Mobile Home Park Issues
How much do you really know about mobile homes? For example, did you know that mobile homes make up a large part of all the housing in this country that is both affordable and unsubsidized (meaning no help from the government)? Did you know that the average mobile home costs about $65,000? Compare that to $200,000 for the average conventional house. No wonder so many people who want to own their own homes consider mobile homes. A mobile home can be a great alternative to a rented apartment or house. In fact, a recent study by the U.S. government found that mobile home owners generally pay less for housing than renters. The study also found that households living in mobile homes had better housing quality and better household stability that households living in rented homes.
But owning a mobile home is not the same as owning a conventional house. It is different from renting, too. This article is about things you should consider before you decide to buy a mobile home. We will mostly be talking about things you need to know if you own a mobile home and rent a space for it in a mobile home park. If you rent a mobile home, you are basically a renter, just like somebody who rents an apartment or a conventional house, although some of these issues might apply to you as well.
Your Place or Your Landlord’s
If you own a mobile home, you probably don’t own the land it sits on. If you’re like most mobile home owners, you rent a lot from a mobile home park. You pay the park owner a sum of money every month or so. For your money, you get the right to leave your mobile home on one of the park’s lots. The lot probably has hookups for electricity, water, sewer, and maybe natural gas. If the park has facilities like a laundry room, pool or clubhouse, you are probably allowed to use them just like the other residents. The park probably also has rules that all residents must follow.
The first thing to understand is what belongs to you, what belongs to your landlord (the park owner), and what that means. Basically, you own your mobile home and anything attached to it. The park owner owns the land, and anything attached to it. That means the park owner will usually be responsible for fixing things like roads and streets, common areas like playgrounds and clubhouses, and utility lines. You will be responsible for fixing your mobile home and anything inside it, as well as anything outside it that is attached to it, like stairs, decks, and carports.
Let’s say there’s a water leak on your lot. Who has to fix it will depend on where the water is actually coming out. If it is coming out of a broken faucet in your kitchen, that is something you will have to fix. If it is coming from a crack in an underground water pipe, that is something your landlord will have to fix. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out who has to fix a problem. Let’s say the water is leaking from around the place where the park’s water line connects to your mobile home. In a situation like that we might need to know many more facts before we could say whose responsibility it is.
In some mobile home parks, certain utilities are ‘included.’ If water is included in your rent, for example, that means when you pay your lot rent you are also getting the right to use as much water as you want. In other cases, you may have to pay for the utilities you actually use. If that is the case, make sure you know exactly how the park owner is deciding who pays how much. The best way to do this is to have a separate meter for each utility on each lot. If there is no separate meter, it may mean that the landlord is simply dividing the total bill evenly among all the residents. If that is what’s happening, you may be paying extra because some other resident is using a lot of water or electricity or whatever. You may even by paying for utilities used by the park itself, such as water to run the washing machines or electricity to run the lights in the park office.
Putting Down Roots
As we’ve seen, things that are attached to the land usually belong to the park owner. But that does not mean that anything you attach to the land yourself becomes the landlord’s property. Most things that you put up on your lot (called ‘improvements’) remain yours. If you put up a fence, for example, or a shed or a deck, you are entitled to take those things with you when you leave. The only exception is grass: if you plant grass (or lay sod), you will have to leave it where it is.
Before putting up any improvements, however, you should carefully read your lease, and any rules that came with it. You should also check with your landlord or an attorney if you are not sure. Most parks have rules, and many parks have rules that say what kind of improvements you can and can’t put up. One park may say ‘no sheds.’ Another park may allow sheds, but only up to a certain size. Still another park may have restrictions about the kinds of plants you can plant on your lot.
There are some improvements you may be required to make. In general, park owners are allowed to make any rule that is reasonable and applied equally to all residents. That includes rules designed to make a park look good. Some very common rules of this type are rules requiring every mobile home to have ‘skirting’ around it. ‘Skirting’ is long panels make of metal, wood or plastic that attach to the sides of a mobile home and extend down to the ground. They hide the wheels, struts or blocks that support the mobile home. Park owners sometimes require residents to have wooden or metal steps leading up to their doors. Even if an improvement is not required, the park rules may say you have to do it a certain way if you are going to do it at all. There may be a rule saying that skirting can only be made out of wood or metal, not plastic or fiberglass. There may be a rule saying that decks and porches have to be stained or painted. There may be a rule saying that carports can only be two-car or smaller, or that sheds must be built behind your mobile home.
