Trailer Treasure—Affordable Housing, Green Living, Community, Income in an Unlikely Place
February 29, 2016
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
The American dream of homeownership for all is not particularly healthy these days. Housing prices in some areas have already returned to pre-Great Recession (2006) levels. According to the Trulia real estate website, the median price for a home in San Francisco County is $583 per square foot! The cheapest price in California is $65 per square foot—up in Modoc County. Most housing in the United States falls between $50 and $150 per square foot.
Many of us find that we simply don't have (and can't borrow) the money needed to buy a stick-built home. Where does this leave us? Should we each have three jobs so we can afford our own place, or should we just give up and move under a bridge?
Interestingly, some of the richest people in the United States see this housing crisis as an opportunity. Warren Buffett owns one of the largest mobile home (MH) manufacturing companies in the United States and billionaire investor Sam Zell owns more than 370 mobile home parks (MHPs) nationwide. They just might be foreseeing an upcoming need for their services!
We think MHs are worth looking into, for several reasons:
- They provide much-needed affordable housing.
- They are environmentally friendly.
- In MHPs, they provide the sense of community that many people crave.
- For investors, they offer high returns for a low initial investment.
Something for everyone! But first, we have to get over the long-standing bad press.
Busting MH Myths
MHs and MHPs carry a stigma. The word poor comes to mind—poor-quality homes, poor people, poor surroundings.
The popular story is that MHs depreciate like a car, instead of appreciating like a house, and will soon turn to rust and dust. Yet we have seen and worked on 1960s mobiles that are holding up better than many of their stick-built counterparts. With minor upkeep, their metal undercarriage, siding, and roofing make them quite durable. As for their market value, many investors make a living buying and selling or renting out MHs; they must know something.
MHPs run the gamut, from high-end luxury communities to solid middle- and lower-income communities, to the scary MHPs, where drug dealers hang out on every corner and residents allow their MHs to slowly compost. But even the latter can be saved, as MHP turnaround experts and creators of the online Mobile Home University, Frank Rolf and Dave Reynolds, have demonstrated repeatedly. When you spend time in MHPs, you may find some of the expected “poorness,” but you may also find neighbors who know each other, kids who can play safely on the streets, and people who make time to beautify their home and yard.
Getting Oriented to the MH World
There are many types of MH, with major differences based on age and size. Homes are available from single- to triple-wide, and from 40 to 90 feet long. Age differences show up as stylistic changes, such as aluminum siding and roofing and no roof overhangs on older homes, and wooden siding, pitched roofs, composition shingles, and deep overhangs on newer ones.
Merriam-Webster defines mobile home as “a house that is built in a factory and then moved to the place where people will live in it.” You may also hear the terms manufactured home and modular home, the distinctions being based on when the home was built, which codes it meets, and whether the chassis is permanently attached or removed after delivery. But unless you’re buying a new manufactured/modular/mobile home, these distinctions will have little impact on buying, renovating, living in, or selling an existing one.
What does matter is where your MH is located. MH locations come in two basic flavors: on land and in parks, each with its pros and cons.
MHs on land give you many of the same freedoms and responsibilities as stick-built homes, but at a much lower price. You may find an MH on a several-acre parcel, on a small lot in a subdivision created for MHs, or even within the rare MHPs that allow homeowners to own their tiny lot while enjoying the benefits of shared facilities. One big advantage of an MH on land is that you’re free to rent it out if you choose.
MHs in parks are different. Roughly half of the 8.6 million MHs in the United States are in parks, and you pay space rent to keep your home there. Park rules may restrict the age of the renter, the age of the MH, its rentability, its appearance, and what you can do around your home. An MH in a park has several advantages:
- You don’t have to buy the land.
- The infrastructure is in place and is maintained by the park.
- You have a built-in social structure.
- Used MHs in parks can be really inexpensive.
MHs as Affordable Housing
Just how affordable are MHs? While you can pay $40,000–$250,000 or more for a big, new, manufactured home, we think the real story is in the smaller, older homes. If you know where to look, you can find livable older MHs for $5 per square foot or less—even free! Those prices don’t usually include the land, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison with stick-built homes. But even some smaller and older MHs on land are offered for $40 per square foot or less.
