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The ability of the typical American family to own a home slipped a bit this year, but remained at a level not seen since the early 1970s, a real estate trade group said Tuesday.

The National Association of Realtors said its Housing Affordability Index stood at 140.9 during the first quarter, down from 141.9 in the final three months of 1993. The dip was attributed to the effect of rising mortgage rates.Still, the January-March reading was the second highest since the second quarter of 1973, when the index hit 145.1. And it was well above the 132.5 during the same period a year earlier.

When the Housing Affordability Index measures 100, a family earning the median income has exactly the amount needed to purchase a median-priced, previously owned home, using conventional financing and a 20 percent down pay-ment.

Since the median is the midpoint, the composite index showed that half of the families in the nation had at least 140.9 percent of the income needed to qualify for the purchase of a home with a median price of $107,400.

The median income was $38,310, meaning the typical family could afford a home costing $151,300.

"Despite the recent rise in mortgage rates, affordability conditions remain at a level not seen in more than two decades," said Robert H. Elrod, the association president.

Fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages averaged 7.30 percent during the first three months of the year, up from a 25-year low of 6.74 percent last October, according to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. By last week, they had risen to 8.53 percent, the highest since 8.54 percent June 12, 1992.

However, Elrod contended that home sales continue to increase, indicating "consumers recognize that the conditions are right to purchase a home of their own.

"Current market conditions are expected to remain steady, which could open the home ownership door for thousands of families this year - both first-time and repeat buyers," he said.

But while the typical family's income was well above that needed to buy a home, the Realtors' first-time home buyer index registered just 91.6, up from 86.7 during the first quarter of 1993.

The first-time index shows the ability of renters who are prime potential first-time buyers to qualify for mortgages on starter homes. When it equals 100, the typical first-time buyer can afford the typical starter home under existing financial conditions with a 10 percent down payment.

The qualifying income needed for conventional financing covering 90 percent of a $91,300 starter home was $26,666. Yet the median income of prime first-time buyers was $24,436, a difference of $2,230, meaning that a typical first-time buyer could afford a home costing $89,200.