Waverly Woods golf course community in Woodstock.

"We were able to find a home and put a contract on it within 48 hours," said Michele Ruetsch, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother. "I guess we were fairly fortunate to do that. The market is so hot right now."