While it doesn’t see like much, investing in mobile home parks can actually pay off. If you do your research and prepare well, mobile home park investing could be your ticket to financial success. Join Lisa Hylton as she chats with the President of Blue Elm Investments, Todd Sulzinger, about investing in mobile home parks. Todd talks about how he got into investing in real estate, and shares why mobile home parks can be an attractive investment. This episode is a must-listen if you’re looking for passive income on a mobile home park.
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Exploring Mobile Home Park Investing With Former Finance Executive Todd Sulzinger
I’m excited to bring another amazing guest. His name is Todd Sulzinger. He is a former Silicon Valley executive turned real estate investor with a focus on the growing niche of mobile home park investing. His company, Blue Elm Investments, has built the expertise to turn neglected mobile home parks into vibrant communities, increasing the availability of safe, clean and affordable housing for the residents while offering their investors a strategic way to diversify their portfolios. Todd is also the co-author of Success Habits of Super Achievers, a number one Amazon bestseller with secrets, tips and inspiration to accelerate your success. Thank you for coming to the show. I appreciate it, Todd.
I’m super glad to be here, Lisa.
To dive into it, we’re going to touch a little bit on your background because you are a fellow accountant and it’s always great to have some accountants on the show. I have a few accountants and compliance people. It’s super cool to have you guys on. Before we get into that, my show is broken into three parts. We have a background about you then we’ll get into the meat of the episode and we’ll close down with my Level Up questions. To get started, can you share with my audience where you live in the US?
I live in Redwood City, California. That’s right in the heart of Silicon Valley, about halfway between San Jose and San Francisco.
What do you and your family like to do for fun?
Lots of outdoor activities. I had one camping trip that I did and another one planned for the end of May 2021. I’d love to spend as much time outdoors as possible.
That means you may have hit up some of the big parks on this side because you’re on the West Coast.
We’re big national park fans. We’ve done quite a few in California, Grand Canyon and all through Utah. That’s our bucket list of national parks we’re trying to go to.
Can you share a little bit about your journey transitioning from W-2 to then mobile home park investing?
You’re a fellow accountant. I spent my whole career working up until I got into real estate working for a variety of Silicon Valley technology companies, working as a controller or financial planning director. During that time, I started to invest in real estate myself because I was trying to read a lot and listen to podcasts. I also had a neighbor at one of the first houses that I lived in San Jose who was this mild-mannered and quiet guy. He didn’t dress fancy or have a fancy car. The more I got to know him after the few years that I was living next to him, I found out about this real estate empire that he built. He’s an unassuming guy but he talked about houses he would buy. He was like, “If you sell your house, I want to buy it to rent it. I’ve got this strip mall downtown.”
It was fascinating. There was this guy that seemed like he didn’t have to work. He had his real estate empire. That got my mind thinking about how I could potentially also invest in real estate which is something my family had never done. They were not entrepreneurial-based. I started to invest in real estate myself, buying some single-family homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area so long ways from California but through good property management and good turnkey providers that I’ve worked with, I was able to have some successful investments there.
During that time, I started to learn about real estate syndications. This idea that you can pool investors’ money together to buy bigger assets. I started to research and learn all about how to put together syndications, raise money, do it legally and responsibly. From that point, it’s a decision. Once you decide you want to put together syndications, you have to decide which properties and asset classes. I did a lot of research on that. Over a couple of years of process, I ended up honing in on mobile home parks as the asset class to put my first deals together.
That’s perfect because that leads us right into the episode itself. Can you share with us what is it about mobile home parks that you like?
There are a few things that I like about them. One of the big ones is it’s the only real estate asset class that’s shrinking every year. There are rarely any new mobile home parks being built. Sometimes because of a, “Not in my backyard,” attitude in terms of the reputation of mobile home parks. Also, from a property tax standpoint. They don’t generate as much property taxes as a similar-sized new residential development, single-family home development or apartment development would generate. You might have a city saying, “We want affordable housing,” but they know it’s not going to bring in the tax revenue to fund everything that goes with that in terms of schools, fire and police. Also, a lot of backlash from neighbors who don’t want a trailer park in their backyard. There are rarely new parks being built, usually a handful that you hear about every year. Along with that, a lot of parks get torn down for redevelopment.
