When I got in the mobile home park business, many of the sellers I bought from called the mobile homes “coaches” and “trailers”. Roger Miller even wrote a hit song with the lyrics “trailers for sale or rent”. But manufacturers and dealers thought the business needed an upgrade, so they changed the name to “mobile home”. Of course, the name was misleading, because mobile homes are far from mobile. Some can’t survive any movement at all, and moving one can cost $3,000 or more. And I guess they stuck the word “home” on there to make it sound reassuring or folksy (as opposed to saying “mobile unit”), or to give you greater direction on what you were supposed to do with the thing. But I embraced the new moniker, and so did everybody else.
The mobile home is a fine symbol of affordable housing. It represents the collective efforts of manufacturers and the government to build the cheapest detached housing unit in the world. Although it is not always appealing to the eye, and has been a notorious incubator for some of the wildest living conditions in mankind, it is cheap. Sometimes, real cheap. I have seen used mobile homes sell for $1,000 – that’s 94 cents per square foot. That’s about 100 times cheaper than a comparable stick-built house.
Mobile homes were inhabited by people who didn’t earn much – but they were at least inhabited. Nobody expected much besides four walls and a roof, and they were seldom disappointed. If you didn’t have much money, you always felt safe that there would be a mobile home in a park to fit any budget.
But then in the 1990s they decided to re-invent the industry again, this time under the moniker “manufactured home”. Out with the concept of “mobile” and in with the concept of building a thing in a factory. First off, I’m not so sure that you want to beat the customer over the head with the idea that their housing unit was built in a factory. That’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser or reason to boast at a cocktail party “my house was built just like my car”. Most things built in a factory are impersonal, cheaply made and often prone to breaking. Wait a minute – maybe that is a pretty accurate impression.
With the new “classy” name came new pricing for the homes – about two to three times what mobile homes cost. But they still sold O.K. due to impossibly low standards by lenders such as Greentree. Suddenly, mobile homes that cost $10,000 now cost $40,000 as manufactured homes. And therein lies the problem.
Manufactured housing has lost its roots as affordable housing. Now it wants to pretend that it is something more than it is – and make the consumer join in the fun. I think the American public has voted with its pocketbook. Sales of manufactured homes have fallen about 75% since 2000. The sad truth is that nobody wants an expensive manufactured home. They want cheap mobile homes.
There is talk that the industry wants to change the name again. Perhaps “executive mansions on the go” is on the table. I would urge the industry, instead, to go back to the “mobile home business”. Everyone knew what it meant – affordable housing – and they could afford it. Homes sold briskly and parks were full. That demand has not gone anywhere, but nobody can afford, or wants to buy, affordable housing for $40,000. Instead of straining to find out how to build and sell the most expensive manufactured home, let’s refocus the industry on how to build the least expensive. I know it’s not as profitable, but you can make it up in volume.
“Coaches”, “trailers” and “mobile homes” are where the demand is. “Manufactured homes”? Nobody’s interested. And forget any new names – you’ve already embarrassed yourselves enough.