These luxuries are unfamiliar to Gerald Harper.

He is used to the same linoleum kitchens and tin-box bathrooms, the ones everyone had at the mobile home park where he grew up in southern Illinois. That was in the 1960s, an earlier wave of what became known as manufactured housing.

Harper stood in the doorway of a two-story colonial on Friday afternoon. He admired the vaulted ceiling, the arched windows, the Vermont slate and hardwood floors, the wine racks and the jacuzzi on the back porch.

All of this, built entirely in a factory.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” said Harper, of Kingfield, as he toured the house. “It’s pretty amazing what they can do.”

Harper and dozens of other potential buyers saw the latest generation of factory-built homes at a free three-day show arranged by eight companies along routes 26 and 121.

Planners expect hundreds throughout the weekend at the second annual event, also sponsored by the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce.

There are essentially two kinds of factory-built homes on display: Modular homes are built in sections, then trucked to sites and assembled on standard foundations; manufactured homes – also called HUD homes because their codes are regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – are generally single-sections, without foundations.

Modular homes represent most of the industry’s impressive growth rate. As the quality of construction has improved, the middle- and upper-middle classes have become more interested in their options, said Pete Connell, president and CEO of Oxford Homes.

In between visits and phone calls at his office, he talked about progress in the industry. Bucking the overall manufacturing trends during the past decade, the manufactured home sector thrives, with retail sales estimated at $9.1 billion in 2001. Last year, more than 1,000 modular homes were built in Maine, breaking the 2001 record of 900.

“Certainly the interest rates play a part,” Connell said. “Even more, I think there is greater awareness that our products are usually as good or better than what you can do on site.”

No longer simply the province of one-size-fits-all parks, factory-built homes are going up in exclusive suburban neighborhoods, as well as individual rural lots.

“The degree of flexibility has evolved dramatically in the last five or six years,” Connell said. “People are finding that their housing needs are not inhibited, whether it is built at factories or on site.”

Manufacturers like Oxford Homes now turn out everything from single-sections to multi-story capes and colonials, with interior designs tailored for the buyer. In most respects, the cookie-cutter stereotype is outdated, Connell said. Advanced technology, including engineered wood and computer-assisted design, drove the rapid improvements of modular homes, he added. Finished second floors have only been a reality since the mid-1990s.

“Things are happening that we only talked about a few years ago,” Connell said.

Down the road at Alternative Modular Homes, Pearl Ivey told visitors that by 2006, at least one in four new homes built will be modular. Interest has been particularly high in Androscoggin and Oxford counties.

“Up here is really booming because people can’t afford to buy or build in the Portland area, and they are looking for value,” said Ivey, an AMH salesperson. Every workday she watches trucks roll down Route 26, loaded with what they call “boxes,” the sections of a new house.

“Now people are limited only by their imaginations,” Ivey said, “and what they can fit on the road.”

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