We read stories all the time about a lot of mobile home parks that were built back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s on the outskirts of town and those are now closer to town. Real estate has become more valuable so those are often being redeveloped. You have a dwindling supply and not many new parks coming to market. There are fewer mobile home lots across the country. The fact that it’s the only asset class that has a declining supply makes it attractive.
Mobile home parks too are historically recession-resistant because most parks or at least the ones that I purchase are in the affordable housing space. In a typical recessionary environment, different from what we went through with COVID, there’s always going to be those entry-level jobs, be it in retail, hair salons, grocery stores or things like that. There’s always going to be a need for affordable housing. Whereas if a new A-class apartment is built and there’s a big hit to the economy, those people might move down to look for more affordable housing. Mobile home parks have historically been recession-resistant.
As passive investors who think about investing in this type of asset class, can you talk a little bit about maybe some of the nuances of the things that they need to think about before deploying capital into a mobile home park syndication?
All the initial things if somebody’s looking into placing money into syndication is it’s understanding the operator, their background, history and what their experiences are in putting together syndications. Some of the big differences between, let’s say, an apartment and mobile home parks that are both multifamily type assets are understanding some of the ways that are different and some of the big ones that most often are in the mobile home park. You can either have this situation where the park owns the home and rent it out to the resident or the resident owns the home and the mobile home park rents the lot.
There are pros and cons to both sides. We’re understanding how the impacts of the investment different than an apartment. For example, an apartment is what it is. There’s nothing about a tenant potentially owning part of it. It’s a strict rental property. Also, in the mobile home parks, sometimes there might be a mix of different kinds of utilities than if you’re in a 100-unit apartment building, it’s likely hooked up to city utilities for water and sewer. In a mobile home park, sometimes there might be septic tanks involved or wells to provide water. Some parts even have their own lagoons or waste treatment systems. It’s understanding how those might impact the investment.
It’s so important because you never know but that’s the thing about real estate. There are no guarantees when you invest. You’re always taking a risk. Part of investing is you’re getting rewarded for taking that risk of going in there.Once you decide you want to put together syndications, you have to decide which kind of properties and asset classes to invest in. Click To Tweet
Markets are a big thing as well. Sometimes in the mobile home park business, you can often find successful, profitable mobile home parks outside of the major metros. You might have secondary or tertiary markets that have demand. It could be affordable housing in general. It could be people that are retired, on a fixed income or on disability, in some of the smaller markets, not markets that are 100 miles from a Walmart way in the middle of nowhere. You might find cities in metros with 50,000, 100,000 to 150,000 people that aren’t on anybody’s radar typically from an investment standpoint but they can still have a pretty high demand for parks in the affordable housing area.
That’s good to know, which is a different counter-intuitive to maybe multifamily, for instance, because you’re looking for population growth and job growth. It sounds that would be a little bit different, counter-intuitive to it or not really.
You still want to find markets where there’s diverse employment. The first parks that I purchased were in a town 1 to 1.5 hours outside of Atlanta, the town itself was about 60,000 people or so but within this smaller town, there’s a Lowe’s, Walmart, three colleges in town, a prison, a couple of manufacturing companies like a carpet manufacturer. We’ve been in a smaller town, which is something that struck me a lot coming from California where everything you see is technology. You go to other parts of the country and there are all different kinds of manufacturers for all different kinds of products that you don’t see in some places like Silicon Valley. When you get out there and look at certain markets, there are smaller towns that have a strong economic base, that as somebody putting deals together and for a passive investor, you can feel comfortable that there’s going to be a continued demand for houses going forward.
You mentioned the decline in terms of there is fewer parks. What is the impact of that? I would assume that that’s impacting pricing?
It does, for sure and a lot of times, it’s in those in those bigger markets. I read an article about a park in Kentucky that’s being sold and going to be redeveloped as a shopping center. The downside is a lot of residents need to find a new place to live. If the park owned the home and they need to find another park to live in or potentially an apartment, they’re not in too bad of a situation. If some of those people own their home and they’re looking for a place to potentially move their home to, that’s where it can be pretty difficult because there may not be other parks in a smaller metro or even a bigger metro that has available spaces. There are quite a few parks here in the San Francisco Bay Area and most of those are completely full. If you had a home that you were trying to move to a certain location, it could be difficult to find. That affects the pricing of the park itself as well as the cost of either renting the home or renting a lot.
