The country music I grew up with loves to wax poetic about family traditions.
There’s Hank Williams Jr., whose warbling, smoke-tinged voice explains away his drinking and smoking as a simple hazard of the bloodline. There’s Garth Brooks, who justifies showing up in boots to a posh cocktail party by blaming it “all on his roots.”
But if I ever penned a tune inspired by my rural upbringing, my family’s legacy would sound a little bit different: We know a thing or two about buying and selling mobile homes.
My dad, David, spent the better part of his teenage years working on a Clayton Homes lot in Richmond, Kentucky: setting up the new arrivals, hauling the units, getting down into the nuts and bolts of the houses. He was a high school student when he began at the company during the mid-1970s, and continued on as he put himself through Eastern Kentucky University as a first-generation college student. The “Clayton era” is a distinctive epoch in his personal, and our family, history.
Years earlier, his older brother, Randy, purchased a mobile home when he returned from service in the Korean War. Randy had a new wife, a young daughter, and no real credit, so a traditional home loan was impossible. They set up the unit in my grandparents’ backyard, where the foundation and water hookups jut out of the ground to this day.
And the sales lot where my dad worked also still exists—conveniently catty-corner to my grandparents’ home. As a child, I’d walk between the models on my way to more interesting destinations (the Dairy Queen, the bowling alley), hopping over axels and jumping up to peek in the empty windows of the For Sale units. I’d watch interested customers do walk-throughs and tap the vinyl siding of their potential futures, trying to imagine themselves inside.
Today, as we creep ever deeper into an affordable-housing crisis, my desire to understand this massive housing market seems more pressing than ever: structurally, socially, environmentally, politically.
“I just now threw away all my paystubs from back then,” my dad laughed when I told him I was working on a series of stories about manufactured homes. “Maybe I should’ve kept them another 40 years.”
Selling factory-made homes today requires linguistic and branding dexterity on several levels, but perhaps the most important is this: Never, ever call them mobile homes.
Those within the sales and production side of the industry are dogged about ensuring that any model created or sold after the adoption of the 1976 HUD Code is not discussed with the same lingo as those units made before federal regulations kicked in. The stigma that’s attached to the term “mobile home” is a kind of housing scarlet letter in the eyes of the industry, and one that many advocates have been hell-bent on shaking for decades. No matter how nice it is, people don’t want to buy a mobile home, their collective wisdom seems to dictate, but call it something different and they’ll leap at the occasion. Hm.
“Mobile homes in the 1960s were for young people who were starting out and making their place in the world. Anything after 1976, though, can’t be called a mobile home,” says Patricia Boerger of the Manufactured Housing Institute, an organization for manufacturers. “But people still think the quality isn’t good, and that they’re going to get blown away in a tornado or something. That’s just not true. Every manufactured home today has been through vigorous wind safety tests.”
She pauses. “But don’t be foolish! You’re still above ground. A tornado isn’t going to discriminate.” (Nor will a hurricane—particularly in Florida, manufactured homes are at risk in major storms.)
My dad worked on the lot through the HUD adoption, but he mainly noticed the technical differences in the models. Ask him about it and he’ll point out the elimination of aluminum wiring, the improvements in generators—not the shifted sales push of the industry. Mostly, he says, people still called them mobile homes.
And, decades later, many advocates still do—if for no other reason than simplicity’s sake.
“My issue with all this name changing is simple: You cannot change how people talk and you cannot change a product’s reputation by calling it a different name. I’ve called these awesome adobes ‘mobile homes’ my entire life and I’m not stopping now,” writes Crystal Adkins, the blogger behind Mobile Home Living. “The industry needs to focus on improving themselves and offering the best product at the best price possible and stop worrying about a term used by the people living in them or buying them. We only want to enjoy our homes.”
And within the factory-made housing industry, there’s ever-increasing competition for what kind of prefab homes a family can buy and enjoy. The most popular kissing cousin to the manufactured home is the modular home, which is made in a factory but assembled on site—not hauled there. Then there are tiny houses, which have struck an eco-friendly, minimalist chord with millennials, but technically fall more in the recreational home (RV) family than manufactured homes. Ask anyone in the manufactured-housing industry about the other branches of their family tree, and you’re sure to be met with the verbal equivalent of an eye roll.
