- - 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.

A short drive away is Lancaster and the Pennsylvania Dutch country, with myriad family-oriented activities. Take a train ride in nearby Strasburg or explore the shops and sights of historic Lititz, complete with its own chocolate factory. Its Wilbur Buds predate the Hershey’s Kiss by 14 years. (But if you’d rather have the latter, Hershey, Pa., is not too far away.)

Housing? You will find older homes on Main Street and newer residences in the developments around the town center. The area did not experience as much of a drop in home prices as other areas did during the worst of the housing crisis, and now prices are not surging as much as they are in some other places, said Gil Ochs, an associate broker/agent with Coldwell Banker Select Professionals in Ephrata.

“We’re a conservative area,” he said. “We didn’t go crazy in the boom markets.”

Mr. Ochs noted that “very nice” properties can be had for about $250,000, with town-home communities coming in at the $150,000-to-$215,000 range.

“People come down here from New York and New Jersey, and once they are here they decide to stay,” Mr. Ochs said.

Think you would rather be a bit closer to the Chesapeake? Consider Berlin, Md., (accent on the first syllable). This small town once sported more hotels than Ocean City, but these days, a laid-back atmosphere holds sway. Berlin’s restored downtown historic district, complete with the 1895 Atlantic Hotel, offers one-of-a-kind shopping and a string of galleries that are perfect for a summer stroll.

Look familiar? The town is so picture-perfect that it has been used in several films, including “Tuck Everlasting” and “Runaway Bride.”

Nearby, Frontier Town offers family entertainment, including camping and a water park, that seems straight out of the 1950s, with Wild West Shows complete with street fights and showdowns.

Housing prices in Berlin are not as low as some others, but they’re not out of reach, either; the median home price is $267,000.

You also could find a place on the Western Shore. Chesapeake Beach, once a popular resort for Washington and Baltimore residents, offers a quieter take on the shore experience, with a range of cottages, bungalows and higher-end homes. It also boasts one of Maryland’s largest sport-fishing fleets and a museum filled with relics from the glory days.

You will find the second-largest swath of beach at Colonial Beach, once a popular destination on Virginia’s Northern Neck before the Bay Bridge helped the Eastern Shore entice Washingtonians away. Life is a good deal slower there than in, say, Ocean City, but there still is a bit of the summer resort left. Home prices are modest, with a median price of $178,824.

If the mountains are more to your liking, the Shenandoah Valley has it all, capped with breathtaking views from Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. You can explore a wealth of Civil War sites, historic covered bridges and antiques shops galore while enjoying the area’s rich bounty, including apples.

In Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, housing may be a bit more pricey, but it’s a perfect spot for a getaway and attracts a number of “getaway and stay” residents, people who turn their vacation homes into year-round residences after retirement.

“We’re at the top of the Sunbelt,” said Billie Magerfield of Billie Magerfield Real Estate III in Charlottesville. “We’ve got the four seasons, but we’ve got less snow and less heat than other places.”

Meanwhile, there are those breathtaking views and trendy shops and restaurants, while UVa. football draws crowds who want a place to stay for football weekends. (There are a number of town-house developments.)

Even in Charlottesville, there are good buys to be had, said Ms. Magerfield, who has been in the real estate business for 25 years. Rutledge, inside the city limits, offers homes in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range. Just a bit farther out are places such as Northfields, with larger lots, where a three-bedroom, three-bath house on .87 acres is on the market for $229,900. Nearby Carrsbrook has a four-bedroom, three-bath home on 1.75 acres for $329,900. West Leigh, while more expensive, also offers fine properties on larger lots.

Crossing the line into West Virginia, Berkeley Springs provides a real small-town feel, with an active downtown filled with shops, galleries and a cultural center.

“Many small towns, especially in West Virginia, there is nothing there,” said Connie Perry, who started her one-woman real estate agency back in 1973. “We’ve become a real destination spot.”

Then there are the mineral springs, whose healing waters brought any number of notables to the town over the years, including George Washington, who camped there when he was 16 and working as a surveyor for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Later, he built a cottage at the springs.

The state maintains the springs as a historic site, and you can book a bath and stroll the grounds.

The town is smaller now than it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that’s part of the attraction. Now, when you go to one of the free Saturday concerts in the park, it is fairly likely you will see several people you know.

And thanks to the housing market, there are plenty of bargains to be had.

“You can get a cottage on the river for $150,000,” Ms. Perry said. “Before the slowdown, that would have gone for $230,000.

But Ms. Perry prefers to look on the bright side.

“We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of businesses closing, and that’s kind of a miracle.”

So forget about those long waits at the airport or the heavy traffic. You can have a great vacation getaway home just a short ride — but a world away — from Washington.