A couple of things on underwriting because that’s a big thing for a lot of passive investors as they think about investing in different types of deals. They’re typically curious about some of the assumptions that are true for that particular asset class. In apartments, it’s rent growth and CapEx. Could you talk about maybe some of the assumptions that are typical when looking at mobile home parks from the underwriting perspective?
Some are the same for sure. Rent growth is something to look at if there are any value-add opportunities from that standpoint. That’s another interesting thing about the mobile home park space. It’s more common than in the apartment world to find rents that are under market and a lot of times, just because the existing owners may have owned the park for a long time, they might live in the park. They may not have looked around to keep up with market rents. There might not be some direct comps. If it’s a bigger metro with a lot of A class, B class, C class, it’s easy to see what the market rents are.
Sometimes in the mobile home park world because they might be in a smaller market, where there are no direct comps, the owners might not know what market should be because they might live in the park, maybe they’ve had it for a long time and they’re making money from it. It’s free and clear that they may not keep up with market rent. You see that more in the mobile home park business than in apartments where you might find below market rents that over time you can move those close to the market.
In the mobile home park space, you need to be careful from an affordability standpoint. If a park is charging $200 lot rent and the market is $400, you can’t jump right from $200 to $400 because that $200 a month would be a massive hit to somebody that the potential is retired or on a fixed income. You might not be able to make a quick step up as you might in some other apartment asset class. Rent growth is part of it. In the mobile home park business, one thing that is different is a lot of times you’ll find parks that for a variety of reasons over time have had pretty low occupancy.
It’d be pretty rare to find a 100-unit apartment building that only had 50 units full just because those are typically run more professionally by more professional investors. It’s common in the mobile home park space to find parks that are less occupied. A lot of times, that’s due to the park may have been fully occupied at one point in time. Maybe somebody moves their trailer out for some reason or maybe the park owns the home but they don’t have the resources to go in, rehab the home and rent it out to a resident.
That’s where some of the opportunity lies. We might have somebody that’s owned the park for 20 or 30 years. As an investor, you might look at it and think, “How could they leave this park half empty when there’s all this opportunity for income and generate profits?” As an owner in their 60s or 70s, they’re not thinking, “I want to take on another $500,000 of debt,” or put all this additional money or take on this 2- or 3-year project to turn around and stabilize the park. They’re ready to get out of the business. They want to pass it along to their family. That’s where some of the underwriting complexity comes in. When you look at a park that might be empty and figuring out a strategy to either fill vacant lots with homes that can potentially have the owners of the homes own those rental lots or to bring in homes and/or rehab existing homes in the park and rent those out to the tenants.
That’s awesome because that brings me to a couple of other questions which is the debate on buying parks that where you are owning the homes versus you owning the lots and tenants owning the homes. Can you talk about the nuances of that?
In a lot of mobile home parks, there’s a mix. Some of them are 100% one way and some are 100% the other way. A lot of them are mixed. There are pros and cons to both sides. If the tenants own their own home then there’s less maintenance for the park owner. You’re renting the lot to the tenant. The tenant owns the home. They’ve got to take their own maintenance like a single-family home they own. As a park owner, you’re responsible for the roads, lighting, landscaping and general park upkeep.
If the park owns the home then there’s a higher revenue like in some of the markets I’m in, we might charge $200 if somebody owns their home to rent the lot but if we had a similar-sized maybe 2 or 3 bedroom home on that lot that we owned, we might charge $500 or $600 per month. There’s a decent spread between what you charge for the lot and for the home. As a park owner, what comes along with that is maintenance. You’ve got to have a good maintenance team on site who can take care of tenant issues.
You typically have a little higher turnover because if somebody owns their home, that’s one of their biggest assets so they’re less likely to move the house out because it’s expensive to move even what’s called a mobile home. If you have the teams in place to maintain them to inspect the homes that the park owns, the returns that you can get from a park-owned home-based park are typically higher than a park where the tenants own their home. It all comes down to that spread between what you can charge for the home itself as you’re renting it out.
