Photo by Monique Schoenfeld, Town Crier
Daring to downsize
"If you had told me a couple of years ago I'd be living in a mobile home, I'd have turned up my snobbish little nose," Ruth Polata, a 33-year Los Altos resident, said last week. But she and her husband Bob became mobile home enthusiasts after selling their 2,500-square-foot Los Altos ranch home last year and considering options such as buying a condominium or moving to a continuing care senior community. They chose to buy at Sunset Estates in Mountain View because there they share no common walls nor ceilings, own their own home, and enjoy a strong sense of community and security.
"We knew when we bought it we'd like it, but not this much," Ruth said of their 1,080-square-foot mobile home, built in the early 1970s and acquired from its original owner.
A Town Crier "Spiritual Life" columnist and active in the Women's Fellowship at Foothills Congregational Church, Ruth is just 10-15 minutes away from downtown Los Altos, via Grant Road and Cuesta Drive. Sunset Estates is located on Sylvan Avenue, the first left turn off El Camino Real, going south, after it crosses Highway 85.
"The main thing for me is that it's reasonably private, quiet and safe here and Ruth can see all her friends in Los Altos," Bob said. Retired from Signetics, he continues writing on technical and scientific subjects and enjoys tackling home-improvement projects, like extending their front porch.
"When I saw that we had 15 feet on this side of the house, I said, 'there's plenty of room for a veranda here, plus it opens up my office and the master bedroom to the outdoors,'" Bob said. On the opposite side of the house, he plans to build a 10-foot-square work and storage shed for his many tools. He's already added sliding doors to the master bedroom, installed a storage and serving counter in the kitchen, and inserted a ventilating window in a large, walk-in closet.
Inside their home, the Polatas have a long central core area of assorted storage closets, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen with full-size appliances, a separate laundry room and a large living-dining area. Outside, there are gardens on one side and at the back of the home, as well as the veranda-to-be on one side and room to park three cars on the other side.
Across the street, an empty concrete pad awaited the arrival of a brand-new, double-wide manufactured home that former Los Altos resident Ruth Winkler custom-designed. She, too, considered many options after living in Los Altos since 1959 and deciding that her 2,700-square-foot home on Alexander Court was too large.
"At first, I didn't know what I wanted, except that I didn't need that much space, and I didn't want any stairs," she recalled. After selling her Los Altos house in 1998, she moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the Americana complex in Mountain View, located behind the former Emporium department store.
"It might sound strange, but I outgrew my two-bedroom, two-bath apartment," she said. "I want to have a guest room for my out-of-town children when they visit and I also wanted an office or den. The price of renting a three-bedroom apartment in the current market just doesn't make financial sense."
After touring and rejecting town houses and condominiums, most with stairs, and mobile home parks further south in Sunnyvale, Winkler settled on Sunset Estates for its familiar location, near longtime friends and activities. A volunteer for TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and Mountain View since 1983, she currently serves on its board of directors. She drives regularly to Palo Alto and Menlo Park, another reason for not moving too far to the south.
"I decided that mobile homes are the most attractive, affordable option around here, especially for seniors who are active," she said. "My family was shocked to see this mature Los Altos matron go into a trailer park, but now they see the advantages. I will be so close to where I am now, I will keep my whole support system intact. Frankly, in an apartment, you open your door and just walk out into a long, empty corridor; but in a senior mobile home park, people watch out for each other."
Winkler designed her new home with two bedrooms plus a separate office and extras like luxury plush carpeting, a black and white contemporary-style kitchen, tile floors in the kitchen and baths, air conditioning, a sit-down vanity and large shower in the master bath, and skylights in the kitchen and baths.
"Once I saw the possibilities of customizing, I got carried away," she said. She bought new furniture at the time she moved into her apartment, and doesn't plan to buy much more.
"I'm just looking forward to spreading it out into more rooms," she said.
Although Sunset Estates is for residents 55 and older, only one person in the family needs be a certified senior. However, other family members must be over 18.
Thus, the Polatas' next door neighbors are Laura and Debbie Rezendes, longtime Mountain View residents. Laura managed the Portuguese Fraternal Lodge on Villa Street for 30 years and daughter Debbie has worked for Hewlett-Packard (now Agilent) for 21 years. In 1998, they purchased a brand-new double-wide manufactured 'spec' mobile home, already in place at Sunset Estates.
"People sometimes make jokes when I tell them I live in a senior park, but I really like it here," Debbie said. "It is quiet, and I feel safe and we have lovely, lovely neighbors."
She and her mother enjoy a 1,400-square-foot luxury home that looks nothing like a traditional "trailer," inside or out. In front, an old-fashioned front porch is big enough for bright flower pots and seating for two or three people. Paned windows and cathedral-like ceilings create an interior that is homey yet spacious, with both a dining room and family room, as well as a large kitchen and walk-in pantry. The master bath has a huge Jacuzzi-like bathtub, separate shower and large vanity.
"New units are built to current housing standards: They are built to higher standards than many of today's free-standing homes," said Joan O'Brien, president of Evans & O'Brien Factory Homes in Sunnvale.
"These homes are awesome, with 12-by-12 foot ceramic tile floors in the kitchens and baths and 10-foot ceilings, dormers and dual-glazed windows - we are selling them to everybody - people of all ages and all professions, including doctors and engineers."
At Sunset Estates, the center of social activities is the club house, featuring a huge meeting room with a fireplace, kitchen, swimming pool and laundry room (although most residents have their own laundry facilities). Once a month, the residents gather for a waffle breakfast, outdoor barbecue or indoor buffet. Ruth Polata has already upped the park's sociability level by starting biweekly coffee gatherings to accompany the regular visits of the Mountain View bookmobile. A monthly park newsletter gives information about new residents and upcoming meetings and events.
"There's a great support system at a place like Sunset Estates," Winkler said. "But you can take it or leave it; there is no pressure to participate in anything."
Ruth Polata agreed, "People are friendly but not pushy."
She cited informal monitoring arrangements between neighbors for making sure each is in good health in the morning and for watching each other's properties when they travel.
In fact, some residents own other properties in Southern California or other states, occupying their home at Sunset Estates only parttime.
A first visit to the park is like stepping back in time to an era where everyone says hello and everyone waves.
Last week on a weekday afternoon, one woman carried a big plate of cookies to a neighbor, while other people gardened, picked lemons and oranges, and jogged.
"This park is family-owned and was originally an orchard," manager Shirley Parker said. "The owners live nearby and take an active interest in keeping this an extremely safe environment, especially for older people and they intend to keep it that way."