Switching off the homemade hydraulic log-splitter to chat for a moment, Oral Mullins lifted his soiled baseball cap, revealing a shiny, black, Reaganesque pompandour, and looked at his avocado-green mobile home.

"We wanted something of our own," he said in simple explanation of why he and his wife decided four years ago to move out of their small rented house and buy a mobile home.

The Mullins' reasoning is typical of why 18,000 people in the Washington area make their homes in the most un-Washingtonian form of housing -- they'd rather buy than rent, and a mobile home is the only home they can afford to buy.

Nearly 12 million mobile home dwellers live in 5.5 million units throughout the United States. With an average yearly income of $10,050 they probably are more sensitive to economic vagaries than most Americans.And many readily say that the chief reason they're living in mobile homes is financial necessity.

In the Washington area, mobile homes are strung for a few miles along Rte. 1 in Fairfax, scattered throughout Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties, or spotted illegally on private property. They are home for a surprising mix of people, indistinguishable in most ways from other Washingtonians, but a minority unto themselves, set apart by the places in which they live.

Mobile home dwellers include welfare mothers and Social Security recipients, government clerks and maintenance men, military personnel, retirees on tightly constrained budgets and a handful of those who are financially comfortable and could live elsewhere but choose not to. In the parks, the overwhelming majority of residents are white. On private property, many more are black.

To many, a mobile home is the final alternative -- the only way to avoid public housing. To others, it is the only way to own a home, although if they could afford it they would choose a "real house."

"If I had a decent income, I'd 've been long gone," said Philip Carr, who has lived in the Audobon Estates mobile home park in Fairfax County for the last five years. "I just don't like mobile home life," Carr said as he tinkered with the rear-mounted engine of his aging Volkswagen. "It's not like a home."

Carr, 63, a former electroplater who retired on disability five years ago and is a widower, said, "Some like it. Some don't, but they don't have no choice -- and I'm one of them."

Pearl McPherson, looking considerably younger than her 72 years, said she's one who likes it.

McPherson said she bought her gray and white two-bedroom unit from Audubon Estate's dealership on Rte. 1 for $15,000 last May. "And I've heard the price has gone up two or three times since then," she proclaimed merrily.

"I'm all alone now," McPherson said. "But I love my mobile home. I have more room than I did in the apartment and it's good to own your own home. I never did before."

McPherson's driveway is one of the very few along Stork Road, Woodpecker Way, Crow Court and any of the other bird-named streets in Audubon Estates not sheltering at least one motor vehicle. Vans sporting psychedelic expressions of love and patriotism, brilliantly polished sports cars seemingly ready to burst with powerful engines and fat tires, gleaming chromed motorcycles and lots of down-and-out older sedans are the most prominent feature of Audubon and other mobile home parks -- aside from the shiny metal living places themselves.

Adorned with automotive-style name plates like Fleetwood, Casa Royale, New Moon and Rembrandt, with painted stripes and curvy ends imparting a suggestion of streamlined speed, the basic mobile home is more vehicle than house. And like automobiles, they depreciate in value with age rather than appreciating like houses. A standard mobile home, which might sell for $15,000 new, will bring only half that in a few years. Some of the newest and most expensive mobile homes coming onto the market now, though, are constructed to closely imitate what some mobile home dwellers call "home homes." And, more like real houses, they can cost as much as $45,000.

No more than an estimated 2 percent of mobile homes ever are moved once they're installed. Yet the average mobile home gives the impression that its occupants are ready to hit the road at a moment's notice.

Some do -- when the financial necessity becomes sufficently pressing. That's why the Godwins of Audobon Estates left recently for Orangeburg, S.C., taking with them their home of the last four years. William Godwin was giving up a 12-year career in the Department of Commerce to work in the Orangeburg post office, convinced that his salary would go further there than it did in Fairfax County.

Sylvia Godwin watched with just a touch of surprise as her 65-foot by 12-foot white and green mobile home was tugged off its cinderblock supports and into the street.

"It's kind of funny to see how easy it moves right down the road," she said. Then she embraced her neighbors, said she'd see them when they passed her way while driving to Florida, and got into the car with her husband.

The Godwins and others aside, the impression that mobile home residents are modern-day gypsies is disputed by many mobile home residents. This perception continues to haunt them even though the Great Depression-spawned picture has changed appreciably and many mobile homes are as stable and cozy as any conventional home, hearth included.

"Why, some mobile home parks today are downright glamorous," said George S. Rhodes, the owner of a small park in White Plains, Md., denoted only by the 19-mile marker on Rte. 301. While some parks in the Washington area have more amenities than others, the truly "glamorous" ones tend to be in the sun-belt section of the country, and particularly in California, according to Rhodes.