“Tiny houses are different, because they’re built to the RV code,” says Boerger. “It’s a different demographic than [those] who want manufactured homes, typically. But we find some of our members are building much smaller homes to appeal to that group.”
It’s a complicated web of terms: Mobile homes aren’t manufactured homes, and modular homes aren’t mobile, and tiny houses aren’t either (whew). But one thing’s for sure: In a world where affordable housing stock is growing scarcer by the day, prefab homes, manufactured and modular alike, are gaining serious steam for the first time since Richard Nixon was elected president.
When my dad decided to attend law school in the late 1970s, Jim Clayton, founder of Clayton Homes, wrote a letter of recommendation on his behalf.
This wasn’t particularly jaw-dropping at the time. Clayton’s outfit was still just a midsized player in the industry, perhaps most charmingly known for the minuscule, revolving mobile home that twirled around on the official sign at each lot. Folks in the company’s hometown of Knoxville could still remember when Jim produced and starred in a local TV show, playing the likes of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with his twanging band.
Today, though, Clayton's connection to the lives of lower-level employees seems downright nutty. In 2003, Clayton sold his operation to Berkshire Hathaway for $1.3 billion, and since then, the Warren Buffett-backed company has gobbled up the majority of new manufactured home sales in the U.S.
Clayton’s operation is now both a behemoth and a pacesetter.
“The future of the [manufactured home] industry will resemble Clayton Homes,” Derek Thompson wrote in a 2011 piece for The Atlantic. “Clayton started as a retailer, but they've expanding into manufacturing, financing, leasing, and insuring mobile homes. Now the company is a do-it-all industry leader that even serves as a distribution center for other manufacturer's homes. Thus sounds the death knell for private mobile home retailers.”
While the death knell prophecy hasn’t proven quite true (there are dozens of private mobile-home retailers still today), Clayton has changed how other companies approach manufactured-home sales over the past decade—and generated quite a few copycat efforts. Being a kind of manufactured-home “one stop shop” is par for the course these days, with retailers not only selling the model itself, but doing their fair share of handholding by providing a package deal for home buyers (insurance, financing, the works) who might be leery of such a large investment.
And if the past 15 years are any indication, people are leery for good reason. According to industry experts, manufactured-home sales suffered during the housing bubble of the early 2000s because loans for traditional, site-built homes were so readily available—even for those with poor credit. We all know how disastrously that turned out, leaving families underwater with massive mortgages and homes that wouldn’t sell. Far too many people saw friends and loved ones lose everything in the crisis, and don’t want history to be repeated.
What’s more, getting a traditional mortgage as a low-income individual right now is practically impossible. This means that manufactured homes—which on average, cost about $292,600 less than a site-built home and have different financing models—are perhaps the final means of homeownership for a staggeringly large percentage of working-class American families.
And they seem to be catching on once again. According to reports, 81,169 new manufactured homes were shipped in 2016—a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Perhaps the most surprising disruption in the manufactured housing industry since the Great Recession, though, hasn’t been in the wheeling and dealing of the units themselves: It’s the sale of mobile-home parks.
At first blush, the whole notion of buying mobile-home parks might seem more like a “get rich quick” 4 a.m. infomercial than a concrete business pursuit. These parks range from a half dozen to over 100 units, and the thought of that seems, well, a little ridiculous. But under the tutelage of Frank Rolfe, Dave Reynolds, and their company, Mobile Home University, students have been drawn en masse to a curriculum that makes the thought of purchasing a park not only seem like a stellar investment, but also downright practical.
For over a decade now, Rolfe and Reynolds (who own more than 250 manufactured-home communities in the U.S.) have been schooling wannabe owners on the good, bad, and ugly of park life so that they can “successfully identify, evaluate, negotiate, perform due diligence on, renegotiate, finance, turn around and operate mobile home parks.” Through books, articles, weekly call-in programs, and even a three-day live immersive bootcamp, MHU is adding a new dimension to the discussion about affordable housing in the U.S.
“We don’t have any one kind of person who comes to the bootcamp, or is interested in MHU,” Rolfe explains. “It’s all different kinds of people: guys in their 20s, doctors, retirees.”
