Try to pinpoint Mount Pleasant's driving "force" for residential growth, and the answer very well may be its "driving" force.

Indeed, thousands of motorists travel from their manicured neighborhoods and chic planned communities north of the U.S. Highway 17-S.C. Highway 41 interchange headed to jobs 10 miles or more away.

That's brought traffic, a festering problem east of the Cooper. But as it turns out, there's relief. Highway 17 road widening work completed in 2011 would reduce bottlenecks and make the daily commute for scores of motorists bearable.

"I think traffic flows better," says Owen Tyler, broker-in-charge of The Cassina Group. "You've got all that development going on up there. It's a major driving force for new homes north of Highway 41," he says.

The road upgrades, which also improved access to and from Interstate 526, played a key role in East Cooper revitalizing its residential mojo. Scenic locales, well-regarded schools and neighborhoods that run the gamut from historic to eclectic have lured buyers to Mount Pleasant. Today, the one-time fishing village is the fourth largest municipality in South Carolina.

Real estate observers believe Mount Pleasant's growth is tied in part to a housing market that rebounded early in the recovery cycle.

"Really the prices are up the past four years," says Jamie Derrickson, a Realtor with AgentOwned Realty. Mount Pleasant's housing market "has been improving since 2010."

The town's population of close to 75,000 people is substantial. But realize the headcount's spread over a wide swath of land set between the Wando River and Intracoastal Waterway, says Jennifer Maher, agent with Coldwell Banker United, Realtors.

"It definitely has gone up for sure, year over year. But I think it's a healthy growth, definitely supply and demand," Maher says. She is listing 1412 Lagoon Park Circle, a 4,000 square foot house with three downstairs bedrooms, two more on the second floor and a finished room over the garage in Hamlin Plantation for $639,700. (An open house will be held there 2-4 p.m. Sunday).

"Mount Pleasant is where people live and raise their family," she says.

There's no question that home sales and prices continue to climb in communities closer to the Ravenel Bridge, too. But the swifter growth pace is taking place in the far-reaching expanses from Park West to Oyster Point, Brickyard to Carolina Park and dozens of neighborhoods big and small in between.

"I'm constantly watching the market," says Julie Mulligan, a Realtor with Carolina One Real Estate. In northern Mount Pleasant, "Homes are selling quickly in the $500,000 range," she says.

Those sales include new residences. Georgia-based builder Ashton Woods Homes has six scattered home sites left to sell in Darrell Creek before "rolling right into" a new phase of 35 homes now under development, says Marion Campbell, company spokesperson.

"We will be in there in September," she says. Home prices typically run in the mid-$500,000s. The houses are on spacious half-acre lots, and there's a community crabbing dock.

"Obviously, it's a wonderful location, a Mount Pleasant address, a little more secluded," Campbell says. "It's got big huge trees, sophisticated not stuffy, like a personal retreat."

Realtors offer mixed opinions about upper Mount Pleasant's housing picture now.

"Well, that market overall, the average price is up slightly from last year," Derrickson says. "The number of homes sold (and) under contract is about the same. Inventory is up 10 percent compared with the same time last year."

She continues, "I would say that the prices are leveling off, the pace slowing, which is good for buyers." For sellers, northern Mount Pleasant's "lower end" homes pricewise at $200,000 to $300,000 are doing well, Derrickson says.

Tyler, who says the strongest market he's seen is in the $400,000 range, notes that the recent uptick in new home building puts the upper reaches of the town in a one-of-a-kind position.

"Northern Mount Pleasant is the only place for someone to go for a variety of price points for new construction," he says.

To reach the outer limits of Mount Pleasant from downtown Charleston, get on the Ravenel Bridge and stay in the left two lanes for Highway 17. Follow the highway for about six miles, going beneath the I-526 overpass. Highway 41 is ahead on the left. Neighborhoods such as Rivertowne, Planters Pointe and Dunes West can be found on Highway 41. Continue north of Highway 17 to Park West, Carolina Park, Charleston National and Darrell Creek among others. Take a right on Hamlin Road to Rifle Range Road and locate Hamlin Plantation, the new Oyster Point and other neighborhoods.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.

MOUNT PLEASANT AT A GLANCE

Location: Charleston County

Number of homes: 15,000-20,000 (less than half in upper Mount Pleasant)

Square footage: 577-10,711

Look & feel: As a sprawling town, Mount Pleasant offers a bevy of neighborhood styles, price ranges and ages. Homes date back to the late 18th century in the Old Village edging Charleston Harbor, high-rise condos alight near the Ravenel Bridge. Many communities sport live oaks, magnolias and other native foliage. Family neighborhoods predominate, as well as a few seniors subdivisions and a host of townhome and condo villages. In upper Mount Pleasant, planned communities such as Park West showcase schools, athletic fields, trails and recreation centers as well as hundreds of homes. Most of neighboring Dunes West is gated and scores of million-dollar homes in Park West, Dunes West and Rivertowne among others border on deep water. Charleston National is among the communities with a golf course. New neighborhoods are springing up along U.S. Highway 17 and on Rifle Range Road. Carolina Park planned community will have 1,500 homes when completed. Most of the communities have been raised within the past 30 years or so, and the bulk of houses for sale are brand new or less than a decade old.

Homes on market: 1,039 (about half in upper Mount Pleasant)

List prices: $74,900-$5,750,000

Schools: Belle Hall, James B. Edwards, Jennie Moore, Pinckney, Whitesides elementary; Mt. Pleasant Academy; Laurel Hill Primary; East Cooper Montessori Charter; Cario, Laing, Moultrie middle; Wando High.

Fun facts: There are about 10 students per teacher in Mount Pleasant, according to Sperling's Best Places; Mount Pleasant as of 2009 had 173 law enforcement employees - roughly 2 officers per every 1,000 town residents, according to WhyMtPleasant.com.