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Mobile home industry gets a second wind

Just four days after Marge and Howard Dauber's mobile home was destroyed by a tornado, the Largo retirees had picked out another double-wide. All that stands between them and a quick move back into Glenwood Mobile Home Park is an insurance settlement check.

Never mind all the bad publicity about lax mobile home building standards, the four dead found in the wreckage of three Pinellas County mobile home parks last week or the fresh images of their home collapsing around them.

"Friends keep asking why we would buy another mobile home," said the 73-year-old Mrs. Dauber. "It just seemed silly not to. We own the lot. All our friends and our church are there. That tornado had no more respect for our mobile than it did for a lot of other buildings."

The Daubers are hardly alone. Some mobile home residents may have sworn off the lifestyle, but the industry is braced for a boom thanks to tornadoes that ripped through Pinellas last weekend and the devastation Hurricane Andrew left last month in south Dade County.

More than half the 422 homes destroyed in Pinellas on Oct. 3 were mobile homes. Add in the 9,000 mobile homes Andrew leveled in Dade County, and you see why the nine mobile home factories within an hour's drive of Tampa Bay are talking of adding second and third shifts.

Florida factories last year put 20,000 homes on the er road.

"I'm looking for a boom in 1993," said Dennis Schrader, president of Jacobsen Homes Inc., which churns out about 1,000 homes a year in Safety Harbor.

"Demand is going through the roof right now," said Frank Williams, director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association.

"The trend really started just before the hurricane, but the question is really how spiffy this boom looks come December," said Bill Harriss, president of Bartow-based Homes of Merit Inc., which operates five plants in Florida.

This much-maligned industry could use some good news. Nationally, production slid from a peak of 294,100 units in 1984 to 170,713 in 1991. Industry consolidation cut the number of plants in Florida from 47 to 19 in the past decade. And sales of new mobile homes in Florida _ which has more mobile home residents than any other state _ have been in the doldrums while other Sun Belt states posted modest gains.

Florida's link to mobile home living dates back to the so-called "tin cities" of the boom-time 1920s. By the 1950s, tin lizzies jury-rigged to live in gave way to boxcar-length trailers wrapped in sheet metal. Today's mobile home builders think they left all that history so far in the dust that they call their products manufactured housing.

The wheels come off as soon as these bulky rigs get to a home site. Extras range from jacuzzis to wood-burning fireplaces. And while the heart of the business remains the $40,000 to $50,000 price tag, custom models go all the way up to $80,000.

"And every piece of hardware in this home can be purchased at a Home Depot," said Sheridan.

Still, widespread customer acceptance and growth had eluded the industry in Florida for the past seven years. Florida still has more mobile homes than any other state, but on a per capita basis the state has slipped to the bottom of the top quartile in mobile home dwellers.

No one knows exactly why. But industry leaders think they shared the same woes as the rest of the state's housing industry. The retiree migration slowed because retirees had trouble selling their homes up north. The cost of developing sprawling retirement communities with pools, recreation centers and golf courses in congested urban areas got too expensive.

While a decade ago more than half the mobile homes built in Florida were destined for retiree-rich parks, most today are sold for use as stand-alone homes in subdivisions.

Local zoning boards have not welcomed them, even though this form of housing comes covered with the same vinyl siding and shingles found on most homes. Despite bay windows and gables, manufactured housing designers cannot change their classic cigar shape too much without forsaking the highway. And even such touches as floral patterned drywall and extra-thick carpet padding do not completely overcome a homeowner's feeling he is walking around in something less substantial.

Nonetheless in July and August, as interest rates plunged, Florida mobile home dealer orders perked up for the first time in years.

Then Andrew opened the floodgates.

Dealers flocked to set up shop along the major roadsides of south Dade County peddling replacement homes. Hundreds of mobile homes were diverted south and snapped up by people who lost expensive, big homes to Andrew. They needed places to live while they rebuilt their primary residences.

"That might not sound great to some, but it's the lap of luxury compared to living in a tent or staying in a hotel for six months," said Williams.

Andrew tore up all the display models at EZ Mobile Home Sales near hurricane-ravaged Homestead. The owners could not get delivery of a single home for display until last week.

"You just would not believe how many new dealers showed up down here," said EZ salesman Rick Morgan. "And even though we haven't had any product to show, people have been coming in nonstop."

Jacobsen _ which usually makes a few single-wides a year _ just got an order for 20 to house military families relocated from Homestead Air Force Base to Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle.

How long this boom will last remains to be seen.

Replacement sales got a boost that lasted more than a year after Hurricane Hugo ripped through South Carolina. Andrew did far more damage than Hugo. And the manufactured housing industry sees an even bigger opportunity marketing its cheaper replacements for the 50,000 conventional homes wiped out by Andrew.

"Over time I do not think the impact is going to be that much more than replacement of lost mobile homes," said Robert Curran, a securities analyst who follows the industry for Merrill Lynch Research. "But there is evidence the industry in Florida could benefit from low interest rates, the lack of new apartment construction and by offering a more affordable alternative to conventional homes."