That also hinges heavily on getting a good maintenance team in place. Having the systems in place where you have good people who can help with maintaining and making sure that the homes are intact to the extent that you decide to take that path.
We have on-site management and maintenance that makes or breaks a deal. The consulting company I work for manages about 90 parks across the country. As you look across those it’s like, “Which ones are performing the best?” It’s the one we’ve got great management on site. Sometimes you can be lucky and find somebody who can do the standard management, showing tenants’ homes, collecting rent, giving regular updates on what’s happening at the park and that person can also do maintenance and light rehab work. That’s perfect. Oftentimes especially in a bigger park, it might be 2 or 3 people. Management is the key to having a successful park.
Connected to that, some people reading might be in a situation where they have chosen to buy homes in other people’s mobile home parks and probably had no idea that they could own the park. Can you talk about the shift in either mindset or thought process around that? Maybe you’ve seen that shift with people who’ve chosen to go from owning one of the mobile home parks to then saying, “I want to invest in buying this entire park.”
I’ve heard several stories about that. People who might be mobile home flippers, in the same way, they’re single-family home flippers, there are mobile home flippers that might build relationships with owners going into a park and say, “Can I buy this home from you, rehab it and I’ll try to find a tenant or somebody who wants to buy that house and you can get the lot rent for it?” If the owner has a vacant house, he’s thinking, “This guy is going to come in and fix the house himself. It was sitting there not generating any income. He’s going to do the work. He’ll make the money from flipping the house and selling it. I’ll have the long-term income from generating money from the lot rent.”
There are people that are involved in that business that eventually go, “I should probably see if I can buy off one of these parks myself?” Probably the thing that prevents people from jumping into that might be the same thing that prevents somebody who does single-family home flipping to say, “I want to jump into buying an apartment.” It’s that much bigger capital investment and might oftentimes either come down to doing syndication or partnering with somebody to buy a park.
That’s perfect because it brings me to financing. Is financing for these parks is like a Fannie and Freddie loan or other types of loans? How is the financing typically structured for mobile home park purchases?
Fannie and Freddie are involved in the mobile home park space. They’ve gotten more so in the last couple of years. Their requirements are a little bit stricter in terms of minimum loan size and they also typically prefer parks that have more tenant-owned homes because a mobile home itself is considered personal property, not real property. They don’t want to lend on any income that you’re getting from the rent that you’re getting for the house. They want to look at it from a lot-rent perspective.
The underwriting is a little bit different. They’ll oftentimes want things like paved roads versus gravel roads or if it has curbs and gutters. That makes it more attractive to them from an underwriting standpoint. In a lot of the deals that I’ve been involved in on the consulting side, you’ll often see local banks get involved because they’re in the community. They know the park and look at the park more like another business in town that they’re used to seeing or it’s been around for years. They would be more likely to invest in the overall income of the park, not try to do some split between the park-owned home revenue and the lot revenue.
Local banks can be a great resource. There are a few banks out there that maybe don’t specialize in mobile home parks but have a fair amount of their portfolio in parks and there are a few brokers that lean towards that space that understand how the business works. I know one bank that I’ve talked to, who slowly dipped their toes into the water years ago in a few parks. They found over time that one of the lowest default rates across all the different categories they’ve lent against was in mobile home parks. They think, “We get it. We understand this business.” There’s a huge demand for this product and you’ve been in a situation where the park owns the home and they’re renting them out, there’s still value and that they’re willing to lend against.
We’re in a recession. Based on your work consulting on these different parks and owning parks yourself, what are your thoughts on how mobile home parks have fared so far?
It’s been a mix. That’s one thing about the recession resistance of mobile home parks in a typical recession in terms of the jobs that still remain in a typical recession. Sometimes you’ll talk to people in the retail investing space and sometimes they love the little small strip malls. They think there’s always going to be a nail salon, a place to get your haircut, a local deli, coffee shop or something that’s good and going to be a solid investment that’s always going to be around no matter what versus a big shopping center where maybe a big grocery store goes out of business. That would be in a typical environment.
