Do not compete.
Repeat: DO NOT COMPETE.
This is not your game. You cannot afford to get good. You want a dwelling, not an investment. You do not have access to the resources the other players do. Your goals are different. Your wishes are different. You are a mark among the whales and they will scoop you up like so much krill.
You know what no one is competing for? Undeveloped land. I mean, yeah - stuff that can be subdivided is in stupid territory right now but if I recall correctly, there is no reason you need to live in or near a major city. Not only that, but you have an unparalleled work ethic and a preposterous amount of patience. Houses can be built cheaply if you're patient and doing your own work. Find a place you love and make it your own. NOBODY is competing against you in that game.