SEBRING — Why do Donald Little and Aletha Solomon live in mobile home parks? Both used the word “cheaper.”
But Solomon, who owns a single-wide at Francis 1 also mentioned community, like the monthly pot luck dinners.
“They usually want me to bring my potato salad,” she chuckled.
Little’s word is “camaraderie.”
“We seem to look out for each other, and as you age, you need people like that,” said Little, who spreads out in a double-wide at Hammock Estates.
A man’s house is his wife’s castle, so Little seeks solitude in the man-cave terrace room, where he can watch sports, play with his man-toys, but also cherishes the group friendship that seems to come part and parcel with lots that aren’t much wider than the structure itself.
Little is from Gettysburg, Pa.; Solomon swore off winters in Logansport, Ind. In both cities, mobile homes had bad reputations, and so did the people who lived there.
“They called them trailer parks,” said Little, who came to Highlands County to check out a deal offered by a relative. He didn’t take that offer, but he and wife thought they’d look around while they were here. That was 14 years ago.
Now, however, they’re among the 15,286 who bought mobile homes in Highlands County, according U.S. Census’s 2012 survey. One in every four of the county’s 55,363 housing units is a mobile home.
Americans pay an average $42,200 for a new single-wide, and $78,600 for a double-wide, says the federal commerce department.
The popularity of manufactured homes has waned in the past dozen years though: 174,000 were sold in 2002, and that number has declined each year to 56,000 in 2013. Houses on wheels are least popular in the Northeast, where only 4 million were purchased last year, but well respected in the South, where 37 million were sold. That means two of every three mobile homes is in a warm-weather climate.
In 2002, double-wide sales outnumbered singles, 129,000 to 41,000. Last year, though, only 30,000 doubles sold, compared to 26,000 singles.
Where does Florida rank on that list? Perhaps surprisingly at number 16. South Carolina is first with 18 percent mobile homes and — get this — Alaska is number 2 at 14 percent.
About 1.8 million Floridians chose mobiles. That’s not news to Warren Buffet, who spent $1.7 billion in 2003 to buy Clayton Homes, one of America’s largest manufactured home builders with 35 assembly plants across the country.
Mobile homes are popular with big-money investors. More recently, Canadian investment fund Tricon Capital said plans to buy $680 million worth of Florida, Arizona and California mobile home parks. The Carlyle Group paid $31 million in October for two Florida parks.
Cruise around Hammock Estates, and you’ll see Sebring’s best manicured laws. The entire park is owned by the homeowners, Little said. A $65 monthly fee covers garbage pickup, sewage, and maintenance of common areas like the clubhouse, where residents do-si-do to their own square dances.
At Francis 1, the monthly fee is about $70, said Solomon. Homeowners and renters are proud of where they came from, so they nail their old license plates to mailboxes: New York, Michigan, Ontario.
A bulletin board reminds Francis residents of the schedule: bowling on Monday, shuffleboard on Wednesday and Friday, a church service every Sunday, tai chi, pinochle, bingo, euchre, and Solomon’s favorite, coffee hour.
“I’ve been here for 10 years,” said Solomon, who also owns the sand under her single-wide American Dream. “I love it.”