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A $400,000 budget buys . . .

Times Staff Writer

TRYING to find an affordable home in today’s market is, for many buyers, like searching for a 50-cent cuppa joe in a Java Chip Frappuccino world.

Though prices have stabilized in recent months, the Southland remains one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. Still, there are pockets where home values have merely crept up instead of rocketed ahead at warp speed. You just have to know where to look.

With the median price of a home -- the point at which half of all homes sell for more, half for less -- at $492,000 in Southern California in July, the word “affordable” is relative, of course. But buyers willing to tackle some renovation, live in tighter quarters or, in some cases, spend more time commuting to their jobs still can find homes for under $400,000.

They’re in more remote places such as Colton and Beaumont and in well-established towns, such as San Bernardino, Redlands, Riverside and Watts. Sometimes they’re tucked into more expensive enclaves, such as the Belmont Heights, Alamitos Beach and downtown areas of Long Beach -- where a 560-square-foot Craftsman that’s 2 1/2 blocks from the beach is listed for $350,000. There also are parts of Pomona, Azusa and San Pedro where bargains beckon.

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Cindy and James Carlson found one. The couple, employees of Converse Inc. in Ontario and the parents of six children, were squeezed into a three-bedroom apartment in Colton for several years before they started looking for a single-family house in April. They looked first in Colton -- a San Bernardino County town of 51,000 about halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Palm Springs -- and made an offer on the house they recently purchased. Stuck in multi-bid limbo for several weeks, they offered $500 more than their original bid and got the house for $360,000. The sellers paid $8,000 toward closing costs.

The two-story, four-bedroom home -- close to the 10 Freeway on a quiet cul-de-sac -- features a game room, renovated garage and kitchen, and landscaped yard with mature palm trees. The home is about 10 years old.

Along Foothill Boulevard -- the old Route 66 -- east of Upland into the city of San Bernardino, there are neighborhoods established 75 years ago that have remained largely unchanged in the last couple of decades. That means no Starbucks or Gap stores, but these pockets promise future home appreciation as new families buy the old homes and improve the neighborhoods, which would encourage more upscale shops and eateries to move in.

Tania and Luis Induni recently bought their two-bedroom, one-bath home in San Bernardino for $268,000, sparing Tania a move to Keller, Texas, where her truck-driver husband saw equivalent properties for $150,000, she said. With her extended family ensconced near her new home, the 32-year-old stay-at-home mother was relieved to find something they could afford.

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Adding to the Inland Empire allure is the planned eastern extension of the 210 Freeway, which, when done, will connect Redlands to Pasadena. Still, lower prices are what draw most to the Inland Empire.

In Verdemont and environs -- northeast of Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County -- about 62 homes recently were listed for sale on the Multiple Listing Service in the $350,000-to-$400,000 range, most with three bedrooms, two baths and lot sizes of 7,500 square feet, said Tracy Malone, a ZipRealty Inc. district director for San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Riverside County still has a few deals too.

Those willing to live on the far edge of the county can find good prices in Beaumont, a town of 16,000 in the San Gorgonio Pass, well stocked with homes under $400,000 near two golf courses.

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Nelson Arana, a 37-year-old social services employee, and his wife Jenisse, 33, a social worker, recently paid $387,000 for a new three-bedroom, three-bath home in 2,250 square feet there. He and his wife are transferring their jobs -- in Hollywood -- to within eight miles of their home.

“We looked in Los Angeles for 2 1/2 months and gave up,” Nelson said. “I had to reassure my wife that there was a house for us, and we found it.”

Karla and Carlos Estevez landed their bargain home closer to the urban hub. Karla, 23, an office receptionist and Carlos, 25, a Home Depot clerk, found their four-bedroom, two-bath house -- in 1,300 square feet -- in Pomona after living in an Azusa apartment for a year.

The light-yellow stucco home surrounded by a white wrought-iron fence is on a mostly residential street off the 10 Freeway in the southern part of the city, so traffic noise can be an issue. But the house, built in 1995 and in move-in condition, was just what they wanted, Karla said. The $405,000 price tag was a relief after their initial look at $500,000 homes in Rialto and Fontana, Karla said.

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Azusa, Long Beach

Head into the San Gabriel Valley, and the best bargains are in Azusa, said Marty Rodriguez, a veteran Century 21 agent in Glendora. There, buyers still can find tiny homes for $365,000 to $405,000.

“If you like flat-roof houses and some wild colors, you can find an old fixer in 700 square feet,” Rodriguez said. The upside is the proximity to downtown L.A. The nearby towns of Monrovia, Glendora and Arcadia offer the more upscale shopping and restaurants Azusa lacks.

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If smaller, older homes appeal, pockets of Watts might fill the bill. The area is poised to see more of a home-appreciation boost, even as prices in most of the Southland have peaked, said John Karevoll, chief analyst at DataQuick Information Systems, a La Jolla-based real estate research firm.

Houses there typically were built in the 1930s, are stucco or wood and sometimes occupy lots next to a new home. The area is seeing an influx of younger families with higher incomes, a phenomenon that often triggers higher home prices. In the neighborhoods that include Hickory and Grape streets and Lou Dillon Avenue, between 105th and 115th streets, buyers can find two- and three-bedroom single-family homes in 800 square feet for $300,000. The area is full of families, and as the crime rate has fallen, home values have risen, said Daniel Alvarez, an American Properties agent in Watts.

“I have buyers who went from here to the Inland Empire or Palmdale, but work in L.A. and can’t stand the commute,” Alvarez said. “Within a year and a half, they move back here.”

Palmdale and Lancaster long have offered lower-priced housing. Buyers still can find less expensive homes there but may risk purchasing a sapling that never grows. Because the economy there is weaker than in the rest of Southern California -- it lacks a diverse job center, which the Inland Empire now has -- and many residents travel great distances to get to cultural and economic activity, a downturn in the economy could have a broader effect there.

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Longtime Coldwell Banker agent Mark Gilbert recently represented the seller of a three-bedroom Lancaster home that sold for $279,000. A three-bedroom home across the street also sold for $285,000, he said. The farther out in the Antelope Valley -- in Tehachapi, Rosamond, California City and Acton, for example -- the better the bargains.

Finally, for those who prefer ocean breezes and a more exciting cultural ambience, Long Beach could be the answer. Some neighborhoods still have not fulfilled their appreciation promise, but be prepared to jam into small living spaces, said Main Street Realtors agent Geoff McIntosh.

Long Beach’s downtown has seen a recent renaissance and higher prices, attracting younger, wealthier professionals. But the downtown also has a family-oriented neighborhood in the northern section. This higher-density quarter, which includes attached housing, has two-bedroom, two-bath homes in 700 square feet for sale for $390,000, McIntosh said.

The south side of Belmont Heights has one-bedroom, one-bath homes, including one in 556 square feet for sale for $264,500. And Alamitos Beach, which is 2 1/2 miles from the shore, has a one-bedroom home in 560 square feet for sale for $350,000. A two-bedroom home there with 740 square feet is listed for $390,000.

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“Compare these prices to homes in the other beach cities -- Manhattan, Hermosa, Seal and Redondo -- and you’ll see Long Beach has incredible value,” McIntosh said.

There’s still hope, evidently, when it comes to Southern California real estate. Or, as Cindy Carlson, the new Colton homeowner put it: “Eventually, if you look hard enough, you’ll find something right for you.”


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