All that Wanda Brooks wanted was an affordable home.
Brooks had been living in Glenn Dale, a community of $500,000-plus houses. After a divorce, she sought something she could pay for on her own.
She found her nook in West Lanham Hills, a Prince George's County neighborhood of 60-plus-year-old Cape Cod houses where prices hover below $200,000, often in the mid-$100,000s.
"I could afford this and still send my daughter to college," said Brooks, 48, a budding dollmaker.
Residents boil down their feelings about West Lanham Hills to four A's: It's affordable, affable, adaptable and accessible. Even these days, home prices are low enough to meet the needs of single parents or first-time homeowners. Neighbors are friendly. The Cape Cod-style houses are easy to upgrade. And the neighborhood sits right beside the New Carrollton Metro station, which also has Amtrak and MARC rail lines and a Greyhound bus station.
Like her friend and neighbor Brooks, Ina L. Winn also sought an affordable house post-divorce three years ago. At first, her standards were high. She wanted to live in Upper Marlboro or Bowie, among the more expensive areas of Prince George's County. And after looking at a handful of houses closer to her price range, she was sick of old shag carpets and dark paneling.
Winn, 43, a real estate agent and public relations specialist for the Justice Department, said she had to eventually "come off my cloud." She settled for a West Lanham Hills house and has come to love it. She was pleased that the community is long-established, and she likes the Cape Cod style. Because buying the house didn't bust her budget, she has been able to decorate to her taste.
"I wouldn't trade it," Winn said.
Affordability has always been a characteristic of West Lanham Hills. The houses, put up mostly from 1939 to 1941, were built for low-income workers. The two-bedroom, one-bath Cape Cod houses originally cost from $2,700 to $3,100.
The neighborhood's name comes from its topography. The major streets, including Garrison, Frederick and Emerson roads, are hilly, plunging toward West Lanham Drive before ascending at 78th Avenue.
West Lanham Hills is self-contained, with just two entrances from Annapolis Road (Route 450) and one at Emerson Place, near the Metro station. Its insular nature adds to what residents say is a warm atmosphere among neighbors.
During one snowstorm, Brooks recalled, she phoned a neighbor to offer something she had cooked. That neighbor offered her some food, too. And another neighbor called to see if Brooks was hungry. Before she knew it, they were all feeding each other.
"People look out for each other like you wouldn't imagine," Brooks said.
"All my neighbors are my friends," said Walter Harris, 75, a retired Interior Department accountant. Harris, for 33 years the treasurer of the civic association, has met most residents while canvassing the neighborhood to persuade people to join the association.
Harris and his wife, Charlotte, 70, moved to West Lanham Hills in 1956, with the coming of their first child. They reared three daughters in their home on West Lanham Hills Drive.
The Harrises also have a 75-acre Eastern Shore farm. They have considered moving there, but preferred to remain close to doctors and hospitals as well as convenient grocery stores, Charlotte Harris said.
"After thinking it over, we decided to stay here," she said.
West Lanham Hill's proximity to the New Carrollton Metro station is perhaps one of its most attractive features to some residents.
Lynn Getz, 59, said she and her husband, Ralph, moved to the neighborhood in 1978 because the then-new Metro made it easy to go into Washington at any time. Major highways including Route 50 and the Capital Beltway also are just minutes from West Lanham Hills.
Like others in the region, the Getzes have found that the Cape Cod house style is particularly expandable. Their changes over the years include a bedroom and an upper-level deck. Others in the neighborhood have built or plan side additions, family rooms and additional bedrooms or baths.
Most of the changes Brooks has made to her house have been smaller cosmetic fixes. For instance, she built a closet in her bedroom and ripped up the carpeting in her bedroom and living room. She painted her living room walls cranberry red, adding African American-themed paintings, an angel figurine and a display of her own handmade dolls. She also bought an electric fireplace for her living room.
"It is cozy," Brooks said. The home is the "warmest home I've ever lived in," literally and figuratively, she said.
As in any community, residents have some gripes.
Along the neighborhood's border, on Annapolis Road, there is a Domino's, a breakfast food restaurant and two fast food chicken restaurants. Resident Kate Tsubata said the community could use more restaurant variety.
"We've got like a ton of fried chicken places. But that's about it," she said.
Tsubata, an 18-year resident, also said West Lanham Hills faces bouts of crime in and around the community. A recent issue of the community newsletter mentioned a couple of muggings and an attempted auto theft.
Nonetheless Tsubata, 50, a freelance writer and health educator, said she likes the neighborhood so much that as her family grew from one to three children, they found a larger home in the community rather than move elsewhere.
The neighborhood sometimes also has problems with abandoned cars and with houses that look abandoned -- with overgrown grass and shrubs, trash piled on curbs and in front yards, and unkempt railings, awnings and other unappealing aesthetics.
Community volunteers such as Brooks inform neighbors that too-tall grass, shrubs growing over windows, unlicensed or junk cars, and piled-up trash are against the county's community standards code. The county can cite violators.
Tsubata said that although her community may not have perfectly manicured lawns and immaculate houses, she prefers West Lanham Hills to some places that are more spic-and-span.
She said, "I would rather deal with that than live in a place where nobody knows each other."