Low End, High Price The search for an affordable house

By Royal Calkins
Featured photo by Vernon McKnight

On a recent Sunday, while potential buyers were checking out open houses in Carmel with price tags exceeding $6 million, other buyers were visiting more austere homes about 25 miles away, in Salinas.

The cheapest that October day was a 1,400-square-footer on the north side of town. Despite a crumbling roof above the carport, a brown lawn, a cramped backyard and no amenities worth advertising, the asking price was $305,000.

It wasn’t that long ago, 15 or 20 years ago, that someone buying a $300,000 house was said to be in the upper middle class. No more. Neighbors of the $305,000 Salinas house said it appeared that the only lookers had been investors or real estate people.

“I haven’t seen anyone that looked like a family,” said Eddie Mosqueda, who was pumping iron in the garage of his cousin’s house on the same block. “I don’t know many families that can afford $300,000 for a house that no one would want to live in.”

The newspapers tell us with some frequency about the median price of homes, in California — up by $120,000 in just the past three years. But relatively little attention is paid to houses at the bottom of the price spectrum, the houses that working families could buy if only they could come up with five-figure down payments.

The cheapest Salinas house on the Multiple Listing Service last week was a $200,000 cottage on Pearl Street that, unfortunately, has “no heating.” For that house, a $40,000 down payment would leave the buyer with a mortgage of just under $1,000 a month.

Near the bottom of the price pile was a 500-square-footer in Boronda Meadows. The listing agent mentioned in an advertising blurb that it was built without a foundation and that only cash offers were being considered.

While the $305,000 north Salinas house was open for inspection, a real estate salesman in Wichita, Kansas, was greeting would-be buyers at a $305,000 house. It’s a 3,000-square-footer with three bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms.

The high cost of housing along the Central Coast is an issue for all but the wealthiest among us, but for those at the low end of the income scale, trying to find something affordable to buy can be impossible.

Here’s what a look at the listings tells us about other spots in the area:


Aptos: Scan the listings and this $99,000 offering jumps right out at you until you read the details. It’s in a nice spot in the woods but it has been red-tagged, has no utilities and will cost $25,000 to hook up the water.

Two condos are priced in the mid $400,000s and there is a four-bedroom house available for $525. “Close to freeways.” It goes up, way up, from there.

Watsonville: A condo, 685 square feet, for $265,000. One house just below $300,000, cute and cozy, but it’s in a senior citizen complex.

Santa Cruz: The best price on the market is a condo about the same size as the Watsonville offering at a cost only $34,000 higher. Might be the bargain of the county. The lowest priced house — $499,000 in Happy Valley outside town, a rustic abode featuring a bathroom with white shingled walls.

Corralitos: The lowest price, $499,000 for a nice and rustic 1,400-square-foot charmer.

Boulder Creek: Current listings show 10 houses at less than $400,000 in Boulder Creek, a relatively affordable spot in commuting distance to Santa Cruz or Silicon Valley. The cheapest, two bedrooms, two baths in 1,200 rustic square feet.


You can hear the ocean from this $6 million house in Carmel.

Photo | Royal Calkins


Monterey: The Multiple Listing Service’s lowest priced listing for Monterey last week was a $385,000 condo on Casanova Street south of the fairground. The cheapest house was a Hawthorne Street cabin with just 440 square feet but with a view and “potential,” a common description at this price point. Asking price $395,000.

Pacific Grove: Nothing available below $500,000.  The best price, a $525,000 house with 480 square feet. That’s about 20 feet by 24. The good news is that the driveway is long enough to accommodate two cars.

Carmel:  If you’re on a budget, don’t look here.  The only places costing less than $500,000 are in senior citizen complexes. There is one listing at $189,000 but it’s for a cabin in a private compound south of town and it can’t be used as a primary residence.

Pebble Beach: Topping the listings here is an oceanfront house with a whopping price tag of $41.8 million. At 8,862 square feet, it’s 18 times larger than the 480-square-footer in P.G. At the low end last week was a $649,000 condo.

Seaside: Prices in relatively affordable places like Seaside and Salinas have been driven up by investors. Some investment firms have computer programs that automatically generate a full-price bid for anything that comes on the market below a certain price.

The cheapest MLS listing last week was a 739-square-foot house on Kenneth Street, at  $410,000. The sort of good news for hopeful buyers is that there were 20 houses available below $500,000.

Marina:  The lowest price was for a two-bedroom condo on Seacrest. It’s $310,000.

Salinas: The lowest priced Salinas condo last week was going for $179,000. A small place on Pearl Street was the cheapest house, at $200,000. The biggest problem, it lacks any heating. Someone making a $40,000 down payment on this one would have monthly mortgage payments of about $990.

The next cheapest Salinas house was $242,000. It’s not quite 500 square feet and it was built in 1940 without a foundation.

Prunedale: One building lot is available for $279,000 and another for $325,000. The least expensive house, the only one listed for less than $400,000, is a two-bedroom place that looks like a conventional house at first glance but turns out to be an older mobile home. The garage was converted to a living room but without a permit, so the owner plans to convert it back. It’s $397,000. For that price, you could buy a 3,100-square-foot model home in one of Fresno’s best neighborhoods or a four-bedroom beauty on two acres in Cleveland.

Soledad: Prices dip somewhat as you drive south of Salinas, but not by as much as you might expect. Condos there start at $175,000 but the median price for a house is $380,000. There are several houses listed between $300,000 and $400,000.

Gonzales: At first, this city looked like the bargain of bargains, but it turned out that the listings were actually for another Gonzales in Louisiana. In our Gonzales, houses sold recently for $199,000 and $265,000. The lowest price for an available house was $444,900 for a relatively solid tract house in a decent subdivision.

King City: The current market starts at $200,000 for a pleasant-looking, 1,000-square-foot house, which does have a foundation.

Good luck.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.