Preface. Mistakes happen. People can learn from them, or not. Mature adults should ideally not allow themselves to be defined by errors – because everyone has their share of mistakes and ignorance. Rather, people of all ages and backgrounds are better defined by their behavior after an error has been uncovered.
How is a mistake addressed? Is it swept under the proverbial rug? Or will problematic – or even tragic – miscues be admitted with wisdom and humility? Once the facts are learned, is a new path set, one guided by the lessons learned?
The first video on this page is of a smoldering mobile home, one built well over 40 years ago. Just as cars, computers, phones, and other housing has evolved since then, so too did the mobile homes of yesteryear lead-the-way to the modern manufactured homes of today.
The difference in lingo that follows is not a marketing distinction.
Rather, the term ‘manufactured home’ is a legal distinction. Because while mobile homes preceded manufactured housing, the two are related but different. Federal law recognized the distinction between mobile homes and manufactured homes. It’s why the nomenclature on manufactured homes is not optional. Trailer houses, mobile homes, and manufactured homes are three different terms for distinctive eras of factory-built housing. Those eras began with trailers houses made in the 1930s, to the mobiles homes of the 1950s to the 1970s. The next evolutionary steps was to manufactured homes, the first of which began on June 15, 1976.
Some mistakenly use those terms interchangeably. That’s wrong.
If someone tried to sell you an 35 + year old bag phone, and called it a Samsung Galaxy or an Apple iPhone, that person would be guilty of misrepresenting the product. If you had a townhouse for sale, you don’t claim that it is a single family ranch-style residence. The terminology matters.
A similar principle to the examples previously shared about phones and mainstream site-built housing applies to trailers, mobile homes, and manufactured homes. They are related, but not the same.
With that backdrop, let’s look at the headline subject.
On a fairly regular basis, if someone searches Google or other headline ‘mobile home’ news, they will routinely see stories about mobile homes that catch fire. Some examples of such mainstream news reports are shown in a screen capture from today that is provided further below.
Facts are what they are. Mobile homes, per third-party research, burn far more often than conventional site-built housing or manufactured homes. Rephrased, manufactured homes are far safer than the mobile homes of yore. Consider the third-party facts and graphics, below.
Sometimes people or pets might tragically die in a mobile home blaze. But that sort of loss likewise occurs in conventional housing. Those site built housing units often cost many times more than a manufactured home does. A report by an award-winning journalist that ties those points together is found in the linked text/image box below.
To prevent avoidable deaths, some local officials may be moved – out of a sense of civic safety – to want to regulate the placement of mobile homes in their jurisdictions. We aren’t rendering legal advice here. But we will note that if the residence in question is a true trailer house or a true mobile home – both built before June 15, 1976 – then the city, county or other local jurisdiction may have the ability to regulate those.
One test of a local planning and zoning commission’s ability to do such regulations of pre-HUD Code mobile homes, per the legal experts that advise us, is the following. Are similar rules being applied to conventional housing of the same era? If not, then there may still be a legal challenge in regulating even a mobile home.
But what about local planning and zoning (P&Z), a city council, or county board’s attempts to regulate manufactured homes?
This is a key reason why definitions and proper terminology matters. A true manufactured home is built to the federal HUD Code for Manufactured Housing. That’s federally preemptive. Local jurisdictions – by definition – typically have no legal authority over a federal issue.
But nor is such authority to regulate a manufactured home needed in practice by local officials. Why not?
Because the federal safety and construction standards are proven to have worked as designed, as the graphics from the NFPA above depict. For those who might claim that all regulations are bad, one need look no further than the federal HUD Code to see that one can’t honestly make that generalization. See the video interviews further below with a former federal official, or the one with a well-informed local official. Both were genuine interviews, no compensation or scripting was involved.
The NFPA and Mobile Home Fires
The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) said that mobile homes burn more often, but manufactured homes are as safe – maybe even slightly safer – than conventional on-site built housing. That’s good news for a nation hungry for affordable homes.
So, first you can consider the video below of the smoldering, burned out house that is a true mobile home. As the headline at the top of this article sadly suggests, there are tragedies that occur. More often than not, these are indeed mobile homes involved in those incidents.
But then, let’s dig deeper, and look at the backstory into the misunderstandings that a little walk down memory lane can cure. Because this backdrop could be worth millions of dollars to even modest local jurisdictions. To a larger city or state, the value of this understanding could be billions of dollars in more economic activity and housing valuation.
Note, one can find metal sided manufactured homes, but they tend to be ones built in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Vinyl and various cement or fiberboard sidings have become more common since the mid-to-late 1980s.
There are several visual clues that tell an informed manufactured home professional that the structure destroyed in that fire – portrayed by the home in the still on the left, above – was a pre-HUD Code mobile home. By contrast, the video below with a well informed county commissioner is of a residential style manufactured home.
Wiring, Electrical and Related
Some, but not all, pre-HUD Code mobile homes, used aluminum wiring. Aluminum wiring was commonly used in some apartments and other residential structures built decades ago too.
