Click photo to enlarge
Realtor David Ormonde shows the kitchen that leads out to the garage at a home for sale on Western Boulevard in Hayward that sold for just under $150,000, on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. (Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)

The median price of a previously owned single-family home in America today is $157,000. What can you get for that in the Bay Area?

Headaches, mostly.

Here, where the median is nearly three times higher than the national, $157,000 will get you a 460-square-foot house in East Palo Alto that would fit inside a Saratoga walk-in closet. Or a two-bedroom in Antioch with mold, a squatter's mattress in the kitchen, the oily remnants of an amateur grease-monkey operation out back, and what looks like a bullet hole dead-center in the front window.

"Bring your tools & imagination to shine this piece of property," the Realtor wrote on the online real estate site Redfin.

Want to spend that $157,000 on a San Jose bungalow on North 13th Street?

No problem.

OK. So there's one small problem.

"Burned house," says the real estate agent's MLS note. "Don't go in!"

"I got the listing in November and we were trying to evict the tenants by giving them cash-for-keys as long as they cleaned the house, but what happened instead is the house caught on fire," said Leonora Cruz with Atlantic & Pacific Real Estate. "I was going to Vegas on business and I'd just landed when they called me and said, 'The house is on fire! The house is on fire!' So the cash-for-keys thing was bye-bye."

It'll actually cost a bit more, since it's going for $166,900, but that's about half the $320,000 it was listed for pre-fire. Which makes sense because, as Cruz points out, "about 50 percent of the house was damaged. The best thing is probably to tear it down. But the basement's OK."

About that basement. Right after the fire, a homeless guy settled in. The broker, who carries a Taser for just such occasions, persuaded him to leave. But the squatter's "things" remain in the dank dark bowels of the bungalow, a scene right out of "The Silence of the Lambs."

Still looking to buy cheap? San Francisco had one listing last week on Redfin for under $175,000. Humbly shoehorned into the city's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood sits the little cottage at 1482 Underwood Ave. It looks cute from the outside. It's when you step into the slightly akimbo structure that things get interesting. For $145,900, you can experience vertigo.

"The house is all crooked," real estate agent Alyce Cardinale said as she stepped inside. "I feel like I'm in 'Alice in Wonderland.' "

She said the place needs $200,000 in work, starting with the foundation and ending with the roof. "Actually," Cardinale said, tiptoeing across a mushy carpet you could almost sink into, "the easiest way to repair this house is to tear it down."

Believe it or not, an interested party may well have competition. Realtors report eager buyers with bags of cash looking for fixer-uppers they can patch up, slap some paint on, then rent out for enough to give them a positive cash flow on their investment, something that was unimaginable in this region when the housing market was on fire.

"Some investors are even looking for 'bulk buys,' " Cruz said, standing outside that blackened San Jose home, aluminum strips dangling from the charred roof like some devilish wind chime. "They scoop up multiple properties, as long as they can get the sales prices down."

Try it yourself. Up in Antioch, that $157,000 will get you not one, but two homes. Write a check for that bank-owned beauty over at 1117 Klengel St., listed for $78,000.

Then take a look at 36 Texas St. Yes, it comes with roosters next door and a guy down the street dismantling his motorcycle on the front lawn. And, yes, you'll have to clear out that squatter's mattress from the kitchen. And maybe, with all that motor oil soaked into the backyard, you'll need the Environmental Protection Agency to sign off on the deal. But for $69,000, what do you expect?

Still, listing agent Adriana Lopez suggests you proceed with caution. And she's not just talking about financing. "You have to be careful going into some of these houses," she said last week, doing exactly that. "Some of these houses are really dangerous. And it's impossible to keep squatters away unless you have a guard posted out front all the time."

You could also move in closer to the bay and check out real estate agent David Ormonde's listing at 22026 Western Blvd. in Hayward. Advertised for $155,000, it's currently in contract. But in this market, that shouldn't stop you from looking because these offers are notorious for falling through, usually when the buyer actually lays eyes on the place.

"A 75-year-old widow had to move out for health reasons, but for at least 40 years this was her little paradise," Ormonde said, stepping inside what he calls a "Contractor's Delight." "With some work, it could be cute, though the railroad tracks and BART line out front are two huge drawbacks. But it's a fairly quiet neighborhood. Except for the train every 10 minutes."

Maybe spend your money near a quality market like Palo Alto. If you'll settle for nearby East Palo Alto, Sarjeet Singh has an intriguing proposition for you. After buying his 460-square-foot home 10 years ago for $285,000, then watching it drop in value to a point where he says only a loan modification from the lender would keep him afloat, Singh is trying to sell the place for $130,000.

"Ideally, I want the bank to loan-modify me," he said. "But I really want to keep the house, so I have to sell it."

Confused? He figures if someone really does offer $130,000, that will force the bank to give him a loan-modification because, after all, Singh's been dutifully paying his loan each month for years, so wouldn't the lender rather work with a good borrower than foreclose on him and end up having to sell the house for an even lower amount to an even more, well, challenging borrower?

But you might want to wait before putting in your bid.

"The lower we keep listing this place, the lower the offers we keep getting," said Singh's real estate agent, Chris Hurchanik. "So I tell buyers 'put in your offer, but don't hold your breath.' "

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689. Follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.

WHAT YOU CAN GET


East Palo Alto
Address: 2169 Addison Ave.
Price: $130,000
The catch: It's 460 square feet

San Jose

Address: 642 North 13th St.
Price: $166,900
The catch: "Burned house," says the note from the realtor. "Don't go in!"


Hayward

Address: 22026 Western Blvd.
Price: $155,000
The catch: "It's a fairly quiet neighborhood. Except for the train every ten minutes," says real estate agent David Ormonde


San Francisco

Address: 1482 Underwood
Price: $145,900
The catch: "The house is all crooked," said realtor Alyce Cardinale