The number of newly manufactured homes shipped to South Carolina hit a 16-year high in 2018, and with more factory-built houses have come more complaints.
First-time homebuyers Chelsea and Mark Hicks bought a nearly 2,200-square-foot, five-bedroom house last year, for $101,000. It was built in Georgia by ScotBilt Homes and trucked to the Hicks' Ridgeville property.
The family moved in and quickly discovered what they say has been a litany of problems.
The most serious involved air-conditioning duct work that wasn't properly connected, resulting in huge electric bills that reached around $400 per month, Chelsea Hicks said. Repairs were finally made the weekend of Sept 14, almost a year after they moved in.
“As soon as we received the house, and were able to get inside, we noticed there were so many defects, throughout the entire house," she said. "We don’t want anyone else to go through this."
Leslie Dyches, owner of Sangaree Homes in Summerville, is the dealer who sold the home to the Hicks family. He said they aren't the only ones who have had problems with manufactured homes from various companies.
“I’ve been here 35 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it," said Dyches. “It breaks my heart that the factories are turning out stuff like that."
"All these factories have problems right now," he said. "It might not be the same problem, but it’s some problem."
A South Carolina association that represents manufactured home dealers and suppliers disagrees, and it says the number of complaints filed with the state's Manufactured Housing Board doesn't suggest there's a problem.
Complaints are up — they've about doubled since the early 2010s, when there were only 50 or 60 yearly — but the number of new manufactured homes sold in the state also has roughly doubled in the past four years, to more than 4,000.
“The statistics really don’t support that idea" that there's a quality problem, said Mark Dillard, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Institute of South Carolina.
“The quality of houses being built these days is higher than it's ever been," he added.
Like automobiles, manufactured homes are built by different companies and sold by local dealerships. New automobiles, however, generally have much longer warranties than the standard one year that comes with new manufactured homes.
No manufactured homes are built in South Carolina, despite the state's large appetite for the product.
South Carolina has so many residents living in manufactured housing that former Miss South Carolina Brooke Mosteller famously joked about it at the 2013 Miss America pageant.
“From the state where 20 percent of our homes are mobile, because that’s how we roll, I’m Brooke Mosteller, Miss South Carolina,” she said while introducing herself at the pageant.
Manufactured homes are generally less expensive than traditional homes built on site. When it comes to loans, and taxes, they are treated more like automobiles than stick-built homes, and that's made them popular with the owners of heirs' property — property with multiple owners who often aren't all named on the deed, making traditional home loans impossible.
South Carolina is now No. 7 in the nation for annual mobile home shipments, behind Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Michigan and North Carolina. Nationwide, Texas and Florida received more than a quarter of the 95,912 manufactured homes shipments last year.
In 2018, 4,035 manufactured homes were shipped to South Carolina.
One of them was the house that the Hicks family bought, a large home colloquially known as a double-wide. (Such homes haven't been officially called "mobile homes" since 1976, when federal building standards were upgraded).
Dyches believes the sharp increase in demand for manufactured homes, combined with a historically low unemployment rate, has made it difficult for manufacturers to maintain a skilled workforce. He believes that's the source of most problems that his Charleston-area customers have experienced.
“Mr. Hicks has been very, very patient," said Dyches. "If he just knew how many times I have been on the phone with this factory — I’m just tired and wore out."
"I’ve got another one out there in the same way," he said.
Travis Harrelson, service manager at ScotBilt Homes in Waycross, Ga., declined to discuss the situation.
"I'm not interested in that, at all," he said.
Dillard defended ScotBilt, saying the company "has an excellent reputation in the industry."
The Manufactured Housing Institute, which describes itself as "the only national trade organization representing all segments of the factory-built housing industry," did not respond to repeated phone messages.
Dyches said the problems he's seen are not limited to any one manufacturer. He recently special-ordered a house from a different builder.
“Before it got here, the outriggers had just about come off the frame," he said, referring to the supports used to steady and secure a home during transport.
According to Lesia Kudelka, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, most complaints that the Manufactured Housing Board receives are related to the transport and setup of manufactured homes.
With no manufacturers in South Carolina, new homes must be trucked longer distances. Homes large enough to come in sections must be joined on-site, strapped down and connected to utilities.
Dillard said that South Carolina has a "tight consumer protection system" that's in place to serve homebuyers, through the Manufactured Housing Board.
“If they (consumers) have a problem, they have a place to go and get it fixed," he said. "It’s not a trend."
Chelsea Hicks said that after a year of problems and several visits from the dealer and manufacturer, many of the problems with her family's new house have been fixed, but others remain.
“Oh, and our microwave and our stove went out last week," she said.
Also lingering are the large electric bills that stemmed from the air-conditioning duct work that wasn't properly installed, said Hicks.
“We have $786 of back power bills that we don’t know how we’re going to be able to pay, for (the past) two months," she said.