Have you thought of investing in mobile home parks? Lisa Hylton interviews Frank Rolfe, Co-Founder of Mobile Home University, who is ranked, with his partner Dave Reynolds, as the fifth largest mobile home park owner in the U.S. In this episode, Frank convinces us why it is ideal to invest in this real estate space. He shares his story from buying billboards, owning various businesses, and landing on the mobile home park industry to meeting his business partner. He also offers some tidbits on managing home parks, including key insights on managing a profitable park. In this episode, Frank explains why you might be interested in investing in mobile home parks as opposed to some of the other asset classes. He also stresses the importance of doing the five-part due diligence on mobile home parks.
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Why Mobile Home Parks Can Be Fruitful Investments With Frank Rolfe
I have with me an amazing guest. His name is Frank Rolfe. He’s the fifth largest owner in the US of mobile home parks with himself and his partner. They have about 20,000 lots across 24 states. We’re going to dive into his story and get to learn about how he got started. I’m super excited. Thank you, Frank, for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
How did you get started in real estate?
I was in college at Stanford University and I graduated a year early. I wanted to go to graduate school. Back in those days in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, if you wanted to go to graduate school and business, you would start a business. You would do it for months or maybe a year and then you would shut it down, sell it off and use that as your asset. That was what you did. I needed to write my essay. I asked around different adults and different people, “What business would you start just to run for about a year?” They all had dumb ideas. Even I, as a college student, knew it was a bad idea like, “Open a Subway sandwich shop.” You can’t sign a lease for a year. It made no sense. One adult said, “Why don’t you build billboards on the highway? It’s a simple business. It’s easy to sell off. Do that.”
I thought, “That’s the only sensible idea anyone had.” I started doing that as my resume piece. By the end of the first year, I had three billboards but I had seven more pending. I thought I’ll go one more year then I’ll sell it off and I’ll go to business school. I kept doing that every year for fourteen years. For fourteen straight years, I would put it off one more year. After fourteen years, you’re not going to go to business school. I had grown to be the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas-Fort Worth. I then sold that to a public company in ‘96 and started buying mobile home parks and that’s the whole story. Those are two different careers. Billboards for fourteen years and then mobile home parks.
What made you continue buying more and more billboards?
The thing that made me do more billboards was the fact that once you figured out how to do it, it seemed wasteful to stop. It’s that learning curve thing. Once I got it down to a fine art, I thought I’d be an idiot to not do it. I kept going with it. It wasn’t my dream industry. I never thought when I was in high school, college or anytime in my entire life of being a billboard guy. I did at one time aspire to be in the ad agency business, but that never happened so I built billboards. That was the whole deal.
When you decided to sell, what are some of the things that you thought about when the opportunity came to sell that business?
A lot of times, when you get the business, you think, “I’m never going to sell it.” You get in this rut where you seem you’ll have it forever. You start thinking what you will do with it forever. I was in that mindset. I had no ideas. I didn’t think I’d ever sell it. I didn’t know anyone who would want to buy it. I had even built a little office building underneath a billboard that I built. I bought a piece of land and I assumed that was the end of the movie. Out of the blue, I got a call from a company that wanted to buy it. The biggest thing for people looking at selling a business is anytime you don’t sell something, it’s like you bought it back at the same price. For the price, I was offered and where the billboard industry was at its lifespan, I thought, “I wouldn’t pay that much for this thing,” so I sold it.
The decision to move into mobile home parks, what was the thought process on that?Mobile home park investments have a much more attractive supply and demand relationship. Click To Tweet
That was as random as the billboard thing. What happened was I sold the billboards off. I had built 300 billboards for all kinds of businesses, fast food, restaurants, hotels, motels, you name it. I had every type of landowner out there and I had been on their property. I built this thing on their property. I checked on them periodically. They would call me up frequently wanting me to do stuff for them when I was out in the field. I had built two billboards on a mobile home park. The guy that owned the mobile home park would call me typically once a year. He’d say, “When you’re out driving your billboard and you stop by the park, can you ask the manager why he won’t call me back?” It’s stupid stuff like that.
