You can’t extinguish fires w/ gasoline

[Part I of a two-part look at the growing economic pressures squeezing mobile home and RV parks.]

In a harbinger of what lies ahead for a growing number of RV parks, the San Jose Mercury News reported this week that a family trust in California has just paid $40.7 million for the Rancho Santa Teresa Mobile Home Estates in San Jose. The mobile home park has 315 spaces, which means the purchase valued each site at $129,200.

Think about that. What kind of astronomical rents will it take to make that a profitable transaction?

And this was hardly the first or even the highest-priced acquisition of mobile home parks in California, which suffers the country’s most expensive real estate. As one example, the 116-site Mary Manor Estates in Sunnyvale sold in March for $39 million, which works out to $336,207 per mobile home pad. And the 110-site Winchester Ranch Mobile Home Park in San Jose changed hands last year for $50 million, or a whopping $454,545 per pad.

Given that price, Winchester Ranch clearly wasn’t purchased as a mobile home park but for its land, so there’s no surprise that it’s been bulldozed to make way for 320 single-family homes and 368 apartments. A similar fate may await other, similarly high-priced acquisitions. Then again, housing costs have become so extraordinarily distorted that even the most bloated valuations may be sustainable if rents are pushed to even more stratospheric levels.

Consider the average Los Angeles monthly rent for a mobile park site last year, which according to the commercial real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle was $1,103–significantly higher than anywhere else in the country, yet the market still had the nation’s lowest vacancy rate, at 1%. With an average expense ratio of just 43%, that resulted in a market net operating income of $8,600 per site, or just shy of a million bucks for a park the size of Mary Manor Estates. That’s a number sturdy enough to support an awful lot of debt–and if it’s not enough, well, just raise the rates some more. With comparable apartments renting for triple that amount, the market will bear it.

Los Angeles in particular and California in general are high-cost outliers, but where they lead the rest of the country so often follows. It’s instructive, therefore, to read the latest musing from Frank Rolfe about why mobile home parks are better positioned to weather the Federal Reserve’s ongoing efforts to curb inflation by increasing interest rates. Rolfe, who has been flogged by me (here and here, for starters) and the media in general for his predatory approach to mobile home parks, contends that “mobile home park rents are ridiculously low and have massive potential for increases,” so higher interest rates are nothing to worry about.

But juxtaposing Rolfe’s further comments with recent mobile home park sales underscores the tragic transition that occurs when trailer parks–as well as RV parks and campgrounds–are sold by mom-and-pop operators to corporate and investment buyers. “How did mobile home park rents get so low to begin with?” he asks rhetorically. “To understand, you have to go back to the 1960s when the industry was young. Moms and pops owned virtually all of the mobile home parks and they simply were not good about increasing rents. . . . Moms and pops only raised rents at about half the level of inflation, resulting in rents being so ridiculously low.”

Put another way, moms and pops were putting the brakes on inflationary pressures, but now that moderating influence is being steadily reduced, even as inflation is reemerging as a global economic concern. From Rolfe’s vantage point, however–and that of the other investors snapping up such properties–“the greater demand that recession brings for affordable housing will allow offsets–such as higher lot rents–that will battle back the higher rates on loans.”

Those “offsets,” it should go without saying, only throw more gasoline on the inflationary fire.

[Next post: Part II, taking a look at the hypocrisy behind promoting mobile home parks as “affordable housing” by investors who are making them unaffordable, and the increased pressure that puts on RV parks as housing of last resort .]

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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