AIKEN - On the wall of Jimmy Walker's Aiken office is an aerial photograph, circa 1995, of the mobile-home sales lot he manages.
"In that picture, there's about 20 single-wides," Mr. Walker, the manager of Omega Homes of Aiken. "Now we maybe stock two. That's how much the market has changed."
The mobile-home industry is in a state of flux after weathering a steep decline in sales since the mid-1990s, when production peaked at about 350,000 units a year. This year, according to the National Manufactured Housing Institute, sales were down to 130,000 and as many as 50 of the nation's 250 mobile home factories were mothballed.
Industry experts blame the drop on overzealous finance companies that rushed in to offer home loans to clients with bad credit.
"In that competitive frenzy, they started writing a lot of loans for people who shouldn't have gotten loans," said David Savage, the vice president of the manufactured housing institute.
As the economy soured, tens of thousands of mobile-home owners went into default.
"There was a large glut of repossessed homes competing with the new mobile home market, some you could buy as low as 50 cents on the dollar," Mr. Savage said.
Mobile-home dealers have responded by shifting their strategies.
"The industry has had to get smarter," Mr. Walker said. "We've got a different clientele now; we've got to cater to a higher income bracket."
Gone are the days when single-wides dominated the market. About 80 percent of new mobile homes are multi-sectioned, double-wide or larger, sporting bay windows, hardwood floors, crown molding, ceramic tile and other features.
"It's really flip-flopped," Mark Dillard, the executive director of the South Carolina Mobile Home Institute, said of the market. "In 1992, about 20 percent of the houses were multiple-section. It's been a pretty fundamental shift in the housing market."
The latest innovation is the two-story mobile home, which could be mistaken for any "stick-built" home.
"People who used to buy stick-built are buying mobile homes" for the savings, Mr. Walker said. The industry estimates that mobile homes cost between 20 percent and 30 percent less than comparable brick-and-mortar homes.
And, in contrast to the days when many buyers settled in mobile-home communities, most sales now are land-home packages. Owners have learned that it's the land, not the homes, that builds equity.
"The land-home package has become a much bigger part of the mobile-home business," Mr. Walker said, estimating that 90 percent of his sales involve land brokered by a third party.
As changes continue to sweep through the industry, the boxy, $25,000 single-wides should survive, Mr. Dillard said.
"I think there will always be a market for the single-section home," he said. "In this state, you can't ignore the affordable-housing market."
But mobile homes aren't necessarily just for the low-income brackets anymore.
"It's a much more diverse industry than it was 20 years ago," Mr. Savage said. "It's a much broader market."
Mobile-home sales have dipped by nearly two-thirds from their peak in the mid-1990s of 350,000 units nationwide. Here are the numbers of mobile homes in area counties:
AIKEN COUNTY: 15,000 (population: 142,000)
COLUMBIA COUNTY: 5,000 (population: 94,000)
RICHMOND COUNTY: 5,700 (population: 197,000)
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110.