Manufactured housing starts to build a new reputation

The historic negative image many people have of manufactured homes is a pink-and-white flat-roof metal box squeezed into a trailer park by the side of a highway next to a miniature golf course, says Dr. Thomas Nutt-Powell. ''Some of these dinosaurs still exist, quaint reminders of an earlier time, but they represent only a small portion of the 4 million manufactured homes that house American families,'' he's quick to add.

A slide presentation Dr. Nutt-Powell has prepared for public- and private-sector task forces and home builders shows that most of today's factory-built, multisection homes are indistinguishable from site-built conventional housing. Mobile homes often have porches, carports or garages, roof overhangs and eaves, decks and screened rooms, awnings, and either enameled aluminum, painted wood, or Masonite paneling. Inside they have a homey look, with spacious floor plans, fireplaces, cathedral ceilings, family and laundry rooms, and stereo sound systems.

''The MH [mobile home] effort is to do for housing what Henry Ford did for the automotive industry when he built the Model T,'' Dr. Nutt-Powell explains. ''Ford said he wanted to provide for not just the rich, but for all the rest, to have cars. He said instead of hand-fabricating cars where people were going to drive them, he would manufacture cars at a central point and distribute them. And that's exactly what's happening in the MH industry today.''

Built to conform to specifications of a 1976 Department of Housing and Urban Development code, today's mobile homes meet all housing industry design and materials standards and are fully insulated. A 1980 HUD report pointed out that required smoke detectors, fire-retardant materials, and safer electrical wiring have resulted in a remarkable safety record in the past decade.

Some 10,000 retail dealers nationwide advertise prices averaging $15,500 for single-section units and between $17,500 and $40,000 for multisections. Most manufactured homes come equipped with some furniture, major appliances, draperies, carpeting, and a choice of wallpaper or paneling, with luxury models selling for as much as $150,000.

More than half of the estimated 4 million manufactured homes in the United States are now located on individually owned plots of land, and more new neighborhoods contain a mixture of site-built and manufactured housing. Other new trends include mobile-home subdivisions, condominium developments, and cooperative parks. Local zoning regulations which in the past have excluded mobile homes from traditional residential areas are also being changed.

Financing has been a consistent roadblock in the past, since mobile homes were considered personal property and buyers could get only short-term loans at high rates. But today more and more low-interest, long-term real estate loans are being granted, with the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration guaranteeing mortgages. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board recently allowed federal savings-and-loan associations to lend to mobile home buyers, and just last year the Federal National Mortgage Association agreed to purchase mobile-home mortgages.

Manufactured housing captured 36 percent of the housing market last year, with half of all mobile homes found in 10 states (Florida, California, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, and Alabama). Not surprisingly, California has set many of the precedents in the expanding market. ''In California MHs became more acceptable because the housing-cost crunch came there earliest,'' Dr. Nutt-Powell explains. ''They became an alternative when so many people were squeezed out of the existing housing market.''

This month, at a first-of-its-kind national symposium on affordable housing - ''See How Far We've Come'' - in Elkhart, Ind., housing specialists, city planners, building commissioners, and industry builders met to discuss the growing potential for manufactured housing in the US says Dr. Nutt-Powell. ''I've been working on mobile home and MH issues for five or six years, and five years ago a meeting like this wouldn't have been possible. It's pretty exciting that so many people today are willing to be at least open-minded about the subject.''

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