THE saying, "Real estate ownership is the key to wealth," may call to mind advertisements for rich-in-three-months-or-your-money-back seminars. A few weeks back, Houstonians saw it printed in a less-likely place: on yellow tape of the kind police use to cordon off crime scenes.This tape helped control a crowded auction of foreclosed homes and condominiums that the Resolution Trust Corporation had inherited from failed savings and loan institutions. The RTC marketed the properties under an affordable housing program mandated by Congress. To hear disgruntled would-be buyers tell it, prices were no steal. "We were totally misled," said Larry [last name not given], a hairdresser. Primed by publicity to expect homes to sell for a fraction of their appraised values, which by law could not exceed $67,500, he and several thousand others had slogged to the auction through a Sunday morning downpour so thick it concealed the Astrodome next door. He was amazed to hear $90,000 bid for a house with a cracked foundation, which can cost $40,000 to repair. Others were dumbfounded at the $100,000 offered for a house that had been badly vandalized. Among other things, the bannister had been ripped from a stairway and shoved through a wall. Contractors had estimated repairs at $30,000. "People didn't do their homework," shrugged Caroldene Cahill, a bookkeeper. Added her mother: "We were shocked." Walking out of the auction, a man said: "You could have just bought one out of the paper for less." Sour grapes? Certainly high prices benefit American taxpayers, who wind up paying the difference between a failed savings and loan bank's liabilities and what the RTC can get for its assets. And the "extremely good" prices refuted fears the agency would drag down values by dumping properties, said Tim Roth, the RTC's real estate sales coordinator for Texas. The reason some houses fetched as much as $40,000 over the affordability cap, he says, is the RTC had bypassed appraisals and had assigned them an "estimated recoverable value" that fell within the limit. And the auction was open to people able to make such bids. The affordability program's upper limit on income is 115 percent of the area median. For a family of four in Houston, that exceeds $47,000, enough to take out a $117,500 mortgage. "It's really not a giveaway for the poor," said auction publicist Karen May, but rather a program to help "the average working person." And RTC spokeswoman Teresa McUsic says the results were in line with the affordable housing program's aim. Buyers had an average income of $21,200. Statewide, all 885 properties offered were sold for a total of $25.8 million. The average price was $29,300, she says. (Properties like condos smaller than 500 square feet helped bring down the average.) The results in Houston also indicate the strength of this market, said auctioneer Evan Gladstone. He has conducted 26 auctions here, and this was the first in which bids averaged above 85 percent of market value. Also, the 20-to-1 ratio of bidders to properties was the highest in his 15 years in the busi ness. Yet days later the Houston Association of Realtors announced that October homes sales declined by 10 percent from a year earlier as unemployment hit a two-year high. Does that mean an auction works better than listing a property with a broker? "I have no doubt that some of these properties sold for more than they would have on the open market," says Mr. Roth. John and Sharon Cummings of Houston, married 12 years, made the high bid of $63,000 on what will be their first house. Did they get a good deal? Mr. Cummings, a black veteran disabled in the Vietnam war, says, "I don't know. I don't know anything about buying homes."