The Mobile Home of the '90s: Doublewide with a Sunken Tub

'Manufactured homes' boom, but image problem lingers

When Peggy Christopher tells people her home is a 28-by-68-foot doublewide, their noses sometimes wrinkle up. "They think I live in an old trailer in a trailer park," Mrs. Christopher says. "But when they walk in, they say, 'Ooh, I can't believe this - times have changed."

Her white-painted doublewide with blue-gray shutters has four bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, dining room, and laundry area. One of the two spacious bathrooms has a large sunken tub and skylight. Her side deck and neatly manicured yard are lined with pink and purple petunias.

Her neighbors in Hunter Ridge, a subdivision south of Atlanta, live in 526 similar houses along hilly streets. The amenities are plentiful - an Olympic-sized pool, lighted tennis courts, and a stocked fishing pond. But the rules are strict. Lawns must be mowed. Yards can't have clutter. Each lot is allowed just one pet.

Across the country and particularly the South, which boasts more than half of the nation's mobile homes, trailer parks are being replaced by more upscale 'manufactured housing' developments like Hunter Ridge.

Not that 'manufactured homes' are different from 'mobile homes' - they're all built in factories and trucked to their sites. It's just that the booming industry is trying to distance itself from the shabby image of run-down trailer parks. Thus the new name.

One of every 3 single-family homes sold is a manufactured home, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) in Washington. Sales jumped from 171,000 in 1991 to 363,000 last year.

But as more people purchase homes on wheels, the industry is also finding the image of the boxy metal trailer hard to shake. Many communities are enacting tough ordinances to restrict them, and residents protest their presence in their neighborhoods.

"It has killed the value of our property," says W.G. Yates, a retiree who opposes a recently built manufactured-home community near his home in Haw River, N.C.

Still, their popularity is growing. At an average cost of $36,300, manufactured homes are more affordable than the average cost of $119,000 for a site-built home, says MHI. Banks are offering greater accessibility to financing. And the manufacturing side of the industry is offering better quality and more amenities in the homes.

"People are looking for value for their housing dollar, and that's where we come in," says Bruce Savage, of MHI. "Today's manufactured housing is not the trailers and mobile homes of the '60s and '70s."

Polishing the image

The industry is constantly working to change the perception of mobile homes, which have been maligned for years.

But it has its work cut out for it.

People's memories of junked-out trailer parks with rusted cars in the front lawn are "hurting us tremendously," admits Charlotte Gattis, executive director of the Georgia Manufactured Housing Association. "People may drive by 20 manufactured homes that are correctly installed and landscaped. They don't even realize they're manufactured homes. Then they go by an 'old trailer park', and that's the image that sticks."

As a result, would-be mobile-home owners often run into NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome as residents try to limit or ban mobile homes.

In Haw River, N.C., for example, Mr. Yates says he and neighbors were dismayed when a community of more than 200 manufactured homes started next door.

"The land was supposed to be for farming, but it was re-zoned without anyone knowing," Yates says. "I'm a senior citizen, and I moved from town to the country to get away from being crowded up." Now, more traffic comes through his neighborhood, and he says some residents of the manufactured homes have brought crime into the area. Some of his neighbors have moved out, concerned about lower property values.

Many managers of manufactured-housing communities say they get a bad rap because other mobile-home parks don't enforce rules or maintain the area. "When we came here 10 years ago [many people] thought it was another trailer park," says Wallace Gibson, general manager of Hunter Ridge. "The county was really monitoring us." Now, he says, many neighbors who originally protested the development have apologized, and the county has used the community to set standards for others that may come in. "It boils down to management and covenants," he adds.

The key to happy neighbors

Hunter Ridge's covenants are several pages long, and residents must abide by them or they are booted out. Residents bring their own homes, which must be 'skirted' to look as if they're built into the ground. The well-maintained community in a rural setting surrounded by piney woods is what attracted Elvira Donar when she moved here three years ago from Panama City, Fla., with her husband. They bought a $40,000 1,900-square-foot manufactured home because "we didn't want to pay the high cost of rent and not own anything, so we decided this would be a better investment," she says. "It's peaceful and pretty here and somewhat like Mr. Rogers's friendly neighborhood."

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