Manufactured Housing, Modular Housing, and Zoning

David W. Owens
Gladys Hall Coates Professor of Public Law and Government
School of Government, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
© 2014


May 2014


Manufactured housing is an important component in North Carolina’s overall housing market. In 2010 over 14 percent of the state’s housing units were manufactured homes.[1] Despite the importance and widespread use of manufactured housing, there has been some degree of citizen antipathy toward mobile homes.

Many local governments in North Carolina have long included special restrictions on manufactured housing in their development regulations.[2] By 1960 a familiar land use regulatory approach for manufactured housing had emerged—manufactured home park standards, floating zoning districts for manufactured housing parks, special and conditional use permits for manufactured home placement, and standards on buffers and other aspects of design of manufactured home parks.[3]

Manufactured Housing

In response to exclusionary regulations imposed by some local governments,[4] the state enacted legislation limiting local zoning provisions affecting manufactured housing.[5]  G.S. 160A-383.1, which was added to the statutes in 1987 and is applicable to both cities and counties, directs local governments to consider allocating more land to manufactured housing sites as a way of providing additional affordable housing in the state. Under the statute, local governments may regulate the location, the appearance, and the dimensions of manufactured homes but may not exclude such homes entirely from their zoning jurisdiction.

Local zoning provisions are generally applied to units constructed in a factory and built to the uniform national standards for manufactured homes promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.[6] Federal law preempts local construction and safety standards for manufactured housing.

Many zoning ordinances establish subcategories of manufactured housing and apply differential standards to each (e.g., Class A manufactured homes are allowed in some districts; Class B, in other districts).[7] Any such distinction must have a rational basis. Typical distinctions that are used are those based on the size of the units[8] or the construction standards in effect at the time of manufacture.[9]

Cities and counties may not employ factors other than appearance, dimension, and location in land use regulation of manufactured housing. The court in White v. Union County[10] reviewed an ordinance that limited the use of mobile homes as residences to those built after 1976 (when federal construction standards became applicable) or valued at more than $5,000. The court expressed doubt about the county’s statutory authority for the monetary value requirement. In Five C’s, Inc. v. County of Pasquotank,[11] the court invalidated an age standard used as the basis for regulation of manufactured homes. The county had adopted an ordinance under its general police powers to prohibit bringing manufactured homes into the county that were more than ten years old at the time of setup. The rationale offered by the county was protection of the county tax base, noting that manufactured homes rapidly decline in value and at the ten-year point have little more value than a motor vehicle and thus provide insufficient tax revenue to support the need for county services generated. The court held that G.S. 160A-383.1 limits regulation of manufactured housing to appearance and dimensional criteria and thus prohibits regulation based solely on the age or value of the unit.

It is also common for local governments to have detailed standards for mobile home parks—such as standards for road width and paving, minimum lot sizes, and provisions for waste disposal. These are sometimes incorporated into a zoning ordinance and sometimes adopted as a separate ordinance.[12]

Typical zoning requirements that have been adopted in North Carolina include limiting manufactured housing to specified zoning districts[13] or to manufactured home parks[14] (which often can be located only in special overlay zoning districts).[15] Other ordinances only allow units of at least a certain size to be located in specified districts.[16] It is also common for ordinances to include special provisions regarding replacement and repair of nonconforming manufactured housing units.[17]

Many ordinances also include various appearance standards to integrate the units aesthetically into surrounding neighborhoods with site-built homes. These standards typically include requiring a pitched roof, skirting around the underside of the unit or location on a permanent foundation, and orienting the unit to the front of the lot. Such appearance standards were upheld in CMH Manufacturing, Inc. v. Catawba County.[18] The county required lap siding, minimum roof pitch, and shingled roofs for single-wide manufactured homes. Other county requirements that were not challenged included installation of a deck or porch, removal or screening of travel hitches, orientation on the lot, and brick underpinning or skirting for double-wide units. The court held that these were permissible “appearance” standards rather than “construction and safety” standards that are preempted by federal law.

