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Huntington is nice, when I lived in so cal I grew up going to Huntington Beach. As I got older I preferred Newport simply because it's not as crowded, you can find places to park for free, the beach wasn't as dirty etc.
It's going to be hard to find yourself an apartment that is affordable to live in by yourself that is within walking distance to the beach itself. Maybe look on craigslist to see if you can find a roomie if you want to be near the beach. If you go further north on Beach Blvd near Adams or Ellis you could probably find someplace to live that is not as pricey. The great thing about living down there (as with most places in so cal) there is so much to do! Every shop you can imagine is around there, little saigon, tons of parks as well as an excellent disc golf park (if you haven't tried disc golfing I highly suggest you do). Its also an excellent area to travel by bike around. A definite place to stop and eat is John's Philly Grille - best philly cheesesteaks ever i(t's on Beach Blvd just south of Adams actually)
The more I think about it Huntington or that general area is probably a really good spot to live if you are going to move out here from back east. You don't have to deal with the LA people, drityness, traffic (still do, but not as bad as in LA) and living in a large city. You would still be near to major freeways and streets (Beach Blvd. is a major street in so cal that goes north and south for about 30 miles, it can take you damn near anyplace you want to go to) The people are really laid back there, it just has an enjoyable vibe. The more I write the more I want to go back.
I say good for you for just going out and doing what you want, if you don't do it now you probably never will. I had the same idea moving to Mammoth from So. Cal - I had just graduated from college and thought now was the best possible time to get out and do whatever I wanted to before I got older and settled down. Whatever you choose to do good luck :)
Generally speaking that whole area is safe. I would just stay away from the immediate vicinity of the 405 fwy like fountain valley, and even parts of westminster. There is nothing wrong with those cities as a whole, but they do seem to have a little more lower income areas. Orange county as a whole though is a nice place, I never ran into any twekers or weirdos living there. The most common thing you'll see by the beach areas are kids that are high, and that's about it. The best way I think to describe huntington overall is a suburb beach community. It's not really near anything I would call a large city like LA. You might also take a look around costa mesa, I have some friends and family that live around there and it seems to be a little more affordable. It also seems like getting to the beach there, even if you don't live really close, is easier to do. The armada skis corporate office is also in costa mesa and if you go see them they usually hook it up.
Anyways if you have any questions about the area feel free to pm me