The return of the pre-fab home

Millennials looking to buy their first homes and Boomers looking to downsize find factory-built or manufactured housing to be a good alternative that offers affordable, sturdy and green living. 
A funny thing is happening on the way to the nation's housing recovery: Some folks are beginning to take stock of their sprawling McMansions -- with the big lawns, cluttered closets and inflated energy bills -- and saying, "Enough!"

Enough with the maintenance. Enough with the trappings of conspicuous consumption. Enough with the mortgage payments marching into the great beyond.

They want something smaller, greener, sleeker -- something modern, well-built and inexpensive -- but still very nice. For a growing number of today's homebuyers, that means a factory-built home.

"I think the product makes a lot of sense for people coming through this recovery," says Evan Atkinson, an Ohio retailer, developer and community operator whose family has been in the manufactured housing business since 1947.

Back then, they were called trailers and, later, mobile homes -- cringe-worthy terms the industry has struggled to erase from popular lexicon.

Most of the old pre-fab metal boxes came with wheels and an enduring reputation that supplied plenty of fodder for comedian Jeff Foxworthy's trademark routine: "You might be a redneck if …"

Never mind that a mobile home has not been built in the U.S. since 1976, when the industry adopted standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Today's HUD-code manufactured homes are as well-built, or even better-built, than a comparable site-built home -- and cost half the price, according to Bill Matchneer, a Senior Attorney at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings law firm in Pittsburgh who once managed HUD's manufactured housing program.

A brand new entry level "shade and shelter" model -- with central air and all the comforts of home -- can be had for as little as $30,000, while larger, multi-section models with vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, walk-in showers and spa tubs run $60,000 or more.

For those who really want to splurge, there are multiple-story designs with all the bells and whistles of any custom home -- hand-laid ceramic tile, fireplaces framed by hardwood bookcases and high-end appliances -- all for a tidy $120,000.

The ability to customize these energy efficient homes and move into them within 60 to 90 days, depending on the complexity of the site work -- added porches, garages and sun rooms -- is creating renewed demand, says homebuilder Atkinson of Williams-Burg Square in Frazeysburg, OH.

A new perspective

"It's not your parents' manufactured home," says Clivetty Martinez, a senior executive for a global pharmaceutical firm.

Martinez and her husband, Frank, a retired postal engineer, live in Dover Farms, a suburban manufactured home community in Martin, Michigan, about halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. They could pretty much afford most any home they wanted -- and were as surprised as anyone when they chose a factory-built home.

"At first I was leery," Frank Martinez tells MHLivingNews. "Live in a house delivered on a truck?"

Six months later, they couldn't be more pleased -- with their home and their community.

Manufactured homes, the long-time staple of the affordable housing market, have gone upscale in a big way.

The cheap paneling, thin walls and lax fire and storm safety standards of the pre-HUD days, have been replaced by finished drywall, hardwood floors, granite countertops and stringent fire and wind codes.

Moreover, there is something for everyone -- from the modest single-section (nee single-wide) models that have long served the low-income rural market to larger, mid-range multi-section models and modular homes that so closely resemble their site-built counterparts, it's hard to tell them apart.

"We're really seeing resurgence right now in consumers coming out and looking at one of these three types of homes that we're offering," says Atkinson. "People looking at manufactured housing today are very surprised at what they see."

Southwestern shoppers are finding models that could pass for a traditional mud-walled adobe; there are brick-look ranch models, log cabin clones, Victorian throwbacks with wraparound porches and Cape Cods with dormers.

Back from the brink

Like housing in general, manufactured homes took a big hit in the recession -- one that seemed to threaten the industry's very existence. And, like the housing industry, MH continues its struggle to recover from the staggering setbacks of the 2008 meltdown. 

But as Boomers emerged from the latest wave of economic turbulence, and adult children emerged from parental guest rooms, where they had weathered the storm, it was with a new attitude.

The Millennials, perhaps, have been the quickest to embrace factory-built homes as a logical path to home ownership -- an appealing alternative to the high cost of post-meltdown rental rates.

"I think they're feeling a little more stable in their employment situation and we're seeing more of them coming into the housing market. They are more accepting of manufactured housing," says Atkinson. 

In fact, with the recent "tiny house" craze, living in a factory-built home has achieved a certain cachet among the 20- and 30-somethings. Suddenly, it's "cool" to live in a space that's smaller than a hotel room -- preferably mounted on wheels, so it can follow its owners anywhere -- hitched to the back of the family car.

These are little more than glorified RVs, of course, not the latter-day HUD-code homes that are meant to stay put and lived in like a site-built home. But both are made in a factory, and that makes the tiny homes a bridge, of sorts, to a paradigm shift in public perceptions.

Although manufactured housing is often thought of as the domain of retirees, most of today's buyers are younger singles and families who have no pre-conceived notions about a home that is built in a factory.

"Older folks who experienced manufactured homes before they were regulated at all -- those folks have that negative mindset, until they come out and view them in their current form," says Atkinson.

For the Baby Boomers, it is as much about lifestyle as it is about the homes themselves.

A sense of place

In 1955, Sydney Adler moved his family from Miami to Florida's west coast, where he developed a visionary 1,200-unit retirement community called Trailer Estates on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

There was a marina, a clubhouse, shuffleboard court, postage-stamp-sized lots with boat docks -- and a long waiting list of people hoping for a chance to live there.

"He was a real pioneer -- way ahead of his time," says Adler's son, Steve, who has built on the family tradition of creating innovative lifestyle communities in Florida, Texas and Oregon.

Schalamar Creek in Lakeland, Florida, is one of Adler's age-55-plus communities that's filling a growing niche among Baby Boomers.

About half of his buyers move down from the cold North, buy a single-family home in a traditional neighborhood, and then sell it when they discover there's more to the good life than sunshine.

"They don't want to spend their time and resources maintaining more house and yard than they need," says Adler. And they especially don't want the isolation of living in a suburban neighborhood, where few residents venture out of their sealed, climate-controlled mausoleums.

Boomers have been flocking like ants at a picnic to 55+ MH communities, many of which offer resort-caliber amenities and like-minded neighbors, where social, cultural and recreational opportunities abound.

"It's probably the most gregarious lifestyle form there is -- much more so than condos," says Adler, who keeps his finger on the pulse of the ever-changing profile of his residents, be it an all-age family community, or a 55+ like Schalamar Creek, which boasts a golf course, restaurant and a full schedule of social events.

"We're always trying to enhance the lifestyle," he says. "Today it's all high-tech stuff and different kinds of classes to see what catches on."

There is wi-fi in the club houses and around the pools, and classes in digital photography, computers, Tai Chi and whatever next big thing pops up on the social planners' finely tuned radar.

Meanwhile,  his father's creation, Trailer Estates, is still going strong -- a post-war time capsule where newer-model manufactured homes co-exist side-by-side with the old trailers that allowed people of modest means to retire in paradise, where they still fish and boat from their own docks on the bay.

Jan Hollingsworth is a native Floridian and award-winning writer who specializes in consumer, environmental and agricultural issues. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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