Washington state moves to protect mobile-home buyers

Effort prompted by investigation by Center for Public Integrity, Seattle Times, BuzzFeed

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Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during his annual State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Olympia, Wash. The address came on the second day of the 60-day legislative session.

Elaine Thompson/AP

Washington state officials want to find ways to protect consumers from abusive sales and lending practices in the mobile-home industry.

The effort was sparked by a recent investigation by The Seattle Times, BuzzFeed News and the Center for Public Integrity that found that the nation’s leading mobile home company extracts billions from poor customers by using deceptive tactics and charging high interest rates.

Some 450,000 people across Washington state live in mobile homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A bill backed by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Commerce calls for a study of how the industry sells, finances and repossesses the homes. Supporters say state laws that protect conventional homebuyers typically do not safeguard people buying mobile homes.

Commerce director Brian Bonlender said the key difference is that mobile homes are typically financed with personal property loans.

“The consumer protections around those are much less significant,” Bonlender said in an interview. Unlike mobile-home purchasers, buyers of conventional homes in Washington enjoy extended timelines to resolve financing problems and foreclosure mediation, he said.

Inslee said in a statement he wants to “find ways to stop unfair practices that could leave some Washington homeowners out in the cold.”

Nationwide, nearly 18 million people live in mobile homes.

The ongoing investigation of the industry, "The Mobile-Home Trap," has focused on Clayton Homes, a company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway that dominates mobile-home lending, sales and manufacturing. Clayton builds nearly half the new manufactured homes sold in this country every year, sells them through a network of more than 1,600 dealerships, and finances more than a third of all mobile-home loans, more than any other lender by a factor of seven.

When people fall behind on their loans, Clayton repossesses the homes and resells them.

Bonlender said the study could offer the Legislature some potential solutions when lawmakers return for their long legislative session in 2017.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu.

At the federal level, an industry-backed plan to roll back consumer protections has stalled in recent months. Last April, the U.S. House approved a bill that would raise the interest-rate thresholds at which additional consumer protections would take effect. The bill would overwhelmingly help Clayton Homes.

The proposal was also included in a larger U.S. Senate bill last year that was approved in a committee but did not make it to the Senate floor.

After a story in December alleging Clayton systematically targets minority borrowers and charges them higher rates, senior Democratic lawmakers called for a federal investigation of the company.

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