What kind of house can you buy for $180,000 near major cities around the country?

To answer this question, six areas were visited to look at houses that had recently been purchased for about $180,000, a figure considered to be in the price range of a typical middle-management family earning $50,000 a year. Touring suburbs of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh, homes were inspected in comparable communities selected with the help of real estate and relocation specialists.

What $180,000 will buy varied widely. The most home for the money was found in the woodsy Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. An almost-new, two-story brick-and-frame house there contained 3,700 square feet of living space, six bedrooms and four baths. It sat on a 3/4-acre lot bordering a small lake.

The least value for the money was in the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Palos Verdes. There the $180,000 would buy a 20-year-old, ranch-style tract home with only 1,670 square feet and four small bedrooms on a small lot. And the house needed repairs -- "your typical fixer-upper," in the words of a local real estate agent.

Ranking behind Dunwoody in value was the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair, where $180,000 would buy a 3,500-square-foot, five-bedroom colonial house that overlooks a forested valley. In the thriving Dallas suburb of Richardson, a buyer would get a two-year-old brick home with 3,000 square feet and all the latest home gadgetry. In the popular New York commuter suburb of Ridgewood, N.J., the money would purchase a 60-year-old Dutch colonial house in good condition with 3,000 square feet. And in Chicago's North Shore suburb of Northbrook, the price fit an 11-year-old, two-story colonial with 2,040 square feet.

These regional variations in home prices are the result of several factors, experts say. Generally, however, prices tend to climb higher where there is a strong local economy with steady employment and wage gains, combined with local governmental policies that tend to restrict the supply of homes, says Rocky Tarantello, a land economist at the University of Southern California.

While the survey wasn't scientific, an effort was made to make sure that the towns were somewhat comparable. They all have good public schools, are popular with corporate transferees, have a generally friendly atmosphere and are about 30 minutes to an hour from the city's major business center.

The visits to the six homes were arranged by two national relocation companies. Coldwell Banker Thorsen Relocation Services, a unit of Coldwell Banker & Co. of Los Angeles, and Merrill Lynch Relocation Management Inc., a unit of Merrill Lynch & Co. of New York.

Here is a closeup of exactly what $180,000 will buy: dunwoody, Ga.

Most of the stores and shops and many homes in this heavily wooded suburban area are built in the traditional brick Williamsburg style of architecture. Dunwoody is situated in rolling terrain about 40 minutes north of downtown Atlanta. Many of its residents work in Atlanta branch offices of national corporations. They commute by car.

Don and Harriet Chapman, a couple from Indianapolis, recently settled in Atlanta primarily because of its good home values and a good job offer. "With our five children, a five-bedroom home is as small as we wanted to go," Mrs. Chapman says.

Her husband had considered a job in southern California, but the best home they could find there was a 20-year-old, two-story colonial with four bedrooms, an hour's drive from the city. It carried a $300,000 price tag. No way, they said. Don Chapman went instead to Atlanta to become senior vice president, finance, for Crawford & Co., a national insurance adjuster.

In Dunwoody, the Chapmans got all the space they needed and more. For $180,000 they bought a custom-built, six-bedroom, four-bath Southern traditional brick home on a wooded, 3/4-acre lot. The five children can fish in a lake that borders their back yard. The home is two years old.

Rooms are large. The include a 16-foot-square living room and a 15-foot-square dining room, both decorated with special wall moldings; a 16-by-24-foot kitchen with the latest equipment; and a 16-by-18-foot family room, with a large fireplace. The family room opens onto a spacious screened parch. Among the six bedrooms on the second floor is a 16-by-24-foot master bedroom. A second-floor deck overlooks the lake.

The Chapman home has central air conditioning, a must in the muggy Atlanta area; wall-to-wall carpeting; a wet bar (one with running water); and a "daylight basement" -- one that opens onto ground level. The finished basement has a 21-by-30-foot paneled recreation room and a full bath.

