How much housing bang you can get for $300,000

Remember back in the day -- say, 2007 -- when nice homes with elbow room, a yard, established landscaping and neighborhood amenities cost $500,000 in many U.S. metropolitan areas? In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, for example, getting into that median-priced home involved outbidding other qualified buyers and handwritten letters to sellers on scented stationery.

What a difference a few years and a real estate crash make. While the market "is on the upswing" after scraping the bottom early last year, "it's still turning," says Jed Smith, managing director of quantitative research for the National Association of Realtors, or NAR. Read: Homes aren't going for what they used to. But the market does have a pulse. Especially at the entry level.