The chief social division in mobile home parks is between renters and owners. At Rhodes' park, renters pay by the week, between $65 and $75. Owners pay a monthly fee of $90 for their pads, hookups to water and sewage and trash collection. In parks with more stringent rules, such as Audubon Estates with its six-page "rules and regulations" booklet, no renters are allowed.

"Most of our friends in the park are owners. Renters come and go pretty fast," said Mamie Moreland who with her husband, James, has owned a mobile home at Rhodes' park since 1968. "It's not that we consider ourselves any better than them. They just move in and out. Some of them are singles, some are waiting for a house to be built. Some move with their jobs."

Moreland happily showed off the two-bedroom unit she and her husband added to their mobile home last Christmas to make room for themselves and their five children, ranging in age from 2 to 14.

"I love it here," said Moreland, 32, a slender woman with boyishly cropped brown hair. "I love the way mobile homes are made. They're compact and easy to care for. Our only complaint is the kids haven't got enough room to play. But I wouldn't move."

A green tweed hat cocked jauntily over his left ear, Rhodes told a visitor to his cluttered office in a tan stucco building between two rows of mobile homes that "the stigma" of being associated with mobile homes stuck to him as well as to his tenants.

"My own brother says if he didn't know better he'd swear that I was a crook," he said. "Sometimes I feel an inferiority complex when I talk to my neighbors in Kensington who are in other businesses."

Rhodes shuffled through the clutter on his desk: rolls of plans for solar heating units attached to mobile homes and for what "the industry" refers to as "add-ons," factory-built rooms that can be rolled up to the "mother-unit" and bolted on.

Oral and Maxine Mullins bought an add-on from Rhodes last year. "We bought the add-on mostly for our grandchildren." Mullins said as he showed off the imitation-wood-paneled room furnished with a round dining table and chairs. "They told us they like to sit at a real table when they come to visit," his wife added.

Mullins, 54, who speaks in the rolling accents of his native West Virginia, said he and his wife bought their 14-by-65-foot unit after renting a house in nearby Waldorf for 16 years. "It was just a little old house in a field," he said.

After failing to qualify for a mortgage on a conventional house, Mullins and his wife paid $14,600 for the mobile home. "We would've preferred a house," he said, "but land was so high and all. And our son had just bought a mobile home and we noticed how warm and comfortable it was. Now I wish we'd done it years ago."

Maxine Mullins, who works four hours a day in a nearby school cateteria since her husband no longer is able to work at his excavating business because of a liver ailment, said they found the mobile home to be cheaper to heat than their rented house and safer, too. "This has five-inch walls," she said. "Our old house didn't have any insulation at all. And this has all-copper wiring, not aluminum like the house."

The Mullinses said that their mobile home wasn't "tied down" with steel straps, as is required by state law, but that had no qualms about its safety, either from strong winds or from fire.

In a report last year, the U.S. Fire Administration found that fire deaths occurred in mobile homes at twice the rate of those in one- or two-family houses. The report stated that most mobile home fires were caused by faulty heating and electrical distribution systems. It also said that escape from these fires was difficult because flames spread across the type of paneling most commonly used in mobile homes faster than an average adult could run.

Woodley-Nightingale Mobile Homes Park, about a mile and a half up Rte. 1 from Audubon Estates, presents the Tobacco Road kind of atmosphere conjured by the trailer camps of yore.

Built during World War II for emergency housing, the 49-acre park now holds some 550 mobile homes and trailers, occupied by perhaps 1,700 people. nCrammed 14 to the acre, the rusting and decaying hulks teeter at crazy angles to each other on the edges of hills and dales.

Rock music blares from open -- or missing -- windows. Long johns and bedsheets flap from lines. An olive-drab sofa, disgorging springs and batting, lies upended on a broken arm between two tightly spaced trailers.Men's legs stick out from under cars and from gaping hoods of long-finned vehicles exhausted by too many miles and too many years. Tinkering, patching, trying to squeeze out another spurt of life.

On April 1, Woodley-Nightingale was formally purchased by Fairfax County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The project is to become the first mobile park in the country to be completely rehabilitated.

"The gates have been closed," said Arthur Giguere, a retired Government Printing Office worker who now drives a Fairfax County school bus. "No one else will be allowed in. The population will be allowed to drop to about 375 mobile homes. It will be a kind of cooperative, with the residents owning a part. Some mobile homes will be declared substandard. Some will be rehabilitated. We'll get new sewer lines, new water lines, fire hydrants, new streets and playgrounds."

Then, glancing across the narrow living room at his French-Canadian wife, Gaetane, Giguere said, "When we first moved in here, it wasn't like this. There were open spaces. This was the boondocks. We had fun. Maybe we will again. If not, we're going to move. To a real house."