As home prices—and mortgage rates—continue to rise across the nation, the supply of reasonably priced homes has become frighteningly low. It has led more and more buyers to seek out options they may never have considered just a few short years ago. And many experts believe this could be leading us into a golden age for one of housing’s can’t-get-no-respect categories: manufactured homes.
Commonly known as mobile homes or trailers, manufactured homes are already the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the U.S., providing shelter for 1 in 10 households living below the poverty line, according to a recent report by Apartment List, a San Francisco–based real estate listing service.
About 5.6% of Americans, or 17.7 million people, live in manufactured homes. But with so many people across the country in need of affordable housing, that number could grow substantially, says Sydney Bennet, a senior research associate at Apartment List. Mobile homes gained popularity among low-income families in the 1980s and ’90s, when federal affordable housing subsidies and programs were cut.
“I do think we could see a renaissance,” she says.
And the affordability of manufactured homes extends beyond their upfront cost. In the country’s 100 largest metro areas, manufactured-home residents spend, on average, 40% less on housing than those living in more traditional homes (also called “stick-built” or “site-built”). That includes both renters and owners. The average monthly gross housing cost for a mobile home is $564, compared with $1,057 for a site-built home or apartment, according to the report. Gross housing costs include, as applicable, rent or mortgage payments/property taxes, lot rent (for mobile homes), and utilities.
That affordability is particularly appealing to fixed-income seniors, many of whom flock to the Sun Belt and buy trailers as a way to economize and downsize. (Mobile homes represent the highest share of housing stock in the South and Southwest, according to the Apartment List report.) A new crop of upscale mobile-home parks aimed at the 55-plus set features spacious “double-wide” trailers, community centers, pools, and other amenities.
Mobile homes “could be viewed as the best option to get more people into single-family homeownership,” says Dave Anderson, executive director of National Manufactured Home Owners Association. Unlike tiny homes, for which you pay less but also get less space, the square footage of mobile homes is increasing, making them a better buy, he says.
However, owning a manufactured home is not necessarily a stable solution: Mobile homes are sold separate from the land in the trailer park. If the owner of the trailer community sells the land for another purpose, the residents have to move. Since many “mobile” homes are no longer actually mobile, the owners have to buy another trailer and move to another location.
In 2004, in the middle of a real estate boom, Loretta Dibble was able to buy a mobile home on the Jersey Shore with a large front deck, overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and the Verrazano Bridge, for about $30,000.
“It was just a cute, little blue house,” says Dibble, 62. “But it had an amazing view.”
Her experience underlines the ups and downs of mobile-home ownership: The owner of Paradise Trailer Park, where Dibble’s house was located, tried to kick out the mobile-home residents to redevelop the land for traditional homes. They sued and won, but ended up losing their homes anyway, to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But Dibble is still a mobile-home fan. She’s renting a traditional home in Highlands, NJ, while waiting to move into a new manufactured home.
Dibble, a board member of the NMHOA, says it is important for mobile-home owners to live in a municipality that has strong rental laws, so the rents on their sites don’t increase and become unaffordable.
“If it’s done right and you have strong protections and a good community owner, mobile homes are excellent,” she says.