Some mobile homes also used fuses instead of circuit breakers. That practice also occurred in older conventional housing too.
There were pre-HUD Code mobile homes that were built to ANSI or UL standards — those homes were safer and more durable. Others were not built to ANSI or UL standards. Some mobile homes were well insulated, others were not. Similar things can be said about older conventional housing.
Do you see the developing fact-patterns?
Summing up, before June 15, 1976, there was good but also lower-quality mobile homes.
It should be noted that an unknown number of old mobile homes were updated with copper wiring, circuit breakers, smoke detectors, and other items that are now standard equipment on all manufactured homes. The safety features on manufactured homes apply to the lowest priced models built after June 15, 1976, as well as the highest cost and most extravagant ‘residential style’ manufactured homes.
Rephrased, safety, energy, and construction features are standard for all manufactured homes. Those requirements are federally-mandated, and are third-party inspected for compliance. That’s something that far more expensive conventional housing can’t all claim. The interview below with the former administrator of the federal HUD Code for manufactured homes helps explain a lot in just 10 minutes. Visual illustrations have been added in the video below, so what Bill Matchneer, JD, is saying during the video is complimented by visual images that serve to help make the point he was verbally describing.
Then and Now
The problem of a lack of consistent standards was a serious issue that mobile home producers faced some 45 (+/-) years ago. Back then, those producers who built the better homes in the industry – and who were forward-looking, notably after exposes like a famous one done by CBS News on 60 Minutes – realized that good factory-home builders had to separate themselves from those who built inferior housing that could at times become dangerous.
Apartments and other on-site built residential structures eventually did away with fuses and aluminum wiring in new construction. So too, the mobile home industry’s true leaders decided over 4 decades ago that it would be wise to seek safe and reliable standards. Their vision was that the regulations would be federally mandated and should construction, energy, and other safety standards. So among the many improvements that occurred in such factory-built housing after June 15, 1976, housing with aluminum wiring were no longer built.
Applying these facts to the recent case noted below makes the work of city planners and elected officials easier.
With those facts in mind, read the headlines shown in the screen capture from Google below. It is good to know that most of the time, those truly are older mobile homes that were built to lower pre-HUD Code standards involved in those sad accounts of sometimes deadly fires. Once more, this is a powerful reason why proper terminology should be used, each and every time. That should occur in news reporting, but it should also occur in governmental discussions, or nonprofit research projects.
Evolving Case of Initial Misunderstanding – City of Clearlake, CA
After exchanging some emailed information, the City Manager for Clearlake, CA made the following statement. As a quick background, the city had errantly considered banning manufactured homes along with mobile homes. But after being informed by MHLivingNews about facts like those noted and linked from herein, what follows below is what their city manager said in an on-the-record reply.
Thank you for your comments and interest in our City’s ordinance. You have raised good points which I have shared with our City Attorney. While we research this issue further, I have advised our building department to not enforce the urgency ordinance. In the end, we may rescind the urgency ordinance and amend the existing ordinance to better address our concerns regarding manufactured and mobile homes. I will keep you posted on our progress and welcome any further insight or comments you may have.
City of Clearlake, CA
We praised that city manager in writing, and hereby do so again.
Likewise, we thanked and hereby commend again the city council person who said the following.
Thank you so much for the information. This was what I had asked to be brought back to us at our next meeting, wiring was one of the concerns.
Both of those comments reflect an arguably classy, mature responses to the issues raised. As noted at the top, it’s often what happens after a glitch is discovered that matters most.
It is worth noting that an attendee of that meeting told MHLivingNews which initially passed the “urgency ordinance” banning factory-built homes said that, “They [those taking part in the Clearlake discussions over a pending city ordinance] named both modulars and mobiles [homes] as areas of concern, and there was no attempt by them to define the differences.”
That’s a common problem. Frankly, it is one reason why editorially we believe that modular and manufactured home associations need to coordinate on some issues that arise, because each ought to have a motivation for accuracy.
That same local source just cited added, “While I’m aware of the differences, they are intermixing the terms” — meaning, between mobile home, manufactured homes, and modular homes. Once more, that’s not accurate. See the definitions at the left, below.
There are possible ways a local jurisdiction might legitimately address the concerns about pre-HUD Code mobile homes.
But local or state officials – which under federal law, have a degree of installation influence with manufactured homes – can’t establish regulations about the construction, energy, and safety standards. As noted per the NFPA data above, nor is there any practical safety need for regulating manufactured homes. This is one of many sound reasons why the facts about these various types of housing could save local planners money.
Why? Because of federal preemption and because the current standards work. The HUD Code accounts for regional variations, and more.
Study after study by third parties demonstrates what this article is laying out as matters of fact, not opinion. Among those are the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) research. But the 2018 National Association of Realtors research on manufactured homes, from which the pull-quote below comes, also came to similar conclusions.
What about Home Values and the Tax Base?
