Trailer homes have traveled far

Look what's happened to the old trailer home -- the ``railroad car'' that always seemed to be on the ``wrong side of the tracks.'' Forty years ago, when GIs returned from World War II with a pent-up demand for instant housing, a lot of them found the answer in factory-built, aluminum structures which were known simply as ``trailer houses.''

No one really wanted them in ``their neighborhood'' at the time. But then the ``trailers'' of yesterday began to change. As the demand for roll-your-own housing grew, the structures widened and lengthened into today's ``mobile home.''

Actually, the polite term these days is ``manufactured housing'' (made legal by Congress in the 1980 Housing Act) and mobility is only relative.

A modern-day manufactured home may roll to a homesite with 1,800 square feet or more of living space, and sport such features as a sunken living room, eat-in country kitchen, and fireplace -- virtually everything to be found in a site-built home except a basement.

Also, as the built-to-be-towed house has changed, so have its occupants. In the 1940s and '50s, a big share of mobile homes were owned by construction workers, oil-field employees and military servicemen -- people whose employment or life style called for frequent moves.

In the 1960s, retirees and others who wanted to stay in one place found the mobile home an affordable option to conventional housing. Just about then, however, younger couples discovered mobile homes could provide a comfortable alternative to small, two-bedroom, ``starter,'' site-built houses that long had been the first homes for most newlyweds.

``We began in a 10-by-50-footer in the mid-'60s,'' says Ted Maynard of Columbia, Mo. ``Then we gradually traded up, first to a 12-by-65-foot mobile home, and then to an even larger unit.''

Mr. Maynard, an auto mechanic by trade, and his wife, Dorothy, a bookkeeper, found that mobile-home living suited them well. Rather than move into a conventional home when their income and financial situation would permit, Mr. Maynard says, they merely swapped for a larger, more luxurious mobile home, although the family planned to stay in the same area.

The Maynards have been joined by an increasingly broad group of Americans. Today, nearly 1 out of every 3 new single-family dwellings is a manufactured home.

Mobile homes are no longer the housing of choice primarily for families who lead a nomadic existence. More manufactured homes are moving into subdivisions or onto private property, instead of poorly situated parks where homeowners lease a site.

While mobile-home owners, on the average, are becoming more permanent -- and more affluent -- cost still is a big motive for buying a factory-built house. A survey by National Family Opinion Inc., conducted for the Foremost Insurance Company of Grand Rapids, Mich. (a leading insurer of mobile homes), shows the average mobile-home buyer pays about $22,000 for his dwelling, compared with a national average of nearly $90,000 for a conventional new single-family house.

That feature helped the trend toward manufactured housing gain momentum in the early 1980s when mortgage rates of 15 percent or higher forced many American families to alter their dream of home ownership. While interest rates are as high, or higher, on loans to buy mobile homes as on mortgages for conventional homes, $22,000 is far easier to finance than is, say, $60,000 or $70,000 on a $90,000 house.

During 1982-83, with site-built home construction slowed virtually to a standstill, about one-half million new manufactured homes were purchased.

``Further evidence of how the industry has matured is the availability of 30-year mortgages on some manufactured homes,'' write the authors of the Foremost survey report. They note that while three-quarters of all new mobile-home purchases are financed on terms of 10 years or less, a growing number of loans -- such as those backed by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration -- are stretched to longer terms.

And even though lower initial cost was a big reason given by survey respondents for buying a manufactured home, it was not the major advantage listed for mobile-home living. More than two-fifths (42 percent) said ``less upkeep, inside and outside,'' is the main thing they like about their dwellings.

Still, a more affordable buying price ranks high. And, in most cases, that $22,000 average price includes all furnishings, appliances, carpeting, and draperies. A buyer can choose a mobile home on the dealer's lot, have it towed to his property or rental site (the cost of towing and setup usually is included in the purchase price), and move in the same day.

When National Family Opinion pollsters surveyed some 9,000 mobile-home residents across the nation, they found results that may be surprising to some people. One long-held image of mobile-home dwellers, for example, is that they are from a lower socioeconomic class. Not so, according to the survey. The median income of mobile-home buyers is actually a bit higher than the median income of all United States households.

While retirees make up about 25 percent of all mobile-home owners, the survey found that 43 percent of the families living in manufactured housing have a head of household who is 40 years old or younger. One out of every four owners is employed in a white-collar occupation -- about the same percentage as found among retirees.

The survey also turned up interesting facts about where mobile homes are located. Some 45 percent are in mobile-home parks where the homeowner pays a monthly rental.

That percentage is down from 48 percent just five years ago. More and more manufactured homes are being located on the owner's private property. Too, some 29 percent of all existing mobile homes are on plots of one acre or larger, contrary to popular prevailing opinion of this type of housing.

There also appears to be a switch from the previous trend of families using mobile homes as an affordable entry into conventional housing later on: 44 percent of current mobile-home dwellers moved there from a site-built house. Further, 72 percent say they will continue to live in the same or another mobile home for the foreseeable future. Only 28 percent plan their next residence to be a site-built house.

For a growing number of Americans, manufactured housing is the answer to the question of affordable permanent housing.

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