- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Skip Schlesinger, a Realtor with Prudential Carruthers in West Ocean City, has one client who takes off his watch as soon as he hits the Ocean City Bridge. Debbie Grimm, a Realtor in Cumberland, Md., has a number of clients who talk about the feeling they get as soon as they glimpse the mountains of western Maryland.

“They say that their worries just fall away,” Ms. Grimm says. “A lot of our second-home buyers say they fell in love with the area when they first drove through.”

Whether your tastes run to the mountains or the beach, a vacation home may be closer than you think. Thanks to high inventories, falling prices and low interest rates, many communities offer vacation homes that would have been out of reach for many just a few years ago.

According to data supplied by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), vacation homes make up about 30 percent of home sales today. That’s down from the 40 percent they constituted at the height of the housing boom.

Prices are down, too, with the median price of a vacation home dropping 23.1 percent from 2007 to 2008.

However, not all vacation or weekend destinations are created equal, especially when it comes to what qualifies as a bargain.

“Beachfront properties are still expensive in the mid-Atlantic region,” says Walter Molony, a spokesman for NAR. “Prices are lower beyond the Shenandoah Valley and in West Virginia.”

Generally speaking, the devastating drops that have characterized markets in Las Vegas and parts of Florida have not affected the Washington-area housing market. Western Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake, for example, still attracts deep-pocketed Washington-area residents willing to spend millions for a place by the water.

“In general, there’s a handful of bargains, relatively speaking,” says Mike Kennedy, a real estate agent with Railey Realty in Deep Creek Lake. “I’d say there’s more deals in the past six months than any time this decade.”

However, that doesn’t mean there are a lot of them. Also, a relative bargain might mean a house goes for $1,550,000 now when it would have sold for $1,800,000 a few years back.

Even at Deep Creek Lake, prices are down - a bit. One lakefront house is listed at $799,000. (Mr. Kennedy notes that anything on the lake listed for less than $1,000,000 should be considered a pretty good deal.) One town house at the Village of Wisp, which saw similar homes sell in the high $200,000s and low $300,000s just a few years ago, is listed at $249,000.

Meanwhile, prices on Easton, Md., properties, while down about 20 percent in the past couple of years, are still high. And interest is up, as well.

“People are coming out again,” says Brian K. Gearhart, a Realtor with Benson and Mangold Real Estate in Easton.

If you are considering a second home purchase, knowing where to look is only part of the picture. You also should consider what you are looking to get from your purchase, whether it’s a community-based summer place with plenty of nearby activities for family and friends or an isolated mountain hideaway far from your nearest neighbors.

If you’re looking for a bargain in the Washington-area vacation and weekend home market, says Mr. Molony, the NAR spokesman, you may want to look in places that are a little less obvious as destination spots.

So here are a few of the hotter bargains in the nearby second-home market.

Colonial Beach, Va. - The quaint clapboard houses in this small town at the entrance to Virginia’s northern neck hint at Colonial Beach’s historic past, when sea captains who were reluctant to leave the water entirely put down a few roots along its 2 1/2 miles of beach.

At just 1 1/2 to two hours from the D.C. area, Colonial Beach sports character, charm and a family-friendly atmosphere.

“This is the best year for bargains in Colonial Beach,” says Bob Swink, a broker with Colonial Beach Real Estate. “If you spend your money wisely, now would be the opportunity to do it.”

Homes start at just under $100,000 and even those less than a block away from the Potomac can be had for about $125,000, Mr. Swink says. In 2005, few homes were selling for less than $200,000. New homes are also affordable, with a three-bedroom, two bath house currently listed at $169,000.

For the historically minded, Colonial Beach sports a number of Sears catalog homes built in the 1920s.

Adams County, Pa. - There’s a lot to see in Adams County for history buffs, from the battlefield at Gettysburg to the Eisenhower homestead to the various other Civil War sites sprinkled throughout the county. But Adams, about two hours from the District, contains a diversity of opportunities. Whether you are interested in cultural festivals, golf, hiking or a score of other activities, there’s a house in Adams that fits your needs.

“There are lots of good bargains in the second-home market,” says Barbara Hartman, a broker with Coldwell Banker Bigham Realtors in Adams County. “There’s a tremendous range, depending on what buyers are looking for.”

Here, too, prices have declined from the high of 2005-06, when home prices jumped about $100,000 in six months. These days, a typical home on a wooded lot is about $150,000, Ms. Hartman says. New homes can be had for the low $200,000s.

Historic properties abound as well. An 1863 two-story house in Fairfield borough is listed for $166,000. Higher-end buyers may be interested in Adams’ new communities, such as “The Links,” on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, which boasts new French country homes on a golf course for the $400,000s to $600,000s and up.

Lost River, W.Va. - Just two hours from the Beltway, West Virginia’s Hardy County can seem a world away from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital - even though almost 25 percent of the population is weekenders from the Washington area.

Located in the gorgeous Potomac Highlands, Lost River is a favorite for those looking for an off-the-beaten path experience. Lost River State Park offers hiking and horseback riding trails. There’s also plenty to do for canoers and kayakers, while anglers swear by the opportunities at Lost River or Trout Pond.

“Our major sales come from the D.C. area,” says David Mickow, the broker of Guest House Realty LLC in Lost River. But Mr. Mickow notes there are just nine homes currently on the market at the Lost River subdivision, which contains more than 200 weekend homes. But prices may be worth the wait.

Cumberland, Md. - Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains and rich in history, Cumberland offers a range of housing opportunities for the summer vacationer or occasional weekender.

“We’ve got beautiful getaways,” Ms. Grimm says. “There are little gems in the middle of the mountains, Deep Creek Lake is 45 minutes away, and we’re closer to D.C. You can put yourself in a little hub and travel in all directions to find something to do.”

Home prices will entice as well, with the average sale price at $119,000. A two-bedroom bare bones cabin originally listed at $100,000 is now on the market for $75,000. Ms. Grimm notes that many Washington-area weekenders are interested in “farmette” properties that will allow them to keep a few animals. One, a 1900 farmhouse on 7.94 acres is selling for $153,999, complete with tack room and outbuildings.

Ocean City, Md. - It may have been your grandparents’ destination spot for a weeklong vacation or weekend sojourn, but today’s Ocean City boasts upgraded amenities along with something of the same spirit that keeps families returning year after year. (And it doesn’t hurt that prices for similar housing are about half what they are at Delaware beaches.)

There are miles of boardwalk, plenty of activities for young and old folks alike, and while traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge can be daunting, the trip is still less hassle - and less expensive - than venturing farther afield.

Plus, the building glut that resulted from that boom a few years back means second-home prices are more than within reach, especially for buyers looking for an investment property.

“The prices that we’re seeing and the opportunity to create long-term wealth is phenomenal,” Mr. Schlesinger says. “There are substantial discounts on the high-end market.”

The average Ocean City condo sells for about $385,000, about 20 percent less than it did during the market’s peak in October 2006, he says. In addition, an oceanfront property that originally listed for $1 million is now listed in the high $600,000s.

Just don’t wait too long for prices to go down further, Realtors caution.

“If you wait, you’re never going to catch the exact lowest point,” Mr. Schlesinger says. “There are phenomenal opportunities right now.”

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