Manufactured, Modular, and Site-Built Homes: How Lending Practices Drive the Sales Market

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Many people are unaware how profoundly lending policies influence the market for residential property. So I am going to go over the various gradations in available loans for various types of property.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the standard house, built on site, mostly by hand, from basic materials. Called "stick built" to differentiate it from other building methods, this is the default housing that everyone is familiar with. Once emplaced upon that property, there is no real way of getting it off the property intact, and therefore it is appurtenant to the land. This might come as a shock to people who concentrate on the house, but when you buy a property, you are buying the land upon which it sits - the lot - and the structure comes along because it is appurtenant - because it cannot be moved off easily. It is this type of property which has been at the forefront of liberalization of lenders loan policies, precisely because it is both universally desirable and non-portable. That land is defined by its boundaries. It isn't going anywhere. The structure isn't going anywhere that the land isn't, because in order to remove it, you pretty much have to destroy it. It's built on a several ton concrete foundation, which, if you nonetheless manage to pick it up, is still overwhelmingly likely to crack if not disintegrate, not to mention ripping out plumbing, electrical, and other connections.

Now because the land isn't movable and the structure isn't either, lenders have gotten comfortable that you're not going anywhere with that structure. Because the combination is so universally desired among consumers of housing, they have gotten comfortable with giving loans for essentially the full purchase cost of the property, knowing that it takes a special set of circumstances for them to take a loss on the property, and they can charge higher interest rates in order to insure against that. (I am using insure in the statistical, law of large numbers sense that is the essence of insurance.)

Now once upon a time, lenders treated condominiums far less favorably than single family detached housing. But it was always obvious that condominium units weren't going anywhere, and in recent years condominiums, in all their incarnations, have reached a level of acceptance among housing consumers that assures their marketability, and even the price discrimination against high-rise condominiums is gradually dying out. It is far less than it was just a few years ago. For condominiums four stories and less, the only difference their status makes to lending policy has to do with required expenses and Debt to Income Ratio: There is no homeowners insurance requirement, because the association dues pay for a master policy, but there is the additional expense of Association dues to charge against the borrower's monthly income. As far as Loan to Value Ratio goes, condominiums are precisely like single family residences, and you can find 100% loans just as easily for them, at the same rate cost trade-offs, or very close. More and more, the fact that it's a condominium is becoming irrelevant to loan officers. Many lenders have completely eliminated the "percentage of owner occupied units" guidelines that used to be such a bugbear for getting condominium loans approved. For these reasons, among others, condominium prices have taken off. In the last fifteen years, they have gone from being about half the price of a comparably sized and furnished detached home, to the point where they are basically proportional to detached single family homes, and in some areas, higher price per square foot due to the fact that they are a viable less expensive consumer's alternative due to (usually) fewer square feet to the dwelling, and so less expensive overall if not proportionately so.

The first real step away from the "stick built' house is the modular dwelling. These are piece-manufactured at factories, and assembled in pieces on site. Usually, it's something like one entire room-wall in a piece, with all the necessary plumbing and electrical already embedded in it, although sometimes it does take the form of entire rooms. Think of it like modular furniture, which is manufactured in individual pieces, but those pieces are intended to be put together so that instead of an arm chair and an ottoman, you have a chaise lounge. The important difference is that unlike modular furniture, once that modular house is assembled on that foundation, it's not going anywhere. Try to disconnect the plumbing hookups, or disassemble the pieces, and all you will likely have is much smaller pieces than you started with. Modular housing, once assembled, isn't going anywhere. It is permanently attached to that land. For this reason, lenders are in the process of phasing out pricing discrimination against modular housing as opposed to stick built homes. For some lenders, modular gets the same exact loans as stick-built, for a few, there is a hit to the rate-cost trade-off that may be anywhere from a quarter of a point to a full point. Over half of the residential lenders in my database are happy to do residential real estate loans for modular housing on pretty much the same terms as stick-built. 100% percent financing, interest only, even the horrible negative amortization loan are all available on modular homes. As a result, prices of modular homes may be a couple percent lower than those of stick built properties, but they are very comparable and the the investment potential is just as strong and there is no large amount of difficulty getting them sold due to the difficulty of getting a loan. Some lenders still don't want to touch them, but it's pretty easy to find lenders that will, and on the same terms as they do any other property, so the lenders who still will not lend on modular properties are hurting no one but themselves by dealing themselves out of possible business.

The next step away is manufactured housing on land owned by the home owner. Now technically speaking, modular housing is a subset of manufactured housing, but when most lenders are talking about manufactured housing, they are talking about homes built at the factory in entire sections, and assembled with only a few total joins at the home site. True manufactured housing is portable, where modular really is not. If you're in Idaho and decide to move that house to your property in Georgia, it's doable.

