The Grissim Guides to Manufactured Homes and Land

2013 Home Buyer’s Outlook

Note: Annually at the beginning of the year I offer here my assessment of the manufactured housing landscape (along with a few suggestions) to help home shoppers better understand the market conditions they will likely face in the next 12 months. My comments also touch on the state of the industry, which industry professionals may find helpful, but my principal focus is helping inform consumers, especially first-time buyers, who are considering the purchase of a manufactured home – John Grissim

The manufactured home industry in 2013

Here at the beginning of 2013, the manufactured housing industry–like much of the housing industry in general–appears to be finally (albeit slowly) emerging from the long slump of The Great Recession of 2008. Most analysts (me included) predict the market for new single family homes (both site-built and manufactured) will not begin to rebound in earnest until some time in 2014, barring any new shocks to the U.S. economy.

However, manufactured homes sales will likely improve ahead of site-built housing because of the former’s singular competitive advantage of greater affordability.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average price of a new manufactured home (not including land) is just under $63,000, compared to $252,900 for a new single-family site-built home. Actually, this comparison is not really meaningful, because that $63,000 figure doesn’t include the price of land. A more realistic comparison would the cost of a higher end manufactured home (priced in the $75,000-$100,000) range that has a construction quality on par with a site-built home. Add $100,000 for land and the associated development costs (including a garage) and the total price tag of $175,000-to-$200,000 still gives a manufactured home a significant affordability advantage over its site-built counterpart.

If you’re looking to buy a manufactured home and place it in a manufactured home land-lease community (i.e., a mobile home park), the affordability advantage is even greater, because you will be leasing the land underneath your home. More on shopping for a home site in a mobile home park below.

As for the manufactured housing industry itself, here’s a quick rundown: Over the past decade the number of new manufactured homes sold has taken a huge hit. Since 2000 when just over 250,000 homes were sold, the number has declined by nearly 80 percent. The period 2005 to the present was especially brutal, with total home sales dropping 65 percent, from about 147,000 to just over 50,000. (As bad as that was, sales of new single-family site-built homes fared worse, falling 75 percent from its market peak in 2005).

Not surprisingly the manufactured housing industry has experienced a lot of bankruptcies, closures, mergers and acquisitions as the industry has shrunk. As a consequence the landscape of the industry today is markedly different than it was as recently as January 2008 when more than 60 companies nationally were building homes in 195 production facilities around the country. As 2013 dawned, only 44 companies remained, and the number of factories had dropped to 122 (a loss of 73).

One upshot of this industry shake-out is that roughly 68% the manufactured housing industry is now dominated by three major producers and their subsidiaries: Clayton Homes, Inc. (with a market share of 41%), Champion Home Builders, Inc. (15%) and Cavco Industries (12%). Of these three, Cavco Industries, Inc., headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, made major acquisitions of well-known brands, including Fleetwood Homes and Palm Harbor Homes, greatly extending its national market reach.

Details about these and other industry updates, including revised company listings, are available from this web site exclusively to purchasers of The Grissim Ratings Guide to Manufactured Homes. (click on the tile “Ratings Guide Updates” on the left side of the home page).

All three producers are well positioned for the upturn. There may be a few failures among the smaller producers comprising the remaining 32%, but those who survive will prosper in their respective regional niches.

Some recommendations on specific buying scenarios

The Grissim Buyer’s Guide to Manufactured Homes & Land contains detailed information and advice on every aspect of selecting and purchasing a home, but here are several suggestions to keep in mind:

First, I should state here a core opinion I hold about manufactured housing: while a manufactured home (or MH in this article) can be an excellent high-quality dwelling comparable to a site-built residence (and at a lower price), at least 60% of all manufactured homes built are cheaply constructed, plain looking (i.e. looks like a mobile home), show significant deterioration after five years, and if not legally tied to the land as improved real estate, will not appreciate in value and will be very difficult to sell because banks are loathe to write loans on these types of “used mobile homes.”

Having said this, I would add that I am no elitist. I will never disparage low-end manufactured homes per se, because they answer a huge need. One of the great things about manufactured housing is that it can provide basic shelter for those who otherwise would have no home at all. If properly sited and well-cared for, even the most humble single-section home can be decent affordable housing.

As for where I got the 60% number, it derives from an unscientific calculation involving my estimate of the number of homes built annually with a Grissim Ratings Guide construction rating of less than 5 (on a scale of 1-to-10, ten being the highest quality), together with my more than ten years of researching and evaluating manufactured homes, and regularly talking to industry insiders whose perspective I hold in high regard. Who knows, the percentage may be closer to 65 percent.

