Money & Policy

Mobile Homes: A Creative Housing Solution

One woman’s surprising yet smart decision to move into a 'manufactured' home  

After spending the majority of my adult life in a sweet little cottage with a sweeping view of the Pacific, I recently made a spontaneous and radical move: I purchased and moved into a "manufactured home" in what you might be tempted to call a mobile home park.
But there are two important things to clarify from the get-go: My home is not a trailer, and where I now live is called a village. The term mobile home, for those who don’t know, is a misnomer. My place is no more mobile than is the huge avocado tree in the backyard.
My new-to-me old home, circa 1984, was rolled (and cemented) into position decades ago. But me and my mobile ain’t rollin’ nowhere. Like my tree, the structure is firmly planted on leased land in a community of about 300 abodes.
Don’t Call Me 'Trailer Trash'
Let me explain the “spontaneous and radical” aspect of my recent move. For 25 years, I lived alone in a lovely but modest house built into the side of a hill, in Southern California. It was less than 900 square feet, and I spent most of my time upstairs, usually writing and reading in bed. In effect my home was a 450-square-foot high-ceiling room with a small kitchen and bath with a lovely deep tub to soak in. What else does a girl need (besides more closet space)? The downstairs, one large public room, housed a wall of books, a ton of art and the normal accumulations of an adult life.
Since the lower level didn’t have a view of the ocean and was cold in winter, I rarely spent time down there. Only on those rare sultry summer days would I retreat to the coolness of the downstairs. I was hesitant to invite anyone over besides a few close friends, since entertaining basically meant inviting a person into my bedroom — much too intimate, especially for a date.
I loved my little pink beach shack, as I called it, but I never imagined that I would end up spending almost 30 years there. And I was always on the lookout for a more suitable place for my future retirement.
One day I was reading the newspaper from a nearby town and noticed this ad in the back pages: “Mobile home going on the market soon.” The asking price was about one-quarter the median cost of a house in Santa Barbara, where I live and was hoping to stay.
I had a equity line on my shack and figured I could borrow against it and keep that place but also buy a cheaper second ("mobile") one. I phoned a real estate agent friend to get her opinion, and she thought it was a smart idea. So I wasted no time putting in a full-price offer, which was accepted on the spot. Thirty days later, I was the proud new owner of a (not) mobile home.

Before I could move in, I spent about $8,000 fixing the roof, floors and walls. But once all that was done, I moved in, happy to have so much more space, the ability to have guests over — plus, because I was renting out the shack, I cut my monthly expenses by about 50 percent!

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Pros and Cons of a Manufactured Home
There are pluses and minuses to my new situation. On the downside, I live very close to my neighbors — a mixed bag of ages, backgrounds and lifestyles. I’ve traded my cozy cottage with that vast view of the sea for a (sizable) fishbowl. The whole thing shakes when the dryer is on spin cycle, and the bathtub doesn’t hold a candle to the one in the shack. The kitchen and bathrooms all need updating. And I can’t walk around naked the way I used to, which actually took some getting used to.
On the plus side: My trailer (or “coach,” as I like to call it) is a spacious 1,400 square feet and has two bedrooms, two baths, a large living room, a dining room, an enclosed deck and a walk-in closet that, compared with my former digs, is a mansion. Did I mention the hulking avocado tree out back? There’s also an apricot tree that red and yellow finches like to perch on. And in the garden, I’ve inherited a healthy array of blooming bulbs, cherry tomatoes, rhubarb, scallions, strawberries, broccoli and Swiss chard.
And economically it makes sense. I used the equity line to buy the manufactured home. Including closing costs and repairs, I paid around $125,000. (Similar units run between $180,000 and $220,000.) I still pay a mortgage on the shack, but I break even on that with the rent from my tenant. My monthly expenses for the mobile home (the rental fee I pay to the village and utilities) total less than $1,000 a month. I have equity in two properties that will likely hold their value, if not appreciate over time, which is why I'm holding on to them. Best of all: There's no property tax on the mobile home. 
Our village is mostly very quiet, especially on weekdays, which suits my writing lifestyle perfectly. Yet toward the end of the workday, I welcome the sounds of people coming home from their jobs as well as the bustle of weekend activity. 

On balance, there are many things to appreciate about this type of living. There’s a nice clubhouse, where the tribe meets for community events like bridge and mah-jongg games, video evenings, holiday parties and a Monday dance night. There’s a swimming pool with a view of the mountains and a Jacuzzi. We have ping-pong tables, tennis courts, a dog park and a decent (free!) fitness center.
There’s even a “Welcoming Committee” (aka Diane), who gave me a small jade plant when I moved in. I don’t know if she was aware that in feng shui, this succulent brings good fortune and prosperity when placed near an entranceway. It seems to be working.

(MORE: When Is Relocating for Work a Good Idea?)
The 'Mobile' Lifestyle
I’m not sure if you could call this a trend, but it’s definitely a popular way to live — and not just among people with no other options. Some 20 million Americans live in manufactured homes. Half of them are over 50 — but that means half are under 50, so this type of living is clearly not just for “old folks.”
Though she lives in a “real house,” Toni Gump, founder and publisher of Upwardly Mobile, a hip publication devoted to manufactured housing, encourages and supports what she refers to as an old/new lifestyle.
“Some mobile home parks, which are really communities, are like country clubs,” she told me. “And while they are big among retirees who still have a lot of life in them, they’re becoming increasing popular with young professionals and young families. And plenty are in resort areas and more like second homes.”
I can speak to the popularity among younger people. When I moved in, a family with three kids, who live just across the way, told me I moved to the “coolest street” in the park, and thus they deemed me “cool” as well. (While there’s no mistaking this community for a Bohemian epicenter, there are a few other free-spirited artistic types here.)
Looking forward, this type of affordable, community living could actually be the wave of the future for people looking to downsize economically and have a built-in community, something that’s increasingly important as we age. My hero, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, isn’t just a fan of this lifestyle because of their affordability — he’s the largest owner of mobile home manufacturing and financing in the country.
I am fixing up the guest room so my mother can stay over, plus I’m renovating the enclosed porch for others who might want to spend the night. And I have big plans to turn my "fishbowl" into a "terrarium," by planting lots of tall “privacy” greenery outside the windows that overlook my neighbor’s yards.
I still like to write in bed, and these days, I gaze out a window that offers a fine view of (usually) blue sky, mountains in the distance and the birds, which I am working on identifying. The children from my old neighborhood are all grown now, and it’s fun to have some new little ones, who knock confidently on my door bearing Christmas treats or selling Girl Scout cookies.

I was happily surprised to discover that a writer/artist friend lives in my village, and another friend who teaches dance just moved in with her husband and has become a welcome walking companion. I am building a new community: one that I can open the door to and invite in for a cup of tea or glass of wine.
Slowly but surely, I am adjusting to my new life and surroundings in manufactured housing. Things are definitely looking up, and I guess you could call me upwardly mobile.
Leslie A. Westbrook is an author and freelance writer based in Southern California. She is currently working on a memoir.

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