Now because it is portable, as you might guess from things I've said here about the prevalence of attempted scams that lenders have had issues with people dragging them off. You'd be right. Lenders file foreclosure papers on the land, and the homeowner metaphorically backs up the pick-up truck and takes that residence somewhere else, leaving the lenders with a piece of land and no residence. Because there is no longer a residence on it, it's not worth anything like what it was when there was a residence on it. Lenders have lost multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual properties around here. You get burned enough times, you start getting wise. Those real estate lenders who will lend on manufactured homes require a laundry list of conditions, and even if they are all met, they won't loan 100 percent of the value, or anything like it, and there will be an additional charge of at least one full point of cost on their regular loan quotes. Cash out loans are typically limited to sixty-five percent of value, making it hard to tap equity. Furthermore, due to accounting standards and depreciation, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made a rule that manufactured homes were limited to twenty year loans, which drastically limits not only the type of loans available to their owners, but also has the effect of restricting what they can afford to borrow, because the payments principal has to be paid back over a shorter period.

Now because loans are more expensive, harder to get, and amortized over a shorter period of time, this has the effect that even if someone wants to purchase a plot of land upon which the primary residence is a manufactured home, they cannot afford to pay as much for it. Let's say par rate on a thirty year fixed rate loan for a stick built house or condominium is 6.25% (that is approximately where it is right now, by the way). To keep it simple, let's hypothesize that someone can afford loan payments of $2000 per month. That gives a loan amount of just under $325,000 for the stick built house ($324,824). Now because of the minimum one point hit, the equivalent rate on the manufactured home loan, even though it still sits upon owned land, is about 6.75%, and you're limited to a 20 year loan, giving a loan principal of about $263,000. The same person who can afford a stick built loan of $325,000 can only afford $263,000 for a manufactured home. This means that the manufactured home is not going to sell for as much money, because for what most people thing of as the same price (monthly payment) they cannot afford as much manufactured home as stick built. This leaves completely aside such issues that magnify this difference as the fact that because the loan terms are more favorable, it's more cost effective to improve a stick-built home, so equivalent stick built homes have more amenities and are therefore even more attractive and more desirable. Not to mention the fact that the lender will require a twenty percent down payment on the manufactured home, where they might not require one at all on the stick built. The people who are in the market for relatively inexpensive housing are first time buyers. I can't remember when the last time I encountered a first time buyer with a significant down payment (5% or more). Very few of them have down payments. This means that even if they are inclined to purchase a manufactured home, they are going to be constrained to purchase a stick built house by lending policy. That $263,000 loan I talked about earlier in the paragraph is only available if the buyer puts a down payment of $65,750 or more in addition to closing costs. For the vast majority of buyers, this limits their choice to stick-built, or none at all. For these reasons, when people go to sell manufactured homes, one can expect the prices to be more than proportionately lower than those of comparable stick-built homes, and so investments in manufactured homes do not tend to pay off nearly so well as property earlier on this list.

There is one further step down on the list: Manufactured homes on rented land. These are not, properly speaking, real estate loans at all. There is no land involved. If there is no land involved, it's not real estate. Since there is no land involved, the loans are not real estate loans. They are listed in MLS because the people are buying and selling housing, but they are not real estate loans. It is very difficult finding lenders who will lend on them at all, and those few who will mostly do so through their automotive department. Furthermore, whereas space rent might be cheap if it's your only cost of housing, it is expensive as compared to homeowners association dues, let alone property taxes, and the loans are still all twenty years or less. Because lenders don't like to touch them, because the down payment requirements are large, and because of the additional expenses imposed by space rent, prices for manufactured housing on rented land are microscopic by comparison with everything else. Even here in southern California, $100,000 buys a really nice 4 bedroom place where by comparison the lowest priced 4 bedroom anywhere in the county right now are $337,000 (manufactured on owned land, and way out in the hinterlands of east county).

Lest anyone think that this is in any way shape or form due to inferior construction, it is not. Because these buildings are manufactured on assembly lines which are largely robotic, there are many fewer problems with things like forgetting to nail at appropriate intervals, workers getting distracted, not getting corners square, and all those sorts of problems. I'd bet that a manufactured dwelling is probably of superior construction to a site built dwelling, all other things being equal. It is purely lender policy, as influenced by the history of their experiences with these kinds of properties, which is driving these differences.

So before you think a property is a great bargain, consider what kind of property it is, because even if you have plenty of income and a huge down payment and these concerns are irrelevant to you, when you go to sell it your prospective buyers will generally not have those things, and every time you eliminate a possible buyer from being able to consider a property, you statistically make the final sale price lower, and you statistically make the sales process take much longer. Eliminate enough potential buyers, and you're going to be very unhappy indeed.

Caveat Emptor


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