House price increases in Calvert County were modest last year, compared with those in some of the region's closer-in jurisdictions. The number of sales was down, but largely because there were not houses available to buy, sales agents said.

"Our market is more and more like the Northern Virginia market in that there is a shortage of listings," said Joanne Hoffmaster of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "It's very competitive."

The median price of the 1,200 single-family houses and townhouses sold in Calvert County in 2002 was $174,900, only 4.5 percent higher than the previous year's median, according to a Washington Post analysis based on county sales records. Condominium sales were not included.

But median prices in Zip code 20736 (Owings) and Zip code 20639 (Huntingtown), both in northern Calvert County, jumped more than 17 percent. Prices in Zip code 20678 (Prince Frederick), south of Huntingtown, rose 16.9 percent.

The Huntingtown area had the highest median price, at $285,000. Its proximity to Washington and greater land availability account for the higher prices. Many new subdivisions with large houses and lots have cropped up in Huntingtown in recent years. Prices for these new single-family houses start around $350,000, said Doug Smith of Re/Max 100.

Countywide, townhouse construction and the brisk resale of newer houses drove the market. In Richfield Station, a development in Chesapeake Beach, townhouses that sold for $160,000 last year now cost around $200,000, said agent Cindy Van Hoy of Century 21. The median price in Zip code 20732, which includes Chesapeake Beach, rose 9.1 percent, to $180,000. Hoffmaster pointed to this area as the one part of the county where bargains might still be found, particularly older beach cottages that could be equipped for winter.

Even though prices rose most steeply in northern Calvert County, agents say the market is strong across the board. Tax assessments for the southern third of the county rose an average of 17.7 percent.

Historically a less active market, the southern part of the county now has a flurry of new construction. The presence of an increasing number of large government contractors, and therefore jobs, near Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County accounts for much of the growth.

Calvert officials have already taken steps to control growth, adopting land preservation measures and an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, and these have contributed to a shortage of available property. Susan Kopanke, the county supervisor of assessments, said she sees future growth moving into the county's second district, the central part, where there are more resources and space for development.