A family of four was trying to purchase a mobile home at the Willows Mobile Home Park in Lompoc. Mobile home mortgage lender Clay Dickens called the family after he finished the paperwork, but instead of a call back, the entire family showed up at his Community West Bank office in Goleta.

“We wanted to know face-to-face if we could get a home,” the father said.

As the children stood by the door, Dickens told them they would soon own their own home. While the parents kept their emotions under control, the kids couldn’t.

“The kids hugged each other and mom put her hands on each of their heads,” Dickens said. “The parents held it in well but the kids were ecstatic. They were living in a two-bedroom apartment but now they could each have their own room.”

Dickens, Community West Bank vice president and senior mobile home mortgage lending officer, has been helping South Coast residents move into their own manufactured homes for more than 18 years.

“Everyday is different, sometimes I can provide (a family) with their dreams,” said the affable Dickens.

In today’s market, owning a home on the South Coast may seem a distant reality for some. But the mobile home market is an overlooked niche in Santa Barbara that provides many advantages to buyers.

“(Myself) or members of my family wouldn’t be able to live here and raise children if there weren’t loans for mobile homes available,” Dickens explained.

The first property Dickens and his wife owned in Santa Barbara was a mobile home, or as he calls it, “the last bastion of affordable housing.”

“(If you are in) the lower middle class, to buy anything in this town is virtually impossible,” he said.

After studying geology at UCSB, Dickens started out as a Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. real estate mortgage lender and later moved to what is now Community West Bank, at 455 Pine Ave. in Old Town Goleta. Although his major may not suggest it, Dickens was a people person and banking was a good fit. After researching lenders throughout California, he found a rather untapped market in mobile home lending.

“I lived in one, knew about them and liked them, and thought it would be a good niche,” Dickens said.

He described it as a rare and obscure lending that’s at a higher price than the traditional market. A 30-year fixed-rate loan isn’t common when it comes to mobile homes, loans are often shorter and adjustable, where they are fixed for a short periods and change.

According to Radius Group Commercial Real Estate’s 2011 second-quarter report, some apartment buyers are getting loans around 4 percent, which is typically about 3 percent lower than mobile homes.

There’s more inherent risk and cost when it comes to mobile home lending because no land is involved and all the loans are held by the institutions that made them, Dickens said. There’s no “market” for the loans to be bought and sold between lenders and investors.

But sometimes too much attention is placed on the numbers, he said.

“Some places look more toward the property and its values, where we focus on the client and try to make the deal work for them,” he said.

One of the good things about loans staying on the books is that clients call Dickens for advice, whether he helped them last year or two decades ago, he said.

“(Clients) dig that we hold our paper because we are always dealing with clients for the life of the loan,” Dickens said.

The popular demographic for mobile home buyers are young families and seniors who have more than a half-dozen parks and 1,500 units along the South Coast. Homes range from $45,000 to $850,000 and owners can avoid certain fees and taxes because they aren’t dealing with land.

Although Dickens could be working with dozens of clients at once, sometimes it’s difficult not to get attached.

“I try not to get emotionally attached but when you sit in front of a single-parent teacher who’s trying to scrimp enough together to get a place and working her damnedest, it’s tough,” he said.

People can find a 2,000-square-foot manufactured home in a nice mobile park for under $300,000, which is suitable for young families who need affordable housing or seniors who don’t want to deal with property management or maintenance. Dickens said he is closing 25 percent more transactions than a year ago and it’s still a buyer’s market.

But the thought of owning a mobile home is often associated with a stereotype, Dickens said.

“Some people are totally stereotyped … They think of a rickety old mobile home sitting on two jacks with a man in a white tank top out front holding a six-pack of warm beer,” he said. “That’s the illusion but some of these homes are actually unbelievable.”

Don Zurlinder owned Oceanside Realty and Mobile Home Realty. He got into the mobile home business about two years ago.

“I went in with a jaded eye,” Zurlinder said. “I thought a mobile home park, ‘Ya right.’

“You would be surprised when you walk into some homes in nice parks, they have fire places, a family room and offices. Some people are jaded but once they visit one their perception changes quickly.”

Over the past 20 years in the field, Dickens described some days as pure elation, but some that are marked by disappointment.

“Is there a better job when you tell a family ‘You can own a home’ and see the kids look at their parents?,” he asked. “The saddest part is when you see the kids in the room after you tell them ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ There’s victory and tragedy.”

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at akacik@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.