Regulations on manufactured housing may not be based on the ownership of the unit, for example, allowing owner-occupied but not rental manufactured housing.[19] Nor may zoning restrictions be based on the “type of people” presumed to be residing therein.[20] Only legitimate land use–related factors may be considered in framing such regulations.

Modular Units

Most zoning ordinances do not apply the requirements for manufactured housing to factory-built housing that is built to State Building Code standards.[21] The latter units generally are referred to as “modular” rather than “manufactured” homes. Modular units[22] are often, but not always, treated as the equivalent of site-built homes for zoning purposes. State law does, however, set minimum design standards for modular units.[23] G.S. 143-139.1 requires modular units to meet these standards:

  1. The pitch of the roof shall be no less than 5 feet rise for every 12 feet of run, for homes with a single predominant roofline.
  2. The eave projections of the roof shall not be less than 10 inches (excluding roof gutters) unless the roof pitch is 8/12 or greater.
  3. The minimum height of the first-story exterior wall must be at least 7 feet 6 inches.
  4. The materials and texture of exterior materials must be compatible in composition, appearance, and durability to the exterior materials commonly used in standard residential construction.
  5. The modular home must be designed to require foundation supports around the perimeter.

Private Covenants

There has also been considerable litigation in the state regarding the interpretation of private restrictive covenant provisions related to manufactured housing.[24] However, these covenants are private agreements between the property owners involved. The interpretation, administration, and enforcement of these covenants do not affect government regulations.




[1] The 2010 Census reported 4,327,528 housing units in the state, of which 604,286 were mobile homes (14%). This proportion of manufactured housing has been relatively constant for several decades (14% in 2010, 16% in 2000, and 15% in 1990). Prior to this time there were a smaller percentage of manufactured homes (10 % in 1980, 6% in 1970).

[2] See, e.g., City of Raleigh v. Morand, 247 N.C. 363, 100 S.E.2d 870 (1957), appeal dismissed, 357 U.S. 343 (1958) (upholding ordinance prohibiting trailer parks within residential districts in the city’s one-mile extraterritorial area). One of the earlier North Carolina ordinances on the subject was adopted when “mobile homes” were in fact mobile. The City of Durham amended its zoning ordinance in 1949 to “put an end to the indiscriminate parking of the portable dwellings within the city limits,” requiring all inhabitable mobile units to be located in trailer parks. Trailer Camps, Popular Gov’t, Dec. 1949, at 4.

[3] Philip P. Green, Jr., Regulating Mobile Homes Through Zoning, Popular Gov’t, Mar. 1961, at 10.

[4] In Town of Conover v. Jolly, 277 N.C. 439, 177 S.E.2d 879 (1970), the court invalidated an ordinance that completely barred mobile homes for residential use within the town. The court ruled that the mobile home ordinance, which was not part of the zoning ordinance, was beyond the town’s delegated police powers, for mobile homes were neither a nuisance per se nor a detriment per se to public health, morals, comfort, safety, convenience, or welfare.

[5] 1987 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 805.

[6] National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974, 42 U.S.C. §§ 5401 to 5426 (1995). Federal construction and safety standards preempt the construction and safety standard authority of states and local governments. 42 U.S.C. § 5403(d) (1995). The federal regulations regarding preemption are set forth in 24 C.F.R. § 3282.11(a) (1997).

[7] See N.C. League of Municipalities, N.C. Ass’n of County Comm’rs, N.C. Manufactured Hous. Inst., Manufactured Housing: Zoning Alternatives to Address North Carolina Housing Needs (1988) for an example of such classification.

[8] For example, many ordinances have more restrictive locational standards for single-wide units than for double-wide units.

[9] The most commonly used distinction is to have more restrictive requirements for those units constructed before the imposition of minimum federal construction standards in 1976.