The storms that hit Florida this year beat up conventional homes and commercial buildings as well, so industry observers think the industry will suffer little from bad publicity.

"When homes are designed to withstand 100-mile-per-hour winds, people are not surprised when they are destroyed by 175-mile-per-hour winds," said Williams.

And even stronger tornadoes toppled several commercial concrete-block buildings in Pinellas as well as ripping through mobile home parks.

Still, recent congressional hearings have put building standards for mobile homes back in the headlines.

Manufactured housing standards are set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And a congressional subcommittee last week heard several engineers and academics say lax construction and installation standards made mobile homes more susceptible to destruction.

Rep. Henry Gonzalez, chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and its Housing and Community Development Subcommittee, said federal standards for mobile homes "are quite inadequate."

In the South Florida towns where Andrew struck, 97 percent of all mobile homes were destroyed or badly damaged. By comparison, only 11 percent of the conventionally built homes were destroyed and 43 percent were seriously damaged.

The Homestead City Council last week imposed a six-month moratorium on permanent mobile home permits while city officials study new safety standards.

Such talk irritates the industry. Most of the mobile homes destroyed were built before 1974 when the industry had no standards and tie-downs were not required, they say. Many were travel trailers. And improved building standards have made newer products far safer.

HUD requires exterior walls capable of sustaining pressure of 25 pounds per square foot. But engineers say that translates into a wind force standard of somewhere between 80 and 110 mph. Building codes in Pinellas County require that conventional buildings withstand 100 mph winds inland, 110 on the beaches.

"The HUD standards should be upgraded," said Orville Cummings, assistant director of Florida's Bureau of Mobile Home Construction, an arm of the Division of Motor Vehicles that has 29 inspectors monitoring HUD requirements full-time in 19 Florida mobile home plants.

Unlike many older mobile homes, which often literally explode when hit by tornadoes, newer ones do not, said Cummings. That's because of improved strapping methods that hold the unit together in high winds, he said.

"Some work and some don't," he added. "I saw a lot of repairable mobile homes in Homestead that were totaled only because of water damage. There were a lot of homes where the walls and skeleton were standing."

Counties and cities are supposed to insure that tie-downs _ steel straps that anchor the floor to the ground _ are installed to keep hurricane-force winds from blowing homes off their foundations.

But inspectors have been checking only since the mid-1970s, and then only when a new or replacement unit is installed. Otherwise, homeowners are responsible. In a 1990 survey, 24 percent of Florida mobile home owners said their unit was not tied down and 39 percent said they had not inspected their tie-downs in the past three years.

"The tie-downs generally do not fail," said Pinellas County building director Robert Pensa. "But in a lot of cases after a tornado hits, they hold the floor but the rest of the place is gone."

Many industry leaders expect the industry to voluntarily raise its standards. But there is a limit.

To remain an alternative to conventional housing and rental apartments, mobile home builders have to maintain a price gap. During the recent housing market doldrums, competitive pressures dropped mobile home prices about 5 percent, said Harriss of Homes of Merit. Now rising lumber and material costs put a pinch on costs and profits. And a higher wind standard could make manufactured housing less price competitive.

"Increasing the standard from 110 to 120 miles per hour will provide little additional protection in the face of storms such as Andrew while adding a minimum of $1,200 to the cost of a new manufactured home," said Edward Hussey, a vice president with Liberty Homes Inc., a mobile home builder based in Goshen, Ind.

Marge Dauber, who's itching to move back into another mobile home in Largo, buys the logic.

After all, the Daubers sold their conventional home in Madeira Beach after being flooded out by Hurricane Elena in 1985. Then they bought a mobile home three years ago when their apartment rent hit $600 a month.

"We thought we would be blowing too much on rent and have nothing to show for it, so we bought a mobile home," said Mrs. Dauber. "Besides, I figure we've got a 90 percent chance that a tornado is not going to come through our place again."

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Who lives in Florida's mobile homes?

HOW MANY: 1.3-million people live in 765,000 units.

AGE: Two-thirds are over 60 years old, but 11 percent are in their 30s.

INCOME: Three-quarters live on household incomes of less than $30,000. Still, 3 percent report net worth exceeding $250,000.

MORE SINGLES: Percentage of married couples dropped from 68 percent to 55 percent since 1981. Percentage of divorced/separated/widowed rose from 26 percent to 38 percent during the same period.

CASH BUYERS: Only 44 percent of mobile home buyers finance the purchase.

IDLE HOURS: 60 percent redecorated in the past three years, 67 percent added landscaping, and 16 percent own a boat.

GETTING OLD: About half of Florida's mobile homes were built before 1977. Median age was 7 years in 1979, 14 years in 1991.

TIEDOWNS: 76 percent have tie-downs - mechanisms designed to protect against high winds - yet only 39 percent of owners admitted that their tie-downs were inspected in the past three years.

SATISFIED: Only 10 percent reported dissatisfaction with their choice of mobile home living.

Sources: National Family Opinion Inc., Foremost Insurance Co., Florida Manufactured Housing Association.

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