BY DAVID MACK
Comedians still jokingly refer to them as places where trailer trash live.
This view of manufactured/mobile home parks is not entirely unwarranted.
“There are communities like that and I’m ashamed of them for the industry,” said Rick Camboni, who, with his father owns and operates Country Club Park and Weeping Willow Ranch in the LaGrange-Countryside area. But, Camboni added, substandard parks are the exception, and if operators maintain tight ships the communities will be nice places to live.
By tight ship, he means keeping the grounds well maintained, enforcing rules, prohibiting rentals and requiring a 20 percent downpayment at purchase to ensure owners have a big enough financial stake so they want to protect their investments.
The negative view, especially of park residents, is changing, albeit slowly. Terry Nelson is a single mother who has lived for more than a quarter century in the 140-lot Rand Road Mobile Homes, which is within walking distance of downtown Des Plaines. Her 14-year-old daughter Lauren helped correct a faulty general impression her peers at school had of anyone who came from such an environment.
“I asked her if she ever got teased about living in a mobile home and she said no, but the kids expressed surprise that she was so smart and well-dressed,” said Nelson.
Although they started out being transportable, mobile homes today typically rest on foundations and are seldom moved. Costing an average of about $45,000 new, they rival small conventional homes in size and are built primarily of wallboard and wood studs. They can sit on leased land or on individually owned lots.
The more typical manufactured-home community is actually not much different than many neighborhoods, population-wise.
“There are elderly and there are 20-year-olds and everything in between,” said Bruce Gomez, who with his wife, Darla, and 10-year-old daughter, Jasmin, live in a factory-built home the family owns in Sterling Estates, just outside of Justice in unincorporated Cook County. There, a modest home costs as little as $10,000.
Although Gomez, 39, had lived in a mobile home in California in the ’80s, Darla, 31, never did until the couple bought their current place in March, 1999, after living in an apartment. Darla said she was very wary when her husband first suggested they consider buying a manufactured home.
“I was very hesitant because I have to admit I had this preconceived idea of trailers and the kind of people who live in trailers,” she said. But her view changed after they visited different parks. She became more comfortable with the notion of living in one.
Visitors often are astonished whey they see better examples of manufactured housing for the first time.
“They’ll say, `Oh, my gosh, this is a real house’ or `You couldn’t hook this on the back of your car,’ ” chuckled Nelson, who bought her place new for $9,000 27 years ago. She is proud of her home and the appearance of her community. “Everybody has flowers and many have gardens,” said Nelson, treasurer of the Mobile/Manufactured Homeowners Association of Illinois.
The Gomezes’ home is a 15-year-old, double-wide unit that has 10-foot ceilings, 2 bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, an eat-in kitchen and 2 bathrooms. There also are two additions, one of them a master suite and the other a 9-by-20-foot walk-in closet. It looks just like a traditional, stick-built home.
“If I took you from the street and put you in my house, you wouldn’t know you were in a manufactured home,” said Darla. “Some of the brand-new homes here are absolutely gorgeous.”
Phil Aspland, who owned a conventional house before buying a manufactured home with his wife, Marian, at a 600-lot park in Elgin, said the two types of housing can be hard to distinguish. In fact, “You’d find it almost impossible to tell any difference,” he said. And the setting of the park Aspland finds comparable to and even better than many stick-built subdivisions.
Factory-built housing has come a long way from its humble post-World War I origins, when they started out as vacation trailers. After World War II, larger house trailers, more suitable for year-around living in certain climates, became the industry focus. The manufacturers turned out more spacious mobile homes, which, in response to consumer demand, looked more like conventional housing than their predecessors. Finally, with the passage of the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Act in the mid-’70s, factory built homes began to improve significantly in design and construction.
In 1997, the University of Illinois Architecture-Building Research Council did a comparison of the federal code and the Council of American Building Officials (CABO) code that governs stick-built homes in most sububs. The council’s conclusion was that, “on balance the codes are comparable.”
“One of the areas of greatest advancement has been architecture,” said Kami Watson, director of communications for the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, Va. “Manufactured homes today can be crafted to fit into any neighborhood or economic situation, from entry level to retirement living.
Homebuyers can choose from features such as vaulted ceilings, walk-in-closets, fireplaces, state-of-the art appliances and Jacuzzi tubs. Additionally, spacious floor plans, customization packages and exterior designs are available.”
The technology continues to advance. Aspland has seen an improvement in new manufactured homes being brought into Willow Lake Estates. “They are of superior quality to the older ones and generally the amenities are greater,” he said. Advancements in the new products have stimulated upgrades in older homes. “Some people have done a lot of work to put the older ones in that same [like new] condition,” he said.
