NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Making fast friends over sand castles...Lying in the surf as the waves wash over you...trying to keep up with Mom or Dad as you comb the shoreline for shells. There's something about the beach that makes childhood memories fonder.
For many people, those mental snapshots are more than just happy moments. They're personal touchstones -- symbols of what good financial planning and a little luck might someday afford them. For the one thing that so many of us want most in life (at least in the material realm) is a home on the beach.
You know the one. It's a cedar-shingled cottage built high on white sandy dunes. There's a weathered walkway to the shore, an outdoor shower on the landing. It's the place where the ocean's sounds waft through open bedroom windows. It's a retreat for family and friends -- where Mom and Dad might someday retire. Above all, it's where children and grandchildren can make sweet memories of their own.
Trouble is, too many people have the same dream. Nearly two-thirds of vacation home shoppers say they'd like to be near an ocean beach, according to EscapeHomes.com. Combine that demand with a fixed supply of coastline, and the result has been beach house prices that are truly stratospheric.
"We're nearing the point where the dream of owning a beach front home is simply not achievable for an average upper-middle-class American," says Van Davis, a onetime vacation home broker who now heads the East Coast realtor Foxtons.
Click here for a gallery of affordable beach homes
Actually, we're well past that point in most locales. In Destin, Fla., for instance, the average asking price for homes on the beach is $2.1 million, according to data compiled for MONEY by Realtor.com. It's $3 million in Bar Harbor, Maine, and $6 million in Malibu, Calif.
"We get calls all the time from people who say that all they want is a little house on the beach, nothing too fancy." says Patty Slater, an agent with Kinlin Grover GMAC Real Estate in Cape Cod, Mass. "It's heartbreaking, but the problem is that even those homes come with a fancy price tag."
Is the great American beach house dream truly dead? MONEY spent several weeks scouring North America for what at first seemed an oxymoron -- an affordable beach house (our definition of affordable: under $500,000).
We consulted with dozens of brokers as well as noted beach expert Stephen Leatherman, an environmental studies professor at Florida International University and author of "America's Best Beaches."
We narrowed our search to five regions that on paper offered the best beach for the buck: the Oregon Coast, North Carolina's Outer Banks, Florida's "Forgotten Coast," the south coast of Texas and Canada's Prince Edward Island. (We passed on Mexico, where homes north of Puerto Vallarta can go for $300,000 to $400,000, because foreigners legally can't own coastal land there; the property must be purchased through a Mexican bank trust, which is renewable every 50 years.)
Then we traveled to each area, and we're happy to report that you needn't be a CEO or a cardiologist to afford a home on the ocean. We saw beachfront houses, townhouses and condos priced from $100,000 to $500,000.
While you won't find perfection in this price range, you can still find a good enough home base to start digging for sand crabs and making future family memories.
Prince Edward Island, Canada
Need a vacation? Click here for MONEY's Best Places to Vacation.
If you DO have a million to spend, here's a look at what you can get.