The credit squeeze that has been slowly strangling the housing industry has begun to reach sales of mobile homes as well, industry officials report.

Mobile home sales -- which might have been expected to increase as stick-built housing became less affordable -- have instead declined slightly this year, manufacturers say. In the long run, purveyors of "manufacturered housing" expect to benefit from the rising cost of conventional housing and the difficulty in financing it, but in the short run they are sharing some of the distress created by cautious lenders.

"It's not as crippling as in the conventional housing market yet, although it's a little early to get the effect of what the latest round of pricing increases in interest are going to have on the industry," said David Leichey, chairman of the national finance committee for the Western Manufactured Housing Institute.

Leichey is corporate credit manager for the Riverside, Calif.-based Fleetwood Enterprises, one of the five largest manufacturers of mobile homes. f

Credit controls do not cover most mobile home loans, which are mortgages or secured consumer loans. High interest rates, however, have added to the cost of these houses.

Even with uncertainty over interest rates, mobile home loans should be more attractive to lenders because of their smaller size and shorter terms, Leichey said.

Industry spokesmen said they have seen few signs of lenders cutting back on loans for mobile homes, although Citicorp announced that it would do so. In addition, finance companies have cut back some.

"Mobile homes are mostly consumer loans, so when lenders were told to cut back on consumer loans some began using that as a scapegoat," said Jack Brady, director of the office that handles mobile home loans for the Federal Housing Administration.

"We would want them to push these loans because this is the only viable low-cost housing there is," Brady said. The number of FHA mobile home loans being made has stayed about even, he said. FHA covers 10 to 15 percent of the market; the Veterans Administration covers about 5 percent, and private lenders cover the balance.

"Sales have obviously been effected some, but not so much," said James Carroll, a spokesman for Skyline Corp. in Elkhart, Ind., one of the largest manufacturers. "We haven't had any decisive downturn at all, and in some places sales are actually doing better."

In Florida, dealers report that more buyers are paying cash for the homes, the median price of which is approximately $35,000.

Most manufacturers are suffering more from a slump in sales of recreational vehicles than a downturn in their mobile home sales. For instance, Champion Home Builders Co. of Dryden, Mich., has shut down eight motor home plants as a result of credit restrictions for buyers.

Although those sales were down, sales of mobile homes were up 30 percent in February, a Champion spokesman said.

"A lot of people are switching to manufactured housing because they can't afford site-built housing," said Champion spokesman Jerry Kennedy. But, he added, "we're feeling a credit curnch in that area too."

"This industry has taken so many lumps over a period of time that we've built up a thick hide." said Skyline's Carroll.