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About half of Dan Freeman's friends own houses. About half -- like him -- don't. This is how neatly the line can fall. What seemed until recently to be a matter of timing to Mr. Freeman has become a chasm he can't get his family across.

His town, Orange, Calif., is average: a suburb on an outside edge of the Los Angeles sprawl full of the white frame houses and modest stuccoed casas that people came from the Midwestern to live in half a century ago.

With he and his wife both working full time, his kids in junior high, and luxuries like vacation trips already shaved, Dan Freeman can't quite accept the idea that he can't buy a house here. But it's in the numbers, and the Freeman's frustration rises. They need close to $40,000 in combined annual income and some $20,000 down to qualify for a loan that will buy them a house in Orange.

It's not a private problem. Behind it, for many young families, is the sound of a symbol crashing.

Nor is it a California problem. According to Glen Crellin, an economist with the National Association of Realtors, California is a preview of what's to come, sooner or later, for the rest of the nation.

As American dreams go, owning a house is the most popular Americans have had since World War II, and it may have been the dream most people were able to realize. Until Now.

The lawn was a private paean to open space. The living room -- off limits to the kids -- waited shrinelike for the really nice occasion that almost never came. Now some say the grass may be greener if the lawn is shared.

"Home ownership," President Ronald Reagan declared in christening a special commission for affordable housing last month, "is a symbol of the family unit and neigborhood and is essential if we're to have social and economic stability in our land." The problem is that in California, and to an extent elsewhere, the good life seems to have run short. There are too few houses and too many households. And, of course, the houses cost too much for people who don't already have real estate sweeping them ahead of inflation -- or in- laws boosting their fortunes.


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