- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

To Washingtonians jaded by half-million-dollar homes with loads of bells and whistles, the prices are eye-opening.

A three-bedroom, 11/2-bath single-family home in Gettysburg, Pa. — on a cul-de-sac, no less — is now listed for $153,900. Built in 1972, it’s listed by Jack Gaughen Realtor and described as being “minutes from town and the battlefield.”

Or this one: a three-bedroom, one-bath Cape Cod with a front porch, built in 1945 and listed at $169,900. It is listed by ERA Preferred Properties Real Estate.

There are hundreds more in the sub-$300,000 category alone, with some crying out for substantial updating and others oozing country charm.

With prices like these, it’s no wonder that many buyers from greater Washington have flocked to Adams County.

Coupled with rural beauty, proximity to one of the pre-eminent sites of the Civil War, and Pennsylvania’s friendly retirement laws — including no taxes on pensions, IRAs or Social Security benefits — the area is a popular destination for those seeking to get more value for the dollar or even to purchase a second home.

The Realtors Association of York & Adams Counties Inc. (RAYAC; www.rayac.com) reports that from January to December 2005, some 7,432 homes in the counties were sold or settled, at an average selling price of $187,113.

Although 2006 saw almost 450 fewer homes sold or settled — a total of 6,985 — their average selling price climbed to $195,967, an increase of 4.7 percent.

Buyers and builders, too, have set their sights on Adams County and Gettysburg, its county seat.

While the model home at the Cedar Ridge community in Gettysburg is called the Harvard, “our most popular-selling home is the Silver Maple,” says Jeremy Christian, sales manager for Cedar Ridge as well as Friendship Estates in neighboring York County. Both are projects of Dan Ryan Builders Inc., for whom Mr. Christian works.

Another developer, the Hanover-based Paul Burkentine & Sons Contractors Inc., is developing half of the Cedar Ridge sites.

Each company is planning to build 40 homes, for a total of 80. To date, Mr. Christian says, about 14 houses have been built. Another four are scheduled to begin within a month or so.

For approximately $310,000, the Silver Maple offers about 2,100 square feet of living space on a three-quarter-acre lot, Mr. Christian says.

“Everything comes with that price: lighting, countertops, crown molding, a chair railing in the dining room” and other features, he says.

“I get so many folks who come out of Northern Virginia and can’t believe [how little] we are asking for this house,” Mr. Christian says. He says he’s had nine sales since Jan. 1.

He adds that he has a client now with a job in D.C. who is weighing purchasing a large, relatively affordable new home against the prospect of a two-hour commute each way: a drive into Frederick, Md., followed by a MARC train ride into Washington.

The prospective Pennsylvanian says she’s dissatisfied with properties in her price range in Germantown and Gaithersburg and is shut out of bidding on appealing homes because they are too costly, despite the overall slowdown in the real estate market.

Several factors — from geology to building codes — have limited new construction over the decades, says Richard Schmoyer, director of planning and development in the Adams County Office of Planning and Development.

For one thing, the soil on the low landscape of rolling hills in the central part of the county, called the Gettysburg Plain, doesn’t drain well, he says. This has acted as a natural constraint on development of rural lands.

“Going back to World War II, home building has grown at a moderate rate every year,” Mr. Schmoyer says. The number of permits issued annually for new housing units “have ranged from a high of 776 to a low of 505.”

Yet currently, thousands of new building units are being planned for the central part of the county, he says, many of which “are being proposed as part of very large development projects.”

Water and sewer capacity to support these planned units is insufficient, he adds; local municipalities must take up the issue of expanding current infrastructure, or developers must include sewer and water proposals in their plans.

The proposed building additions are substantial, compared to what’s gone before.

“We went from seeing some small-town suburban development in the 1990s, projects with 50 to 300 units around town centers, to today’s [proposed developments] of 500 units or more,” says Mr. Schmoyer, who began work at the OPD in 1988. “The largest single one is 2,000 units. The hole in the doughnut may begin to fill in.”

Even though they may benefit professionally from an active buyer’s market, Gettysburg real-estate professionals are among those who say they’re concerned about home prices that have sailed past many longtime residents’ reach.

Pamela K. Johnson, a Long & Foster Realtor licensed in Maryland and Pennsylvania, is based out of the company’s Baltimore Street office in Gettysburg.

“Many young couples can’t afford to buy here,” she says. “The wages in our area don’t meet what the homes here are being sold for.”