I would then pull in the mobile home park, find the manager’s mobile home, knock on the door and say, “Ron wants you to call him.” That’s about all I do with the mobile home park business. That’s about it. When I was calling up these people, I would say, “I sold the billboard business. I’m curious, what’s your business all about? Is it a good business to get in?” He was one of the first ones I called and in that one phone call, he sold me the mobile home park. He said, “Here’s how my business works. I’ll sell it for $400,000 with $10,000 down. I’ll carry the paper for 30 years and we can close immediately.” I thought, “It’s probably the worst idea ever, but the most I can lose is $10,000 on it. I might learn a lot. It might work out.” That’s how I got into it, like the billboard business. It wasn’t like I dream of owning a mobile home park. It was never on my list ever.
How did you end up meeting your current partner that you now own all these parks with?
My current partner and I used to be competitors. He used to send me letters trying to buy up the mobile home parks I had. I was at a mobile home park event where he was speaking and I was speaking. We had lunch together and he asked me if I would write a small book on the billboard industry for his billboard website. That was pretty random. I wrote this little book for his billboard website. We started writing books together. In 2010, we started buying parks together. That’s not a very exciting tale.
You actively buy parks to this date and you’re across 24 states. Is that correct?
That’s correct. We’re America’s fifth-largest owner of mobile home and RV parks, but we’re predominantly mobile home park.
When you say that you own mobile home parks, do you own the land? Many readers might not understand what owning a mobile home park might be.
Here’s an easy way to think about it, a mobile home park is a parking lot. It’s all it is. It has the same permits, same everything like the Park ‘N Fly out of the airport. It’s the same deal. Instead of cars parked in our parking lot, mobile homes parked in our parking lot. Sometimes RVs parked in our parking lot. It was a parking business and we get paid rent. We don’t get it daily like Park ‘N Fly does. We get paid monthly. As long as you’re parked in our parking lot, you pay us monthly rent. By parking in our parking lot. You have access to water, sewer, electricity and tri-service. We maintain the rows like a parking lot. We maintain the entrance and all that stuff. Everything you park in your parking space is yours. It’s your car. If you bring outdoor furnitures, it’s your outdoor furnitures. I don’t own any of that stuff. It’s a strange part of real estate.
In almost every other part of real estate, the customer owns nothing and the real estate guy owns everything. When you put your stuff in self-storage, self-storage owns everything. They own the light bulb, the roll-up door, the only thing they don’t own is the lock and whatever you stuck in there. It’s the same with office and retail, it doesn’t matter. In our business, the customer is a stakeholder in the business and that makes it unusual. We think it’s good because that means the customer cares more, because it’s their stuff inside our parking lot, but it’s odd. The biggest downside in that relationship is if you have an apartment complex and it’s located in Biloxi, Mississippi and a hurricane blows the apartment complex to Timbuktu, you get the insurance checks and you put the apartments back.
In our industry, we don’t get insurance checks because all those mobile homes that get erased, those aren’t our homes. That’s the downside when you don’t own the whole thing. In a weather catastrophe, you’re behind the eight ball. Because of that, most park owners shy away from hurricane areas or areas that have a lot of flooding potential. The tornadoes work differently because the way tornadoes work is typically FEMA and the Red Cross gives your customers $30,000 cash to buy a new mobile home. As soon as you have the tornado, you got new homes coming in. When you have those big old hurricanes, the government cannot possibly afford to pay the bill. It becomes a giant mess. That’s the only trade-off when your customers own their stuff and you own your parking lot.
Did you talk anything about the maintenance perspective of the park?
We maintain the roads. We keep the roads free of potholes. We maintain what are called the common areas. Sometimes the common areas have a clubhouse and a pool, but sometimes they don’t have anything at all. A lot of parks have no amenities at all. In those cases, we maintain the roads, water, sewer, electricity, and that’s our whole job. We don’t fix the mobile homes. In other words, we don’t get calls from people saying, “My toilet is topped up. The locks on my doors don’t work.” I’m not responsible for any of that stuff.
Do they pay directly to the utility companies?
It depends on the park. In some parks they are called direct billed, which means the utility provider bills them everything, water, sewer, electrical, trash. In other parks, they pay some direct. Some of the park owner pays and then allocates and bills them for. In some cases, the park owner pays the water, sewer, and the trash, although they always pay their own electric and gas. It depends on the park because your rent tells you what’s included in your rent.