The taxes on all this are $1,400 a year. Upper St. Clair, Pa.

Pittsburgh Steelers football coach Chuck Noll is one of the better-known residents of Upper St. Clair, a township of 22,500 people, located approximately 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. The rolling hills are dotted with brick and frame colonial and contemporary homes on large lots, with many homes having a wide vista of a wooded valley below or hill above.

The rural atmosphere and the lack of commercial operations are two potent lures. Commuting is by car, but you may have trouble driving on the ice-slicked, hilly streets in winter.

Money will go quite far here. A $180,000 stake buys a five-bedroom custom-built brick and frame colonial house on a 1/2-acre hillside lot. The two-story, eight-year-old home has a garage beneath it, solid construction and two large decks that offer a view of the valley.

Rooms here are spacious also. There is a 14-by-25-foot living room, plus a dining room, kitchen, breakfast room, large family room and den. Two interior staircases lead to five ample-sized bedrooms on the second floor. There are four baths. The mainrooms have handsome woodwork. Taxes are nothing to sneeze at -- $3,264 a year. Richardson, Texas

Much of this north Dallas suburb is made up of flat fields transformed into subdivisons with few trees. Richardson has plenty of parks, though, and it is only 30 minutes or so from downtown Dallas via the Central Expressway, Many members of the Dallas Cowboys football team live here because the training headquarters are in Richardson.

Most homes here are recently built. Typically, they are, one-style homes, built of brick.

The lots are small. "The weather here is so miserable in summer that no one wants to spend time outdoors caring for a large lawn," rationalizes Marian Condor, a real estate sales manager in Richardson.

Richardson homes make up for the small lots -- and for the lack of trees and greenry -- with interior craftsmanship, the latest in new kitchen equipment, rich-looking paneling and woodwork and loads of built-in features. Mark and Sue Klein, accountants who moved here from New Jersey, say they are amazed at how many "extras" automatically come with a home in Richardson.

In the North Highlands area of Richardson, you can buy a four-bedroom brick home on an 83-by-125 foot lot for $180,000. The home has an 18-by-24-foot living room and den, complete with beamed ceiligs, a big stone fireplace and a bar. The living room has luxurious-looking oak paneling and a high ceiling.

Other features include a dining room, a kitchen with an island work area and many built-in cabinets, a large game room with a vaulted ceiling, and four bedrooms. One of three baths has skylight and a sunken marble tub with gold-colored faucets. In the rear of the house is an atrium with skylight. Taxes are $1,784 a year. Ridgewood, N.J.

"Old is good here. You must remember that." $ idajane Christie, a real estate office manager, emphasizes that point as she takes a reporter around this New York City commuting town that boats gently rolling hills, tall trees and many parks. The homes here are a mixture of old Victorians, some stone Tudor mansions, colonials and smaller split-level and Cape Cod styles. Situated in Bergen County, Ridgewood, with a population of about 30,000 is 45 minutes to an hour-plus by train from Wall Street. Many midtown Manhattan commuters ride an expressbus, which takes about the same amount of time.

Top-rated schools and the relatively easy commuting are big selling points. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn is among the notables who live in Ridgewood.

For 180,000, Michael Bolen, a marketing executive for a brokerage firm, and his wife, Phyllis, recently purchased a 60-year-old frame and stucco Dutch colonial home on a double lot totaling about a half-acre. The four-bedroon. 3 1/2-bath home is on a street lined with picturesque Victorian homes and stately trees.

The Bolens like the partly reonvated home and the friendly neighborhood, but they are realistic about comparative values. The couple recently moved from Shaker Heights, Ohio, where, Phyllis says, "you can get much more for your money; here you're paying for being close to the train and close to New York."

The home has large number of rooms -- living room, dining room, family room, den, library, kitchen and breakfast room on the first floor -- but the rooms are generally smaller than in homes in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas. The 16-by-20-foot living room, however, has big bay windows, a fireplace and oak floors. The four bedrooms, some of which are small, are on the second floor.