Where do you find these deals? Sometimes you’ll find them on a multiple listing service, particularly for MHs on land. But the bargains in parks take a little more looking. Check craigslist.com, but this is the Wild West, and you need to do your due diligence. Drive through an MHP and look for For Sale signs in the windows. Get to know the park managers and ask if they’ll be “taking back” any homes soon. This can occur when a homeowner doesn’t pay space rent for several months, and the park owner may auction off the MH to cover lost rent.
Then there are the free homes. Sometimes MH owners die or need to move on, and they or their heirs just want to be rid of the home to avoid paying space rent. These folks will happily give up the MH for little or nothing. Once you own an MH in a park, you may be in a good position to hear about such deals.
Carol owns two MHs in an MHP in rural California.
The first is a 900 ft2, two-bedroom home that was abandoned; it cost her $2,000 at auction. She put about $10,000 into fixing it (new windows, toilets, floor coverings, paint, front deck, stove, kitchen sink and faucet, range hood, blinds, and so on; and improved electrical, plumbing, and HVAC). A pleasant, comfortable home in California for $12,000?! Neighbors and park management raved over the finished product. After space rent, insurance, and county taxes, she clears about $300 a month—a 30% ROI (return on investment). The home should pay for itself in about 3.5 years.
While enjoying the glow from her first MH rehab, Carol saw a For Sale sign on a nearby 600 ft2two-bedroom MH with a big screened porch and a covered deck: $3,500 OBO. She knew it had been recently inhabited, so she hoped it might not need much work. She got it for $3,000, put $5,000 into fixing it up, and rented it out before the work was even finished. So she spent $8,000 for a cute two-bedroom home that also clears about $300 a month. That’s a 45% annual ROI, so it should pay for itself in about 2.5 years.
Carol had no trouble renting out both homes by advertising them as similar to an apartment in rent, but without common walls—and with a yard, shared recreational facilities, and a great community. The tenants are delighted.
At a tax-deed auction, Larry bought a 1,500 ft2, fairly modern four-bedroom mobile on 5+ acres with expansive canyon views for $16,000. That’s under $11 per square foot! It’s now up and running, having cost about $30,000 to repair. This includes some major work, like installing a mini-split and new decking, and completely rebuilding the well. Yet the home’s annual ROI is about 22%. Comps to this home are selling for $100,000 over what Larry put into it.
Another auction yielded a double-wide for $60,000, or $40 per square foot. That’s more expensive, but still far below stick-built costs. This one is still a work in progress.
MHs as Environmentally Friendly Housing
Tiny houses are all the rage these days. But if you look back a decade or two, you’ll find that MHs were the tiny houses of yesteryear. The smaller the house, the less impact it has on the environment: less material used in construction, less energy required to heat and cool the space, and less land taken up by the home’s footprint.
Mobile homes, especially the older ones, are almost always smaller than stick-built homes. The average new house in the United States has a floor area of 2,400 square feet, while the average MH is just over 1,100 square feet. A one-story stick-built house weighs about 200 lb per square foot, 4 times as much as the average MH. There’s a lot less embodied energy in a 55,000 lb mobile than there is in a 480,000 lb stick-built house! Furthermore, the 2,400 ft2 home will have about double the surface area from which to lose or gain heat.
Yes, MHs tend to have thinner walls and less insulation than stick-built homes (though newer mobiles are generally better insulated). But it’s not hard to improve the energy efficiency of older MHs. Air sealing the building envelope and replacing leaky single-pane windows is pretty easy. With a little more work, roof insulation can be increased, and there are even ways to improve wall insulation.
In our own mobile homes, we’ve both taken a phased approach, making energy improvements as rental income allows. For example, in Carol’s rentals (see “Case Studies”), the low-hanging fruit included air sealing, replacing leaky single-pane windows with double-pane, low-e windows, swapping out old incandescent lights for CFLs, switching to motion-sensitive porch lights with photosensors, adding a rheostat on the furnace fan control to run it with less motor power, and showing tenants how to use heating and cooling systems for maximum comfort with reduced energy consumption. Future projects will include increased roof, wall, and floor insulation and more effective summer shading.
MHPs as (Un)Intentional Community
In recent decades, there’s been a lot of talk about our desire for community. Many suburban and urban living environments lack features that draw neighbors together. As a result, there’s been a focus on intentional community, new urbanism, and cohousing (private homes clustered around shared space).
Meanwhile, MHPs have been quietly providing a sense of community for their residents all along. In parks, MHs tend to be placed fairly close together on relatively narrow streets. People are often out on the street chatting, helping each other out, doing wheelies, and trading gossip. The eyes-on-the-street phenomenon makes for a safer neighborhood.