As people might be thinking, “What markets do you like?” Do you have a preference on what markets you like to invest in?
We’re all over the US but that’s partially because we live in the Great Plains in the Midwest. My partner lives in Colorado, which is a great plains state. That’s Texas, North, all the way to Canada. I’m in Missouri, which is the Midwest. That’s basically the middle of America up to the east of the Great Plains. That’s because that’s where we live. That’s what we understand. There are a lot of other people who own mobile home parks in the Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast. There’s no problem.
The only states that you see less park buying in are Louisiana and that’s a function of lending because Louisiana has what’s called Napoleonic Law, which I am no expert on. A lot of banks won’t do it because they don’t understand the Napoleonic Law. To save money, they don’t make any loans there so that one is rough.
Another one is Mississippi because the lot rents are insanely low there. A lot of the parks in Mississippi, the lot rents are only $75 or $95 a month, whereas in the US, the average is $280. Once again, it’s the way these things evolved over the last half century. Down in Mississippi, the moms and pops are willing to charge lower rents and they never raised them when everyone else did. Everybody else went up a little bit every year. They never did it. It’s like they’re back in 1955 rents. It will take a long time to get those up to market. If the US is at $300 and they’re at $100, it takes a long time to catch up. Because you can’t make a lot of money at a $100 rent, a lot of people say, “I’m not going to buy there.” Other than those two states, it’s pretty much about the same anywhere you go.
Financially, why would someone be interested in investing in mobile home parks as opposed to some of the other asset classes that are out there like for instance, multifamily and etc.?
Number one, we have the highest cap rates because most people have a negative vibe to our industry. Everything you see in the media is very negative. Every TV show and movie, whether it’s 8 Mile, Cops, Myrtle Manor, it doesn’t matter. It’s all negative profile of mobile home park residence. A lot of people won’t even consider investing in it because they think it’s nasty, dirty, dangerous, whatever. It keeps the competitions down. That’s why you have high cap rates. Another thing is you haven’t been able to build mobile home parks since the 1970s. Our industry’s been frozen in supply for 50 years. Whereas you can build anything else anywhere you want. We have a much more attractive supply and demand relationship.Due diligence is what separates people who are winners from losers. Click To Tweet
People are attracted in the fact that we’re just a parking lot, so we don’t have to repair any of the dwellings that are on our property. That’s plus. Lenders love us because we have the lowest default rate of any real estate asset class, so that’s good. The government is starting to help because of the affordable housing crisis. They’re passing new laws and programs to help park owners, so that’s good. The big one is the whole affordable housing crisis because affordable housing is the hot thing. That’s always been the business model of mobile home park owners is affordable housing. For one moment in history, we’re like the hot thing. Whereas we were not the hot thing many years ago.
In your opinion, why were you not the hot thing many years ago?
The affordable housing crisis was the result of the Great Recession. When the Great Recession hits, everyone suddenly was denied credits, they couldn’t buy homes and they all started renting. People started buying up the apartments and jacking the rents up. All the private equity groups started buying all the stick-built homes and jacking their rents up. The rents went crazy. Back in the mid ‘90s, rents were half of what they are now. The average rent for the US apartment is over $1,200 a month. The average for stick-built homes is $200. The average sale though is $300 something.
The homes had become way more expensive. You would think it would go the other way around. You think when you have a recession, housing prices would go down. That’s not what happened. They went down if you were buying but they went up a ton if you are renting. Since half of Americans rent, everyone got squeezed. The half who rent are the ones that typically have lower income. It became an absolute crisis almost overnight, but if you map it out, you can see what caused the crisis. Everyone was taking advantage of the new renter nation in about 2008. That’s what happened.
What advice would you give for individuals who are interested in getting started in the mobile home park space?
Whether it’s multifamily or mobile home park, the first thing you want to do is you want to get highly educated. You want to read everything you can. A lot of people have their own hobbies. Whether you collect cars, model trains, it doesn’t matter what. On those hobbies, people know everything. I know people who are into baseball, they can give me every stat of every baseball player since 1925. When it comes to investments, they can’t tell you anything. It’s bizarre. You have people who will chase after coupons for half off on Taco Bell and yet they have no idea investment-wise what it’s doing, if it’s good, if it’s bad or anything. You’ve got to get educated. That’s the key.
