Editor's note: This is a joint investigation of The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times.
Denise Pitts walked into the pawn shop not far from where she bought her mobile home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and offered up her wedding rings for $100. Her marriage wasn’t over, but her husband was battling cancer and, Pitts said, her mortgage company told her the only way to keep a roof over his head would be to sell everything else.
Across the country in Ephrata, Washington, Kirk and Patricia Ackley sat down to close on a new mobile home, only to learn that the annual interest on their loan would be 12.5 percent rather than the 7 percent they said they had been promised. They went ahead because they had spent $11,000, most of their savings, to dig a foundation.
And near Bug Tussle, Alabama, Carol Carroll has been paying down her home for more than a decade but still owes nearly 90 percent of the sale price — and more than twice what the home is worth.
The families’ dealers and lenders went by different names — Luv Homes, Clayton Homes, Vanderbilt, 21st Mortgage. Yet the disastrous loans that threaten them with homelessness or the loss of family land stem from a single company: Clayton Homes, the nation’s biggest homebuilder, which is controlled by its second-richest man — Warren Buffett.
Buffett’s mobile home empire promises low-income Americans the dream of homeownership. But Clayton relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance, an investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times has found.