Hitting the Road
A lot of people who are interested in affordable housing think people shouldn’t use the term ‘mobile home.’ They prefer the term ‘manufactured housing.’ Iowa Legal Aid is still using the term ‘mobile home’ for now, but those people who dislike the term have a good point. Although we call them ‘mobile homes,’ most of the time they are not very mobile at all. It costs several thousand dollars to move a mobile home. First, the home has to be disconnected from all utility lines. Things like carports and decks must be removed, and the home must be prepared for moving. Then the home has to be raised up and mounted on wheels, or placed on the back of a truck. All of these things must be done in reverse when the home reaches its new lot. Most of it requires special equipment, or must be done by trained workers, or both.
Of course, there’s no point in moving a mobile home at all unless you have a place to move it to. Many parks will not accept older mobile homes. Different parks have different ways of deciding when a mobile home is ‘old,’ but if yours is more than ten years old you will probably have trouble finding a park that will take it.
You may decide you would rather sell your mobile home than move it. If that is the case, you should keep in mind that a mobile home park owner is entitled to choose to whom lots will be rented. he wants to rent a lot to. Your mobile home may be fine, and you may have a person who wants to buy it. But if the park owner does not want the buyer as a tenant, the buyer is going to have to move the mobile home at the point ownership is transferred. Needless to say, many buyers don’t want to have to spend even more money moving their new purchase to another park.
Of course, if your landlord has the right to decide who is going to live in his park, you have the right to sell your trailer without unfair interference from your landlord. The law says your landlord may not refuse to approve your buyer ‘unreasonably.’ Just what is or is not ‘unreasonable’ will depend on the facts of each case, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself from park owners who might be misusing their rights. Make sure every person who wants to buy your trailer goes to the park owner and applies to be a tenant of the park. Make sure you get a full name, address and phone number for every person who applies. If you can, get a copy of their tenant application. If the landlord turns anybody down, try to find out why. Talk to the park owner, and to the buyer. If the landlord sent the buyer a letter saying why his or her application was denied, try to get a copy of it. If it starts to look like your landlord is turning people down unreasonably, you may have to go to court to protect your rights. If that happens, you will need witnesses and documents to show the judge what the park owner was doing.
Death and Taxes
For the most part, Iowa law treats mobile homes more like cars than houses. For example, most mobile home owners don’t pay the same property tax that owners of conventional houses pay. But they do pay a special mobile home tax. The good news is that low-income mobile home owners are entitled to a tax credit based on their income. You can apply for this credit by filling out a form at the office of the treasurer for the county where your mobile home is located. In most cases, you will have to apply by June 1 of the year before the year for which the taxes are due. For more information, see your county treasurer or a tax attorney.
Mobile homes are also like cars in another way. Every one has a ‘certificate of title,’ which is a document issued by the state that says (among other things) who owns the mobile home. The owner of the mobile home is the person (or persons) whose name is on the title. It is very important to remember that it doesn’t matter who paid for the mobile home, or whose name is on the finance contract. If your name isn’t on the certificate of title, you aren’t the owner.
A lot of mobile home parks were built on land that wasn’t worth much at the time. In many cases, this was because the land was far from the center of town. But as our towns have grown, some mobile home park land has become more valuable. If a mobile home park owner discovers that he can make more money selling his land to a developer than running a mobile home park, he may decide to close the park. Some states have laws saying that park owners who want to close their parks have to give residents plenty of notice, and even help them move or sell their trailers. Iowa is not one of those states. In Iowa, a park owner can end a mobile home owner’s lease with sixty days’ written notice. A park owner can end a lease for just about any reason, including to close and sell the park. In some places, mobile home park residents have formed residents’ associations to fight park closings, or just to try to solve ordinary disagreements with management. The Northwest Area Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to reduce poverty in the region of the U.S. that includes Iowa. They have worked with a number of mobile home park residents’ associations over the years. They can be reached at 651-224-9635, or on the web at www.nwaf.org.
If you would like more information about Iowa laws on mobile homes, check out the Code of Iowa. The Code is a set of books containing all the laws passed by our legislature. You can find one in any public library. The main chapter that deals with mobile home parks is Chapter 562B. Iowa Legal Aid publishes a booklet called A Guide to Mobile Home Park Law in Iowa. It is free to anyone who is eligible to be an Iowa Legal Aid client. There is a small charge for everyone else. Iowa Legal Aid also has a website with information about all kinds of legal topics, including mobile home parks. The address is www.iowalegalaid.org. If you need to talk to a lawyer but can’t afford to hire one, call Iowa Legal Aid at 1-800-532-1275.