Late last year, on a weekend afternoon, I spotted the husky teenager next door packing boxes in the garage.

I've known the kid, James, since he was 4. He was best friends with my son, Jesse. They were inseparable - "Jesse James" I used to call them. When they weren't having a sleepover at our house, they would be camped out next door, where our little guy developed a taste for Filipino cooking. In fact, our entire families seemed woven together. For years, James' two older sisters had tag-teamed as our baby sitters.

So I asked James, now 18, what was up with all the boxes. He looked at me glumly and said, "We've got three days to get out."

James and his family had lost their home, in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, to foreclosure.

I'm not sure how this happened, but I do know that money had been tight since his dad was laid flat by a heart problem. An older brother, meanwhile, had gotten himself into some probably costly legal problems.

In recent years, as Jesse and James grew older, they also grew distant, finding new friends and interests at different schools. His sisters moved away, and I rarely saw the mom and dad anymore.

But none of that mattered when I saw the sadness in James' face, a look I hadn't seen since those boyhood days of skinned knees and hurt feelings. Instantly, all those foreclosure stories I had been reading meant a whole lot more to me. This wasn't about toxic assets. This was about a struggling family, which, after 14 years, would vanish from the neighborhood in three days.

Week after week, whenever I looked at that padlocked house, I wondered how James and his family were faring in their new apartment. And I thought about all the other young people forced to make this wrenching transition - whether or not their folks recklessly gambled on subprime loans, drained their equity for big-screen TVs and big cars, or simply had a run of bad luck. Regardless of the reasons, I had come to see the foreclosure mess as utterly depressing.

Then I met Hilary and Mark.

Engaged, the young couple snapped up the house next door at a bargain price from an investment company that had bought it at a foreclosure auction.

"We never thought we'd be able to afford a house in L.A.," said Mark.

"I pinch myself every time I crawl into bed," said Hilary.

Both in their early 30s, Hilary and Mark were a revelation - a ray of sunlight in the foreclosure storm. Yes, a door has slammed shut on many unfortunate homeowners. But another has been flung open for thousands of first-time buyers like Hilary and Mark, who had been locked out of the market by soaring prices.

The latest survey by the National Association of Realtors found that, in the first quarter of this year, first-time buyers accounted for nearly half of all purchases. Hilary and Mark say most of their apartment-dwelling friends are now searching.

My new neighbors found the home on an Internet real estate site, where it had been listed for just three days. The investment company had made a few fixes, slapped on some paint, and jacked up the price by more than $100,000, which was still a deal.

In the next couple of years, Hilary and Mark plan to bring a child into the home. In the meantime, they spend weekends planting flowers and entertaining friends on their patio. They've brought a new spirit to the home and the neighborhood.

One of our community's most prolific real estate agents, Tracy King, tells me she sees a lot of enthusiastic first-timers who spot the charm and potential in smaller homes that more experienced buyers reject. "After being in the business a long time," she said, "you forget how exciting it can be."

I remember that excitement. The Craftsman home where my wife and I live with our son and daughter is our first. And, like Hilary and Mark, we thought we never would be able to swing homeownership - until the market dropped in the late '80s and early '90s, leaving many mortgage casualties in its wake.

I first visited the place at sunset on a glorious day. A golden light poured through the wood-framed windows. I called my wife and said without a trace of doubt: "I've found our dream home." That was 15 years and a million cherished memories ago.

Whenever I half-jokingly suggest we trade it in for a little condo by the beach, my daughter gets playfully irate. She insists we pass it down to her like a family heirloom.

Who knows whether my children will be able to afford their own homes, or whether my wife and I will be able to help them, as my parents did for us? But as I've watched the anguish and then joy unfold next door, and reflected on my own experiences, I know there's no point in worrying now. For in real estate - as in life - the future always will deliver the unexpected.

Joel Sappell is a former reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, where this appeared.