When COVID had a lot of those jobs and companies ended up having to shut down. A lot of the tenants in the affordable housing spectrum lost their jobs. The parks that I put my syndications together for had been affected by that. It’s either a combination of people who were legitimately affected by the pandemic and lost jobs but also you had people that have taken advantage of the eviction moratoriums. I was looking for parks when I was putting syndications together for landlord-friendly states. Even in those states, they put an eviction moratorium in place and the courts were closed for most of 2020. There’s been a mix. It depends on the tenant mix and the market that’s had a different effect than a typical recession would on parks.
I would assume as people look to acquire more parks and as investors think about looking at mobile home park investments, one of the key things would be payments, delinquencies and vacancies to then determine what is their plan to deal with that going forward.
It’s a challenge. As a park owner, if there are eviction moratoriums in place, your hands are tied in terms of being able to get people to move out. You’ve got a mix of people that are legitimately affected. Their jobs have been affected. Maybe they’ve received their stimulus payments or haven’t. You don’t have any control over what they do with that but it does depend on the park and the situation. We work with our tenants as much as possible to try to work out payment plans to get them back up to speed. We’re working with some local government agencies who are able to provide funds to help tenants make payments when their jobs have been affected by COVID. We’re doing what we can to be nimble during this time.It’s critical to educate yourself and get yourself around people who have done that same thing you want to do. Click To Tweet
Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about mobile home parks that you wish that I would have asked you?
One thing I didn’t touch on from a financing standpoint is it’s a lot more common in the mobile home park world where you can get seller financing in comparison to apartments. Oftentimes, with mobile home parks, it could be that it might be difficult to get bank financing because the owner may not have great records kept. Maybe they’re only accepting cash. They didn’t keep clean books so they might be bringing in X amount per year but they’re only reporting a lower amount. Banks would want to see clean books and tax returns to match things up before they land on it.
They may not want to land on a park that’s a turnaround park with lower occupancy than then they would like. What causes it is it makes mobile home park owners that are looking to sell if they understand that they want to sell their park that it’s not a bank financeable and they might be open to doing seller financing. It could also be from a capital gains standpoint where you might have an aging owner who says, “I don’t want the park anymore. I’d like to go from running this park day-to-day to having some consistent income but I don’t necessarily want to take big capital gains hit. I can maybe take a 20%, 30%, 40% down payment.”
They’re willing to carry a note for 4 or 5 years to give them some income to be able to sell the park. From their standpoint, the worst that can happen is when a new park owner defaults. They’d have to take back a park that they already understand and know how to run. Seller financing is another thing that can be a good thing about the mobile home park business if you can get in and potentially get a good deal and work out a good negotiation with the seller.
In my opinion, that is a way of which people can get into this business probably a little bit easier than multifamily because if you’re dealing with the banks, they are going to want to have experience. There’s a whole ton of things that you need to be coming with. If you’re working with a seller who says, “Let’s do seller financing,” this could be your key to get that experience of buying a park.
Maybe you’re buying a park that’s $1 million or a little bit less than that and you’re looking for a $500,000 to $600,000 loan, it might be below Fannie and Freddie thresholds or what certain banks want to lend on, finally getting an appraisal to get a call from the park could be difficult. They might want to look for a KP or Key Principal on loan whereas when you’re dealing one-on-one with the seller, as long as they feel, “I trust this person. They’ve got the financial wherewithal that they’re willing to do a loan like that.” It can make deals that otherwise wouldn’t happen but would go through.
Before we wrap up this episode and get into the Level Up questions, I wanted to talk a little bit about transitioning from W-2 to entrepreneur because you’ve done that. Can you share with my audience maybe skills or mindset, things that helped you along the way in terms of making that shift?
For me, it was education and putting myself around other people who were doing the same thing. I started to read, listen to podcasts and go to seminars on how to put together syndications. In that environment, you’re seeing other people that have done the same thing that has taken those steps to try to build a real estate syndication business and move away from their W-2 jobs. Education and getting yourself around people who have done that same thing is critical and it’s one of the things that motivated and inspired me. The thing was deciding to take action. My syndication training came from The Real Estate Guys’ Secrets of Successful Syndication Seminars they put together. I went to my first one back in 2015. I thought, “I’m going to do this.” I’m all excited and I want to start putting together deals. I went away. Life got in the way. My job got super busy and I didn’t do anything about it.
