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Living Too Large In Exurbia

Big houses. Big cars. Now, bigger bills. A lifestyle built on cheap energy and cheap credit is in jeopardy

For those who made the exodus to the rolling farmland of Loudoun County, Va., over the past decade, the trade-offs were well understood. Stake a claim to the exurban dream in newly sprouted developments with bucolic names like Farmington on the Green and Hirst Farms (going price: $600,000 and up), and you got a brand new house on a quarter acre. Excellent schools, the small-town charm of antique shops, and historic courthouses were also part of the package. And just watch your home value soar, by an average 23% in the past two years.

The downside? Everyone wanted to join you. Population in Loudoun grew 41% between 2000 and 2004, faster than any other county in America. Road construction couldn't keep up, so traffic is often a nightmare. Even on the weekend, the drive into Washington takes an hour and a half. At rush hour, figure on two. Caterpillar (CAT ) tractors and orange highway construction cones have taken the place of the horses and cattle that used to dot the hillsides. Still, it all seemed worth it to those like Andrea O'Hara, who moved from Pittsburgh with her husband and three children a year and a half ago. "We love it here," says O'Hara.