Joe Belcher and his wife, Reta, bought their first house for $5,500.
“I’ll never forget it,” Belcher says from a rocking chair in the playroom at Maple Ridge Baptist Church in Candler. His small granddaughter races around the room, flying from toy to toy like a bumblebee in a field of flowers.
“We got a little seven-year loan on it, and when we moved, we brought it to North Carolina with us. And when we sold it, my wife cried,” Belcher says of the manufactured home. “She loved it.”
As time went on, the Belchers were able to move into larger quarters, buying a 1,100-square-foot double-wide, which is two manufactured homes put together (“I never thought we’d have a home that size,” Belcher says), and eventually a site-built home.
Belcher purchased his first home in the 1980s — which helps explain why it was so cheap — but even today, manufactured houses are less expensive than traditional site-built homes. The U.S. Census Bureau says that, as of September 2018, the average sales price of a manufactured home was about $84,000 (not including land). In contrast, the agency says the average sales price for a new single-family home was about $385,000 in 2017 (including land).
In Buncombe County, manufactured housing is limited to certain zoning designations (low-density residential, employment, R-3 and open use), but the county Planning Board recently voted in favor of an amendment that would add R-1, R-2 and the Beaverdam Low-Density Residential District to the list of areas where manufactured homes would be allowed.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the amendment sometime in the coming weeks.
Options for inexperienced homebuyers
Belcher, who worked for almost 30 years at Tennessee-based Clayton Homes and now serves on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, has long been an evangelist for manufactured housing. He sees it as an important tool in the county’s quest to ease the affordable housing crunch, identified as one of commissioners’ strategic priorities in December 2017.
“It gives people that are young or inexperienced homeowners, it gives them an entry point,” Belcher says, “and it gives them what I call, a path of equity, which I consider a path to independence.”
At OnTrack WNC, a local nonprofit that offers educational courses for aspiring homeowners, housing counselors hear differing degrees of interest among first-time homebuyers about the prospect of owning a manufactured home.
“It’s rare,” says Virginia Wells-Lane. “Generally, it has come up when a client has very limited options with the amount that they can get, or they have a piece of family land but don’t feel like they have the ability to take out enough money to build a stick-built home.”
Anna Smith, however, has seen more interest. “People are definitely considering manufactured housing as first-time homebuyers,”she says. In her view, prospective homeowners would be more likely to explore this option if they had more information about manufactured homes’ pros and cons.
Jonathan Stansell, the homebuyer program director at OnTrack WNC, says the organization offers information about manufactured homes in some of its courses and plans to update its curriculum in the near future. “We’re doing a better and better job at incorporating it into our services,” he says.
OnTrack educators emphasize the benefits of owning land rather than renting it. Homebuyers who place a manufactured house on land they own have a better chance of seeing an increase in their property value, Stansell says.
Pathway to homeownership
Bouncing over speed bumps in his silver Mercedes, George Morosani slows to a crawl every few seconds as he answers questions about Wellington Community Estates, a manufactured home park off Airport Road in South Asheville.
As he drives, it’s hard to recall that another world exists beyond the seemingly endless rows of rectangular houses, which line the roads that crisscross about 70 acres. Morosani estimates 2,000 people live in the park, which has over 400 lots. He estimates the average household earns $30,000-$40,000 a year.
“I would call them blue-collar, if you can have a good enough definition of that,” Morosani says, attempting to characterize the average person who lives in the neighborhood.
Residents of Wellington lease the land their homes sit on for $425 or $445 a month, depending on whether they’re staying in a single-wide or a double-wide. The payment plan for single-wides typically runs about 10 years, Morosani says. Altogether, he estimates the total monthly rate for a double-wide — including payments on the home, the lease on the land, taxes and insurance — is $1,300-$1,400. Single-wides run about $1,050-$1,250 a month, he says.
Inside one of the park’s empty double-wides, Morosani draws attention to the house’s flat ceiling. While some older homes had vaulted ceilings, he says, it’s become standard among the larger mobile home manufacturers to construct houses with an eight-foot flat ceiling. They also help the house feel more lie a traditional site-built structure, he says.
Walking from room to room, Morosani points out the three bedrooms, a walk-in closet, a bathroom with ceramic fittings, and the kitchen. “This would run about $74,000,” he says. A seam bisects the floor of the living room, evidence that the home arrived at the park as two single-wides that were then combined into one structure.
