Mobile homes are shedding tin box stigma for many home buyers

They used to be called "wobble boxes," or trailers. And many would-be home buyers wouldn't give them a second look. But major changes in the construction, appreciation, and zoning of mobile homes and the tightness of the regular housing market are prompting not only second looks out often eager buys.

The median price of existing homes stood at $67,900 by latest estimate, while home mortgage rates in some communities such as Boston have climbed into the 18 percent range. For thousands of families, this has made "manufactured housing" -- at an average $18,500 -- an excellent alternative.

Pat DiChiro of the Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade association, reports sales are up considerably in recent months. In June, 23,052 manufactured homes were shipped to dealers -- 49 percent more than in June 1980. In the first six months of this year, sales were up overall by 18 percent.

Part of the reason for the increased sales is that manufactured housing now tends to be stationary, with the land under it often purchased right along with it. And it can include almost as many amenities as a buyet could want -- from fireplaces to microwave ovens. Many of the homes are built in two or three sections rather than the usual one.

Certainly one of the biggest prods for buyers is that manufactured housing is no longer relegated automatically to the other side of the tracks. Courts in California, Michigan, and Indiana have ruled recently that manufactured housing cannot be excluded from residential areas simply on the grounds that it is manufactured housing.

"This has been a great breakthrough," insists Mr. DiChiro. "Exclusionist zoning, maybe appropriate for the old travel trailers, is out of date and has been our biggest problem. Mobile home parks usually have been confined to the other side of town in what we call ghettos."

In many ways manufactured housing is being treated more like regular housing:

* For the first time, industry analysts note, the value is appreciating rather than dropping -- particularly on used homes built since 1976 in line with tougher safety and quality standards set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

* Increasingly, mobile homes are being taxed as real estate property rather than as vehicles or personal property.

Although 8 to 12 years is still the average mortgage period for mobile homes, some lenders are beginning to offer more conventional 20- to 30-year mortgages.

Those selling manufactured housing are also shifting their approach.

"Our sales techniques are undergoing sort of a flip-flop," DiChiro says. "We always used to go at a sale as if it were a personal product like a car. You'd go to a dealership lot and see a model, and one like it would be set up and sent over. Now you go to a housing sales center where models are set up that are beautifully landscaped."

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