For singles, young couples and new families just starting out as house hunters, the Summerville area offers at least one alluring perk.

"Obviously, the farther out you get, the bigger the homes for the money," says Jennifer Laffey-Foster, agent with Miler Properties. Greater Summerville, a sprawling suburb, takes in the northern and western edge of the Charleston area.

Even first-time buyers, who may be inclined to scrimp on size as a dollar-saving move, tend to prefer the largest house they can afford practically. "This is America, the bigger the better," she quipped.

It's decent timing, Realtors say. Customers venturing out to buy a home for the first time can leverage their purchases in metro Charleston. Lower interest rates are helping out shoppers looking to land their dream home, even if they're on more limited incomes.

They're jumping at the chance.

"Honestly, it's more exciting the first time, to buy a home. It's a whole new world," Laffey-Foster says.

Even so, the share of value-priced homes in the Charleston market has moderated.

"I'm seeing increased competition, an inventory shortage," says Corwyn Melette, of Corwyn J. Melette and Associates and 2014 president of the Charleston Trident Association of Builders.

He said the $150,000 to $200,000 market stands "very constrained." With demand stable, first-time buyers are finding themselves in "multiple offer situations."

Melette says he doesn't expect the inventory vacuum to be long-term. "I see it shaking itself out, as builders are more comfortable." Already, some contractors are framing speculative homes to give shoppers more choice.

The $200,000 figure gets used as an unofficial cutoff point for properties that would be affordable for most first-time house hunters, says Ron Rash, agent with Elaine Brabham & Associates west of the Ashley.

Rash, who grew up in St. Paul's Parish, says he sees manufactured home purchases as an opportunity for first-time buyers. He's handled a half dozen in the Ravenel and Hollywood areas. Advantages include the price, which can be below $100,000, and the acreage: the pre-fab homes often are on large lots.

"I listed a manufactured home for $169,000. It sold for $150,000, on two acres," Rash says. "I think the manufactured housing industry is great for first-time homebuyers in the Charleston area," he says.

The agent keeps up to speed on financing programs offered through lenders and government agencies. Most programs aren't specific to first-time purchasers, but a number are geared to shoppers on a more limited income.

For manufactured homes, South Carolina Federal Credit Union offers a deal for a 15-year mortgage at competitive prices on a double-wide pre-fab home, Rash says.

Other lending offers are for standard wood frame, synthetic, brick or stucco homes.

"I think the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) has a good program, 3.5 percent down." Whatever the case, Realtors agree that initial house shoppers should educate themselves on the pros and cons of owning and keeping up a house.

Pam Bishop, agent with Carolina One Real Estate, walks first-time homebuyers through the paces.

She takes along a checklist. "I sit them down, tell them about financing before we go out," she says. Then she explains what to look for: age, utility bill costs, insurance payments. Or if the house is near the coast, why do some have to be elevated.

Bishop says she has three or four houses listed in Tanner Plantation in Hanahan. "They're all first-time homebuyers," she says. "That's a great little neighborhood." National and regional home builders raised most of the houses. One of the homes she has on the market stands in the South Cove community of Tanner Plantation. She dubs it "the Charleston single (home) neighborhood with a splash of color."

The two-story 1,783-square-foot house includes three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths and such perks as its location on a pond, stainless steel kitchen appliances, first floor master suite, loft, flex room, screened-in porch and custom landscaping. It's priced at $219,000.

"In Mount Pleasant, you can't get to that price point," she says.

Melette urges prospective first-time homebuyers to "exercise patience" and remain consistent in their shopping strategies. In this market, they may be outbid by up to 30 percent by competing house hunters. "Obviously, first-time homebuyers can get emotional, and sometimes the same with sellers," he said.

As a result, initial home consumers should educate themselves about the market and be flexible, lining up a number of dream homes with the expectation they can land one, he says.

Laffey-Foster finds that first-time home buyers tend to prefer brand new houses over older ones but that's not a hard and fast rule and typically, their choices come down to personal preferences. Even the decision between buying a house or an often lower-cost condo or townhome often boils down to reasons other than price. "It depends on what they are looking for; if they want maintenance (taken care of by a landlord) or not," she says.

Laffey-Foster says her husband is in the military, and many families in the service are first-time buyers locally. They get a chance to settle down after years of moving from base to base.

Although inventories are dropping in the Charleston area, there's still valued-priced homes, condos and townhomes out there.

"There's definitely enough to go around," Laffey-Foster says.

First-time buyers don't have a single source to locate homes where they would qualify to purchase, but the Realtors association lists houses at $200,000 or below on its Multiple Listing Service public information site. Visit www.charlestonrealtors.com.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.