I went back to the same seminar in 2018. After that I decided, “If I’m going to do this, I can’t keep going to seminars, reading about this and learning about this. I’m either going to put up or shut up.” It was at that point in time that I decided. I went to my employer at the time and asked me if I could cut back to four days a week so I could at least have one day a week that I could focus on looking at deals, talking to investors and talking to brokers. That was a big leap to be able to decide that I’m not at the point where I could say, “I’m going to quit and focus on 100% on real estate,” but tried to find a way that I could say, “How can I keep a little bit of security and income coming in while I’m building this other part of the business?”
You’ve transitioned into another type of role that is connected in a mobile home park space while you continue to build your real estate syndication business specifically focused on mobile home parks.
That’s been great because there’s a company that I’ve worked with called CCI Investments that is a mobile home park consulting firm. They run about 85 to 90 parks across the country and I had hired them to help me buy my first three parks. They help with due diligence, underwriting, negotiations that help create a turnaround plan, help turn around the park and make it as profitable as possible. I had hired them as a consulting firm. About six months or so after I started working with them, the president of that company approached me and said that they were incredibly busy with a lot of incoming calls into their business for people that were looking to buy parks directly. For me, it was great. It gave me the ability to say that if I have deals that I put together for my limited partner investors who might have $50,000 to invest. I’ve got one offering. If I meet people who have maybe $400,000, $500,000 or more than that and say, “I want to buy a park myself,” it could be individuals, small partnerships, family offices or other big mobile home park operators, then I could help them out as well. It’s been a good way to be a compliment to my syndication business.
This then leads me to the final questions that I asked all my guests. The first one is what are you grateful for in your life?
Making it through this pandemic with my family and friends healthy and have been able to continue growing my business during this time. I know it hasn’t been easy for a lot of people. The fact that I’ve made it through 2020 with a lot of growth and success has been something I’m grateful for.
What has attributed to your success and continuous growth?
It’s the community that I work with. I mentioned The Real Estate Guys’ Secrets of Successful Syndication. That’s opened me up to an incredible group of like-minded people and successful investors. I’m part of Kyle Wilson who was Jim Rohn’s business partner and part of his mastermind group. That’s another place to surround yourself with great people. We’re both involved with a good real estate accelerator. That would be several examples of getting yourself around and communicating with people who are like-minded, positive and motivational forces in your life. It lifts everybody up who’s part of those groups.
What do you now know that you wish you knew at the beginning of your journey?
Probably that it is possible to raise money from investors. It’s theoretical when you start having those initial conversations of, “I’m thinking of starting this real estate business. Have you ever thought of investing in real estate?” To put a deal together, finding it, underwriting it, putting all the operating and the legal documents together, the webinars and reaching out to people. Maybe for all people raising money, it’s a definite unknown when you start putting deals together but if you have a good investment and a good reputation that you can help investors place their money.
Thank you so much for coming to the show. I learned a lot about mobile home parks. I know for sure that my readers have learned a lot as a result of this episode. If they would like to learn more about you, where’s the best place where they can go to learn more?
They can email me at Todd@BlueElmInvestments.com. Check out my website. You can find a link there to sign up for our Investor Club. I send out regular emails about mobile home parks and the state of the investing industry. I’m always happy to talk to investors and share what I know about my mobile home parks in my investing journey.
Thank you so much.
Thank you, Lisa. It was a pleasure.
- Blue Elm Investments
- Success Habits of Super Achievers
- Secrets of Successful Syndication Seminars
- CCI Investments
- Investor Club
About Todd Sulzinger
Todd Sulzinger is a former Silicon Valley finance executive turned real estate investor with a focus on the growing niche of mobile home park investing.
His company, Blue Elm Investments, has built the expertise to turn neglected mobile home parks into vibrant communities, increasing the availability of safe, clean, and affordable housing for their residents, while offering their investors a strategic way to diversify their portfolios.
Todd is also the co-author of Success Habits of Super Achievers, a #1 Amazon bestseller with secrets, tips, and inspiration to accelerate your success.
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