MHU operates off of several key principles: Affordable housing is scarce. New mobile-home parks aren’t being built. And the likelihood that residents of a mobile-home park can afford to pack up and move their mobile home is practically none. (Doing so costs, on average, about $5,000.) Put in a little bit of elbow grease to make some modest improvements, and purchasing a mobile-home park means that rent can be raised, and a profit turned, with little likelihood of residents looking for greener pastures. And Rolfe’s program shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Just a cursory look at the MHU message boards paints a picture of a park-purchasing community that’s burgeoning:
“Looking to buy a small park in Wyoming or surrounding states!” one poster announces.
“Is building a community center a good investment?” asks another.
And, sometimes, the board is used to seek advice in a crisis: “Homeowner burns down home. How to get him to pay for demolition?”
One of the biggest points of discussion is the importance of targeting the right geographic region for your park purchase.
“Markets like the Southeast aren’t good for buying mobile home parks, because there isn’t a huge gap in the price of site-built homes and manufactured homes,” says Rolfe. “Places like California are where we’re really concentrating, because site-built homes are so much more expensive.”
Over 400 mobile-home parks have shuttered in the past 20 years across California as developers look to repurpose the land for more lucrative projects. Those parks that remain have become of ever-increasing importance for families in need of affordable housing, and are prime opportunities for potential park owners looking to keep the communities intact.
Whether they’re marketing individual manufactured houses or entire parks, what developers are really selling is a vision of the future: a community, a sense of safety—maybe some family traditions of your own.
What’s in a name when it comes to manufactured-home communities?
Whether people call them trailer parks, trailer courts, mobile home parks, or—for those in high-end areas—land-lease communities, there’s a certain stigma that persists about what it means to live in a neighborhood built for manufactured housing or (older) mobile homes.
Particularly across the Southeast and Midwest, where these stereotypes seem to persist most viciously, it’s not uncommon to hear snobbery, if not outright vitriol, against the manufactured-home communities in a town. Like so many other terms aimed at low-income families and individuals, “trailer park” and “mobile home lot” have long skewed negative.
But scratch the stereotyped surface, and an entirely different picture of mobile home parks begins to reveal itself. Dig even deeper, and it quickly becomes clear that, in their highest form, the social fiber of these communities is everything a more traditional neighborhood wishes it could be.
For starters, the majority of trailer parks are uniquely safe. A 2014 study by the department of criminal justice at the University of Nevada found that “trailer park sites showed the lowest rate of violent crime calls for service” compared to similar non-manufactured dwellings. What’s more, the physical layout of the communities themselves actually works to protect residents.
“Designing housing layouts to create ‘sight lines’ which allow neighbors to have a direct view of the nearby homes is invaluable in reducing property crime,” the study notes, “and the close housing proximity [in manufactured-home communities] creates a community of guardians, making illegal activity much easier to detect.”
They are also places with fairly strict aesthetic guidelines. In well-managed manufactured-home communities, the rules and regulations regarding exterior maintenance and cleanliness are typically robust, and often result in fines if the rules are broken.
Sundial Mobile Home Park in Salem, Oregon, even gives a blow-by-blow of what paint colors residents can use on their homes: “Each tenant shall be responsible for maintaining and keeping clean and in good repair the exterior of their mobile home as well as all structures such as decks, steps, carports and fences at all times. Homes must be washed and painted as needed with colors pre-approved by landlord. Neutral or light colors are acceptable and may be trimmed with a contrasting color.”
Tell that to the guy down the street who hasn’t mowed his grass for three months, or the woman with her lawn gnome collection displayed like a small army.
And, perhaps most importantly, the term “mobile” home is misleading: Most park residents spend years (if not a lifetime) in the same spot.
Manufactured-home parks are a two-part scenario: there’s the land the home sits on—complete with water and sewer hookups, a foundation, trash service, and more—and the home itself. Individuals usually own the home, but not the land, which is leased from the park. This leads outsiders to believe folks are going to pack up and hit the road at a moment’s notice because they’re not perceived as being rooted in the land. Not so.
More often than not, these residents aren’t going anywhere, and in states like Vermont, people live an average of 11 years in a single manufactured-home community, with many staying for decades.
Manufactured homes have been the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country since the late 1990s, offering up the dream of homeownership for millions of Americans. Contrary to what one might imagine, though, the majority of the properties (almost two-thirds) sit on privately owned land—not in a community setting. This means that the mobile homes are standalone dwellings or clustered in multigenerational family estates in rural areas, not unlike more traditional site-built houses.
