Washington's turn-of-the-century row-house neighborhoods have been home to Debi and Michael Klein for years, and they want to stay. But house prices in the District are far beyond their reach.

The Kleins, both 31, are self-employed and rent a roomy three-room apartment in a Mount Pleasant house for $500 a month. Their combined income in the mid-$20,000 range puts them in the segment of the baby boom generation that cannot afford to buy a house today without help.

Not many years ago, the Kleins could have bought a rundown row house in an area like Mount Pleasant and renovated it themselves. Michael Klein, who works as a carpenter, painter and general handyman, could make up in sweat equity what he lacked in cash.

Even this is no longer possible. Row houses that are no more than shells now sell for close to $100,000 in these neighborhoods. A three-story shell not far from the Kleins' apartment recently sold for about $80,000, and at least that much would be required to renovate it.

Debi Klein holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and women's counseling. She quit a full-time job to work as a free-lance consultant in small business management. After high school and a hitch in the Navy, Michael Klein moved to Washington because "it just had the right feel. I really enjoy it." He worked first as a cook, using a skill he learned in the Navy, then at Woodward & Lothrop as a floor supervisor.

"We both are making the choice of not going into the corporate world," she said. "I could go into management, but I've chosen not to do that. I feel like a lot of people . . . are so compulsive and striving. They get divorces, have heart attacks, their kids don't know them." The Kleins say they realize there are "real trade-offs" in their choice of a life style with lower "stress levels." They lack the security of full-time jobs with such benefits as medical insurance. Their low incomes and self-employed status prevent them from qualifying for a home loan.

Nevertheless, "I resent that we have really been pushed out of D.C. I have lived here my whole life," she said. She grew up in Shephard Park, where her parents sold their house 17 years ago for $35,000. It is on the market today for $189,000, she said.

They have considered shared equity with an investor, or moving out of the metropolitan area. "We are thinking of buying a lot. We probably could put up a house for $20,000 or less, using a kit and my sweat equity," he said.

The Kleins say they "are seeing progress" in their work, with both "getting more calls" for their services. "But it's a struggle."