Mobile Homeowners Have Less Financial Mobility

Mar 3, 2017

Jason Halvorsen at his home in Wheatland, WY.
Credit Tennessee Watson

Across the United States, mobile and manufactured home owners are without the same access to the American Dream as their neighbors with site-built homes. That’s because mobile homes are often classified as personal property, like a car or a boat. And converting them to real property — like a house — can be complicated. But in Wyoming, one feisty homeowner decided to take action.  

On Thursday Jason Halvorsen drove down from Wheatland to the Wyoming State Legislature in Cheyenne. He wanted to be there when Governor Matt Mead signed a piece of legislation that would change his fate.

He's largely responsible for the bill, so he'd get to meet the governor during the signing, but he said he wasn't nervous. "This is the end. The nervousness was 9 months ago when I got told no at the bank," said Halvorsen.

When Representative Tyler Lindholm, who sponsored the bill, presented it to the governor he said it was by far the hardest piece of legislation he had ever worked on. "Title law is tough as it turns out. And I’m really really glad we’re closing up this hole for individuals like Jason."

Governor Mead thanked Representative Lindholm and Halvorsen for their hard work on this issue, and within a matter of seconds signed the bill into law. For Halvorsen that moment marked the end of a long fight to be able to refinance his home. Something he hasn't been able to do because of an oversight in Wyoming’s title law.

As he walked out of the room he said he felt relieved.

A week before the signing, while the bill was still working its way through the legislature I met up with Halvorsen. He’s about 6’4” with a big beard. Several years ago Halvorsen was offered a job as a mechanic

he couldn’t refuse. So good that his wife and two kids traded in a big fancy home in Gillette for a double wide in Wheatland.

"I made seven trips down here in two weeks to find homes. I looked at homes. Looked at homes. Looked at homes," Halvorsen said emphatically. "This was the only one that would remotely fit what I needed. I knew it wasn’t perfect but the price was ok. And I could make it work.

Credit Tennessee Watson

He gave me a tour of all the work he’s done. He'd remodeled the master bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the second bathroom and the laundry room. And resealed and re-caulked the entire house. But his real pride and joy was the garage, where he'd installed an indoor-outdoor space for his dogs, a multi-season patio with a hot tub, outfitted a workshop and created a man cave.

And after making all those upgrades Halvorsen wanted to refinance. At the time interest rates were good and he knew that if he shortened the life of his mortgage he’d save himself $50,000 in the long run. So he went to see banker Georgann Martinez. But Martinez couldn’t help Halvorsen because he didn’t have the Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin for his manufactured home.

Martinez described the Manufacturer's Statement of Origin as "kind of like a flimsy piece of paper. So people don't realize it's important and that it needs to be taken down to the courthouse."

Which the previous owner never did. Halvorsen reached out to him but the man had since passed away. He went to the County Clerk to get a duplicate, and the clerk told him it was not possible.

To give you some context for the frustration imagine you’ve just won a free vacation to the beach in Mexico. When you go to apply for a passport you discover that your mom has lost your birth certificate. And then the government says sorry we don’t have a law that allows us to get you a new one.

Martinez said Halvorsen is not her first customer to hit this obstacle. "I would say in the customers I help I see it 50% of the time," she estimated.  

Martinez can still get mobile homeowners financing without all the paperwork, but the options have higher unfixed rates. She said at that point a lot of people just walk away.

"But Jason, he doesn’t accept no for answer. Most people would have just stopped and given up," she said. "When you get to those government issues and you’re like there’s nothing I can do. But he doesn’t accept that. He just keeps going."

So after a no at the bank and a no at the County Clerk’s office, his next stop was his co-worker Tyler Lindholm, who happens to be a Representative in the Wyoming State Legislature.

Lindholm explained: "He brought me this situation one time during lunch break and said hey this is happening. Can we fix this? And that started all this."

Representative Lindholm agreed to look into it and he found that there were some counties that would reissue titles and others, like Platte County where Halvorsen lives, that would not. He realized this was a much bigger issue of legal inequality.  

"I mean you’ve stranded an entire class of people from being able to obtain a loan. That’s not fair. That’s not right."

And this is not just an issue facing Wyoming. 18 million Americans live in manufactured housing.

It’s 15% of the housing stock for rural Americans, and there’s no consistency in the way states handle titling laws. That’s according to Doug Ryan,Director of Affordable Homeownership at the Corporation for Enterprise Development. He said Wyoming’s House Bill 56 is important right now for the whole country because affordable housing is in a crisis. He said, "in many markets across the country manufactured housing and mobile homes are an inexpensive alternative to affordable housing with no subsidy. That’s why states need to be more creative and more aggressive in making sure these homes are part of the housing system."

New Hampshire, Vermont and Oregon have the most favorable titling laws, but most states are somewhere in between like Wyoming. Halvorsen knows the impact of that legal ambiguity first-hand, and he's proud he took his fight all the way to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 56 makes it legally possible for County Clerks to re-issue a title for a mobile home on a permanent foundation. Halvorsen will be able to get the piece of paper he needs to finally get that mortgage, which will solve his problem. 

But he’s not convinced that Wyoming’s new law is a total cure. He said it will help homeowners if "they are willing to dig into the law to find that they can do this."

Halvorsen cautioned that not all County Clerks will go out of their way to inform mobile homeowners that they can now get titles re-issued.