When they decided to get married last year, Tom and Barbara Bierman never expected that their first house would be a mobile home.
But after discovering that a conventional house was out of their price range, the Biermans ended up at Deep Run, a 620-unit mobile home development near Columbia, where residents can either rent lots for their mobile homes or buy the homes and the land they sit on.
"At first I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to live in no mobile home,' but when I saw this I was sold," Tom Bierman, 23, said the other day, pointing to the three-bedroom unit he and his wife bought in February for $16,000, plus $20,000 for the lot.For an increasing number of families, skyrocketing housing costs and advances in technology have made the once-maligned "trailer" so attractive that mobile homes accounted for one-third of all new home sales in the country last year.
But along with the enthusiastic endorsements of new owners such as the Biermans, the boom in "manufactured homes" -- as the industry likes to call them -- has spawned a series of bitter zoning disputes in the Washington area.
On one side are community groups made up of traditional, "stick-built" home owners who warn that allowing mobile homes nearby would slash their property values and ruin their neighborhoods.
On the other are would-be buyers of mobile homes, and the developers who want to build parks to put them in, who argue that 1980s-style mobile homes, which include such options as cathedral ceilings, fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs, offer an affordable and attractive alternative to traditional housing.
So far, the anti-mobile homes forces appear to be winning: Community outcry over "Country Glen," a proposed 600-unit mobile home park in Accokeek in southern Prince George's County, forced developer Charles S. Shapiro to abandon the $7 million project last month. Fred Case, an Accokeek resident who spearheaded the opposition to "Country Glen," likened the proposal to "put ting an atomic power plant in the middle of Accokeek ." Bowing to community pressure, the Anne Arundel County Council this month defeated proposals to permit mobile homes to be placed on ordinary residential lots and to allow the construction of new mobile home parks and mobile home subdivisions where residents would own their lots. Mobile homes, said County Executive James Lighthizer, have an "image problem." The Manassas Planning Commission this month voted against rezoning industrial land to permit construction of a 100-acre mobile home subdivision. In Prince William County, where the Board of Supervisors is considering completely banning mobile homes on private lots, developer Lloyd Cowne last year gave up on plans to build a 300-unit mobile home subdivision. He won county approval to put up conventional homes costing about $100,000 instead.
"I couldn't believe the opposition," Cowne said. "There was opposition from people who lived 10 miles away and would never even go near that area."
Almost all the controversies over mobile homes have been in the outer suburbs, where land is cheaper and more plentiful. There have been relatively few proposals for developments close to Washington.
Montgomery County, for example, has the most liberal mobile home zoning ordinance in the area, permitting double-wide mobile homes attached to a permanent foundation to be placed on any residential lot.
But as Leonard Homa, executive director of the Maryland Manufactured Housing Association, noted, "No one's going to take a $100,000 lot in Potomac and put a 22-foot-by-40-foot mobile home on it."
Some mobile homes are planned for the near future in the county, but they will be part of large developments. Edinburgh, a 349-unit subdivision on Rte. 124 north of Gaithersburg, will include a mix of double-wide mobile homes and factory-built modular units costing between $55,000 and $70,000. Wexford, a 366-unit development under construction in Germantown, will have about 10 percent mobile homes and the rest modular units.
Other jurisdictions within the Beltway have been either indifferent or hostile to mobile home development. Arlington County has banned mobile homes completely. Alexandria's last mobile home park was redeveloped into town houses about six years ago, and there has been no request to build a new one since then, according to senior planner Mark Cavanaugh.
"I would not think the chances were too likely it would be approved," Cavanaugh said. "I cannot think of any property where a trailer would fit in."
Prince George's County added a zoning classification for planned mobile home developments in 1975, but it has not approved any such zones since.
The Fairfax County planning staff suggested in 1980 that the Board of Supervisors take steps to promote mobile homes, including permitting multisectional mobile homes on residential lots and establishing a zoning category that would permit modern mobile home developments. No action has been taken.
