BY HELEN KAIAO CHANG
Looking out over the green hills of the Rancho Escondido Mobile Home Park, Charles Lothspeich smiled. This will soon be his new home.
Lothspeich, 80, likes the open space here. He likes the facilities: two clubhouses, a swimming pool and Jacuzzi. He likes the activities, such as $2 Hamburger Night on the second Thursday of the month. And he likes the people , all seniors.
It doesn’t bother him that his new home will be manufactured. The 1,950-square-foot structure will have three spacious bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room, granite-marble kitchen countertops, modern appliances, and window shutters.
“When you walk in, it’s just like a regular house,” he said. “You can’t tell it’s a mobile home.”
Lothspeich likes it so much that he is selling his $850,000 house a few miles up the road and buying the $400,000 mobile home and lot in this park. He and his wife will move here in May.
“Where else can you get so much space for this price?” said Lothspeich. “You can’t beat it.”
Gone are the days of trailer trash parks. Here come the days of trailer palace resorts.
For San Diegans squeezed by the housing crunch, mobile homes are becoming an increasingly attractive option. As more home buyers choose mobile homes for their luxuriousness and affordability, real estate professionals expect this niche market to grow, while traditional housing sales begin to slow. These days, industry professionals call them manufactured homes, because changes in safety and building codes resulted in a different kind of structure. But the general public still calls them mobile homes.
Industry professionals said that manufactured homes offer a strong alternative in San Diego’s expensive housing market.
While the median cost of a house in San Diego is $525,000, the median cost of a mobile home is $105,000. Families and senior citizens make up the bulk of mobile home buyers, said Jess Maxcy, the president of the Rancho Cucamonga-based California Manufactured Housing Institute.
“We are a high-value way for middle-income earners to get homeownership,” said Maxcy.
Mobile homes are like amphibious creatures that have finally found land. Once, they were considered trailers, metal boxes and personal property. They were registered as vehicles under the Department of Transportation. But that changed in 1981, when the Manufactured Housing Act converted them to real property, to be licensed under the California Department of Housing and Community Development. They are now assessed as regular houses.
“It was a huge shift,” said Sandy Woodhouse, supervising appraiser at the San Diego County assessor’s office.
This shift also cleared the way for a whole new industry to crop up. Real estate professionals , including lenders, developers, Realtors and escrow officers , now work on manufactured home transactions.
In 1989, industry professionals pushed for the Nondiscriminatory Zoning Act, which provided that manufactured homes could be placed anywhere that a regular home could be built, as long as architectural standards of the neighborhood were met. This allowed people to buy raw land and put manufactured houses on them, fueling growth, said CMHI’s Maxcy.
In recent years, manufactured homes have also improved, growing in size, amenities and luxuriousness. While trailers were typically 8 feet wide by 35 feet long, today’s mobile homes can be as large as 36 feet wide by 60 feet long.
Parks have also reached high-end standards. Many upscale parks in Escondido, Vista and San Marcos feature clubhouses, swimming pools, spas, Jacuzzis and beautiful landscaping.
“You only have to look at some of the parks now to see they have changed significantly,” said Barbara Sweeting, a director of the North San Diego County Escrow Association, which offered a seminar this month to members on mobile homes. “There’s a prestige. It’s called champagne village.”
The numbers bear out this growing popularity. Last year, California had $1 billion in new manufactured home sales, with San Diego County posting the second-largest number in sales, after Riverside County, according to CMHI. San Diego County nearly doubled the number of new manufactured homes sold in two years, from 506 in 2003 to 970 in 2005. San Diego’s proportion of total California manufactured home sales also grew, from 6 percent of sales in 2003 to 9 percent in 2005.
Government agencies are also posting growing numbers. The San Diego County assessor’s office has seen a steady rise in values for manufactured homes that are assessed as real property. In the last five years, the number of parcels assessed has jumped 35 percent from nearly 16,000 in 2000 to more than 21,000 in 2005. Meanwhile, the actual values of those parcels more than doubled from about $770 million in 2000 to $1.6 billion in 2005. In five years, the average assessed value per manufactured home grew from about $49,000 to $76,000.
The assessor’s office does not track how many residents live in mobile homes. But it estimates that the county has 42,000 manufactured homes and 385 mobile home parks.
Because of the amphibious history of mobile homes, those built before 1981 are not required to pay property tax. They pay license fees instead, similar to an auto registration, to the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Industry professionals are preparing for more growth.
CMHI, a statewide organization that has 280 members, including manufacturers, retailers, financial service companies, suppliers, developers and park owners, held its annual meeting this month in San Diego and sees a healthy industry.
According to CMHI, the number of mobile home dealers statewide grew 14 percent, from 350 in 2004 to 403 in 2005. At least three mobile home manufacturers are planning to open new factories or increase existing capacity, to meet anticipated demand in California.
And the number of financial institutions , ranging from national lenders to local credit unions , offering loans for manufactured homes in California has grown steadily to nearly 50. The number of appraisers who understand manufactured homes has also jumped, with nearly 400 appraisers last year going through training courses for this market, said CMHI’s Maxcy.
In addition to San Diego’s hot housing market, several other factors are also driving this growth: an increasing number of senior citizens, the upgrade of old mobile homes, and more people buying open land.
The North San Diego County Escrow Association’s Sweeting said that senior citizens like mobile home parks because of the sense of community they provide. About half the mobile home parks in San Diego cater to people age 55 and older. These senior citizens like the quiet atmosphere, without children. Many parks also offer activities, such as card games, bingo nights and barbecue dinners. “It’s got the ambience of having a nice home with lots of senior activities,” said Sweeting.
For families with small children, who occupy the other half of mobile home parks, community is also important, she said. Parents feel safe raising children in a place where neighbors know each other, and these parks have open spaces that condos and town houses lack. The affordable cost of mobile homes also allows families an entryway into the housing market, said Sweeting. “It gives them some part of the American dream.”
The tax assessor’s Woodhouse said that many mobile homeowners are also replacing old trailers with new manufactured homes, fueling growth. A growing number of people who are purchasing land and putting manufactured houses on them are also boosting numbers, she said.
With interest rates rising and new home sales falling off, Sweeting said that escrow companies are counting on manufactured home sales as a way to stay competitive in the market.
CMHI’s Maxcy said that the number of manufactured home sales is likely to fall, along with regular houses, but that he expects overall prices to go up 7 percent to 10 percent.
Helen Kaiao Chang is a freelance writer living in San Diego.