But for those manufactured-home owners who opt in to a community scenario, whether by choice or because they live in a densely populated region, the social and emotional benefits of such a network can be extraordinary.
One of the first advocates for the potential of manufactured homes as models of community and social support was landscape design expert J.B. Jackson. Writing about Jackson in his 1999 book, Country of Exiles, William Leach praises Jackson’s ahead-of-its-era vision:
“Jackson … claimed that many of the new trailer parks actually represented new kinds of blue-collar ‘villages’ that fostered openness and hospitality among people. They encouraged people to ‘go outside’ rather than to stay inside and to rely on one another in the public square for pleasure and comfort. Such villages, Jackson argued, compared favorably with middle-class dwellings, which were divided into discrete spaces to ensure isolation, privacy and limited interaction with neighbors. Mobile homes, on the other hand … brought people together into something of an organic community, into a ‘super family’ or an ‘us.’”
Gloria Steinem, who traversed the country in a trailer as a child, discusses being smitten with the air of camaraderie at a women-only park in the Southwest. Much like Jackson, she is particularly taken with how the park makes use of public, communal space.
"In 2001, I discovered an all-female trailer park near Tucson, Arizona. After being let through a double gate with a security code that changed daily, I found myself on streets named for admired women in history,” Steinem writes in My Life on the Road. “Suddenly, I could imagine living on the corner of Emma Goldman and Gertrude Stein, or following Dorothy Height to Eleanor Roosevelt. At the center of all the neat rows of trailers was a clubhouse where women could gather for everything from book clubs to gambling."
Mobile- and manufactured-home parks have also long attracted—and proven to be a safe haven for—the LGBT community. The Resort on Carefree Boulevard, a lesbian manufactured-home community in Fort Myers, Florida, for example, has amassed such popularity since opening in 1994 that the founders recently broke ground on a second (woodsier-themed) location in North Carolina.
For those looking to be more permanently on the road with their homes, there’s also an extensive network of queer-friendly RV parks. Cataloged online under the masthead RainbowRV, communities range from male-only and clothing-optional spots with a volleyball court in New York to a place in Michigan for female-identifying individuals interested in watersports.
Using collective identity and (relative) close proximity as a communal safety net is a key feature of manufactured-home parks, and one that’s particularly important for a burgeoning demographic: older Americans. Mobile home communities that cater to 55-plus populations provide a means of maintaining independence while offering necessary social (and, occasionally, medical) support.
“For the 55-plus communities, people really like that sense of a neighborhood. Everyone is close by and working together to maintain the community,” says Patricia Boerger of the Manufactured Housing Institute. “The park owners and people are all aging, but have good neighbors that look after them, so they’re able to age in place, and more often than not, on a single story, which is important for those with mobility issues.”
They also know how to have fun. One look at the monthly newsletter from a 55-plus community—like Jet Mobile Home Park in Palmetto, Florida—and you’ll likely start wishing your golden years would get here a little faster: Activities include cook-offs, shuffleboard, choirs, movie nights, and formal dances.
“Say, ‘Howdy!’ to the folks you meet, Meeting some on every street, Sometimes, it just makes your day complete, at Jet Park,” reads a chipper limerick from the March edition.
Of course, not all manufactured-home communities are flanked with swimming pools and collectively tended gardens. For parks with neglectful landlords, infrastructure can swiftly fall into serious disrepair, resulting in everything from poorly maintained water systems to cracking driveways and foundations to trash overflow.
Other times, a more dire situation emerges. If a landlord receives an offer to sell a park to a different management company, residents are often left stuck in limbo, unsure whether the new ownership will actually maintain the property, raise rents significantly, or even force evictions.
And most of the time, residents are trapped. They have little recourse to fight back in these situations, revealing that a trailer park’s most defining element is also one of its most fraught: the divergence between home and land ownership. This means an unscrupulous new management company can boost rent through the roof, knowing that the likelihood the resident will be able to move his or her home—due to both physical and monetary constraints—is practically none.
But those facing the sale (or foreclosure) of their park can work together to take back their communities.
Since 2008, Resident Owned Communities (ROC) USA—a New Hampshire-based nonprofit—has been helping mobile-home park residents form co-ops and collectively purchase their communities from private owners. Through a special means of financing that, ROC president Paul Bradley says, “allows low- and middle-income families to act like deep-pocket investors,” ROC USA works with community residents to navigate the process of unifying and purchasing the park, ultimately providing a new level of comfort and stability by removing the threat of having their land quite literally taken out from underneath them.
