Five weeks ago Laurie and Robert Hickerson realized the American dream, but it cost them so dearly that they now can't afford anything to put in it.

The spacious living room of their brand new $73,000 brick rambler is furnished with one solitary orange chair. The kitchen contains a table, two $3 chairs, and a microwave oven. The recreation room has a sofa, a chair, and a stereo. One bedroom is used to store boxes.

The Hickersons are among a growing number of Americans who are house poor.

Hickerson, 32, has started working six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day in his jobs as a telephone repairman to meet his $566 monthly mortgage payments. Mrs. Hickerson, married five weeks, will hang on to her job as a secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

"It hurts to think you have to pay $73,000 for a house," said Mr. Hickerson, whose combined income with his wife last year was $32,000. [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] I probably shouldn't have. I'm plaguing myself with yard work and expenses.

"But I said to myself, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to cost in a few years? I might not be able to afford it later.

"We could have [WORD ILLEGIBLE] hog in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] invested in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "But that's not the thing to do. It's the guy who sits back: who [WORD ILLEGIBLE] take any risk . . . "When he's 34 years-old, he will still be in an apartment or a small house."

So the Hickersons bought their three-bedroom rambler in the Kings Park West subdivision of Fairfax County on May 23, five days before they were married.

Washington area real estate salesmen say the Hickersons are typical of the increasing numbered of young couples who buy expensive houses, saddle themselves with large monthly payments, and find themselves unable to afford much else.

For some of them this means forgoing not only furniture, but weekend trips, movie or theatre tickets a and even children. The phenomenon is known as being house poor.

Sale prices of new homes have increased twice as fast as family incomes, according to a recent national study. And the price for a modest house in the 1980s is expected to escalate beyond $78,000. A majority of middle-class Americans, the study says, will face being shut out of the housing ownership market.

Housing costs have increased phenomenally in the Washington area in recent years. In the 60s, and increase of 5 per cent a year in value was typical. But in the past year or so housing valuues have appreciated on the average, from 10 to 15 per cent each year in the more popular suburbs, according to real estate studies.

U.S. families are now paying 35 per cent or more of their monthly salary for housing costs, rather than the commonly accepted measure of 25 per cent according to a recently released national study.

The typical new home in the Washington area now sells for $58,000 and the average older home for $86,900.

Translated into the realities of monthly payments this means that to buy an average new home a family generally must have $5,800 in cash for a 10 per cent down payment, and make payments of $429.10 a month plus about $100 in taxes and insurance in most jurisdictions.

Ronald D. DeLisi, a real estate salesman in Montgomery Village, said that several years ago, when the town houses there were selling for about $30,000, his customers were young couples with a new baby.

Today, he said, the babies have all but disappeared. "Those same town houses that used to cost $30,000 now sell well into the 50s and 60s, and most of our buyers are couples with two incomes and no children."

Hickerson said that four years ago, he saw the exact model of his $73,000 home "same builder and everything," he said) selling for $48,000.

He said this spring when he and Laurie looked at the house in a subdivision near Braddock Road, he was shocked at the price. "I decided we've better do it (buy) now." For $73,000 the Hickersons got a three-bedroom ranch-style home with a bay window in the kitchen - an attractive feature for the couple. "I like to be able to sit in the kitchen and still see what's going on out front," Hickerson said.

The basement has a wall-to-wall antique brick raised-hearth fireplace at one end of the recreation room with sliding glass doors that open onto a small patio.

The basement has enough space for a dark room, a Ping-Pong table and a pool table - these are some of Hickerson's interest that he can't afford right now.

Ann Delahanty of McLean, who sells home throughout Northern Virginia, said her real estate agents have found that 80 per cent of the prospective home buyers they serve invest in more expensive homes than they thought they could afford when they began looking.

Some of these home buyers find that any undue financial burden such as a child's injury that requires hospitalization, is almost unbearable.

They fear losing their jobs as in the case of Steve Vasquez of Springfield, who recently lost his job as a hotel manager.

"Between unemployment (checks) and a few savings, we're barely scratching (by)," said Vasquez, whose income was the sole support for his $56,000 house.Vasquez has been working odd jobs to meet his monthly mortgage payments.

But, regardless of the escalating costs of houses, people are still investing in homes. More new homes are under construction this year than last.

"The American dream of everybody owning their home is alive and well," said an area realtor.

As Hickerson said, "You feel free and loose . . . You're in own little castle. It's cool. You can run around the basement saying this is mine."