Thus, the following recommendation: if at all possible, restrict your home search to the remaining 40% of manufactured homes that are well-built and feature-rich. Shoot for a Grissim construction rating of at least 7. Bear in mind you can start with a home model that has a 5 or a 6 rating and add options as necessary (e.g., thicker exterior walls, steeper roof pitch, higher rated insulation, double-pane windows, residential sheet rock walls, higher quality carpets, superior brand name appliances, wood cabinetry and Energy Star packages) to upgrade the construction rating to an 8 or a 9. Both my guides contain a table that breaks down construction features that can help you with your choices.

As the above suggests, buying a new manufactured home you order from a dealership to be made in a factory to your specifications is more challenging than simply buying an existing site-built home. With the latter dwelling, whether new or years old, you have no choices–these decisions were all made when the home was built, take it or leave it. With a manufactured home, you’re faced with a learning curve as you get up to speed on many construction components and fixtures so you can make intelligent decisions. In some ways you could consider yourself a developer.

Now, the good news: this industry is capable of building a really good home, fully comparable to a site-built dwelling, at a lower price, and there has never been a better time to purchase one. Moreover, buyers who can pay cash (after having sold their previous home, for example), have an even greater advantage, because they can get a terrific home at significantly less cost than a new site-built home without having to pay the typically higher interest rate or a one-time fees often associated with new manufactured home loans. For example, many banks routinely charge 1% more in discount points (a loan fee due at settlement) to a customer for a manufactured home/land real estate loan. Many also add 1% to the interest rate just because the home is a manufactured home.

Lack of financing for MH the #1 problem

Here in 2013, as much as the MH industry has struggled, it is better situated going into a new year than it has been in years. This said, the biggest challenge this industry faces, even more than the mainstream housing industry, is the lack of retail financing for home buyers, even for those with good credit. This is especially true for those wanting to buy a new home in a land-lease community (a.k.a., mobile home park) where the homeowners rent, not own, the land under their homes. Loans to purchase these homes are called personal property (or chattel) loans, the same as for automobiles, RV and boats, and these days local banks are pretty adverse to making such loans to anyone but buyers with pristine credit. As a rule of thumb, you need at least a credit score of 740-750 before the banks will consider you. And you can expect to pay an interest rate of at least 8% or 9% (and as high as 13% - 14%) for this type of loan.

In contrast, consumers who plan to site their manufactured home on a permanent foundation on land they own (and which will be legally tied to the property and taxed as improved real estate just like a site-built home) have much better chances of getting financed, and at rates fully comparable to those for site-built homes.

This said, keep in mind that if a manufactured home does not meet the specifications for a permanent foundation, landscaping, decks and porches, a minimum roof pitch (usually 4/12 or higher) and other elements associated with a site-built home, you will likely not qualify for a construction loan with a local bank, and may have to go with a national lender who specializes in manufactured homes. In that instance, you may find yourself paying a higher interest rate (around 8% or more) compared to, say, 5-1/2% for a comparable site-built home. This interest increase can easily put a home buyer’s monthly mortgage payment out of their reach, negating the significant cost savings a manufactured home has over a site-built dwelling.

Also, keep in mind that some national home insurance companies are reluctant to sell home owners insurance on manufactured homes that do not meet certain minimal construction criteria such as a permanent foundation and a minimum roof pitch of 4/12 (that is, a four inch vertical increase for every linear foot). Most manufactured homes have a 3/12 roof pitch).

Lower home prices during the recovery?

I am regularly asked if the Great Recession has resulted in lower prices for manufactured homes compared with the price spreads during normal economic times. My answer: a little but not much. Homes with high construction quality have changed little in price, but the bleak dog-eat-dog landscape of the past several years has forced many manufacturers to hunker down and survive by offering lower quality homes at lower prices, because the typical MH buyer is primarily price driven, especially those who can only afford low-end, entry level homes.

This strategy entails lowering construction quality to remain profitable while slashing prices. Nowhere is this strategy more evident than in the coastal Sunbelt states of the Southeast–from Georgia to the Gulf Coast states and Texas where some companies are offering basic single-section homes for as low as $25,000, and double-section homes starting at $32,000–“Bubba houses” as some industry wags call them. The strategy has worked. As one veteran of the Southeast market explained to me, “When business is good, low-end sells good, but when business is bad, low-end sells better.”

A problem for home retailers that affects home buyers

Especially vulnerable during these hard times are the retail sales centers, of which there are about 3,500 nationally, most of them independently owned. What follows is a bit wonky, but bear with me: While the visitor traffic to sales centers has improved in recent months, the commercial credit crunch has dried up the availability to many dealers of so-called inventory financing (also called floor-plan financing). This is money a retailer borrows from a bank or a financial services company to pay the manufacturers of the home models placed on the sales center’s lot.

