Alina and Pedro De Anda are outgrowing their one-room casita in a corner of a quiet gated community in La Quinta. With an energetic 2-year-old son and another child on the way, the couple would like to buy their first home.

The dream three-bedroom home would be somewhere safe, near great schools and close to plenty of family members who love to dote on their son, Ryan.

And it would be affordable.

But finding that ideal house in the Coachella Valley's second-wealthiest city isn't easy. The July median price of a house in La Quinta was $330,000, roughly on par with Palm Springs but lower than country club-dense neighbors Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage.

Soaring home prices over the past year started to break speed this summer. But the effects of two years' of rapid price appreciation are starting to show. More first-time homebuyers, some of them young families burdened with debt, are being deterred from the desert real estate market. Though they earn steady incomes and plan to invest many more years in a permanent home, they say the valley is becoming more unaffordable.

"We're right about at the tipping point," said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac. "Something's got to give at this point. Either home prices have to slow down, or incomes have to rise very rapidly, which is unlikely. We could have another bubble forming. … The most likely scenario is a home price appreciation slowdown."

Housing affordability in Riverside County is roughly equal to the months just before the recession, according to the California Association of Realtors. The organization of real estate agents calculates affordability based on assumed down-payments, the national average interest rate, mortgage payments, approximate property taxes and insurance payments. Monthly payments can't exceed more than 30 percent of a household's income.

About 41 percent of households in the county can afford to buy a $320,000 single-family home, the median price of the region. About 63 percent of households can afford their first entry-level homes, which typically are eligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and assistance from first-time buyer programs. Similar percentages were last reported in 2008. But median incomes have stayed largely stagnant.

"We're coming out of the recession with more people needing affordable housing, and there isn't enough," said Fred Bell, chairman of the Coachella Valley Housing Trust and a longtime veteran of the desert's building industry. "It's got swept under the rug. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't afford those homes."

Now or never

First-time buyers wrestle with the pressure of buying now.

Buyers are wary of purchasing a house they can hardly afford after seeing the country emerge from its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They see their debt, the tight lending standards, their small-but-growing savings in the bank. But they also see signs the real estate market is leaving them behind.

Since 2012, Coachella Valley home prices have jumped 18-33 percent as the economy corrects itself, according to DataQuick. Fewer foreclosures, a short supply of homes for sale and high demand from second homebuyers willing to pay all-cash also fueled the price jumps.

In July, the median price of a desert home was $276,000. Experts say the 7 percent year-over-year increase marks the return of a more "normal" market. And it's nowhere near the height of $400,500 during the building frenzy. But it's an uptick that still worries buyers such as De Anda.

"I feel like it's a good time to buy," Pedro De Anda said. "In our position financially, it's not, because we'll get into something and we won't be able to afford it, and next thing you know we're on the losing-our-house list."

While home prices have skyrocketed, Coachella Valley median household incomes tumbled and largely stayed stagnant from 2009 through 2012, the most recent year available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Five cities reported income drops of 7 percent or greater during that period: Indian Wells, La Quinta, Cathedral City, Indio and Palm Desert.

Outgrowing the casita

The casita is sparse, but family life is tight-knit. One corner of the fluorescent-lit room has a large bed. The other is filled with toys. Ryan's crib is against the wall, under Blue's Clues stickers. Family photos lean against one of the windows. There's no kitchen; they use the one inside the main house.

Pedro De Anda, 30, grew up in Coachella and Indio. After he married Alina in 2011, they moved to the La Quinta casita. Both work full-time; he's an insurance salesman, and she's a case worker at Martha's Village & Kitchen. While they paid off debt on student loans and credit cards, they began looking for a home. "We had just gotten married, and we were thinking, 'OK, where are we going to live? Are we going to try to find an apartment, or are we going to try to get into a house?'" he said.

The question has stayed on his mind over the past three years. The De Andas have grown closer to nearby relatives from both sides of the family who invite them to Christmas feasts and other family traditions. Ideally, they wouldn't have to move too far.

"I try not to think about that we live in such a confined space," De Anda said. "A lot of people feel like they need their space. … We don't really spend much time in here, so I don't think we feel claustrophobic. It's not like, oh man, I want to get out of here. I like living here."

The couple likes to go for drives, checking out neighborhoods they know are too expensive for their budgets.

"I do think about with our new baby coming, what's that going to be like," Pedro De Anda said. "We definitely want to think about getting a bigger place to live."

Tipping point

The homes that would have been affordable for families instead went to many cash buyers and investors during the recession. Many are still holding onto those homes.

Investors bought hundreds of desert homes, many from foreclosures and short sales. Homes were a relative steal: Prices had plunged to less than half the peak of the 2006 boom. The resulting swell of investor purchases shrunk the housing inventory and contributed to a sudden spike in home prices across the desert.

The largest bump came in 2012, when institutional investors purchased 11 percent of the valley's home sales, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine-based real estate firm. That summer, desert home prices jumped 23.5 percent compared to a year earlier. The median price was $210,000 in July 2012, up from $170,000 the year before, CoreLogic DataQuick data show. Investors have since pulled back on purchases