As Florida house prices climb, demand increases for manufactured homes

Factory-built homes have come a long way from the mobile homes of the 1970s, and can make housing more affordable, one industry leader says.
Oakhill Village, a mobile home park in Valrico, Fla. | Times (2017)
Oakhill Village, a mobile home park in Valrico, Fla. | Times (2017) [ Times (2017) ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021

To Jim Ayotte, it just makes sense to build a home in a factory. You wouldn’t drive to a location and try to coordinate the schedules of different subcontractors to build a car in a driveway. So why do it with a house?

Ayotte is the executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, a group based in Tallahassee that advocates for builders, retailers and other parts of the industry statewide.

Manufactured housing used to be a synonym for rectangular mobile homes, but Ayotte said it now encompasses much more than that. He spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about how he believes factory-built homes can help relieve the affordable housing crunch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is a manufactured home? Is it the same or different from mobile homes?

It is different and that’s that’s one of the issues we run into as an industry. People say, ‘Oh, mobile homes, those old things? We don’t want those in our neighborhood. They’re not really safe.’

A mobile home has not been built since 1976. Manufactured housing is built in a factory, it’s built to standards administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Today’s manufactured homes are comparable to site-built housing when it comes to energy efficiency, wind safety and everything else.

Today’s manufactured home come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We have homes with steeper pitched roofs, they have built-in porches, they have garages. Today’s manufactured homes on the on the upper-end are indistinguishable from a home built on-site. And you still have the wide range as well, so a more affordable option may not include all those features.

A rendering of a modern manufactured home, which includes a garage.
A rendering of a modern manufactured home, which includes a garage. [ Genesis, Courtesy of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association ]

What we build today really is workforce housing. It’s housing that people living in the community can afford, whether you’re a firefighter or a police officer, or a healthcare professional.

My whole point is this: if people have not checked out a manufactured home in the past half-dozen years or so, they really owe it to themselves to go take a look. And there’s plenty of places where you can do that in the Tampa Bay area.

These homes are built super strong because you’re building them in a factory and you’re transporting them down the highway to their final destination where they’re installed on-site and ready for occupancy.

So mobile homes are still manufactured housing, but they’re the old model of doing things?

That is correct. Here’s really what happened: I think the industry hurt itself because mobile homes did not have a good perception. Quite frankly, that’s when the federal government got involved and said, ‘Hey, we need to regulate this industry.’ They were not built to uniform building codes and that became an issue. When the government came in, they changed the name to ‘manufactured home.’

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The early-era manufactured homes were not built nearly strong enough. And we all realized that in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida. Not only did the factory-built housing industry, but also the site-built housing industry — realize we are just not building our homes to be wind-resistant enough. So we went in right away and upgraded our building codes. Today manufactured homes are built to wind standards that are as high or higher than homes built to the Florida building code.

Then the second thing that happened with the industry in 1999, the state implemented statewide installation requirements. Florida has the most stringent installation requirements anywhere in the country because of our severe weather here. And what we found when we did that between the upgraded building code and the installation standards, that manufactured homes fare really well when it comes to severe weather.

And so we have all this great information and evidence. But the problem is the public doesn’t really know that.

Can you get a traditional 30-year mortgage for a manufactured home?

One of the issues that we have always ran into had to do with home financing. So we went to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to to provide a secondary market for financing for manufactured homes.’ They came back with a program and said, ‘If you if you build homes to these specifications, we will provide 30-year conventional financing for your homes,’ which is just a major advancement in the industry.

Jim Ayotte
Jim Ayotte [ Courtesy of Jim Ayotte ]

(It’s) a great opportunity for the industry because every city and county in Florida is struggling with housing affordability. We need more affordable housing. Well, manufactured housing is the largest form of unsubsidized affordable housing in the state. What we need to do is we need to educate homebuyers and government officials about the current state of the industry.

What kinds of increases in demand for manufactured housing have you seen in the last year or two as house prices have skyrocketed?

Between 2020 and 2021, in Hillsborough County, manufactured home shipments increased by 18 percent, Pasco County 10 by percent, Pinellas 9 percent, and Citrus by 26 percent. There’s a lot more interest and demand for manufactured housing. On the production side in Florida, from 2020 to 2021, (building plants) have increased production by about 30 percent.

Our nine home-building plants, every one of them is backlogged. It can (take) as as little as six months or as long as 14 months. So demand for factory-built manufactured homes is basically through the roof and the struggle that our home builders have is supply chain issues.

Tell me more about that.

It’s a huge issue that’s supposedly getting better. Not only do we build homes more efficiently, but we buy materials more efficiently as well. So our home builders, they’ll be buying truckloads of lumber and drywall. The problem they’re running into is getting those materials right now.

Appliances have been a huge issue, as well. Manufacturers usually put together a package of appliances, people buy dishwashers and stoves and refrigerators, and we can’t get those any longer.

Lumber prices have gone through the roof. Now they’re starting to come back down a little bit. But the problem is with like a lot of things, when prices go up, they’re very slow to come down, if ever. And it’s really tough to sell a home to say, ‘Hey, by the way, if you order a home today the price is going to be X, but we can’t guarantee that price because we don’t know what our material costs are going to be.’ That makes it really difficult for both consumers and retailers and builders. So there’s a lot of demand but instability in the marketplace.

The average price of a manufactured home in Florida was at $84,672 in 2019. I would think at this point that that price is well over somewhere over $100,000, probably looking at $101,000, $102,000.

A different model of a modern manufactured home.
A different model of a modern manufactured home. [ Jacobsen, Courtesy of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association ]

How much on average do people save by buying a manufactured home versus an on-site built house?

Looking at the numbers, I would say that manufactured homes are roughly 20 percent less. And why is that? Because of the efficient construction process, buying materials in bulk. I want to emphasize that the quality of construction of both factory-built manufactured homes and site-built homes are comparable. It’s not, ‘That housing is less expensive because it’s cheap.’ No, that housing is less expensive because it’s built more efficiently.

Can you put a manufactured house on any lot or does it require a certain kind of zoning?

Some counties and cities (restrict) manufactured housing to land-lease communities, manufactured housing parks, or mobile home parks in the old days. Other counties have opened up the land use to allow manufactured homes. The concern with local government and neighbors has always been the same thing. They say ‘Hey, I don’t want that home here because it doesn’t look like my home.’ And so we’ve been working with local governments to come up with aesthetic requirements that ensures that manufactured homes will be comparable with neighboring homes. Local governments have been really receptive to that.

I believe both Hillsborough and Pinellas would be receptive to allow manufactured homes that are compatible with other existing single-family homes. I’ve been having some discussions with Pinellas County. My goal is to go out there and expand land use but make sure that we’re doing it responsibly, that neighbors feel comfortable, local government feels comfortable as well, that the homes are going to be adding value to the community and not detracting from it.

I think people perceive mobile homes as being housing primarily for seniors. Are seniors are still the main demographic purchasing manufactured homes?

About 60 percent of manufactured homes sold in the state are located on private property. Those are first-time homebuyers. They may be older homebuyers as well.

What we still see with such an influx of retirees coming to Florida, there really is a huge demand for 55-plus communities out there. Someone goes in they buy a home, they’re not buying the land, they have a land lease, but they have access to all these great amenities, whether it be swimming pools, pickleball courts, walking trails or fitness centers. We have seen people coming to Florida in droves, and we’re actually starting to see some new 55-plus, highly amenitized manufactured home communities being built.