Once you get educated enough to know what is an opportunity from what is not an opportunity, then you want to ramp up your deal flow and look at as many deals as you can. You can stack them either in the box of opportunity or not opportunity. Every deal that falls in the opportunity box, you want to make an offer on it. As long as you stick with volume, don’t lie to yourself and stick with the facts as to what’s good and what’s bad, it typically always works out. Where people screw up is they don’t get educated, so they don’t know an opportunity from what is not or they get lazy. They don’t put enough product through their sorter. They end up chasing after deals that are no good because they’re too lazy to look for good ones. That’s all it’s about. It’s no different if you’re buying mobile home parks or collecting baseball cards or whatever it is that you do as a hobby, it’s the same exact deal. If you follow the same things you do with your hobby, you’re set to go.
I have some level of questions that I asked all my guests. The first one is, what are you grateful for in your life?
I’m grateful for my family. Most of the things that I value in life or quality of life are the things that you can’t buy. Harvard did a study and they found what makes people the happiest are relationships. If you have a good relationship, you’re set. If you have all the money in the world and a bad relationship, you’re miserable. I’m most grateful for my relationships and the items I can’t buy. That would be my answer for that.
What are the top three lessons that you learned in your real estate journey as a whole?
Probably my key lessons are educate yourself, volume and due diligence. Due diligence is what separates people who are winners from losers. If you take all the risk out by knowing all the permutations of what can happen, you never get surprised. I like to look at every part of every mobile home park we buy and see what-if scenarios. What if 20% of our customers run off? What if the tornado wipes out 10% of my trailers? All that stuff. If you’ve got all that covered, then no matter what happens in life, you’re like, “I can handle that.” You’ve got to do good due diligence. Benjamin Franklin said diligence is the mother of good luck and that’s exactly correct. People who do good due diligence always seem to win and people who don’t do due diligence always get annihilated.
Staying on due diligence, you mentioned a couple of things that you will generally look for like when 30% of the people that are renting run off. Are there any other things that come to mind that you would also be cognizant of from a due diligence perspective when you’re looking at mobile home parks?
There are five parts of due diligence on mobile home parks. Infrastructure, which means the way the roads are built, water, sewer, all those items that make a park function successfully. You have density which means how big the lots are. Like a parking lot, if your lots are too small to hold big cars, you can’t use the lots. I’ve got to make sure that my lots are big enough to handle mobile homes. You’ve got your location. The two mobile home park locations that tend to work the best are the ones right in the heart of town, that gritty urban stuff or suburbs that people want to live. It’s typically close-in suburbs that have nice shops, schools and things like that. You look at the age of the homes because the age of the homes creates a lot of the character of the park. If you have a lot of old homes in poor condition. It ruins the ambience. If you have newer homes, vinyl, single roof, it makes the park look so much nicer. Finally, the economics. Those are the five pieces of diligence.
When you’re looking at buying mobile home parks, what is your general business plan? Is there generally a business plan?
The standard plan in the industry for most buyers is you want to have a three-point spread between interest rates and cap rates. That typically gets you a 20% cash-on-cash return, which is what most people’s goals are. For some that are buying mobile home parks, rather than put their money in a CD, they want to earn 20% as opposed to 2% on the CD. The way you get to 20% is you’ve got to use leverage. You have to put 20% to 30% down and leverage it, then you have to have a three-point spread. As long as you can do that, you can get 70% or 80% loan-to-value and you have a three-point spread between your interest rate and your cap rate, then you’re at 20%.
What would you say is key to your continuous success and growth?
Probably because we worry all the time, we’re not optimists, we’re pessimists, we’re always trying to cover our downside. We’re watching for what’s going to blow up on us. It’s the nature of myself and my partner. We’re not optimistic people. That’s how we’ve probably kept from derailing. We’re always concerned if the train is going to fall off the tracks. We’re always looking ahead at what’s coming down the pipe so we can fix it.
Since you’ve had so much experience in real estate, billboards, as well as mobile home parks, I’m curious about when you run across things or problems that pop up that are unexpected, how do you generally face them?