ROC USA’s model—which is now being replicated in 14 states through partner non-profits—might be the most radical, and potentially beneficial, development for manufactured-home residents since the updated HUD Code of 1994, which strengthened regulations surrounding manufactured-home construction.
“When you look at the outside view of what a manufactured-home park means, you have so much prejudice that exists. A resident who lives at Park Plaza Co-op [in Fridley, Minnesota] said, ‘People called us trailer trash before,’” Bradley notes. “But you work in these neighborhoods, and find amazing capacity, commitment, and smart, hardworking people. And the contrast of the prejudice and the reality has inspired me to get on the side of helping these homeowners.”
Currently, there are 200 Resident Owned Communities across the U.S. representing 12,150 homes, and a network of partner nonprofits are working to replicate the model in eight new states.
“There’s a community in Meadow Valley, New York, that was up for foreclosure, and we helped them through the process,” Bradley says. “They purchased the community—it was a courthouse auction—and one of the early presidents of the co-op told us almost immediately, ‘People are now fixing up their homes and paving driveways because we own it now. There’s an inherent vulnerability with trailer parks, but once you have landownership, there’s the confidence to invest in your own home and property.”
And Bradley isn’t afraid to practice what he preaches: His mother recently moved into a manufactured-home community (an ROC, of course) for people 55 and older.
“My mom downsized, and it was absolutely the most affordable thing she could do,” he says. “She moved into a single-floor living space so that she could age in place, and when we walked into it, she said, ‘I like this one. It feels like a house to me.’ Now, she’s getting her hair done at the community center once a week with her neighbors.”
Designing the manufactured home
Single-wide. Double-wide. Triple-wide.
For those unfamiliar with the world of manufactured homes, these terms might be the only ones that spring to mind when someone mentions “design” within the industry. Long, rectangular shipping container-like bodies; narrow halls; and oatmeal-colored paint jobs are all too often the picture that’s been stock photo-ed into the collective consciousness.
But in fact, manufactured-home design has come far.
Today, there are some beauts out there—and no shortage of resources for those ready to plunge into the trenches of modern manufactured-home design. Whether you’re looking to comb through the (often wacky) styles of the past to get the juices flowing, tinker in the present with a fixer-upper, or aspire toward ownership of a brand-new model, there’s a subsection of the manufactured-home design community geared toward you.
If you’re a nostalgia buff itching to ogle some of the (truly mesmerizing) Technicolor structures from yesteryear, it’s the midcentury models that will likely lure you in with their charms.
There’s the Stewart bi-level mobile home, with its White Out paint job, oddly scattershot windows, and cartoon-looking split-level design. There’s the Henslee High Style that’s been dolled up with color blocks of pink, cobalt, and robin’s-egg blue. There are wood-paneled interiors galore, off-the-wall mustard and orange wallpaper, and even one design, the Kropf Eldorado, which boasted a butterfly roof.
If you’re looking to take the plunge into more modern ownership, there’s The Grissim Ratings Guide to Manufactured Homes, which helps newbie shoppers weigh the pros and cons of various models on the market today. Authored by journalist-turned-mobile-home-scholar John Grissim (who has a head of snowy hair that would put Kenny Rogers to shame), the guide not only rates all manufactured homes on a scale of 1 to 10, but provides lengthy profiles of each company, examples of popular models, and a blow-by-blow of what each manufacturer offers, designwise, over the competition. (The guide is also, inexplicably, written in Comic Sans.)
For a manufactured home to receive a top score in the Grissim Guide, it must provide—among other things—an “excellent” floorplan, high ceilings, 30-year-durable architectural shingles, and options for customization. Those on the lowest end of the scale, by contrast, provide no options for upgrade, and have small rooms, low ceilings, and interior molding that’s simply vinyl or paper on particleboard.
And while newfangled gadgets have always been used to some degree to woo potential mobile-home buyers—like the Lazy Susan in the 1950s—the push to increase aesthetic appeal while maintaining affordability is a more recent priority.
