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M & M & Ms

Mobile, manufactured, modular—is there any real difference?

July 1, 2005


Ron Wirtz Editor, fedgazette

The manufactured housing industry faces a very basic public relations problem: Most people refer to it by a name—mobile home—long ago jettisoned by the industry, one which often conjures up images of a skinny, dilapidated, sheet-metal rectangle of a home. People also confuse manufactured homes with modular homes.

Mobile, manufactured, modular—is there any real difference? Yes and no. All are (or were) built in a factory, but each has its own niche in the industry—past, present and future. Some of the differences are technical or regulatory, but even these small differences can have wide-ranging effects.

Starting at the beginning, a mobile home is the loose term for any factory-built home produced< before June 15, 1976, the date when building regulations and standards were formally enforced on the industry by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homes built after this date are called manufactured homes, though many in the industry also refer to these units as"HUD-code" homes. Prior to federal regulation, builders followed voluntary industry standards that were often state enforced.

Related articles in the fedgazette:
Focus: Housing, May 2005

HUD code regulates such things as design and construction, strength and durability, transportability, fire resistance, energy efficiency and quality, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. It also sets guidelines for various mechanical systems like heating, plumbing, air conditioning and electrical. Built on a permanent chassis, manufactured homes are also restricted in size to make sure homes transport safely on the nation's highways. On-site additions to manufactured homes, like foundations and garages, are usually governed by local building codes.

Modular homes are also factory-built, but as room or section modules (kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, etc.) rather than as an entire home (or half-homes with multisection units) in the case of manufactured housing. The important difference here: modular homes are built to state, local or regional building codes where the home will be located. There are also slightly different versions of the modular concept. Panelized homes, for example, break the modular model down to individual panels—a single wall with windows, doors, wiring and outside siding—which are transported to the site and assembled to state or local building codes.

Nationwide, modular homes still lag their manufactured (HUD-code) counterpart. Last year's modular shipments hit almost 43,000, according to MHI, still considerably lower than even a downtrodden HUD-code industry, which shipped some 130,000 homes last year.

But modular homes appear to be gaining some traction, thanks to the fact that they offer many more design options (including two-story homes) with the efficiency of factory production. Shipments last year were an all-time high, increasing 13 percent over the previous year. The industry in general has seen slow steady growth, up from 26,000 homes in 1994, according to MHI.

In some areas of the district, modular homes are catching on fast. In Wisconsin, for example, sales of modular homes hit 2,100 last year and surpassed state sales of HUD-code homes for the first time. In Minnesota, modular housing has roughly doubled its share of total building permits since 1999, though it still stood at just 3.5 percent, according to 2004 estimates by the National Modular Housing Council (now part of MHI).

Jerry Retzloff of American Homes in Knapp, Wis., said he sells both manufactured and modular homes—a common practice among dealers of factory-built homes. American's Knapp location is one of several in northwest Wisconsin and has been in business just two years, Retzloff said. Because of that age predisposition, he sells more modular homes. But many dealers have been in the business for 20 years or more, and these dealers typically have a bigger hand in HUD-code homes because, Retzloff said, "that's what they've been doing."


Ron Wirtz
Editor, fedgazette

Ron Wirtz is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. Ron tracks current business conditions, with a focus on employment and wages, construction, real estate, consumer spending, and tourism. In this role, he networks with businesses in the Bank’s six-state region and gives frequent speeches on economic conditions. Follow him on Twitter @RonWirtz.