I’ve been through much worse than the 2007 recession. It was the 1987 Texas savings loan crash. Every high rise in Dallas was foreclosed on at one time. People were jumping off roofs. When you have any problem, the first thing you do is stay calm. It never helps you to get upset. Since there’s no benefit, don’t even bother. Stay calm. If you don’t know what calm is watch the YouTube video of Sully Sullenberger crashing his plane into the river. You’ll see up until impact and even after impact, he was usually calm. He’s very factual like, “I lost my engines, I’m coming down.” He wasn’t crying, wasn’t freaking out. He’s like, “I’ve been trying to land in the river. I don’t know if it will work but I’m going to try it out. Okay, I landed.” You’ve got to stay calm, then you’ve got to gather all the facts. A lot of times people like to railroad you to get you upset. They’ll not give you the straight facts. All the time, we get a call from the manager that, “We’ve got a major water line break. The water is flying everywhere.” It turns out it’s nothing. A lot of people out there love crises. They love the excitement. They love bugging you with “we’re all going to die” stuff.
You have to factually say, “Send me the pictures of it. Let me get the facts.” You’ll find that most people, the ones who count, they’re willing to work with you. If it’s a city hall or the bank, all they want to hear is what’s the plan. If you ask a banker, “What’s the worst that can happen on your loan?” The worst that can happen is if you have a big problem and you don’t offer them the solution. You just say, “The hurricane blew through and wiped the park off,” without saying, “Here’s my plan. I’m going to go out and buy twenty homes and bring them in.” People panic when the person who’s supposed to have the solution doesn’t have a clue. You always got the problem solution. Having a problem doesn’t do you any good. You’ve got to have the solution. As long as you’ve got a solution, you’d be shocked how much most city halls, banks and everyone are willing to play ball with you as long as you’ve got a plan. You can’t look to them for the plan.Whether it's multifamily or mobile home park, the first thing you want to do is you want to get highly educated. Click To Tweet
If your sewer system broke and there’s sewage flying everywhere and you say, “I know it’s terrible having the sewage but here’s my plan. I’ve got a plumber coming in to start digging it up. We’re going to put a ply on top of all the sewage. We’re going to have it all fixed by Sunday.” They’ll roll with you. They have the same problem with the city. Their sewer lines blow up all the time. They want to have an answer when someone calls and said, “What’s the deal on the sewage in the park?” They say, “They’ll have it fixed by Sunday. The guy starts tomorrow.” It’s the same with the bank. If you say, “I screwed up. Something terrible happened. I can’t make my payments probably in the next six months. Here’s my plan. Let’s do half of the payments for six months. We’ll do extra more on the next five years of payments.” They’ll do that. You have to stay calm and have a plan.
What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your real estate journey that you know now?
Probably the most important thing I wish I’d known was not to drink caffeine. I would kill myself on caffeine. I was trying to stay awake, work super late every day, year upon year and that screwed me up. As far as real estate lessons learned, since I’ve always been naturally a pessimist, I’m always focused on diligence and some of the other items. That’s kept me out of trouble. I don’t know beyond the things I told you. I’m not sure what the key lessons have been. Maybe one plaque I have on my wall in my office that says, “Time kills deals.”
I always like that theory that everyone in America is under a sense of urgency at any moment. If you want to hit your dreams, goals or whatever, you’ve got to get after it right now. You can’t delay or wait until next Monday, next month, next year. There’s no money in procrastination. You want to get on it now. Whatever it is, whether it’s losing weight, go to the gym, it doesn’t matter. There’s no benefit in putting it off. Even though you don’t want to do it, just do it because it’s going to harm you if you don’t.
Those are a lot of good nuggets. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. I appreciate it. If my readers would like to learn more about you and your offerings, how can they go about doing so?
It’s easy, go to MHU.com. That stands for MobileHomeUniversity.com. That’s an outreach program that my partner and I put together to teach people how the industry works. You go on there and there are tons of free content that tells you how everything works in the industry. I would point people to that location.
Thank you, Frank. I appreciate it.
Thanks a lot.
