Not that long ago, a planned community within commuting distance of San Francisco was a very large apricot farm and one of many agriculture centers that spread across Contra Costa County. But as housing prices grew untouchable in the Bay Area, builders turned east, eyeing farmland that could be developed for new housing.

They settled on a number of places with cheaper land, including the city of Brentwood, Calif., 54 miles from San Francisco. Brentwood city officials welcomed development unlike many other cities in California that are trying to keep development out.

“It was far enough out that the land prices were not as expensive as the land closer in,” says Robert Rivinius, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association.

It also filled another critical need in northern California. “There are so many jobs in the Bay Area, but there are not enough places for people to be housed,” says Linda Maurer, Brentwood's economic development manager.

And so builders, such as Pulte Homes, Centex Corp., and D.R. Horton, flocked to Brentwood to develop a bedroom community in the eastern part of the county.

Now Brentwood's population is expected to grow to 55,000 by 2010, more than five times its 1990 population of 9,100. Ultimately, the city planners have a target population of 78,000 in 20 years.

Make no mistake, though. Like nearly every other community in California, Contra Costa County is facing a downturn. DataQuick Information Systems showed a 27 percent downturn in sales in July across the county although the average price of a home jumped to $581,000 from $555,000 in June 2005.

Although affordability is a relative term in California, the average price of a home in the county is reachable by many shut out of other counties by higher prices. From Brentwood, the average commute to work is close to an hour each way, but the community is also within easy reach of employment centers, such as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and Oracle Corp., in Pleasanton, Calif.

“It has a small town feel, and it's a great place to raise kids,” says Don Stirling, chairman of Brentwood's planning commission.

Pulte took the small town feeling to heart when it created a community called the Arbors at Rose Garden, with 484 single-family homes geared toward families. There are easily accessible parks and three rose bushes planted in the yard of every home.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, Los Angeles, CA.