- - Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ready for a change from the summer doldrums or the city’s hustle and bustle? It seems a weekend getaway to your own vacation home would be just the ticket.

But then there’s the cost, not just in the home price, but in the time it takes to travel to that world away. Yet in about two hours, you can be basking at the beach or hiking a mountain trail.

If you have been thinking about a vacation home, there may be no better time to get one than right now, with lower housing prices making affordable what may have been out of reach just a few years ago.

You wouldn’t be alone. According to the National Association of Realtors’ 2012 Investment and Vacation Home Buyers Survey, sales of investment and vacation homes jumped last year, with the combined market share rising to its highest level since 2005. Vacation-home sales accounted for 11 percent of all 2011 transactions (in 2010 they were 10 percent) while investment sales jumped from 17 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2011.

What does it all mean? In part, savvy investors and buyers of vacation homes see the second-home market as an opportunity in what still are tough times for the housing industry. For those thinking long term, a purchase now can help ensure a comfortable future.

But the bargain-basement prices are not everywhere, and they can be hard to find in the Washington area. You may want to look at some “off the beaten track” spots, close enough to let you take advantage of some of the activities each area has to offer but far enough away from the District to let you know you’ve really managed to get out of town.

Nestled in the Catoctin Mountains about halfway between Frederick, Md., and Gettysburg, Pa., the small town of Thurmont has attracted some pretty notable visitors. (Camp David is just a stone’s throw away.) Turns out, there is something about a mountain range and clear sparkling streams that is pretty bipartisan: The area’s a favorite of Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Thurmont is really for nature lovers,” said Wendy Aloi, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in Frederick.

You can see something of that bipartisan spirit memorialized at the Cozy restaurant and inn, the oldest family-owned restaurant in the state, still going strong after more than 80 years.

Even the Russians thawed a bit during the height of the Cold War, writes Allison Blake in “Maryland Curiosities,” leaving a bit of caviar and vodka and a key to Russia after their stay at the Cozy.

And there’s plenty to do to walk off your meal, from hiking to what the locals call McAfee Falls, the largest cascading waterfall in the state, within Cunningham Falls State Park, to hiking, biking and swimming in the park. Meanwhile, events such as the firemen’s carnival and pit-beef barbecues help recapture that small-town feel.

There is a range of possibilities for home sales in the vicinity, from the 650-acre estate that was frequented by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt (on the market for $9 million) to modest cottages and cabins that would be affordable getaways for those who want to spend more of their time outdoors.

“Single-family homes run from about $150,000 to 250,000,” Ms. Aloi said. “There’s a lot of variety in Thurmont.”

Making your way around the compass (with Washington at the center, of course,) is Ephrata, Pa., one of Lancaster County’s somewhat hidden gems. Life is slow in this small town, which was established in the 18th century and made its name in the 19th, thanks to its crystal-clear and reportedly quite healthful waters.

But while many small towns can boast mineral springs, Ephrata also has something a bit more unusual. The Ephrata Cloister dates from 1732 and was home to both celibate and married German immigrants who lived simply and communally. The complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and hosts tours, ice-cream socials, musicales and other events.

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