Driven largely by a desire to shake off the persistent stigma of manufactured homes as barebones options that value function over form, producers are inching ever closer toward making manufactured homes indistinguishable from site-built houses. Much like putting toppings on an ice-cream sundae, buyers of newer models now have the option to trick out their homes with an ever-expanding roster of add-ons. Want sliding barn-style doors inside your doublewide? Not a problem. Looking for an exterior that’s stucco or rock instead of the stereotypical vinyl (or, in decades past, aluminum) siding? That’s on the menu now.
“The option to move the home is no longer a leading priority for our customers, which allows for a greater focus on design and styling,” notes a Clayton Homes representatives via email. When a home doesn’t need to be ready for uprooting at a moment’s notice, the interior can be decidedly more complex (and heavier). “One of our Clayton specialties is our ability to provide modern high-end amenities at a more affordable cost. This could include stand-alone Jacuzzis, a stone fireplace, tile showers, granite and quartz countertops, stainless steel appliances, and all-wood cabinets.”
Even architects on the cutting edge of innovation are now embracing the versatility of manufactured home design. The leader in this movement is Jennifer Siegal, who has been showcasing the malleability of manufactured homes—or as she describes it, “mobile architecture”—since 1998 with her Southern California-based company, Office of Mobile Design.
“When I launched OMD, it was during the rise of the internet, and people were beginning to work in more distant or disparate locations without being tied to a particular office,” she says. “That seemed to go hand in hand with manufactured housing, because it could be more flexible than traditional homes. All of that is even more relevant now.”
Siegal sees the recent rise in appreciation for pre-fabricated design as a boon for the manufactured-home industry.
“I definitely feel like Americans have a very preconceived concept of what their home should look like, and a lot of it goes back to the home they grew up in,” Siegal says. “When something's built out in a factory, it’s actually good, because you have a lot more control over it and a lot less material waste. When I educate people about off-site construction, I like to compare it to cars: We don't build our automobiles in our garages, but you can make changes to them and plug different things in and out. It’s the same with manufactured homes. The change in attitude can also be attributed to the growth of places like Ikea. People are starting to embrace design off the shelf.”
But the most interesting group redefining what mobile-home design looks like today are the amateurs. These manufactured- (or mobile-) homeowners are passionate about making unique DIY upgrades and—armed with page after page of Pinterest hacks and a lot of elbow grease—have demonstrated just how malleable the homes can be once they roll off the factory line.
West Virginia native Crystal Adkins has been spearheading the community’s DIY movement for almost a decade with her blog, Mobile Home Living.
“When we bought our mobile home [a 1978 model], my husband got a computer for me around the same time, and I’d never had one before,” Adkins explains. “I definitely didn’t know anything about starting a blog, but I knew that I had a lot of questions about how to change and repair things in my home, like plumbing, and the resources just weren’t out there. I figured if I had questions, other people did, too. I decided to write about it.”
And the questions poured in. Fifteen thousand Facebook fans later, Mobile Home Living has become the leading online resource for all things manufactured housing, covering how to upgrade vinyl walls, make low ceilings seem higher, and build external additions on a budget. There’s also a slew of home tours, a section for buying and selling, and plenty of manufactured-home-related inspirational quotes. “I would rather sit on a pumpkin all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion,” one image reads, and “It’s OK to live a life others don’t understand,” proclaims another, with a stylized photo of a traditional-looking mobile home in the background.
“Now, the cool thing is to be debt-free,” said Adkins. “I think that manufactured homes really play into that, and will only get more popular because you can do so much with them.”
Whether souped up with glamorous additions—like Betsey Johnson’s $1.95 million-dollar mobile home in Malibu—or a pared-down version straight off the factory line, there is one design feature that won’t be going anywhere on manufactured homes: the chassis, a reminder that the homes are, first and foremost, built to move.
Creating the eco-friendly manufactured home
When Patricia Boerger talks about the efficiency of today’s manufactured homes, she gets a little gushy.
“Manufactured homes are some of the most eco-friendly out there, because they make good use of every inch of space,” she explains excitedly. Boerger is new to the business—she just joined the Manufactured Housing Institute last year—and still seems genuinely thrilled by what she’s discovering.
“If you think of how they’re built in a factory, people are inspecting every home each step of the way. It’s all gotten down to a science: There’s no weather interfering with the process, like a site-built home, and no wasted materials. Every movement that goes into making them, and every inch of the home, is accounted for.”