Frankly, and while it didn’t reportedly occur in this Clearlake case, often in the background for city or county planners there are fears about the possible negative impact of factory built homes on nearby conventional housing. Are those fears well placed, or misplaced?
For those who consider what HUD-commissioned university-level research – plus additional and more recent research by Trulia and the National Association of Realtors – all of those sources suggest that notion is incorrect. See the related reports for more details.
It is worth noting that the HUD commissioned researchers didn’t stress enhanced preemption – the arguably should have. But they did stress that manufactured homes – side-by-side with conventional housing, all appreciated. That’s among the more potent takeaways for that HUD commissioned third-party research study.
What About True Mobile Home Owners?
While exact figures are not available, there is an estimated 2 million pre-HUD Code mobile homes still being used. Arguably, many of those are the better ones, built to ANSI or UL standards.
But some were mobile homes that were not built to those standards, were later voluntarily improved by their home owners.
Some jurisdictions have created programs to help truly low-income mobile home owners to upgrade their homes with low-interest loans or grants. Why? Because, in part, it is characteristically a less costly option to protect existing affordable homes than any other alternative. In some cases, local or state programs exist that encourage ‘trading in’ a mobile home on a modern manufactured homes.
It should be noted that just as owners of manufactured homes routinely love their homes, the same is true of mobile home owners. See the related reports, further below.
Clearlake, CA Isn’t Alone – Avoiding Costly Litigation
There are other cities and jurisdictions over the years that have been advised of such issues by MHProNews and/or here on MHLivingNews. They have often responded in a way similar to the two fine responses from Clearlake, CA that are shown above.
However, when officials fail to listen, they might run into a legal buzz saw.
The nonprofit organization Equal Justice Under Law has successfully brought suit against a city on similar concerns. Equal Justice won. That same nonprofit is currently involved in another such suit with a municipality that is discriminating against factory-built homes. If those cities had learned the facts first, they may have avoided the costs of litigation.
But it should also be noted that manufactured homes are not just housing for the working class. Millionaires – even some known billionaires – have or currently own manufactured homes. Just as you can get an entry level car, or a luxury car, you can get an entry level manufactured home, but also luxurious ones. Each one saves the buyer money. So, while it is good news for those who have a limited budget that they can often afford an entry level manufactured home, it should not be thought that such are the only kinds of manufactured homes built. Several HUD Code manufactured home builders produce housing that are ‘residential style’ manufactured homes. They look and live much the same as any housing built on site. Their owners love the value. Those are routinely the kinds of homes that millionaires or better heeled buyers purchase. Some have custom made manufactured homes. Others have remodeled mobile or manufactured homes to be amazingly elegant.
A View from Washington, D.C.
Politics often impacts the issue of housing. That’s clearly true with manufactured homes, as with other kinds of housing. Even within the industry, there are differing approaches on how to address such concerns. But arguably, few if any have spent more time on this topic of enhanced preemption that the Washington, D.C. based Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform, or MHARR.
“In the Illusion of Motion, MHARR laid out the case why the national post-production sector of the manufactured home industry postures activity but does nothing little or nothing in practice that actually advances that sector of American consumers of affordable housing. Local sources are telling us in this matter that there was no contact from post-production professionals working on behalf of the manufactured home industry. That’s part of a larger pattern, and it should be yet another red flag for those who rely on the existing national post-production representation for bottom-line action,” said Mark Weiss, JD, President and CEO of the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR).
MHARR represents independent builders of HUD Code manufactured homes, so it is a production vs. a post-production trade group. Rephrased, they work for those that know the product the best. MHARR represents those who build to the regulatory standards every working day.
Their point on this issue is simple. There is arguably not enough education and engagement from post-production association with local officials or mainstream media. That position by MHARR is reflected in issues like the one at Clearlake, CA. But there are scores of such cases across the country.
The Bottom Line?
The reality is, as was noted at the top, that everyone goofs on something. That’s life.
There are times I smile – or shudder – to think what my award-winning high school English or typing teachers might think about what hits this digital page. They’d have likely found a better or more precise way.
Clint Eastwood was right, each of us must accept our own limitations.
That willingness to admit a limitation, and thus be willing to grow after a pruning – said a wise philosopher – is where wisdom begins.
There is an ongoing need to correct-the-record on the distinctions between mobile homes, manufactured homes, and modular homes. There is also a need for civic leaders to do what the pair quoted above from Clearlake, CA stated. Their willingness – once they learned about federal preemption and related safety features – to stop, step back, and take a closer look is to be commended and copied.
Only those open-minded, deeper looks into the facts will lead to the necessary understanding of an obvious solution to the affordable housing crisis that is hiding in plain sight. “We Provide, You Decide.” © ## (News, affordable homes, lifestyle, analysis, and commentary.)
(See Related Reports, further below. Text/image boxes often are hot-linked to other reports that can be access by clicking on them. Third-party images and content are provided under fair use guidelines.)
By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – for MHProNews.com.
Tony is the multiple award-winning managing member of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com.
The text/image boxes below are linked to other reports, which an be accessed by clicking on them.