In addition, there is usually a clubhouse with a kitchen, available for residents to gather and share meals on special occasions. Most parks also have shared recreation facilities, which may include a swimming pool, a barbeque area and picnic tables, a playground, walking trails, and/or shuffleboard and horseshoe courts.
Carol owns two MHs in an MHP and has been amazed at how quickly she got to know the neighbors. In fact, people dropped by to chat so frequently that it was almost hard to focus on the rehabbing work at hand! Carol kept asking herself, “What does this remind me of?” And it finally hit her: It’s like a college dorm, where you can always find someone to talk to by wandering down the hall—except that an MHP is a bit more grown up.
MHs as an Investment
The big surprise is that MHs aren’t just affordable homes. They can also be a good investment. If you have four to five figures to invest, you can own your investment home outright—and make an annual ROI (return on investment) of 20–50% by renting it out. This compares favorably to a good year in the stock market, which might net 5–7% at best. As a rental, an MH might pay for itself in two to five years, and the rest is gravy. (See “Case Studies” for some examples of how this is done.)
There’s also a breed of investors who buy and resell MHs, with or without rehabbing. They often carry the loan for the buyer, making their money on the interest. In either case, investors are providing a much-needed service—affordable housing—while making good money. That’s called a win-win.
One big factor in MH investing is whether you own the land on which the MH sits. Many MHPs don’t allow subleasing (renting out your MH), which leaves the investor with a few options: buying MHs on land, searching for the few parks that allow subleasing, or reselling rather than renting.
To learn more about mobile home pricing, go to the Trulia real estate website.
See a good source of free information on MHs.
For information about retrofitting mobile homes, see Krigger, John. Your Mobile Home: Energy and Repair Guide for Manufactured Housing, 5th ed. Helena: Saturn Resource Management, March 16, 2006.
Learn more about MH living.
Learn more bout MH repair.
For a history of MHs, see “The History of Manufactured Homes,” Crystal Adkins, About.com.
For a variety of information on MH investing, see the following sources:
Mobile Home Investing, John Fedro.
Adventures in Mobile Homes, Rachel Hernandez.
Bigger Pockets: The Real Estate Investing Social Network, at www.biggerpockets.com > Mobile Home and Mobile Home Park Investing Forum.
Admittedly, there are challenges to owning an MH. There is that nagging perception of “poorness” and depreciation. People who invest in MHs may be seen as the poor stepchildren of “real” investors. When buying in a park, you don’t have the level of control you usually have when purchasing a home on land, and the park owner and manager can play a big role in your life.
There are also some problems with MH construction. Windows are commonly stuck to the outside, with nothing more than putty between the siding and the window fins. There is often little or no flashing, so water can enter at seams, around windows, and at the base of walls (roof overhangs can partially overcome this defect).
Newer mobiles look more like stick-built homes, but they have their own shortcomings, such as particleboard for flooring and siding. The waterproof layer behind that fake wood grain siding is actually glued to and part of the siding, so there is no way to lap it to shed water. Much of the plumbing and electrical hardware is flimsier than you’d find in stick-built construction.
Knowing these things can help prevent unhappy surprises. If you’re going to own an MH, you want to know where the nearest MH parts suppliers are.
So far, we’ve been talking mostly about individual MHs. But let’s think a bit bigger: How about buying an entire MHP? Controlling the whole park allows for some interesting possibilities.
Imagine getting a bulk discount on paint and teaching residents how to paint their own MHs, then organizing help-each-other-out painting parties, increasing pride of ownership while improving the appearance of the whole park. The same concept could be applied to weatherization and energy efficiency improvements. Imagine teaching and encouraging residents to collectively compost their food waste, grow their own food, harvest and direct rainwater, and even tend chickens.
Or how about a group of artists getting together to buy a really cheap, nearly abandoned MHP in an area that just lost its main industry (we’ve seen such deals) and creating their own art colony, with shared studio spaces and tools? Or maybe Baby Boomers, who are notorious for not having set aside much for retirement, could take over an MHP to provide themselves with affordable housing, while jointly acquiring exercise equipment, wellness care services, and brain-refreshing classes and activities.
Once we get past the myths, MHs and MHPs hold a lot of promise for improving people’s lives and helping us to live a little lighter on the land.
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