Manufactured homes have traveled a long way from their metal box image MOBILE HOMES IN THE FAST LANE


Brenda Eveland can't wait to move into a new house.

She'll order her choice of carpet and draperies, select cabinets for the kitchen and choose a big whirlpool bath. She won't get to see her home until it lumbers off the interstate and rolls to a stop on her piece of land in Elk Neck in Cecil County. But she'll trade a few surprises for the $68,000 to $80,000 she'll save by buying a mobile home instead of a conventional house.

Ms. Eveland is among a growing number of people across the country opting for mobile homes -- or "manufactured housing" as the industry prefers to call them.

"They are built a lot nicer than they used to be," Ms. Eveland said.

Denise Miles spent months looking at site-built houses with price tags from $90,000 to $120,000 before choosing a manufactured home in Cecil County.

"Builders want to charge you so much for stick-built houses. We paid $30,000 for our mobile home three months ago," Ms. Miles said. For now, her new house is anchored in a mobile home park. She hopes to buy property soon and install it there permanently.

Mobile home sales and shipments have risen sharply in recent years, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute and U.S. Department of Commerce. Mobile home manufacturers shipped 147,720 houses in the first six months of 1994 -- 22 percent more than it shipped the year before, according to the institute. Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce reports note that site-built single-family housing starts were up 13 percent in the same period, and single-family home sales increased 6 percent.

The industry's South Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, took the largest share of mobile homes in the country from January to June 1994, with an almost 32 percent market share. Most houses have gone to North Carolina, 14,101, while Maryland has received comparatively few, 443, though that was up 4.5 percent from the previous year.

Mobile homes, of course, don't suit all tastes. Land costs are high in urban areas, so mobile home buyers typically have to choose land in more rural areas. Most dealerships in metropolitan Baltimore are in Harford or Howard counties, near rural areas where land costs are cheaper.

And while the manufactured housing industry says quality has improved, the thought of a prefabricated home still doesn't sit right with most buyers.

"It's the difference between buying an apple pie from the supermarket and having your mom bake one for you," said Randy Shelley of Shelley Construction Inc. of Monkton. "They are both apple pies. Depends on what you want."

Bruce Savage, director of public affairs for the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, Va., said affordability is why the homes sell.

"Costs are anywhere from 25 to 50 percent less per square foot for manufactured homes than for traditional site-built homes," Mr. Savage said.

The cost of manufactured housing has increased, along with the cost of site-built housing, but at less of a clip. According to Census Bureau figures, the average price for a mobile home increased 92 percent from 1983 to 1993, from $15,900 to $30,500. Meanwhile, the average price for a site-built house went up 122 percent, from $50,000 to $110,775.

Sheldon Walter, sales associate for Schult Homes Corp. in Milton, Pa., said costs are low because manufactured houses can be more efficiently assembled than site-built houses.

"We control all the variables," said Mr. Walter, whose company makes mobile homes for the northeastern United States, and includes Maryland in its territory. "Weather, material cost and productivity are all documented and controlled under one roof in an assembly line. We don't have a lot of cost overruns."

Improved quality is another reason for more sales, Mr. Savage said. "The industry is more consumer-driven now. The types of homes and the aesthetics have improved dramatically."

Customers can choose multisection houses, double-wide and double-decked, that look more like a site-built house than the single-section box trailer of yesteryear. Many manufactured homes have pitched roofs, dormer windows and drywall construction.

Industry representatives concede that some people still think that mobile homes are cheaply built or could blow over in a stiff wind. "A lot of people think of a mobile home as what they knew in the '50s: A metal box and when the wind blows, they're going to collapse or a spark will fly and they'll go up in flames," Mr. Walter said. "Unfortunately, that was a concept that some of the homes fell into."

But the federal government established stiffer mobile home manufacturing guidelines in 1976, he said.

"These homes are transported across the highways of the Northeast, picked up by a crane and put on a foundation," Mr. Walter said. "They have to withstand a significant amount of stress just to get where they are going."

The house is 95 percent complete when it is shipped from the factory. Plumbing and electrical fixtures are installed, carpet and cabinets in place.

Houses are usually shipped over the road on a steel I-beam trailer four to six weeks after they have been ordered from the manufacturer. Roofs are folded down for transport. Multisection houses are shipped in sections.

Once at its site, workers unbolt the sections and set them on the foundation, usually with the help of a crane. They are anchored into place, the roof is unfolded upward, and the house is made watertight.

Next, contractors swarm over the inside and outside, finishing drywall, stitching carpet seams together, adding shingles and siding, making plumbing and electrical connections. Depending on the size of the house, manufacturer, local dealer and contractors, final setup can take one to two weeks.

Most homes stay put

Peggy Rasnake, who sells mobile homes for Schult Homes through her Elkton Homes dealership in Elkton, said nine out of 10 of her customers have their own property, for which they buy a manufactured house to permanently set on a foundation.

Nationwide, about 60 percent of manufactured homes are permanently anchored on private property, Mr. Savage said. The other 40 percent end up in land-lease mobile home communities where they are bolted to piers in the ground.

Once they get where they are going, 90 to 95 percent of manufactured homes never leave, he said.

Mr. Savage said his industry has worked hard to eliminate the impression that because they are inexpensive, manufactured homes are inferior.

Still, few builders, buyers or realty agents would categorize them as "high-end." Some models have interior drywall construction, but others are covered with prefinished polyethylene panels.

And this warning comes with each factory-built model: "Some of the building materials used in this home emit formaldehyde," a pungent gas used in the making of synthetics.

"It's exactly like a stick-built house, built by the same code," Ms. Rasnake of Elkton Homes assures hesitant buyers.

"The biggest difference between a manufactured home and a stick-built home is the manufactured home is much stronger. What other house can go down the road at 60 miles per hour and not break apart?"

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