Manufactured housing has long been one of the most reliable and affordable options for low-income families, allowing people to achieve the dream of homeownership at a fraction of a more “traditional” home’s cost.
It hasn’t always been the most ecologically sound choice, however. Prior to the adoption of the federal HUD code in 1976—which put into place regulations, however meager, for mobile home construction quality—speed and penny-pinching, not environmental or health concerns, were the primary driving factors in construction. Mobile homes were not only constructed with chemical-rich materials, like formaldehyde, but in a manner that’s led to problems over time, including the development of mold and the decomposition of floors.
“In the early ’70s, when a mobile home would come into the lot from the factory, you’d have to air it out because the fumes would be so bad on the inside,” noted a former salesman. “If you went into one on a hot day without any of the windows open, it would sting your eyes like tear gas.”
What’s more, those pre-1976 homes still in use today—all 2 million of them—often saddle residents with painfully high energy bills each month, thanks to problems like poor insulation and duct work.
“In terms of rehabbing these older, inefficient homes, there is only a little bit of money and a whole lot of need,” says Timothy Peters of Otsego Rural Housing Assistance in Otsego, New York. “When we repair these mobile homes from the ’50s and ’60s, it isn’t just incidental repairs, but entire home systems: roofing, flooring, heating, septic, and things like that within the budget that’s available.”
Even manufactured homes built throughout the ’80s have proven to be less than stellar for the environment, with 10.8 percent of those built between 1985 and 1990 noted as being in “inadequate condition.”
But since the mid-1990s, after significant updates to the HUD Code in 1994, eco-friendliness has become increasingly important. Companies like Champion are now producing energy-efficient models with heating and cooling systems 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard homes. Clayton, which controls the majority of the market, has been experimenting with greening practices for almost a decade, beginning with the introduction of the (now-obsolete) Clayton iHouse—a model that tested out high-efficiency appliances, insulation, and solar panels—in 2008.
“Within all of our homes, we have made incredible progress toward delivering eco-conscious manufacturing processes and durable materials that increase the sustainability of our homes,” Clayton representatives noted in an email. “Our goal is to merge thoughtful, smart design with eco-friendly materials that allow our customers to take their commitment to lowering energy consumption further.”
Beyond PR speak, this means features like programmable thermostats, upgraded insulation, and high-performance windows, in addition to diverting 16,544 tons of landfill waste and reducing factory dust output by 31 percent since 2015.
And as of 2016, all 36 Clayton production facilities are now compliant with ISO 14001, an international standard that seeks to help companies minimize how their operations negatively affect the environment.
The push to make manufactured homes more eco-friendly over the past 10 years has also resulted in a number of federal incentive programs, both for the construction of new models and upgrades to existing homes. Most notably, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 established tax credits of up to $2,000 for builders of new manufactured homes who comply with, or exceed, federal energy-saving requirements. And it’s been working. Since the tax credit went into effect, the number of Energy Star manufactured homes increased from 25 to 20,000, and credits for homeowners who swap out older appliances for new energy-efficient models have helped encourage even eco-skeptics to take the plunge in the name of cost savings.
States are also taking up the charge. Initiatives aimed at increasing the number of eco-friendly manufactured homes are gaining ground in places like South Carolina, where a $750 tax credit is awarded to anyone purchasing an energy-efficient model. Perhaps the most ambitious effort is the SmartMH program in Kentucky, which seeks to increase the percentage of Energy Star manufactured homes from 1 percent to 50 percent.
Individual designers have embraced efficiency, too. Currently, OMD’s Jennifer Siegal is working on a 2,000-square-foot, completely off-the-grid manufactured home, which deals with all its own waste and supplies its own water, among other bells and whistles.
Still, according to many in the prefab world, there remains room for improvement when it comes to making manufactured homes more environmentally sound. Since the construction of manufactured homes is regulated by the industry-specific federal HUD code instead of the federal- and state-based laws that oversee site-built (and modular) homes, producers aren’t required to meet the same energy standards and building codes, leaving some companies to play fast and loose with the quality of their products.
“I wish I understood the mindset within the manufactured-home industry as a whole,” says Peter Schneider of Vermod, an energy-efficient modular home company based in Wilder, Vermont. “Why do they not, by their own choice, build better homes that use less energy? That have quieter furnaces? Will they ever come along? This isn’t futuristic stuff.”
