Mobile Chickens Coming Home to Roost

In the past two years, letters from irate mobile home owners have been pouring into Washington. Their complaints cover almost every conceivable abuse: shoddy construction; plumbing, heating, electrical and insulation deficiencies; fire hazards; porous warranties, financing gyps. Many mobile home insurers also say that most loss claims in mobile homes are due to poor initial construction. Manufacturers are inviting federal regulation, though they don’t know it. The pressure is already starting to boil in the trailer parks across the nation.

Mobile homes are a good illustration of the “domino theory.” If something goes wrong, a chain of events is set in motion that affects other parts of the product.

One complaint I received from Texas said: “The furnace wall of my mobile home and one bedroom wall are not anchored to the floor…living room walls popped and one moved forward damaging the bedroom closet…. The rear axle has split…it appears there are no real cross supports from I-beams, no wonder the floor sinks…while a warped kitchen stud was being replaced, it was discovered whoever wired the unit had replaced, rather rearranged, the insulation.”

Another letter from Nevada says: “One wall which starts at the living room goes past the small bedroom and bath to the master bedroom is one inch out of plumb with the rest of the house. Being out of plumb causes the doors to hang closed.”

A letter from South Carolina describes the frame as “too short in rear of my mobile home, causing the bedroom area to sag.”

From Florida, an indignant consumer reports that he “got a mobile home and about three days after I moved in the floor began to get cracks in it. Now it has seven cracks all the way across it from one side to the other…. They are every six feet. They want to cover it up with carpet which I one hundred percent don’t want:”

The better established mobile home manufacturers commonly reply that complaints such as these should be directed to fly-by-night builders. But the letters I’ve quoted and many more describe mobile homes built by the leaders of the industry, members of the Mobile Homes Manufacturers Association. This Association has a code of production standards which it has persuaded many state legislatures to adopt. But it’s a very weak code, and anyway it’s rarely enforced. Compliance exhortations by MHMA are little more than public relations pronouncements, intended to stave off federal standards.

Senator Warren Magnuson has warned the fast-growing industry to clean house.
Pending consumer safety legislation has authority to set mobile home safety standards upon enactment. Warranties will also come under closer scrutiny. As it is, mobile homes fall in a no-man’s land, somewhere between the motor vehicle laws and housing codes.

Sales of mobile homes have risen from 111,900 units in 1955 to over 450,000 in 1971.
Last year, half of the one-family houses built were mobile. Mobile home park space is at a premium, leading to unconscionable overcharges to the tenants and illegal tie-in sales especially when the park owners are also home dealers. Many of the mobile home owners are retired, elderly, or under-employed people looking for work. They are especially vulnerable to shady practices.

Quite apart from the need for a federal cleanup of these varied consumer abuses and frauds, there is a great need for the seven million Americans living in mobile homes to organize, and some are beginning to do so. Such organization will provide the pressure and access to legal representation that are needed to make the industry more honest and produce safer and higher quality products.

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