Manufacturers warranty their products. Wisconsin based Schult Homes provides five-year pro tection against structural defects and one-year coverage for cosmetic flaws. Other components such as roof coverings will generally be guaranteed for the same period (often 20 years) that manufacturers give to conventional homes.
As with any home, those built in a factory must be maintained. Nelson, whose 12-by-56 foot home has 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a bath, said that over the years she has painted three or four times and has changed the carpeting and the kitchen flooring.
“Mine is holding up real well,” she said. “It’s like everything else. You keep it up and it will last.”
Aspland and his wife downsized to their manufactured home seven years ago, buying a 25-year-old resale after raising their family in a conventional 5-bedroom house. They chose a factory-built home because it offered more elbowroom than a condominium or town house. The couple’s 1,450-square-foot, double-wide unit has 1 large bedroom, study, living room, kitchen, 2 bathrooms, attached 2-car garage and an addition that serves as a family room.
Financing arranged by personal loan
Financing the acquisition of a manufactured home is generally done through a personal loan, much like getting a loan to buy a car. The interest rates are usually a few points above the level for a conventional first mortgage.
Loan terms can run from 15 to 30 years and downpayment requirements vary from 5 to 20 percent. If the home is on land that also is owned by the buyer, some lending institutions will offer conventional mortgage financing.
On a nationwide basis, 81 percent of owners finance their homes through a personal property loan and 17 percent through a traditional real estate loan, said Kami Watson, director of communications for the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, Va.
In addition to financing costs, owners whose homes are in parks must pay a monthly lot rental. Terry Nelson, who lives in Rand Road Mobile Homes in Des Plaines, pays $415 per month. Bruce and Darla Gomez pay $534 for their lot in Sterling Estates just outside Justice, as does everyone else within their community.
“It’s the same for every lot regardless of size,” said Bruce, who understands that monthly rent increases at the park have been about $25 each year over the last decade. Such escalation is affordable. “I haven’t heard of anyone getting `rented out’ of here. If they keep the increases at $25, it’s not that significant,” he said.
Seniors get a discount.
But site rents can be a source of aggravation and controversy at some parks, especially if most residents are on fixed incomes, which is the case at the Elgin retirement community where Phil Aspland and his wife, Marian, live. The company that owns the park bought it five years ago and has begun to raise rents beyond what many residents can pay, he said.
At one time, he pointed out, rent increases were limited by law to changes in the Consumer Price Index, but in 1987 park owners persuaded the Illinois Legislature to allow for increases based on individual factors such as rising property taxes.
Some older people in his park, especially with older homes, “are finding it difficult to sell them because people don’t want to pay the high rents. Owners are being forced to sell for very little money,” he said.
The Asplands’ rent went from $502 to $663 on Jan. 1, but a person buying in the park today would pay $775 for his site, a figure the Asplands eventually will pay as the operators raise rents in increments to soften the impact on current residents. Despite this accommodation, however, many residents are experiencing a financial hardship, he said.
Aspland believes factory owners should look into the rent situation because high rents may lead to a reduced demand for their homes.
“The manufacturers are doing a terrific job with their product quality but the park operators are the problem,” he said.
Nelson has some advice for anyone thinking of buying a manufactured home: “Check the rent history.” Do this by talking to members of the homeowners association, if there is one at the park, or to other residents and even park management.
This is part of the research any foresighted person should undertake before making a decision to purchase, she said. It’s just as important as other factors such as price, financing terms and park rules because of the effect rents can have on resale prospects.
How they’re manufactured in first place
Manufactured homes are constructed entirely in a factory according to federal code and are shipped as large sections or complete units to locations where they are set in place, usually on slabs or block foundations.
Homes come in a single unit or sometimes multiple sections, the latter of which are then attached on site. A red label on the outside of the unit indicates it meets HUD standards.
Modular homes are something different. They also are factory built in several sections–perhaps a room at a time–trucked to a site and then attached to foundations with or without basements. They’re built in accordance with state, local or regional building codes rather than federal law.
Panelized construction consists of panels that are usually whole walls with windows, doors, wiring and outside siding, and are transported to a construction site and assembled by builders. Again, the quality of these products is controlled by local or state building codes.
Pre-cut homes are those for which building parts, generally smaller than panels, are cut at a factory to specific design specifications. They include kit, log and dome homes whose construction and installation also are regulated by state or local codes.
Just about every large conventional homebuilder uses some factory-prefabricated components, such as roof trusses, in the construction process to reduce costs.