Let ’em eat cake: gentrifying trailers

Built in 1973, this 800-square-foot mobile home has one bedroom and one bath. Care to guess how much it sold for?

The gentrification of the American economy, given a powerful push by the pandemic, has filtered down to even the lowest classes—and it’s never as painful as when it affects housing. Scarcely a week goes by without several stories of mobile home parks boosting rents by 30%, 40%, even 50% almost overnight, often with the rationale that their owners are merely seeking “market rates.”

In other words, if Trailer Park A raises rates from $650 a month to $800 and Trailer Park B does the same, Trailer Park C—which had been renting sites for $400 a month—now feels justified in doubling the rent. That’s “the market,” you see, at least until the next round of increases. And it “works” because conventional sticks-and-bricks homes have become so much more outrageously expensive, whether to buy or rent—assuming you can find something available in the first place—that the residents of such immiserated compounds often have no options other than homelessness.

Given the above, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that house trailers—um, “manufactured homes”—are acquiring an upscale vibe. Or if not the vibe, then definitely the price tag. Consider the house trailer pictured above, featured today in a San Francisco Chronicle story that described it as a “bungalow in Novato’s coveted Marin Valley Mobile Country Club.” It was snatched up after being on the market for just one day—for $346,750.

True, the “bungalow” had been extensively remodeled. And yes, it is in an expensive neighborhood—but as with most mobile home parks, the residents don’t own the land under their units, so that $433-a-square-foot price tag doesn’t include any real estate. The saving grace here is that the property is owned by the city of Novato, which apparently doesn’t feel a need to charge market rates; rent at the Marin Valley Mobile Country Club ranges between $600 and $700 a month. So: a high cost of entry but relatively modest costs thereafter, which is precisely the opposite of most mobile home owners’ experiences.

Ironic, huh?

So can you imagine how much the same house trailer might fetch if the land it sits on was part of the package, the way most American homes are sold? Actually, you don’t have to imagine that at all, thanks to reporting a couple of weeks ago in the New York Post: the answer is, almost exactly ten times more. An off-market purchase of, yes, an 800-square-foot house trailer in Montauk Shores—Long Island’s Marin County equivalent—went for a record $3.75 million. To be sure, the two-bedroom, two-bath mobile home is a custom-built job with high-end finishes, but as the Post points out, its per-square-foot price is putting it in the same class as New York City’s luxury market. As in “Tribeca penthouse.”

Moreover, the real state agent repping the unnamed buyer was quick to claim that while the Montauk Shores complex is often referred to as “the trailer park,” the trailers are “not technically mobile homes.” Precisely why was not made clear, as the realtor explained only that the trailers are all “on slabs and do not have foundations,” which is true of any mobile home park. But he did add that the owners of the trailers do own those slabs as well, so there you have it.

Public reaction has been mixed, albeit leavened with a fair amount of scorn. Some social media comments claimed that the location alone makes the price worthwhile, but others averred that real estate “is the oldest Ponzi of them all.” Or as one noted: “Only in America. A buyer is plunking down $3.75m for a luxury mobile home in a trailer park in the Hamptons. Gives a whole new meaning to trailer trash.”

Meanwhile, the folks traditionally dismissed as “trailer trash” are waging increasingly bitter battles to maintain their homes, one step removed from being out on the street. They’re everywhere, in every state and in just about every city of any size, and their world is unimaginably distant from the excesses described above. You have to wonder how long a society of such extremes can retain its cohesiveness before fragmenting into warring factions—oh, that’s right. Never mind. . . .

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When a lot is not a lot

If you’re thinking about getting into the campground business and start looking online for resources, make sure you understand the background and possible motivations of those you encounter. While not necessarily underhanded or sleazy, those you find may have a different but not immediately obvious frame of reference that isn’t compatible with yours–especially if yours is still at an embryonic stage. You’ll save yourself some grief if you understand that before you begin wading in.

What brings this to mind is the latest emailed dispatch from Frank Rolfe, one of two partners (with Dave Reynolds) in the promisingly named RV Park University. “RV Park University” certainly sounds like it should be chockablock with hot tips and good advice for prospective RV park buyers and operators, and indeed its web site offers such resources as a $40 paperback book and a $400 “home study course” for anyone trying to learn the ropes. RV Park University is, in turn, affiliated with RVPark.com, which among other things operates RVParkStore, a bulletin board of campgrounds for sale. Sounds like a good place to start getting educated, isn’t it?

Yet it’s probably wise to understand that despite all the RV references, Rolfe’s and Reynolds’ main line of business is trailer parks and their entire perspective on RV campgrounds is deeply colored by that outlook. For Rolfe and Reynolds, RV trailers and fifth-wheels are just different incarnations of mobile homes, and RV parks are attractive investment opportunities as cheap residential facilities, not as recreational ones.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–there are quite a few RV parks filled with long-term residents and only a smattering of short-term sites, if that. But a sea of asphalt or gravel without trees or even the most fundamental amenities is not what most people imagine when they think “RV park,” and an investment philosophy based on a “contrarian bet on a poorer America,” as Rolfe was quoted as saying a few years ago, is not what drives most prospective campground owners. For that majority, it’s prudent to take anything coming out of RV University and its various off-shoots with a large dose of skepticism.

Oh–and about the emailed dispatch that prompted these thoughts? It’s the red flags it was waving, starting with its reference to growing demand for “RV park lots.” They’re not “lots.” They’re sites. Trailer parks have lots, and people stay on them for a lot of time, for which they pay rent. RV parks have sites, and site fees. That may sound like a trivial distinction, but in fact it’s a fundamental difference that tells you volumes about the speaker’s attitude toward his business. As always, caveat emptor.

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