Just beyond a Safeway parking lot, my early morning walk takes me into an older housing development. The homes are on small lots, about...

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Just beyond a Safeway parking lot, my early morning walk takes me into an older housing development. The homes are on small lots, about 60 feet wide. They are well-tended, with lovely plantings. Enormous irises are in full bloom.

The size and design of the houses — they are ranch homes, 1,100 to 1,400 square feet — say they were built in the early 1950s. Most have single-car garages.

A house painter in coveralls walks toward me, and we start to talk. I learn the house behind me is his, that he bought it nearly 30 years ago for $17,500 and that he has improved it by adding a family room. Like its landscaping and small lawn, the house appears to be in perfect condition. In much of America, it would sell for about $150,000.

“How much do you think your house is worth?” I ask.

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“Prices are crazy here,” he says. “About $900,000.”

Somehow, I am not shocked. This is California. A compulsive reader of area home guides, I know that $300 a square foot is basic, $400 is routine, and figures way over that are common.

People are selling in Marin County, to the south, to take advantage of the “bargains” here. Indeed, a day later I describe the house and neighborhood to a real-estate agent. She informs me $900,000 is a bit high.

“It’s more likely worth about $800,000,” she says.

An advertisement from a Russian River real-estate agent offers: “Rural Sebastopol. Beautiful sunny view lot with older mobile home. Approximately 1/2-acre lot. Mobile is in good condition (for its age) and has large spacious rooms and covered patio. $350,000.”

It may not sell for that, of course. But I can’t help thinking about a house in suburban Austin, Texas, that has been for sale since last summer.

The development offers bike paths, community pools and tennis courts, and an occasional view of Lake Travis. Like Lake Wobegon, all of the children there are above average, probably because at least one of their parents works for Dell Computer.

This particular house has one of those distant Lake Travis views from the master bedroom, 3,500 square feet of living space, a large lot and 2 ½ baths, but it has no takers at $300,000.

The real issue, however, isn’t the stunning differences in price from one location to another. It’s the paycheck gap. California is full of working-stiff houses with fat-cat price tags.

Visit a Web site like www.bankrate.com and you can play with one of the many “How much house can you afford?” calculators. Its calculator tells me that if you have a 20 percent down payment — that’s an impressive $160,000 on an $800,000 home — and can get a 30-year mortgage at 5 percent interest, you’ll need an income of about $13,000 a month to qualify for the necessary mortgage.

This assumes that real-estate taxes are only 1/2 of 1 percent of value, that insurance is relatively cheap and that you’ve managed to avoid any consumer debt that might reduce the amount you can borrow.

So you’d need an income of $156,000 a year to buy that house for $800,000.

How much would you bet the owner doesn’t earn that much? Though some painting contractors do very well, I’ve never met a painter who earns $156,000 a year. Indeed, fewer than 5 percent of all income-tax returns report that much. Most get there by having two earners.

Basically, California is a state where few of the homeowners would qualify to buy the houses they already own. This is good for them, if they have plans to sell their homes and move out of state.

But it makes you wonder who — and where — the next buyer is.

Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent to Scott Burns at The Dallas Morning News, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265; by fax at 214-977-8776; or by e-mail at scott@scottburns.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.