Four families had an early Christmas celebration Thursday when they received keys to homes of their own from Salt Lake County officials - the first presentation in Utah under the federal Urban Homesteading Program.

The program allows qualified families to acquire, with no down payment, homes in need of repair that haven't been inhabited for a year or more - and to borrow money at low interest to pay for the $15,000 to $20,000 in repairs the homes typically need."It's given us a piece of the American dream," said Lisa Dudley, 24, a developmental teacher at the state training school in American Fork.

The Dudleys and three other families who received keys Thursday will now use the low-interest loans and their own "sweat equity" to build their American dreams. And Salt Lake County Housing Authority officials hope Thursday's presentation will be just the first of many.

As the program name implies, urban homesteaders do what many 19th century Americans did to acquire property they could not otherwise afford - improve the property and reside there for a prescribed period to become owners.

Kevin Dudley, 23, also a state training school developmental teacher, estimates he and Lisa will spend $25,000-$26,000 to make their two-bedroom Kearns home what they want it to be. After they live in the home for five years, the housing authority will grant them title.

Under the program, the housing authority uses federal money to acquire vacant homes in need of repair. The homes previously have been listed for sale under Federal Housing Administration or U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs for at least a year without attracting a buyer.

The homesteading families cannot already own a home and must meet certain financial requirements: a limit on total assets; a gross income below a sliding cap which varies according to family size; the ability to qualify for the loan to finance the cost of repairs; and enough cash on hand to pay first-year taxes and insurance, and to cover rent and the loan payment for at least two months while the home is made inhabitable.

Homesteaders agree to make within three years all needed repairs as listed by the housing authority at the time of presentation, to live in the home for at least five years and to complete home management and maintenance training courses through the housing authority.

Once they complete those requirements, the homestead family is given title to the home but still must pay off the 20- to 30-year low-interest loan from the housing authority.

After looking for two years for a home they could afford, the Dudleys hope to move out of Kevin's parents' house in American Fork and into their own home by March, after a contractor has finished the major work.

Kevin and Lisa will then complete the repairs by doing their own painting, wallpapering and other interior work. The finished product will be a dream-come-true for them and son Skyler, age 18 months.

"We hear from people all the time that this sounds too good to be true, but it's not," said Lisa.

Anyone wanting more information on the Urban Homestead Program should telephone the Salt Lake County Housing Authority at 487-0191. Outside Salt Lake County, contact the local county housing authority.