In 1981, Fairfax bought the Woodley-Nightingale Mobile Home Park for $5.2 million, prompted by dangerous conditions in the dilapidated, crowded park. Although the county is rehabilitating Woodley-Nightingale, it does not expect that spaces will be available there for anyone but existing tenants.
"Everyone's screaming for affordable housing but it seems that nobody wants it next door," said Ron Dunlap of the Virginia Manufactured Housing Association.
As a result, space in mobile home parks is at a premium. Although many parks are deteriorating developments with antiquated trailers squeezed together and few of the amenities of the modern "manufactured home community," they report waiting lists that stretch into months, and can be as long as a year for larger units that require big lots.
"It's not hard to find a space, it's impossible," said Gilbert Mobley of M & M Mobile Homes in Jessup. "There's very seldom a vacancy."
"Right now if you bought a mobile home it would take me two to three months before I could get you parked," said Joe Dawson of Audubon Mobile Home Sales, one of a string of mobile home retailers on Richmond Highway in Fairfax County. "There are a lot of people now who are buying mobile homes who would not have thought of it several years before."
"You're seeing more professional-type people, government workers, higher-income people," said Warren T. Seymour, president of AA Mobile Market in Fairfax. "These people are priced out of the conventional housing market and they don't have anyplace else to go."
A 1982 study by a mobile home insurance company found that 24 percent of mobile home purchasers work in white-collar jobs, 46 percent are under 40, and 33 percent have continued their education beyond high school.
According to industry figures, nearly 300,000 mobile homes were sold in the country last year -- a 24 percent jump from 1982 and the best year for the industry since 1974. Industry officials are predicting annual sales of 850,000 by the end of the decade.
"The American dream is still that single-family detached home," said Susan M. Fiske, spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute, the industry trade association. "In a factory, you can build a single-family home that offers all the amenities and keep it within the price range of a majority of Americans."
According to a survey earlier this year by the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, the median price of a home in a large metropolitan area was $80,000, and the median home price in Washington -- the third most expensive housing market in the country -- was $120,600.
In contrast, mobile homes average $17,600 for a single-section unit and $30,500 for a multisection home, plus monthly lot rental fees. Costs can go as low as $8,000 or as high as $65,000, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute.
Starting in 1976, mobile home manufacturers had to conform to a national standard enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a move that industry officials say resulted in safer and better-built units.
But some groups outside the industry contend that mobile homes have serious flaws.
One major problem is fumes from formaldehyde, used in mobile home building materials, which causes rashes, eye irritation, respiratory infections and allergic reactions in addition to being a suspected carcinogen.
A HUD rule limiting formaldehyde fumes is to take effect in February, but the agency rejected proposals for a more stringent rule, citing "economic considerations" and conceding that even this level "will not be achieved at all times."
Critics also charge that mobile home manufacturers often try to avoid making repairs required under warranties, blaming the problem on the mobile home dealer, who will in turn point to the company that transported the unit.
"Inadequate warranty service is a major problem in the industry . . . " the Federal Trade Commission said in a 1980 report. "Often, repairs are refused, are completed only after long delays (from two to 10 months) or are incomplete and the problem is not fixed."
Judy Eaton of Deep Run Mobile Home Park said she has been complaining of problems in her three-bedroom mobile home since she moved in three years ago. They still have not been resolved, Eaton said.
"My ceiling's been leaking since the day I moved in," she said. "My bathtub is cracked. My windows leak. The carpet wasn't installed right. A few months back the kitchen faucet blew off, and when I came in there was water squirting at the ceiling. The house has totally fallen apart, and it shouldn't for being three years old."
Phyllis Carrington has no such complaints about her 12-by-65-foot home on Dove Drive in the 700-unit Audubon Estates in Fairfax. Carrington, an Army personnel specialist, bought the home used for $6,000 11 years ago.
"The price was right, it was modern, and it was an excellent alternative to renting an apartment," Carrington said. "I have a bar in my dining room, ceiling beams, an electric fireplace. I have more room in my bedroom than I would have in most apartments. It's been wonderful."