[10] 93 N.C. App. 148, 377 S.E.2d 93 (1989).

[11] 195 N.C. App. 410, 672 S.E.2d 737 (2009). The court noted that the fact that the county used its general ordinance-making power rather than the zoning power cannot be used to circumvent the clear legislative limitation on regulatory authority regarding manufactured homes.

[12] A 2005 survey by the School of Government indicated that 79 percent of the responding municipalities and 93 percent of the responding counties had adopted regulations on manufactured home parks. David W. Owens & Nathan Branscome, An Inventory of Local Government Land Use Ordinances in North Carolina 8 (School of Government, Special Series No. 21, 2006).

[13] Koontz v. Davidson County Bd. of Adjustment, 130 N.C. App. 479, 503 S.E.2d 108, review denied, 349 N.C. 529, 526 S.E.2d 177 (1998) (upholding zoning amendment that removed manufactured housing as a permitted use in a particular zoning district); City of Asheboro v. Auman, 26 N.C. App. 87, 214 S.E.2d 621, cert. denied, 288 N.C. 239, 217 S.E.2d 663 (1975) (upholding injunction to prohibit continued use of a mobile home that had been moved into a zoning district that did not allow mobile homes, even though the wheels and tongue had been removed and the unit had been placed on a permanent foundation); Town of Mount Olive v. Price, 20 N.C. App. 302, 201 S.E.2d 362 (1973) (upholding injunction compelling removal of a mobile home located in violation of the zoning ordinance).

[14] County of Currituck v. Upton, 19 N.C. App. 45, 197 S.E.2d 883 (1973) (upholding an order to remove a mobile home from a zoning district that did not permit individual units outside a park); State v. Martin, 7 N.C. App. 18, 171 S.E.2d 115 (1969) (upholding conviction for violation of an Ahoskie ordinance limiting the location of mobile homes to mobile home parks).

[15] The creation of a zoning district to allow location of manufactured home parks can be challenged as unlawful spot zoning. See Alderman  v. Chatham County, 89 N.C. App. 610, 366 S.E.2d 885, review denied, 323 N.C. 171, 373 S.E.2d 103 (1988); Stutts v. Swaim, 30 N.C. App. 611, 228 S.E.2d 750, review denied, 291 N.C. 178, 229 S.E.2d 692 (1976).

[16] Currituck Counjty v. Willey, 46 N.C. App. 835, 266 S.E.2d 52, review denied, 301 N.C. 234, 283 S.E.2d 131 (1980). In this case the court upheld a provision prohibiting mobile homes with dimensions of less than 24’ x 60’ in a single-family zoning district. The court ruled that mobile homes were sufficiently different from other types of housing that a rational basis existed for differing requirements, such as this dimension standard.

[17] See, e.g., Forsyth County v. York, 19 N.C. App. 361, 198 S.E.2d 770, cert. denied, 284 N.C. 253, 200 S.E.2d 653 (1973) (upholding requirement that changes in nonconforming use and mobile home use in certain districts be authorized by special use permits). Care is necessary in drafting the precise terms of such limitations. See In re Hensley, 98 N.C. App. 408, 390 S.E.2d 727 (1990), a case involving the Town of Cramerton’s zoning ordinance. The court ruled that where the ordinance provided that a nonconforming use might not be reestablished after it had been discontinued for 180 days, a nonconforming use could be reestablished if done in less than that time. In this instance, a mobile home had been removed from a lot in a zone that did not allow mobile homes; however, the petitioner was entitled to a permit to replace the mobile home if that were done within 180 days. By contrast, in Williams v. Town of Spencer, 129 N.C. App. 828, 500 S.E.2d 473 (1998), the court upheld an ordinance provision explicitly prohibiting replacement  of units on vacated lots in a nonconforming manufactured home park.

[18] 994 F. Supp. 697 (W.D.N.C. 1998). The court further held that the challenged standards did not violate the commerce, due process, or equal protection clauses.

