Claudia Arias never thought she could afford to buy a house on a secretary's salary.
But declining home prices allowed Arias and her husband, Mauricio, to close March 4 on a three-bedroom house in Clovis for $137,000. Four years ago, that home would have cost nearly twice as much.
"I never imagined I'd be in a house," said Claudia Arias, 39. "I thought I wasn't going to qualify."
For people like Arias, the dismal housing market is anything but a nightmare. The combination of low home prices and interest rates is opening the door to homeownership for people who have not had the opportunity before.
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Federal and local government programs also are making it easier to own a home with a low down payment.
In Fresno County, 80% of first-time homebuyers -- those who have not owned a house in at least three years -- can afford to purchase an entry-level home, according to the California Association of Realtors. That is up from 39% in 2005, during the housing boom.
That doesn't mean the homebuying process is any easier. Lenders are stricter about approving home mortgages. Home-sales transactions also can be lengthier depending on the type of sale. There also is more competition for homes. Cash buyers or investors often pull houses away from traditional buyers.
Yet the opportunity to buy a home never has been better, real estate experts say. "That's what's nice about this market," said Patrick Conner, president and broker at London Properties. "People that have a solid, moderate income can afford to buy a great home."
Fresno is known for being one of the most affordable places in California to buy a home.
But during the housing boom, many Fresno buyers were shut out of the market. The median home price topped off at about $300,000 at the end of 2005, according to DataQuick, a real estate research company. Then the market went bust. Home sales plummeted and prices followed. The median price for an existing home in February was $133,000, according to DataQuick.
John Shore, president of the nonprofit Community Housing Council, never has seen interest rates so low or the affordability index so high. Shore has more than 25 years of experience in the real estate industry as a broker and mortgage lender.
Fresno's first-time homebuyer affordability index -- which calculates the percentage of households with income sufficient to buy a house with a 10% down payment -- is among the highest statewide at 80%.
Merced County comes in higher with 86% of first-time homebuyers able to afford a home. Sacramento County and the high desert area are also above 80%, according to the California Association of Realtors.
In Fresno, the numbers tell the story. A buyer could make as little as $1,750 a month, or $21,000 a year, to buy a home for $80,000 or less, Shore said citing numbers from the Fresno Multiple Listing Service.
That buyer could use a Federal Housing Administration mortgage loan, which only requires a 3.5% downpayment, or about $2,800 down.
A person can qualify for a mortgage loan as long as debts are low and the credit score is good, said Michelle Walker, senior loan officer at U.S. Mortgage Home Loan Center in Fresno. But today's buyers need to provide full income documentation, she said.
A person with an annual income of $25,000 or more could qualify for a condominium or a home below $100,000, Walker said.
First-time homebuyers seem to be leading the pack of buyers. Cash investors also have a strong presence in the market, picking up low-priced foreclosure homes. About 44% of all homebuyers statewide were first-time buyers in 2010, a leap from 27% during the peak of the market in 2006, according to the Association of Realtors.
Walker is seeing more young, first-time buyers in her office who are attracted by FHA loans and other similar programs. Mortgage giant Fannie Mae has a HomePath Loan program with a low downpayment option, and the city of Fresno has a downpayment-assistance program, Walker said.
Home sellers are giving buyers an incentive, too, by contributing between 3.5% and 6% to closing costs, Walker said. "Guidelines aren't that restrictive," Walker said. "It's a matter of saving a little money for a downpayment."
Claudia Arias lived in San Francisco for 17 years and tried house hunting there before moving to Clovis in 2007. A three-bedroom home in San Francisco was about $500,000, Arias said.
To pay the $4,000 monthly mortgage, Arias would have needed to buy the home with the help of her mother and siblings.
"Now that I live here in Clovis, I realized how good the opportunity is for people like me who only makes $35,000 a year to qualify and purchase a three-bedroom house," said Arias, a secretary for the Central California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Arias started saving money last year to cover closing costs and have at least a $5,000 downpayment for a house. She was renting an apartment for $950 a month. Arias started her search in November with a budget of $125,000.
She found a home near Willow and Ashlan.
"I am very excited," Arias said. "If we were to stay in San Francisco, we would never be able to buy a house."
When home prices started to drop, Lisa Criswell knew it was time to start looking for a house. She planned to save money this year for a downpayment and buy in two years.
But she was attracted by the affordable loan options with a low downpayment at Wathen-Castanos' Capri Court neighborhood in Clovis. She bought a two-bedroom home for $197,000 and moved in a week ago. The home's price had recently dropped from $215,000, Criswell said.
"I had been wanting to buy a house for me and my daughter," said Criswell, 21, an account manager at a market research firm who makes a little less than $45,000 a year. "I knew the chances of buying were good."
Kaci Robinette, 26, didn't think she could buy a house so soon after graduating from Fresno State three years ago. But after working as a human resources manager for Target since then, Robinette decided it was time to invest for the future.
She started visiting new model homes for ideas, but didn't plan to buy a house until next year.
The homes at McCaffrey's Braden Court in Clovis caught her eye. The sales associates helped her crunch the numbers, and she qualified for a three-bedroom, 21/2-bathroom house for $225,000. Her monthly mortgage will be around $1,500 including property tax and insurance.
Robinette expected to pay $250,000 or more for a new home. The house is under construction and will be ready by the middle of April.
"I was shocked," Robinette said. "I was just looking and thinking of what I needed to plan for a year from now. I had no idea I would walk in and get a new home."