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Don't Fence Me In : Manufactured homes are no longer confined to traditional parks. Today they're being used on lots in both urban and rural settings.

August 11, 1996|SCOTT GRUSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before kicking off for his "Gone" tour in Europe in March, country singer Dwight Yoakam decided he wanted a nicer house at his horse ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The ranch had a dated geodesic dome from the 1960s and an older house that had partly burned in the Malibu-Topanga fire of 1993, and Yoakam wanted something classier, something befitting the ranch's million-dollar views.

So Yoakam did what more and more home buyers are doing when they seek a new house: He visited his local mobile-home dealer.

Oops, scratch that. He visited his local manufactured housing dealer. Say the words "mobile home" in a showroom these days and you're likely to be met with a chorus of groans and sighs. Dealers don't much care for the words "trailer" or "coach" either.

There's a good reason for their wanting to dissociate from their past. Yoakam didn't buy a dinky tin can on wheels. After closing his deal earlier this year, he became the proud owner of a 2,100-square-foot custom home with a detached 700-square-foot caretaker's unit.

The three-bedroom two-bath house was towed to his 10-acre ranch in five massive sections and came fully equipped with oak cabinets, French doors, cathedral ceilings, dormer windows and Corian counter tops.

"Dwight chose to do his own floors, so he has hardwood floors and terrazzo pavers in the kitchen," said Jack Tobin of Rite-Way Homes, the Santa Clarita dealer who handled the project. "The roof is designed so that at a later date he can add tile."

Yoakam is doing a major remodeling of his principal residence in another part of Los Angeles, so he was thrilled to learn that his new ranch house could be installed in less than a month. But he also wanted to make sure he ended up with something he could show off to the neighbors.

"He actually took a factory tour, sat there with us and designed the house to take advantage of all his views," said Sam Bordeaux, owner of Rite-Way Homes. Yoakam's ranch home was built by Silvercrest, a division of Western Homes, which manufactures about 2,000 houses a year in three West Coast factories.

To the untrained eye, Yoakam's home is indistinguishable from a site-built house. It rests on a low-profile foundation engineered to withstand earthquakes, so it avoids looking like the traditional mobile home on raised piers.

"The house is superior to many site-built homes," Tobin said. "It has 2-by-6-[inch] exterior walls, whereas normal construction is 2 by 4, and there is a steel framework underneath holding up all the floor joists."

A couple of manufacturers still make the old tin cans, but most of their products are exported out of state. The popular new styles in California almost always feature wood siding and pitched roofs.

Already 1.1 million Californians live in 584,000 manufactured homes. Last year alone, 3,083 new manufactured homes were sited in the Golden State, representing about 9% of new single-family homes sold.

And increasingly, home buyers are placing these factory-built houses on their own lots rather than in traditional mobile home parks.

"In California, about 60% to 70% of new manufactured homes are now going onto private property," said Bruce Savage, director of public affairs for the Manufactured Housing Institute, a national trade association based in Virginia. "Ten years ago almost every manufactured home coming into California was going into a park, but it has changed dramatically in the last decade."

The full extent of the trend is hard to judge because state records don't monitor where new manufactured homes are placed.

"The only way we break it down is between those that we refer to as 'personal property homes' and those that we call 'real property homes,' by virtue of the fact that they have been placed on state-approved permanent foundation systems that turn them into real estate," said Bronson Berlin, president of San Luis Obispo-based Berlin Research Corp., which tracks manufactured housing sales statewide.

Berlin's research indicates that 11% of new manufactured homes sited in California were real property homes in 1983. In the first quarter of 1996, 43% of new manufactured housing was recorded as real property, he said.

Furthermore, experts believe that the number of new manufactured homes placed on private property is even higher, because many homeowners don't want to spend the extra $2,000 to $3,000 that a permanent foundation costs.

The primary advantage of placing a manufactured home on a permanent foundation system is that it allows the homeowner to qualify for conventional financing. There is also often a structural benefit, strengthening the house to better withstand earthquakes. The disadvantage is that the conversion to a permanent foundation increases the homeowner's property tax liability.

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