Out of the Trailer

Posted May 27, 2010, at 7:36 p.m.

One version of affordable housing in Maine is the mobile home; or put more colloquially, the trailer. Mainers have higher rates of home ownership than many other states which enables us to enjoy our legendary independence, self-reliance and frugality. But for mobile homes manufactured before 1976, that frugality is penny-wise but pound-foolish. The Home Star bill, approved in the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting approval in the Senate, includes a provision for $10,000 rebates for people who move out of pre-1976 trailers. And at the state level, $3 million in bond funding becomes available in July through which eligible Maine families can get up to $25,000 toward replacement of a pre-1976 mobile home.

Currently, some 20,000 people live in the 7,500 pre-1976 trailers in Maine. The typical energy bill — heat and electric — for a pre-1976 mobile home is about $4,100 a year. The energy bill for a new mobile home would be $2,500, while the bill for a model built to Energy Star Plus specifications would be $1,890, Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition reports.

“That is highly significant,” he said, especially for the lower-income families who choose mobile homes. “People living in those homes save a ton of money.”

Beyond helping a family budget, energy efficiency has the potential to improve Maine’s economy. Most energy dollars leave the state, so any time that money can be retained through efficiency, the state economy benefits. And that’s not to mention the quality of life improvement that comes from living in a warm, dry home.

Pre-1976 mobile homes are often shoddily constructed with little insulation and poor quality plumbing and electric systems. And they’re dangerous. “They’re fire traps,” Mr. Payne said. Banks consider them personal property, so interest rates on mortgages run at 11 percent instead of 6 percent charged for a modular house put on a permanent foundation.

Another downside to mobile homes — especially older ones — is that they often lose value on the real estate market relative to other housing. Their odd-shaped layout, designed for shipping over the road rather than for the efficient use of living space, is another drawback. Their typical shallow-pitched roof is not well-matched to a climate that produces heavy, wet snow, and the fact that many are not placed on poured concrete foundation walls means the underside of the structure often is exposed to the elements.

The federal and state programs could boost two Maine businesses, Mr. Payne argues. No mobile homes are manufactured in Maine, yet Keiser Homes in Oxford and KBS Building Systems in South Paris both offer modular homes, and both hope to build Energy Star Plus models. The modular ranch is indistinguishable from a conventionally constructed house of similar dimensions, yet can perform better on energy use and is competitively priced. Mr. Payne sees the state and federal program — if the latter is enacted — as ways to create jobs in Maine.

With Maine having one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation, state government must continue to invest in innovation that improves housing options here.

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