When Stella Abbott retired last year from managing a school cafeteria in Arlington. She decided to get away from the "smog and fog" of the city and take life easy. She paid $19,000 cash for a double-wide, 60-foot-long mobile home, and she paid a year's rent in advance at the March Run Home Park near Bealeton in Fauquier County.
She moved to the country last August. She did not as it turned out, have a chance to take life easy. She said the doors in her mobile home wouldn't open sometimes, other times they wouldn't shut; the toilet wouldn't always flush and it flooded occasionally and the floors were wobbly all the time.
Her mobile home, like hundreds of others in Northen Virginia, was installed in violation of a state regulation requiring that mobile homes be anchored. This means, in most cases, that the home must be set on concrete blocks submerged into the ground to the frost line and that it must be tied down with "hurricane straps."
At a recent meeting of other mobile home owners who live in Marsh Run, 10 residents voiced complaints similar to those of Mrs. Abbott, Bob Davis, who bought a $22.331 mobile home from the Marsh Run management and who moved into the park in December, has refused to pay for his trailer or for the space it sits on until he is satisfied the trailer is anchored according to state regulations.
Flouting of the safety regulations, according to local and state building officials, subjects mobile home residents to danger in high winds and can cause long-term, expensive structural damage to mobile homes.
There are an estimated 5,500 mobile homes in Northern Virginia and many of their residents live in them because they cannot afford to buy permanent homes. In Fairfax County, where there are 11 trailer parks and 2,300 mobile homes, the median price of a house is more than $60,000. Mobile homes sell for between $10,000 and $25,000.
According yo one county study last year, the median family income (the point at which half have more and half less) in the Woodley-Nightingale Mobile Home Park on Rte. 1 is $10,500 a year. Median income in the country as a whole is about $28,000 a year.
The primary purpose of the tie-down regulation. According to Herbert C. Lieb, chief office of disaster preparedness for the National Weather Service, is to protect mobile homes from storm weather.
While "hurricane straps" cannot protect a trailer from a direct hit by a tornado, such as accurred in January in Stafford County where a 65-foot trailer was splintered and a baby killed, they can protect mobile homes from most severe winds, Lieb said. He said a 40-mile-an-hour wind can topple a trailer that is not tied down.
Mrs. Abbott said recently that when she moved into Marsh Run she asked the management there why her trailer was not anchored properly. "They told me it was not necessary, that they would just be putting good money after bad," she said.
Ned Thomas Jr., manager of the park for the past five months, said that informing park residents about the anchoring regulation and complying with residents' requests for proper anchoring were "some things that were overlooked" by the previous management. He said he is now resolving Abbott's complaints and similar ones by other park residents who were promised their trailers would be set up properly.
Marsh Run is not at all unique in having mobile homes that were installed in violation of the anchoring regulation. "The (anchoring) law is not enforced here," said Bob Epps, manager of Penn-Daw Terrace Trailer Park on Richmond Highway in Fairfax County. "It never has been enforced."
Willis Risdon, building inspector for Fauquier County, said he didn't know the regulation existed until he read about it in some state documents a couple of months ago. "The building officials have a terrible time enforcing this law," said Jack Proctor, director of the statewide building code for Virginia.
According to state officials, counties in southern and eastern Virginia enforce tie-down regulations much more strictly than in Northern Virginia because of the greater frequency of severe winds in those areas.
The regulation, which applies to Northern Virginia-area mobile homes built after 1972 and installed or re located after 1975, is a "lousy law," according to Proctor. He said this is because enforcement depends upon the people who buy mobile homes, many of whom do not know the regulation exists.
A mobile home buyer is required, under the regulation, to get a permit from the county building inspector's office before he can move in. "What happens," Proctor said, "is the person buying a mobile home doesn't realize he needs a permit."
Proctor said mobile home dealers in Virginia are required to tell buyers about the regulation that requires the anchoring of mobile homes. But some dealers, who often are also mobile home park owners, fail to do so, Proctor said. Whether they were told about the regulation or not, mobile home owners are responsible when the regulation is violated.
Building inspectors in Fairfax, Fauquier and Prince William counties, who are responsible for enforcing the regulation, say enforcement is almost impossible unless someone --the mobile home owner, a mobile home park manager or a representative from the utility that supplies electricity to a new unit -- tells them about the location of a new mobile home.
Although there are many mobile home parks in Northern Virginia where inspections are routinely made before occupancy, there are others where a mobile home owner can move in, get his electricity and sewer hooked up and never deal with a building inspector.
Waples Mobile Home Estates near Fairfax City is one of those places. Hugh Waples, who has been manager of the 250-unit park for the last 17 years, said mobile homes installed there since 1975 have not been tied down or blocked to the frostline, which is about 14 inches beneath the ground surface.
"There was never a building inspector out here," Waples said recently in an interview. He said that tying down and digging holes for mobile home blocking was "not feasible" because of the high turnover in park tenants.
When a mobile home's foundation sits on the ground, temperature changes can shift the mobile home, throwing it askew. Rex Early, chief engineer for the industrial building section of the state fire marshal's office, said the problem is a major cause of complaints about mobile homes. Mobile homes that are not level can have doors that won't open, windows that won't slide and drainage pipes that don't drain.
Tie-down regulations, according to Proctor, are intended to protect trailer residents from faulty home foundations by getting a building inspector to make sure they are done right.
Asked about maintenance problems for mobile homes that are not level, mobile home park manager Waples said, "If someone complains to me, I say the ground will go back (to its original level position). Living in a mobile home is not the same as living in a house. People have to make allowance for that."
The manufacturers of mobile home tie-down hardware and state building officials disagree with Waples. They said that if a mobile home is blocked and tied down according to state regulations it will remain level year-round and have far fewer maintenance problems.
But, according to Proctor, mobile home buyers, many of whom are young and anxious to have a roof over their heads, are far too trusting of mobile home dealers and park owners.
"They often don't know what they are doing. They just put their faith in the dealer and have at it, he said.
"You're dealing with a group of people who never complain to the right folks because they are afraid of the bureaucracy to begin with," Proctor said.
There is, however, one group of mobile home owners in Fauquier County that has complained. After the civic association at Marsh Run Home Park near Bealeton threatened a rent strike, a county building inspector checked conditions in the park. It turned out that three out of 176 mobile homes were tied down.
Building inspector Risdon has sent a letter to the Marsh Run management, ordering that mobile homes set up after 1975 be anchored properly. The Marsh Run management is responsible for anchoring the trailers, according to park residents, because they say they were promised their mobile homes would be set up according to the law. Risdon said he plans an enforcement inspection soon.