House hunters able to spend $120,000 certainly won't be able to settle in a mansion in the Washington area, but that amount can at least find the 1986 home buyer a comfortable, if somewhat humble, abode.

In today's real estate market, the $120,000 range is what many young couples use as a starting point for homeownership. Others, such as those living in $70,000 or $80,000 condominiums or town houses, are finding that current low interest rates enable them to move up to a more expensive and larger home.

The range of what a buyer can get for $120,000 is great -- from a two-bedroom duplex in Alexandria to a two-family house in the District to a new three-bedroom home in Gaithersburg.

Starting just off Strawberry Knoll Road in Gaithersburg, a buyer can get a new, two-story house on a quarter-acre of land for $122,500 in the Meadowvale community.

Built by Ryan Homes, the Madison model, a 1,600-square-foot single-family house, is situated outside the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County. It includes three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths, a two-car garage and a large, unfinished basement.

Because the homes are built to order, options such as a fireplace or rear wood deck can be added at additional cost.

On the first floor, the house has a family room that is 18 by 11 feet and an L-shaped dining-living-room combination. The kitchen includes a dishwasher, oak cabinets, no-wax floors, a small pantry and space for a breakfast table.

On the second floor is a 14-by-13 master bedroom with a vaulted ceiling and two smaller bedrooms. Home buyers can choose between one large bathroom or two smaller baths for the second floor.

The house has an attic, a heat pump with central air conditioning and a number of energy-efficiency features. In addition, Ryan offers a range of warranties on its homes that cover major structural defects for up to 10 years. Taxes total about $2,100 yearly on the house, and a $22 monthly fee covers maintenance for the community's grounds and trash removal.

"It's a good starter home for people who can't afford to buy a larger single-family house," said Craig Smith of Ryan Homes. He added that Ryan's mortgage buy-down program gives borrowers an 8 1/4 percent interest rate for the first year, 9 1/4 for the second year and 10 1/4 for the remainder of the 30-year loan.

At 3 W. Caton Ave. in Alexandria, $118,500 can buy a two-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath semidetached duplex. Situated on a quiet, established block just off Commonwealth Ave., the house is about a mile from the Braddock Road Metro station and about a seven-mile drive to downtown Washington.

"It is ideal for first-time or move-up buyers," said Wanda Greene of Wharton Real Estate. She added that, although the Colonial-style duplex unit is large enough to accommodate a couple with a child, no extra space exists to function as a separate recreation room.

The four-year-old brick house includes a driveway and a small fenced-in backyard with a patio and tool shed. The only obvious outside work needed on the home is for a new coat of paint on the second-floor wood dormers.

Inside, the home's first floor features an entrance foyer, a half-bath, a 12-by-12 dining area, and a sunken 20-by-15 living room with a fireplace that looks out on the backyard.

The 9-by-9 kitchen includes a dishwasher, disposal and microwave.

Upstairs, a 13-by-14 bedroom has its own entrance into the second floor's main bath. The 20-by-13 master bedroom has ample closet space and a small deck overlooking the backyard and has a separate bathroom. Both baths contain skylights. In addition, a washer-dryer is on the second floor.

The house has storm windows, hardwood floors, a heat pump that provides central air conditioning and a storage area under the first floor's dining area.

Taxes run about $1,350 a year.

In the District, $120,000 buys a two-family house. While the 63-year-old building at 1500 N. Carolina Ave. NE is advertised as being located on Capitol Hill, it's actually closer to RFK Stadium than the Capitol. Three blocks east of Lincoln Park, the house is situated in a developing neighborhood that's slowly been gentrified by young professionals.

A former grocery store, the semi-detached structure was renovated into two separate units in 1979. Both the lower and upper units are self-contained with their own entrances, heating systems and kitchens. Each unit, with a combined area of about 1,800 square feet, has two bedrooms and a large living-dining room combination.

"This building would be good for an investment," said Grace Carlisle, a real estate agent with Millicent Chatel. "The owner can rent out one and live in the other. They would have all the room they want, plus the income generated from the other apartment."

Taxes total about $1,700 yearly.

Cosmetic work on the brick building would include painting the interiors and restoring the poorly maintained front and back yards.

Inside, the units contain a long, somewhat narrow living-dining-room combination that includes a fireplace. The bedrooms measure about 9 by 9 and 12 by 12. Each unit has only one small bathroom.

The 14-by-9 kitchens include a dishwasher, disposal, washer-dryer and a doorway to the building's small, fenced-in backyard. Although the units have ample windows, most look out onto busy North Carolina Avenue.

Other features of the building include gas heat and carpeted hardwood floors.