Published: March 25, 2014
Although our house in the country is here to stay, 40 years ago it would have been called a mobile home.
Today, the term is manufactured home, referring to a factory-built home regulated by the HUD Code established in 1976. The vast majority of the homes in our neighborhood in eastern El Paso County are manufactured homes, which were built in a factory, transported to the site and then installed. That's in contrast to a site-built, or stick-built, home that, as the term implies, is built on site. (There are also modular homes, which like manufactured homes are factory-built; one key difference between the two is that a modular home is built not according to the HUD Code but to the same state, local or regional building codes as site-built homes.)
We had concerns about buying a manufactured home. Could we get financing? Would the quality be OK? Would the home gain in value like a "regular" home?
But we wanted land while, at the same time, downsizing in house size and cost. Manufactured housing is generally cheaper than stick-built; those savings can be magnified in the country, since it's less cost-effective for a homebuilder to construct a solitary home out in nowhere. As a result, manufactured housing is more concentrated in rural areas. Which meant that in our search, not only were the manufactured homes less expensive, there were also more to choose from.
The good news is that manufactured homes have come a long way since the old days when they were really just trailers. "Increasingly, new manufactured home models are virtually indistinguishable from conventionally constructed single-family units," says a Housing Assistance Council study I found online titled "Moving Home: Manufactured Housing in Rural America."
In fact, my wife and I sometimes make a game while driving of trying to decide which houses are manufactured or modular homes and which are stick-built. Since a manufactured home can have on-site additions, such as a garage, or even be put on a foundation with a basement, it's not always easy to tell.
The previous owner of our home had made some key improvements, including updating the windows and adding a beautiful, blue steel roof. And we added hardwood floors in much of the house before moving in. Still, there are signs of its factory roots: Our house is a "double-wide," meaning it was transported in two parts; a beam in the ceiling covers the "marriage line" between the two halves.
Then there are the walls, made with vinyl-covered drywall. The drywall is in panels, to allow for shifting during transport of the house, and strips called batten strips cover the gaps between the panels. As one website notes, nothing screams "mobile home" more than those walls. We've had the gaps filled and the walls textured and painted in the master bath (where a flower pattern on the vinyl was the most offensive), the second bathroom and our living room/dining room, and will move on to other rooms as our budget permits.
Redoing the walls is a common request by people looking to update the appearance of their manufactured home, says Brian Trausch, a general contractor who specializes in manufactured housing - and whose company did the living room and second-bathroom work for us.
Flowers or no flowers, the vinyl-covered drywall beats what the old mobile homes used to have, Trausch says, which was paneling - "or, in other words, kindling. The fire resistance before 1976 was nonexistent." Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that post-1976 manufactured homes have a much lower risk of death if fire occurs, with the overall fire death rate roughly the same for manufactured homes compared with other one- or two-family homes.
The HUD Code mandates standards for design, construction and installation of manufactured housing. Some standards - for insulation, wind resistance and snow loads - can vary by region. A home installed in Colorado, for example, has to be able to withstand a heavier snow load than, say, one in Florida. Previously, with no code, a home built in a Southern state with little insulation could end up in a much colder climate, Trausch says; he has heard of people in older mobile homes having their hair freeze to the walls while sleeping because of moisture and cold seeping through the walls.
A sheet with information on our house is, oddly enough, affixed to the inside of an under-the-sink kitchen cabinet door. It shows that the house, built in June 1996 by a company in Fort Worth, Texas, has the right specs for settling in Colorado. (It is NOT proper for coastline conditions, the sheet says.)
We're happy with our little house on the prairie. It's cute, suits our needs and stays cozy even in the worst of winter - no hair freezing.
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots.
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