[19] Graham Court Assocs. v. Town Council of Chapel Hill, 53 N.C. App. 543, 281 S.E.2d 418 (1981).

[20] Gregory v. County of Harnett, 128 N.C. App. 161, 493 S.E.2d 786 (1997). See Chapter 25 for discussion of legitimate objectives for development regulation.

[21] Duggins v. Town of Walnut Cove, 63 N.C. App. 684, 306 S.E.2d 186, review denied, 309 N.C. 819, 310 S.E.2d 348 (1983), cert. denied, 466 U.S. 946 (1984). The ordinance prohibited a “mobile home” in a residential zoning district but allowed “modular” and site-built homes of similar dimensions to be used. The court upheld the ordinance as validly regulating the location of various types of structures, ruling that given the presumption of validity, the city had only to establish that the ordinance was rationally related to any legitimate government objective. The protection of property values was such a legitimate objective, and the council could determine that the method of construction affected the price of homes.

[22] G.S. 105-164.3(21a) provides that a modular unit is a “factory-built structure that is designed to be used as a dwelling, is manufactured in accordance with the specifications for modular homes under the North Carolina State Residential Building Code, and bears a seal or label issued by the Department of Insurance pursuant to G.S. 143-139.1.”

[23] These provisions were created by S.L. 2003-400.

[24] In Young v. Lomax, 122 N.C. App. 385, 470 S.E.2d 80 (1996), there were covenants prohibiting “mobile homes.” The structure involved had two sections, each with a steel chassis, axles, and wheels. The axles and wheels were removed upon installation and the units were secured to concrete piers. The court held that the unit remained a “mobile home” as a matter of law and was distinguishable from the modular units addressed earlier in Angel v. Truitt, 108 N.C. App. 679, 424 S.E.2d 660 (1993), wherein the court held that placement of a modular home on a lot did not violate a restrictive covenant prohibiting “mobile homes.” The court applied the customary definition of mobile homes at the time the covenant was executed, using the dictionary definition of a mobile home to mean a house trailer that is hauled by a truck. Since the modular unit involved in the case had no permanent chassis or axles and was placed on a permanent foundation, it was held not covered by the prohibition. In Forest Oaks Homeowners Association v. Isenhour, 102 N.C. App. 322, 401 S.E.2d 860 (1991), a restrictive covenant prohibited trailers and “mobile homes” but permitted “modular or component homes or pre-built homes” if erected on a permanent foundation. The court applied the manufactured/modular distinction used in the State Building Code to allow a modular home to be placed on the plaintiff’s lot. In Starr v. Thompson, 96 N.C. App. 369, 385 S.E.2d 535 (1989), the restrictive covenant at issue prohibited the use of “trailers or mobile homes.” The court held that the restriction applied to a factory-built modular home consisting of two 8’ x 40’ sections that had been delivered to the site with a permanent chassis with removable axles. The wheels, axles, and tongue had been removed and the units placed on footings on the site. The court distinguished the definitions that were applicable for zoning from those to be used in enforcing private restrictive covenants. In Barber v. Dixon, 62 N.C. App. 455, 302 S.E.2d 915, review denied, 309 N.C. 191, 305 S.E.2d 732 (1983), a restrictive covenant prohibited the use of a “structure of a temporary character (including house trailers).” The court held that this prohibited the use of a structure consisting of two units transported to the site, even though the wheels, the tongues, and the axles had been removed two days after the units had been located on the lot. In Van Poole v. Messer, 19 N.C. App. 70, 198 S.E.2d 106 (1973), a restrictive covenant prohibited temporary structures and trailers. The court held that “trailer” included a mobile home. The restrictive covenant in Strickland v. Overman, 11 N.C. App. 427, 181 S.E.2d 136 (1971), prohibited trailers and temporary structures, categories that the court held to include a “prefabricated modular unit.”