Every year, Northern Virginia governments dutifully tell residents what an average home in their community costs. It is called the average assessed value, a mystical figure that many families say certainly doesn't match their idea of what an average home should cost.

This year, those figures ranged from $81,000 in Fairfax County to $105,000 in Arlington County.

But what kind of house could you really buy for the average price?

To answer that question, The Washington Post visited five Northern Virginia communities and looked at homes ranging from $85,000 in Fairfax City to $105,000 in Arlington County, the closest we could get to official average assessed values for 1981.

What we found was a reasonable number of homes in those price range -- but nothing that could be considered a castle. In fact, if you are counting on a large house (four or more bedrooms), close to Washington, with "character," there is only one caution: buyer be disappointed.

A house in the "average" price range, according to our weekend tour of homes, probably will have less than 1,300 square feet of living space, no more than three bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths, no garage and will be on a sliver of land.

To buy a house in the $95,000 to $100,000 range, you would need at least a $5,000 downpayment. And to qualify for a conventional 15 to 15 1/4 percent loan, your annual income would have to be about $58,000 a year. That assumes, of course, that you have no other debts. Finally, if you were able to meet those requirements, you could count on monthly payments of about $1,300, including taxes, which on the houses we saw ranged from about $900 to $1,100 a year.

"What you're talking about are starter houses or houses for couples without children," said Maxine Boykin, who sells real estate in Northern Virginia. Moments earlier, when asked where a family could find a four-bedroom home in good repair for less than $100,000, Boykin paused, then laughed.

Unless the buyer is coming in from California, New York City or Connecticut, they are in for a total shock. There are a few little colonials and some ramblers, but the buyer looking for those characterisitics is going to have to go farther out than the immediate area," Boykin said.

One man recently asked Boykin to help him find a $100,000 home. After several weeks of looking and after going past the fringes of Fairfax County with no success, he became so disgusted he turned down a promotion, packed his bags and went home to Kentucky, where he did have the home of his dream -- for $100,000.

If you are looking for a three-bedroom home in line with average assessments in Northern Virginia, the best values we found here in the Del Ray area of Alexandria and the Chantilly area of Fairfax County.

In tree-lined Del Ray, we found a sunny, two-story Dutch colonial with 1,100 square feet of living space, three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths on a 7,500 square foot lot for $97,000. There were some drawbacks: the house was less than a block from a busy thoroughfare and looked out on the back of a parking lot.

When we asked where you could find a new home for an "average" price, nearly every real estate salesman contacted just laughed and pointed south. We did find one housing development in the Chantilly area of Fairfax County -- at least a 45-minute drive from Washington -- offering five homes for $89,950. What we saw were floor plans -- since the homes are not actually built yet -- with only 1,100 square feet of living space.

For ambience, there is no place better in Northern Virginia than Old Town Alexandria, south of Washington Street. But what you pay for in ambience, you may lose in space. For $94,500, five blocks from the heart of Old Town we found a 100-year-old clapboard townhouse, with 800 square feet of living space. Said one salesman of fashionable Old Town, "Sure, you can find a house in Old Town for under $100,000, but basically what you've talking about is a shell with doors."

Although the survey was not scientific, we looked for a few major features: At least two bedrooms, within walking distance of a school, near a diversified shopping center and near public transportation.

Here is a look at what we found: Alexandria

The average assessed value of a single-family home is more than $100,000 in Alexandria. But that figure, particularly in Alexandria, is deceiving. Prices in this historic area run the full gamut: from $40,000 for homes along Rte. 1 to $750,000 in Old Town. In fact, real estate salesman say there is no "average home" in Alexandria.

One area where buyers can find a cluster of $100,000 homes, most real estate firms agree, is Del Ray near Mount Vernon Avenue and Rte. 1, a few blocks south of Arlington.

The values in Del Ray, and the friendly atmosphere of this tree-lined community already have captured the attention of young professionals attracted by the notion of "more house for the money." Most of the homes are at least 50 years old and have that all-important intangible known as "character." Nearby Mount Vernon Avenue is undergoing intense redevelopment and stores are within walking distance. But, observers note, there could be one drawback if you aren't a handyman or loaded with money: a Del Ray home is likely to need extensive remodeling.

"People who are attracted to Del Ray are people looking for something a little out of the ordinary," says longtime Del Ray Realtor Barbara Dill. "They're people willing to put a little time and money into their homes."

Dill recently showed us two possibilties, both near the "average" price: a two-story home on Hemlock Avenue for $95,000, and the previously mentioned Dutch colonial on E. Randolph Avenue, which recently sold for $97,000.

The Dutch colonial, on the corner of the heavily traveled Mount Vernon Avenue, was a spacious two-story home whose openess belied the 1,100 square feet. The first floor was broken up subtly into four rooms by arches and glass doorways and reminded us of an airy farmhouse. The kitchen, however, was small and ill-equipped with aging equipment and few cupboards. Said Dill, "For this price, it's about as good a kitchen you'll find."

Upstairs, the most attractive feature was a 7 1/2-by-10-foot bathroom. The three bedrooms were average to small, but once again large windows created a sense of spaciousness.

Last year, taxes totaled more than $900. Arlington

At $105,000, Arlington has the highest average assessment in Northern Virginia, but it is close to Washington. That makes is particularly attractive to buyers who want to be near the nation's capital without the bustle of city living and the higher city taxes.

