Mobile homes aren’t too mobile and create financial risk

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” may have a comedic bent, but is one of the best news shows around. The latest episode included a detailed look at the mobile home industry. The key takeaway is private investor groups prey upon the mobile (and modular) home buyers through a rigged system.

Between a truly captive audience (more on this later), the fact the significant majority of mobile home buyers rent the land underneath, and the predatory lending and sales practices, the buyers are at the mercy of greedy players in a shady industry. Adding to that, the value of the mobile home will only depreciate (like an auto), so the buyer truly must beware.

We have come to this problem as several conditions have culminated together. We have an increasing number of “have-nots” in America, so mobile or modular homes are the most affordable route. The mobile home park owners have consolidated and were purchased by several private investor groups, but even the larger regional players operate under this rigged system. These folks see a market to squeeze. Finally, if the buyers do not own the land, they are truly held hostage.

Why? Over 80% of mobile homes never move due to the cost of moving. The property owners know this, so they annually jack up the rent increasing by exorbitant amounts. The renters are then inundated by collection agencies who get them to pay. When they cannot, they eventually move, leaving their home behind. Then, the property owner takes possession of the abandoned home and rents it out.

Finally, the sellers of these products often own the financing agency offering a turn-key purchase. The loans are more like predatory car loans than they are mortgages. So, the interest is higher than normal at the same time the rent is getting increased.

Oliver’s show highlights a couple of the players in the industry. One property owner has sites in 25 states and offers seminars on how to gouge your captive tenants. In one instance, this property owner referred to his tenants as “like being chained to a Waffle House table.”

There is a small movement afoot which will allow homeowners to buy the mobile home park land en masse, as a right of first refusal. Nonprofit funders are helping make this happen. What is needed is more states to have right of first refusal laws, so that the property is not sold to a predatory landlord.

The other need is education. If you must buy a mobile or modular home, place it on land you own or in a tenant owned development. Also, seek better financing than what is offered by the seller. But, know going in this home will not go up in value. If you buy a modular home for $50,000, it may be only worth $10,000 in a few years.

The “have-nots” have little recourse in this industry. Education is a must, as you will truly become a hostage in your home.