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Old 'Railroad Car' Is Long Gone : Mobile Homes Become Housing of Choice

October 06, 1985|JAMES D. RITCHIE | The Christian Science Monitor

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, many found the answer in factory-built aluminum structures that 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 home site with 1,800 square feet or more of living space and include such features as 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.

For Younger Couples

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."

Maynard, an auto mechanic, 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, they 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 one out of every three 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 Co. 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.

High Mortgage Rates

That feature helped the trend toward manufactured housing gain momentum in the early 1980s when mortgage rates of 15% or higher forced many American families to alter their dream of homeownership. 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 half a 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%) 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.

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