Real estate salesman Louis Umlauf has sold quite a few homes in North Arlington near N. Jefferson Street. Although it is close to a major commuter route -- Lee Highway -- and good bus lines, a zigzagging network of residential streets give the area a sense of privacy. Umlauf says the area is very popular with young couples looking for a "starter home."

"If you had around $100,000 to spend, it's one of the very best homes I'd take you to," Umlauf said of a two-story, red-brick house in the 2100 block of N. Jefferson St.

The sellers are asking $102,000 for the three-bedroom home, which includes 1 1/3 bathrooms (the one-third) is a toilet only) and less than 1,000 square feet of living space. It has a large living room -- 18 feet by 13 feet -- and an enclosed sun porch. There is no garage.

One of the major drawbacks of the house was its lack of individuality. Almost every other house in the area has the same brick exterior and floor plan.

In South Arlington, we found a house on S. 16th Street that had all the individuality the homes on N. Jefferson lacked. Described as a split-level rambler, the house was the largest we inspected -- nearly 1,400 square feet -- and was selling for $105,000. There were three small bedrooms and a newly remodeled kitchen, complete with a Corningwave stove and a breakfast nook. The kitchen was the best feature of the house, while the remaining rooms wound around the house and at times seemed to be ill-placed -- two bedrooms, for instance, were on either side of the living room.

The house was probably one of the best situated in terms of being close to major thoroughfares -- Glebe Road intersects S. 16th and Columbia Pike is only a few blocks away -- and there is also a large shopping plaza within walking distance.

Taxes were $960 last year.

Said realtor Irene Damson, "This is one of the most unusual houses in Arlington that you'll find for this kind of money. Most people come in here looking for three large bedrooms, individuality, a good kitchen, a fireplace and a 'nice neighborhood.' They learn very quickly to do with much less. This house, at least, has a lot of those features."

In Falls Church, where the average assessment is $95,400, we found one of the most charming houses on our tour. It was in the 3300 block of Annandale Road, near Fairfax County, and was listed at $98,000.

What made the house unusual was the floor plan. Downstairs, a large living room, made even larger by a 10-feet-wide window and a full length fireplace, bordered a cozy sitting room and a dining area that ran the full length of the house. An arched kitchen window looked out on a flower and rock garden.

The house is advertised as coming with three bedrooms, we found two bedrooms and a wide arched passageway, which the current owner uses as a joint sewing and sitting room. Still, the roof-top windows and slanted ceilings in both of the "real" bedrooms conveyed a charming warmth.

Taxes on the house, described as a Cape Cod, were $1,145 last year.

One of the more disappointing houses we visited carried two tantalizing descriptions: "dramatic vaulted ceiling" and "overlooks woods." What we found, however, was dark and damp.

After a quick look at the three small bedrooms and the tiny box kitchen, we scurried out, grateful we didn't have the $92,000 asking price.

The vaulted ceiling, by the way, was about eight feet at its highest point, according to the real estate salesman.

Taxes were almost $1,100 last year. Fairfax -- City and County

If you're new to this area, you may be somewhat confuses about Fairfax City and Fairfax County. For the record, Fairfax County is that large mass of urban area that surrounds Arlington. and Alexandria. It also surrounds the small and independent jurisdiction of Fairfax City.

That explanation aside, you won't find much difference in the average assessments for the two areas: in Fairfax County, that figure is $81,000, and in Fairfax City, it is $83,000.

One salesman showed us an impeccably kept one-story home with a remodeled basement in Fairfax City, selling for $84,950, on Carolyn Avenue just off Little River Turnpike.

Unfortunately, it looked like nearly every other home in the neighborhood: a box, red-brick colonial.

The bedrooms were small; the largest was 11.9 by 11 feet. The newly remodeled kitchen was small, too, but one of the best equipped and most expensively outfitted we saw. There were strong wooden chopping boards for counters, open shelves and new appliances. Everything glistened.

A finished basement consisted of a family room with a fake fireplace and a den. There was also a work room and laundry room.

The house would be well-suited to a young family with two small children, but is not ideal for families any larger.

"I had a Marine couple from Georgia in the other day and they asked what they could get for their money -- around $90,000 -- and when I showed them what it would buy, their mouths fell open," said one real estate saleswoman. "They kept thinking there has got to be more, they kept looking around corners. But there really isn't anything more."

Since Fairfax County is the land of new developments, we asked to see a new home. We were quite impressed with the model we saw in Chantilly -- until we found out it was $120,000, nearly $40,000 more than the price range we were interested in.

For $89,850, the salesman said the developer would be willing to build a similar house. How similar? we asked. Well, it wouldn't be two-story, and it would only have three bedrooms instead of four. And a finished basement would be optional. And a garage would be optional. Oh, and a fireplace and a deck would be optional. In fact, we finally decided, nearly everything was optional.

But if you are looking for a basic, starter home, it was just the thing. CAPTION: Picture 1, Alexandria (Old Town) $94,500; Picture 2, Alexandra (Del Ray) $97,000; Picture 3, North Arlington $102,000; Picture 4, South Arlington $105,000; Picture 5, Falls Church $92,000; Picture 6, Falls Church $98,000; Picture 7, Fairfax County (Chantilly) $89,950; Picture 8, Fairfax City $84,950; Picture 9, no caption