Is California dreamin' finally within your reach? Five beachfront communities that may be affordable

california coastline (OK, so it's central Cali and not Socal. Who'll know?)There's a reason celebrities and just about everyone else want to drop anchor on Southern California's coast. Miles of sun-bleached beaches, year-round great weather, and now, more affordable homes beckon those with cash to spare.

Keep in mind, however, that "affordable" in Malibu isn't the same as "affordable" in, say, Mesa, Ariz. But there are bargains to be had on the golden strand of the Golden State if you look hard enough.

Here are five hard-to-resist SoCal beach communities, with home prices ranging from "I can do that" to "you're kidding, right?":
  • Huntington Beach, Calif., is a good place to start coastal house-hunting. An eight-mile stretch of sparkling beaches helped turn the city, formerly an agricultural area and oil boom town, into "Surf City U.S.A." In the 1960s, biker hangouts, surf shops and penny arcades attracted young people who rented cottages for $75 a month. But let's not look back that far and get depressed. The median price of a single-family home in Surf City in August was $631,634, according to San Diego research firm MDA DataQuick. A good deal, considering it was $825,000 at the peak in January 2007.


  • For an even better bargain, Oxnard, in Ventura County, is about half an hour's drive north from Malibu. Oxnard is strawberry country, and its busy harbor is a gateway to the offshore Channel Islands, a playground for hikers, campers and wildlife enthusiasts. A median-priced Oxnard home in August was $328,000, according to DataQuick, compared with $617,000 at the peak the same month in 2006. A three-bedroom home in 1,841 square feet currently is for sale for $315,000, according to Zillow.com. If you're looking for something on the water, a five-bedroom home in 4,800 square feet is listed for $4 million.
  • Laguna Beach, known for its annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, is a huge draw (prepare to pay). Home to seven miles of shimmering coastline and a history of plein-air art, the median price of a single-family home in August was $1.35 million, compared with $2.25 million in a peak period of April 2006. Homes with beach views can run $30 million; those without views, but near sand, list for about $3 million to $4 million, says Coldwell Banker agent Noel Johnson. Small condos can be snatched up for $600,000 or $700,000. Such a deal!
  • Venice is that funky place with the boardwalk where you feel naked unless covered with tattoos. While the boardwalk never really cleaned up its act -- with Muscle Beach and Ming the Palm Reader here, it would have had a long way to go -- there was some serious product branding going on in the 'hoods. The town has drawn glitterati such as Julia Roberts (who lived on the quaint "Walk Streets") and "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, a canal denizen. Dennis Hopper also called it home. What cost $1.4 million in January this year inched down to $941,250 in August -- still better than Malibu.
  • If Malibu's "do-not-disturb" signs on gated properties don't put you off, home prices probably won't either. In August, buyers forked over $1.95 million for a median-priced home. That's a lot cheaper than the $4.75 million median in May 2005. Talk about bargains: The Rindge family, attracted to the pristine beaches and fresh air, bought the 13,330-acre Spanish land grant, dubbed Rancho Malibu, for a reputed $300,000 in 1891. You couldn't get a garage there for that price today, but you can get a mobile home bungalow for as low as $300,000, according to Pritchett-Rapf & Associates. Surf's up, dude!

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