Vermod is a key player in a statewide initiative known as the Mobile Home Replacement Program, which seeks to provide individuals living in substandard manufactured homes with an affordable, energy-efficient modular model. Properly sized for a standard mobile home lot and constructed using sustainable building practices, Vermod homes include a host of high-performance features, including advanced insulation, triple-pane windows, zero energy and top-of-the-line HVAC systems.
“Changes within the manufactured-home industry also come back to the federal government recognizing that affordable housing isn’t just about first cost,” says Schneider. “It also involves things like ongoing energy costs and, ultimately, the health outcomes for the people living there.”
Energy efficiency is particularly important in a place like Vermont, where a manufactured home with thin walls and poor insulation can mean an astronomical—and, more often than not, unaffordable—heating bill in the winter.
“I was part of a working group with the Department of Energy along with leaders from several big manufactured-home producers, and when we were all at the table there was some willingness to say that adopting ISO 14001 [the international environmental standard] across the board was a good idea,” says Schneider. “But afterward, publicly, there was a lot of resistance.”
Ultimately, though, Schneider believes that eco-friendly homes will soon lose their niche status thanks to the simple laws of supply and demand. They’re what the people want.
Trailer: A form of on-the-road housing hauled behind a vehicle. Trailers (aka caravans, travel trailers, house trailers, etc.) arrived in the 1910s as a means of increased, livable mobility for people looking for employment or relocating cross-country, and continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1930s and ’40s as a fixture of recreational traveling. Today, this term is also used erroneously to describe manufactured and mobile homes, often in a derogatory context.
Mobile Home: A factory-built housing structure constructed before 1976 that is able to be moved—typically via towing to a permanent location—on a chassis.
Manufactured Home: A factory-built housing structure constructed after 1976 that is able to be moved—typically via towing to a permanent location—on a chassis. (Formerly known as mobile homes, pre-HUD Code.)
RV (Recreational Vehicle): A trailer or motor vehicle with basic home-like amenities meant for on-the-road, largely recreational travel. RVs can range from more classic, Winnebago-style designs to a “skoolie” (converted school bus). While mobile/manufactured housing and RVs share historic DNA, they are not synonymous terms today.
Site-Built Home: A house that is completely constructed on the lot where it will reside, as compared to manufactured homes, which are built in a factory and then transported to their location.
Stick-Built Home: A somewhat outdated, but still occasionally used, term for site-built homes.
Modular Home: A prefabricated dwelling constructed in a factory setting (much like manufactured homes) then transported to a location in pieces and installed on-site (more like a site-built home). Modular homes must conform to the same local, state, and regional building codes as site-built homes.
1976 HUD Code: The HUD Code—officially known as the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974—became law in June 1976, and set national standards with regards to energy efficiency, quality, durability, fire safety, and transportability for all manufactured homes built after this date. Prior to this, factory-built homes had no uniform regulations surrounding construction practices.The HUD Code is the only federally regulated national building code. This means that manufactured homes in Montana and Maine both have to be built to the same quality standards, while comparable site-built homes in these states follow different, local laws. Technically, any structure built after 1976 shouldn’t be referred to as a “mobile home” due to the official terminology change that went into effect along with the federal law. Always use “manufactured home” as a catchall term.
1994 HUD Code Update: This update provided serious overhauls to the efficiency and environmental requirements of the original HUD Code, resulting in marked improvements in the quality of manufactured homes. See the 1994 HUD Code Update here. The Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 followed.
Single-Wide: The most easily recognizable mobile home/manufactured home size, the single-wide is typically what one imagines when “mobile home” comes to mind. They are officially measured at 18 feet or less in width and 90 feet or less in length.
Double-Wide: As you might imagine, this model is two times the size of a single-wide, and made to somewhat resemble the structure of a traditional ranch home. It is also the most referenced model in pop culture. (See: “Queen of My Double Wide Trailer” by Sammy Kershaw, etc.)
Triple-Wide: Yes, triple-wide—just right for the “go big or go home” crowd. These are fairly uncommon.
Land-Lease Communities: Another name for a manufactured-home community, which could also potentially include amenities like a clubhouse, swimming pool, dance lessons, etc.
Editor: Sara Polsky
Copy editor: Emma Alpern