That was another amazing episode with Frank Rolfe. There are a lot of good nuggets. Some of the insights that I took away are, he talked about how people panic when the person who has a solution doesn’t have a plan. It’s important to know that when you are deciding to invest in real estate, even start a business for that matter or anything of that nature, you’re going to run into problems. It’s important to remember that in the face of those problems, stay calm, gather the facts, and come up with your plan of how you are going to get through this problem or to create a solution. If you need to talk to the people around you that’s in your circle, that’s what masterminds, networking, and building other individuals who are also in your space is very beneficial.
They can provide you with those resources of finding solutions for what it is that you are facing. A couple of other things that I thought were amazing was when he spoke about mobile home parks and the pros and the cons. A lot of stuff about the fact that I didn’t know that there was frozen supply. There are not a whole lot of these parks that are being created. As we all know, we are in an affordability crisis. There are a lot of cities across the US where rents as well as the cost of buying homes have pretty much gone through the roof. These kinds of assets are also good when you’re thinking about recessions and stuff like that because they’re affordable.
People who are now making less money will then find themselves in places where they are able to continue to live for the time being based on whatever situation that they’re particularly in. He also spoke about people who are interested in getting started, some of the things to think about or do, and the actions to take. One is to get educated. Read everything about what it is that you’re trying to do. That’s reading, getting podcast, going out there and going to meetups, meeting people to learn, to ultimately be able to determine what is an opportunity and what is not an opportunity. That’s all going to come down to you getting that knowledge and getting educated about investing.
That’s how you’re able to then be a good steward of your money and to make sure that your money is working for you. Keep looking for deals. He spoke about not settling for deals that are not a good fit for you. Keep looking because there are more out there. The other two items that I liked is that he said, “Time kills deals.” He also expanded that there’s no money in procrastination. Take action, get started, get out there, get on with the show and learn. You can take your baby steps and get educated. I enjoyed the episode. I hope you did too. Keep leveling up, everyone. I’ll talk to you next time.
About Frank Rolfe
Frank Rolfe has been an investor in mobile home parks for almost two decades, and has owned and operated hundreds of mobile home parks during that time. He is currently ranked, with his partner Dave Reynolds, as the 5th largest mobile home park owner in the U.S., with over 250 communities spread out over 25 states. But it all began with one mobile home park, Glenhaven, in Dallas, Texas. “When I bought Glenhaven, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how a mobile home park worked. If I had, I would have never bought that park, as it saddled me with a master-metered gas and electric system – two of the biggest challenges a mobile home park owner can face – and a tenant base that was straight out of COPs. We had carnival workers, hookers, the absolute dregs of society. It even had a wrestling ring in the back. A few years later, I had unbelievably turned that dump into a nice, quiet, family community, with a neighborhood feel and kids riding bicycles down the streets. Another five years later, the park was worth around $1 million more than I had paid for it.” With his success with Glenhaven, Frank continued to buy more mobile home parks, focusing on parks that had good locations, but were terribly managed.
Frank has always believed that mobile home parks are all about “affordable housing”. “Beginning with Glenhaven, I noticed that a mobile home park – when properly managed – offers a significantly better quality of life than a comparably priced apartment. Nobody likes to have neighbors banging on their walls and ceilings, or the lack of a yard or nearby parking – or just the lack of a neighborhood “feel”. It occurred to me that I could have my phone ringing off the hook if I could deliver an affordable detached dwelling with a yard that was safe, clean and respectable. That’s what I delivered at Glenhaven, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Along the way, Frank began writing about the industry, and his books, coupled with those of his partner Dave Reynolds, evolved into a course and boot camp on mobile home park investing that has become the leader in this niche of commercial real estate. “Dave and I have trained hundreds of investors on how to properly buy and operate a mobile home park, 100% based on our real-life experiences in the hundreds of parks we have owned and performed due diligence on. It gives us great satisfaction when people tell us about the mobile home park that they have purchased and how well it’s going. We really wished that someone had given us some direction when we began – it would have saved us a lot of money and stress. But I guess it all worked out pretty well in the end.”
Frank lives in a small town in Missouri with his wife and daughter. He is very active in community affairs, being a member of the Lions Club, the school board, and Chairman of the Landmarks Commission. He holds an A.B. in Economics from Stanford University.