There is the typical dank and dreary New Jersey basement. The home is heated by old-style steam radiators. Taxes here ranked highest in the survey at a hefty $4,117 a year. "Simply outrageous," says a new Ridgewood resident, Maggie Diaz, a former Coloradan, of the Ridgewood tax bill. Northbrook, Ill.

The North Shore suburb of Chicago is ideally situated for many Loop commuters. About 45 minutes by train from downtown, it is also 10 minutes away from Lake Michingan beaches. It has parks, nearby forest preserves and good shopping and restauants. With a population of 31,000 it still retains something of a smalltown Midwestern feeling. Alas, money won't stretch too far here.

For $180,000, a newcomer can get a four-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath, two-story brick and frame colonial home in a pleasant section of Northbrook, a few minutes away from the train station. The 11-year-old tract home, with eight rooms in all, is on an 88-by-135-foot lot.

There aren't as many rooms in this home as in the New Jersey one, but they are more spacious; for example a 14-by-21-foot living room, a 14-foot-square dining room and a 14-by-25-foot family room with a raised hearth fireplace, wet bar and pegged floor. The kitchen includes up-to-date equipment and a recently laid floor. The four bedrooms are upstaris. The home also has a finished basement with a paneled recreation room and living area. Taxes are $1,850. Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

The real estate office here broke out into uproarious laughter when this reporter mentioned he was looking for a $180,000 home on the Palos Verdes "hill" 30 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. "It's a big deal here when a home under $200,000 goes on the market," apologizes real estate agent Mary Ann Austin.

It isn't too hard to figure out why. For many people from the cold Northeast of Midwest, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, jutting into the Pacific with year-round temperatures in the 60s and 70s, might seem like Camelot. Lushly vegetated with palm trees and other subtropical foliage, the peninsula has the feel of a Mediterranean seaside resort. Sharp cliffs rise from the ocean and become plateaus before folding into a series of rolling hills. From many homes, you can see the ocean, beaches, lights of Los Angeles, and Catalina Island.

The penninsula is mostly free of Los Angeles's biggest nemesis -- smog. It does have fog, however. Homes don't need air conditioning because of the cool ocean breezes. Interior parts of the peninsula, with 50 miles of horse trails and many large estates, retain a rustic feeling.

The Palos Verdes Peninsula offers such close-at-hand recreational pursuits as skin diving and snorkeling, sailing from nearby marinas and the Marineland sea-animal theme park.

Fred Hartley, chairman of Union Oil Co., former football coach George Allen Allen and actor Ray Milland live there. The drive to downtown Los Angeles on the Harbor Freeway takes 45 minutes to an hour or more.

Therefore, $180,000 will just about get a prospective buyer onto the hill. It will buy a small, four-bedroom California contemporary ranch-style home in the Silver Spur area of the least expensive city on the peninsula -- Rancho Palos Verdes. The home is referred to by the local real estate trade as a "house that needs help."

Situated on a cul-de-sac near the middle of the peninsula, the house lacks a view. A visitor comes in through a small entryway flanked by small bedrooms. The 20-year-old stuco home has 1 3/4 bath ornamented with pink ceramic tile and older fixtures. At the rear of the home are the two other rooms -- an L-shaped combination living and dining room and a kitchen plus eating area with built-in ovens. Glass doors open onto a covered back porch.

The beige carpet needs replacing and the house needs a fresh coat of paint. The rectangular lot is overgrown with vegetation. Taxws are $1,800 a year.

One Palosd Verdes real estate agent says that being shown homes like this one left a Cleveland woman, whose husband was about to be transferred to Los Angeles, sobbing in her car. But not all transferees feel this way. One former Chicagoan, interviewed as he sat on a Palos Verdes cliff watching the sun set nto the Pacific on a 70-degree February evening, said:

"Frankly, I don't care what kind of a house I live in. I'm just glad to be in California."