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Trailer Park Nation: Love the Double-Wide

 

By Oliver Libaw

Nov. 8, 2002

 

Could it be that the beleaguered trailer park is finally getting some respect?

 

Well, trailers have gotten a foothold in swanky Beverly Hills, and appear set to get their own historic monument.

 

And trailers today now called mobile homes, or "manufactured housing" by the industry offer perks such as Jacuzzis and custom kitchens, and dealers insist you'd be hard pressed to tell one from a traditional "site-built" home.

 

"They've made incredible strides," says Brian Ballinger, a service manager at Tom Raper RVs in Richmond, Ind., one of the largest RV and mobile home dealers in the nation.

 

"Basically anything that you'd want in a site-built home, we can do."

 

For several years, the industry has been pushing to move upscale from the much-ridiculed boxlike single-wide.

 

At Coastal Homes in Brunswick, Ga., a typical customer these days will spend around $40,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath double-wide, with a dining room and "huge kitchen."

 

"Those days of single-wide sales that used to drive our sales, they're gone," says Coastal Homes owner Joe Barlow.

 

People who conjure up images of low ceilings, thin walls and a floor with the "trailer-park bounce" would be surprised by the quality of a modern mobile home, he insists.

 

"You probably wouldn't recognize it," Barlow says proudly. "If I didn't tell you what it was, you probably wouldn't know."

 

Mobile homes today can have garages, porches, breezeways, and steeped roofs likes those found in traditional homes. They come in styles ranging from Victorian to Cape Cods.

 

The move toward more elaborate mobile homes is evident nationwide. Single-wide trailers accounted for only a quarter of all new mobile home sales last year, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute.

 

And despite the name, most mobile homes are never moved.

 

In 2000, 22 million Americans lived full-time in "manufactured homes," according to the MHI. Residents typically retirees or young, lower-income couples have an average age of 52.6 and a median income is $26,900.

 

They are cheaper than traditional homes averaging $48,800 each, plus the cost of renting land, compared to $207,000 for an typical new standard home but they have other costs associated with them. Lenders typically charge significantly higher interest rates for mobile home mortgages, and mobile homes lose value over time, unlike the typical traditional house.

 

Buyers at Coastal Homes these days pay 8.5 percent to 10 percent interest rates on their mortgages, significantly higher than owners of permanent homes.

 

Brushing Up the Image

 

The move upscale isn't the only way mobile homes are trying to burnish their image.

 

The Los Angeles City Council is pushing to make its Monterey Trailer Park a historic monument. If the council approves the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission's request, the Monterey site would join such Southern California icons as the Hollywood hillside sign.

 

As the Monterey Auto Camp, the park appeared soon after Model T's first hit the roads.

 

Down the road in Beverly Hills, the rich and famous are chowing down on Wally Burgers and "Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love" pancakes at the Airstream Diner a converted trailer that offers a warm-hearted albeit kitschy take on trailer-park culture.

 

Many mobile-home residents just shrug off the bad image.