Because Gettysburg prices are low in contrast to what a buyer might pay in Loudoun County, Va., or Washington County, Md., “we get a lot of out-of-state buyers,” she says.

Like Mr. Christian’s would-be buyer choosing between the home of her dreams and nearly four hours of daily commuting, some of these buyers either swallow all that travel time or attempt to work out a part-time teleworking arrangement, Mrs. Johnson says.

After all, “coming down [U.S.] Route 15 can be hard when you hit [Interstate] 270,” she says.

Mrs. Johnson says she and other agents are making a conscious effort “to not over-inflate listing prices. We’re trying to keep it down to what the market can handle.”

Broadly speaking, many houses still linger on the market for a month or more, “but they’re still selling,” she says. “If they sit too long, we usually see a $5,000 to $6,000 drop in asking price.”

She estimates Long & Foster’s current number of listings in greater Gettysburg at about 50.

Another agent, Roger Sprague of Century 21 Neighborhood Realty, is part of the Housing Task Force of Healthy Adams County, as it’s known.

“Our concern is that the average person living and working in Adams County cannot afford to buy a house here,” he says. “Housing now is more affordable for commuters — even with the gas prices — than it is for the local folks.”

Part of the appeal of the area, Mr. Sprague says, is that “we’re still a rural county. It’s not terribly unusual to look at a house up here that has an acre of land, maybe two.”

It reminds Mr. Sprague of his hometown in Vermont — both the rural landscapes and the small-town intimacy.

The Adams County Fruit Belt — known for its apples, celebrated in the National Apple Museum, in nearby Biglerville — is viewed by many as one of the county’s treasures, but its future is not secure due to prospective development projects.

While local farmland preservation programs are “very active,” Mr. Schmoyer says, the 20,000 acres of land that comprise the Fruit Belt are nevertheless “fragile” and must be protected.

“We want to be able to maintain the ability to grow fruit locally, that is, in the Northeast,” says Mr. Schmoyer with a rueful chuckle. According to “Pennsylvania Apples: History and Culture,” by Kyle D. Nagumy, Pennsylvania produces more than 225 million pounds of fruit annually.

It’s largely because of the Fruit Belt, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Eisenhower National Historic Site adjacent to the battlefield that the main sectors of employment in Adams County are agriculture and tourism.

Neither can rightfully be termed high-paying industries, says Mark Berg, who chairs the housing task force of which Mr. Sprague is a member.

Mr. Berg, who describes himself as a full-time community activist, is also running for a seat on the Adams County commission.

“We’re one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, and the main reason is the number of people who are moving here from Washington,” says Mr. Berg, who says that the median price of a house in the county was $216,828 in 2005, versus $130,874 in 2000.

The goals of the task force, Mr. Berg says, are to make the public aware of the lack of affordable housing; work with local municipalities to find solutions; and consider new zoning laws that would support mixed-use zoning or allow more types of development, including work-force housing. “Builders follow the zoning ordinances, and some of [the ordinances] are not very good,” he says.

Although it has stabilized in recent weeks, the volatile price of gas was thought by some to be a factor that would decrease the number of Washington-area workers, equipped with Washington-area salaries, buying in the county, Mr. Berg says. He notes that an acquaintance speculated that “when gas reaches $5 a gallon, then it might make a difference.”

Some builders appear to be taking steps toward diversifying their offerings to reach a broader range of prospective buyers.

Mr. Christian, of Dan Ryan Builders, says that the company may be considering building a town-home community near Hanover, although he conceded that no final decisions have been made.

If such properties were to be built, Mr. Christian predicted prices in the $200,000 range.

Town homes and condominiums are just starting to pop up in the region, said Long & Foster’s Pam Johnson. Yet the $200,000 price bracket would be out of reach for some of her clients.

Some of “our middle-class couples might qualify for a $150,000 mortgage; anything above that, and they’d be considered mortgage-poor. Some of them are starting to look at double-wides; it’s the only thing they can afford.”

The out-of-town influence is clear when you look at sales figures for 2006. RAYAC’s statistics indicate that 58 homes sold last year for between $300,000 and $499,999, while another 104 properties sold for between $200,000 and $299,999.

Because of these factors, some residents are limited to renting indefinitely, and both Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Berg point to increased demand for rental units.

But “rent is getting outrageous also,” Mrs. Johnson says. “I don’t know how seniors can afford it.”

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