For homeowners like Angel Tran, who owns Angel Nail Spa in Asheville and moved to the area from Florida, the savings associated with living in a manufactured home are significant.
“My business is still fairly new,” she says, “so I don’t want to invest in a big house and have a big mortgage.” Manufactured homes, she says, are a good option for young people who are just getting on their feet or senior citizens who can’t afford to care for a big house. Her plan is to spend some time saving money before moving her family into a permanent home.
Landed versus unlanded
While manufactured housing tends to be more affordable than traditional homes, buyers can still face obstacles. Finding land is one of them.
“You’ve got to have somewhere to put it,” says Gene Bell, the chair of the county Planning Board and director of the Asheville Housing Authority, “so the land cost has to be a factor.”
At Wellington, once someone pays off the house, they can move the building outside the park to avoid paying a lease on the lot where it sits. But Morosani says this doesn’t happen very often. “Only a couple have moved out of here because their parents gave them land on the back 40 of their farm,” he says.
It’s also expensive, costing $3,000-$4,000 to move the structure, Morosani says. “You don’t put this on a family car,” he explains. “You use big semis.”
Stansell says putting a manufactured house on rented land can be “super risky.” If a renter’s landlord decides to sell the property, he says, homeowners typically abandon their homes rather than keep them.
“There’s a reason we don’t call them mobile homes,” he says. “Once they are sited, they are not mobile. In fact, moving them costs a lot of money and can cause serious damage.”
Driving through Wellington Community Estates, you can make a pretty good guess at how old a building is just by looking at it.
Homes with plastic cobblestone skirts lining their bases are the newest models in the park, Morosani says, having been placed sometime in the last 3 1/2 years. Morosani is trying to update the park to homes with vinyl siding and a shingled roof, though some older models with metal siding and roofs remain. “As [the older models] become available to us to move out, we do,” he says.
The proposed amendment to the county zoning code includes design standards that will apply only to manufactured homes in the newly permitted districts.
In the new districts, the houses must include skirting made from stone, brick, wood or architectural or rusticated block (though other materials could be allowed on a case-by-case basis). The amendment prohibits skirting made from vinyl, metal or foam and requires that homes in the revised zoning districts contain multiple sections, meaning that they must be larger than a single-wide.
David Rittenberg is one of two members of the county Planning Board who voted against the changes to the zoning code. According to minutes from the board’s Jan. 28 meeting, Rittenberg said he’s supportive of affordable housing but expressed concern about the impact of manufactured homes on neighbors.
He advocated for design standards he believes could better integrate manufactured housing into residential areas, such as requirements for how the house is positioned on the lot and landscaping and screening.
He also said the amendment doesn’t do enough to ensure that developers put manufactured homes close to public transit, jobs and services.
In the past, lenders have been skittish about loaning money for manufactured housing.
“What we find is that many lenders that we approach have a very outdated understanding of manufactured housing from more than a decade ago,” says Stacey Epperson, the president of Next Step, an advocacy group based in Louisville, Ky., that promotes manufactured housing.
“Some lenders don’t understand today’s home features and how the homes can be sited on a permanent foundation for a real-property mortgage loan,” she says. “And some do not know they can be built indistinguishable from site-built.”
But Epperson has noticed that lenders’ reluctance tends to dissipate as they learn more about current products.
“The quality of manufactured housing has improved so much in recent decades that it’s really not comparable to mobile homes of the past,” Stansell says. “Manufactured housing is built in a factory setting out of the weather. This makes for a tightly built home. The quality can be excellent, and they can be surprisingly energy-efficient.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development updated the code governing construction of manufactured homes in 1976, requiring homes built after that date to have a label certifying that the house meets the department’s safety standards.
Belcher believes manufactured homes have gotten past the trailer-park stigma that existed before improvements in construction. Still, he says, some people have an irrational distaste for this housing option.
“I do think there are people who don’t understand the product to the point that they just don’t want to listen and they don’t want it anywhere near them,” he says. That attitude often changes when someone visits a modern manufactured home. “When they walk in, the word is typically, ‘Wow,’” he says.
Belcher believes manufactured housing is a tool that hasn’t been used as effectively as it could.
“It’s just a home,” he says, “and people should be allowed to own a home that they can afford wherever they live. Period.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from the version that ran in print on March 13 to reflect that Buncombe County rescheduled a March 19 public hearing about manufactured housing. It will now occur at a later date.