The way inventory financing works is, the bank or finance company retains a security interest in the homes, and the retailer pays back the lender with interest when the home is sold to a home buyer. Modeled after the auto industry, this arrangement is essential to operating a traditionally configured MH sales center with its half-dozen or more lot model homes.

But the lack of inventory financing is also impacting a lot of home buyers when it comes to the all-important payment schedule for the homes they custom order (as opposed to an existing model purchased from the lot). Because inventory financing also provides for prompt payment to the factory for the full wholesale price of the home (typically within ten business days), dealers who don’t have that financing must either cover that payment themselves (which few can) or insist that the homebuyer (or the bank that is funding a construction loan) pony up the cash, often the full retail price, before the complete order for the home is delivered to the factory. Banks, for starters, won’t agree to any such terms as part of a construction loan. You shouldn’t either.

As I explain in The Grissim Buyer’s Guide, this all-up-front payment before a home’s delivery should be avoided at all costs, for it puts the home buyer in a very vulnerable position. Should anything go wrong during the home’s delivery or set-up, and/or should significant manufacturing defects be discovered during the process, the homeowner is at the mercy of the retailer who has already received all the money. Without some kind of hold-back of a final payment, even if it’s only a few thousand dollars, the homebuyer has almost no leverage (short of complaining to government agencies or filing suit) to ensure that problems are corrected promptly.

To protect all parties, I recommend running the entire transaction through a local escrow company, making sure the terms for disbursement of funds are very carefully described. California is one of several states that requires escrow closings of all home purchases, but most states have yet to adopt this policy. Absent the escrow solution, I recommend homebuyers always hold back at least 5% to 10% of the final purchase price until the home is move-in ready and they have conducted a thorough walk-through inspection of the home with the dealer–and put the hold-back terms in writing as part of the purchase agreement. The great majority of reputable retailers are comfortable with this payment schedule.

If you’re looking to buy a home in a land-lease community:

Roughly 26% of new manufactured homes sold are placed in land-lease communities (a.k.a. manufactured home communities or mobile home parks) and financed using a personal property loan (also called a chattel loan) where the home only (not the land) is financed, just like an RV or a boat. One of the longest chapters in The Grissim Buyer’s Guide to Manufactured Homes & Land is devoted to leasing a home site in a land-lease community. Here are a few tips for 2013:

In recent years a new ownership model for these communities, called Resident Owned Communities has been gaining popularity, and it’s a great concept that protects the residents from almost all the downsides of renting from a park owner (two downsides in particular: annual rent increases and the surprise sale of the park to a developer or corporation whose interests are much less sympathetic to the park’s tenants).

A resident-owned-community (ROC) which, as the name suggests, is owned by the residents who live there. This may be a cooperative or a condominium arrangement, but such things like rent increases and fees are mutually determined by the shareholder members. In short, you as a resident homeowner are part owner of the community. I highly recommend ROCs.

Another type of land-lease community is one owned by a non-profit corporation whose mission is providing affordable housing. These are often good deals. The housing tends toward the low end but these are typically close-knit, caring neighborhoods of residents who have been carefully screened. These communities can work well, too. For starters, for their non-profit owners are not profit-driven.

Be very careful about communities owned by large corporations, which have no souls. Some are quite good, others awful to the point of being predatory. These companies exist to make money for their shareholders and one way is incremental annual rent increases (usually in the 4%-5% range) that in a few short years can really put tenants living on fixed incomes in a bind. Research carefully.

Be assured that the vast majority of the nation’s 50,000 manufactured home communities are owned by mom-and-pop proprietors who are good folks and who do an excellent job of protecting everyone’s interests, especially avoiding excessive rent increases. Still, when doing your research, be sure to talk to park residents (privately out of earshot of management) to ask questions about recent rent increases and related issues (see the Buyer’s Guide for the full list).

Avoid communities that are near to, or adjacent to, neighborhoods where there is expanding commercial development and similar growth. The pressure will likely be on the community owner to sell out to developers for big bucks, leaving the residents owning homes they are forced to move (good luck finding another community willing to take in a “used mobile home”–most won’t).

Last, if the manufactured home you’re looking at is a leaky 1986 two-bedroom junker ready for the dump but the site has a million dollar view of Santa Monica beach, and the “lease” is month-to-month, and the rent is protected by a rent-control ordinance, don’t be surprised if the asking price is $300,000, the rent $1,250 a month, and there are three real estate agents and their clients waiting in line behind you. Ah, California....

And there you have it. If, despite the buyer-beware cautions you’ve read here, you wonder why I am so enthusiastic about manufactured housing, and why I firmly believe it is the best-kept secret in American housing, it’s because I myself am one very satisfied manufactured home buyer who saved a bundle on my new home and has enjoyed watching the home appreciate right along with all the site-built homes around him.

Best of luck with your home search.