To the Editor:

I have a comment regarding your Sept. 7 article on the slump in sales of manufactured housing ["Economy's Streak Cited in Slump for Prefab Homes," page 9].

I understand what is being said, and the trends the manufacturers are experiencing right now. However, I also drive the highways across the country and notice the dealership-after-dealership syndrome of tacky-looking house trailers sitting on cement blocks in the broiling hot sun.

Consumers are asked to trek through the mud, dirt, or gravel display yards, maneuver wobbly steps to crooked trailers that feel quite unstable, and walk through the stifling heat - all to catch a vision of their next homes.

If the traditional home builders marketed homes this way, they'd be experiencing many of the same trends.

When will the housing manufacturers begin to understand the paradigm they operate in? When will they redefine themselves - from a trailer lot to a community.

As someone who works in business transformation, I understand that the manufacturing process is capable of producing a home that is arguably of better quality - more consistently produced to a quality standard - than could ever be replicated in site-built homes. But consumers don't understand that, and the manufacturers have done little to help them understand it.

Imagine, a community of manufactured homes. See them already assembled, permanently anchored to foundations, landscaped, with garages and fenced yards. Envision streets, sidewalks, driveways, trees, perhaps a community clubhouse, playground, and pool. Throw in a homeowners association and some deed restrictions to maintain the integrity and amenities of the community.

Let consumers see the housing manufacturer as a developer of planned communities. Allow them to wander through rows of model homes - or even better, spec homes that are ready for occupancy. Keep the lights on, the water on, and the air-conditioning running.

Put together a program to help resell their homes when the time comes, and gear the home plans to various types of family units.

In this vision, we're beginning to see a real paradigm shift. No longer are the manufacturers offering what is perceived to be sub-standard housing for people who can't afford real houses. No longer are the marketing techniques geared to the demographics of rural America - where jobs are the least stable and population growth is negative.

Instead, now we're competing head-on with site-built housing in major metropolitan areas. We're offering consumers a fresh, dignified choice - not an alternative to "real housing." We're paying realtors commissions, just like site-built builders and developers pay. We're simply doing everything we can to blur the line between manufactured homes and site-built homes - so an affluent market won't mean the death of our business.

What would it take to pull this off? Some of the requirements are obvious:

  • Some capital to develop communities and place the homes on spec.
  • Perhaps a redefined role for the dealerships along the freeways (perhaps development partners).
  • A different level of advertising.
  • Better strategic alliance with traditional home lenders.
  • Even battles with local governments to over zoning restrictions.

But most of all, it would take leadership. Leadership that's willing to take risk, expand the definition of their business, and begin to operate around a cause instead of a manufacturing process.It's been said that General Motors is no longer in the auto business, it's in the transportation business. Frankly, the same thing can be said of the housing manufacturers.
They're not in the house-trailer business anymore - that died a long time ago. It's time their business model died too. Much better models are out there, and consumers are just waiting to be impressed!

Larry Walker
Managing director
EDS Global Financial Industry Group
Plano, Tex.

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