JF956: Why He Traded Billboards for MOBILE HOMES!
Undoubtedly, he is a mobile home park authority. The fifth largest mobile home buyer in the US is dropping knowledge on occupancy, acquisition, and how mobile home parks create true wealth. This is a niche unlike other niches… but there are definitely riches. Tune in!
Best Ever Tweet:
Frank Rolfe Real Estate Background:
– Co-founder of Mobilehomeuniversity.com
– Ranked, with his partner Dave Reynolds, as 5th largest mobile home park owner in the U.S.
– Over 250 communities spread out over 28 states worth over $8,000,000
– Commercial real estate investor for over 30 years
– Based in Denver, Colorado
– Say hi to him at http://www.mobilehomeuniversity.com/
– Best Ever Book: The Man Who Bought the Waldorf
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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast. We only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any fluffy stuff.
With us today, Frank Rolfe. How are you doing, Frank?
Frank Rolfe: Hey, Joe. I’m doing great, how are you doing?
Joe Fairless: I’m doing well, nice to have you on the show. We’re gonna be talking about mobile homes, because Frank is the co-founder of MobileHomeUniversity.com. He is ranked with his partner Dave Reynolds as the fifth largest mobile home park owner in the U.S. They’ve got over 250 communities spread out over 28 states.
His company is based in Denver, Colorado. He’s been a commercial real estate investor for over 30 years. Frank, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your focus?
Frank Rolfe: Absolutely, Joe. Basically, I went to Stanford University and got a degree in Economics; I got out a year early. Back in that day, if you were going to go to a good business school, you wanted to start a business and write about that as your essay on your application. So I had to start a business that I could start, build and shut down within one year. The business I came upon was a billboard business.
I started a billboard company. In the first year I had [unintelligible [00:03:27].12] signs, but I had seven more pending, so I decided to go one extra year to get those closed out. You can guess what happened – I never went to graduate school, I kept building the billboard business. Then 14 years later I was the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas-Fort Worth, and I sold to a public company in 1996. A few months later I started buying mobile home parks, and I’ve been buying those for the last 20 years.
I teamed up with my partner, Dave Reynolds about a decade ago, and we’re now together the fifth largest owners in the U.S., which we built just one property at a time. We were the only people to ever build something as large as we’ve got just one property at a time.
That’s basically the background, Joe. I’m just basically very heavily invested, both monetarily and personally and time-wise in the whole affordable housing industry.
Joe Fairless: I know looking back on it, you can identify why mobile homes make sense… But if you can, if it’s possible, I’d love for you to think about when you sold your billboard company to when you bought your first mobile home or mobile home park – why did you go to mobile homes at that point in time, instead of other types of real estate?
Frank Rolfe: Well, I’ve always liked stuff that the rest of the world’s not doing… That’s why I liked billboards, because when I was doing billboards, there was only a handful of people that had any interest in it. I guess being an Economics major, I’ve been a big believer in supply and demand. I like to go where nobody else goes. That’s kind of been my life theme.
When I had had the billboard company, I built two billboards on a mobile home park, and I check on the signs, and the guy that owned the park would often call me up and ask me to do weird things like could I knock on the manager’s door and ask him why he won’t ever call him back, things like that…
I thought, “Man, what a weird business.” I’d never heard of it, I’d never knew anyone growing up who lived in a mobile home park or in a mobile home, so it was kind of like “Well, this is kind of different.” Then I also noticed when I was doing the billboards that billboards – people don’t realize, it’s a federally regulated industry. You can only build billboards in certain zonings and certain spacings from other signs, so you get very familiar with zoning maps; you’re looking at zoning maps all the time.
The MH zoning class in Dallas was the smallest zoning category I ever saw. I saw more zoning for lead smelters than I did for mobile home parks. So again, thinking supply and demand, I thought we’ll always be in the rarest zoning that exists, and this has gotta have some value in it. That’s really what got me into it. I was just kind of fascinated a) with how weird it was, and the fact that nobody else was in it, and then b) how scarce it was.
Joe Fairless: Now let’s fast-forward to today… You’ve got 250 communities across 28 states; what do you focus your time on now?
Frank Rolfe: That’s a good question, Joe. I basically probably go wherever the weak spot is and try to fix it. Basically, I kind of float around. Right now I’m very much focused on trying to fix occupancy issues and our most lagging 20% of the properties. I work on collections issues… I work on just about anything. Property condition… Just about any role. The size that we are — it’s kind of like being the [unintelligible [00:06:49].14] on an assembly line, you’re just trying to find which parts of the assembly line are not working efficiently and fix those.
Joe Fairless: That’s great. That’s very helpful, and it gives us a lot of stuff to talk about. Let’s go with the occupancy issues and the most lagging 20% of the properties. What does an occupancy issue look like, and then how do you solve it?
Frank Rolfe: We have a lot of demand because affordable housing right now is the hot topic. Basically, it’s very simple math when you have a mobile home park. Every three calls typically leads to a showing; every three showings lead to a sale or a rental. So you’ve gotta have the phone ring about nine times to make something happen. Our goal is to find all the properties that have the phone ring at least nine times every week.
The first problem you have is if a property is not hitting nine; if it’s hitting three or four, you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, how can we fine-tune the marketing?” In some cases what happens is managers get dependent on Craigslist, because it’s free and it’s easy, but the problem is Craigslist is only really effective in the larger urban markets; it’s not that great a tool in some of your medium and smaller-sized markets. Although it does work well in some of them, it doesn’t work in all of them, so you then have to expand your horizons on the marketing channels of how you’re trying to reach people. So that’s problem number one.
Joe Fairless: For example…? How do you expand?
Frank Rolfe: Lots of ways. Ads [unintelligible [00:08:09].21] are by far the best. You can do such items as apartment direct mail, it’s very effective; you can do such items as more signage on the front edge to your property, more referral letters to tenants, what we call tear sheets, which are eight-and-a-half by eleven sheets of paper with your phone number vertically in the bottom that you cut with scissors, and put those in Laundromats and grocery stores.
There’s all kinds of different avenues you can do; you just try to figure out what works in that market. So that’s problem one.
Problem two is… Another reason you can have problems selling or renting is that people just don’t like your product. That can be because you’re not rehabbing it to a high enough level, or it can be that you are missing such basics as just having it smell good and be clean. So it’s the same issues that come up with single-family, so that’s another thing that can block you.
Third is if the manager is any good at sales. Are they even showing up for showings, and when they show up, do they care and seem enthusiastic, or do they just give you a look like “Why are you even here?” and hate everyone? So that could also do it.
Another issue can be pricing. You may be priced out of the market. You may say, “Well, our deposit on this home is $1,000”, and let’s say the home market can only afford $500; you’ll never sell much.
So those are typically the occupancy issues we have; they are falling into one of those categories, so I try to go out to the property and meet with the manager and figure out which the problem is, and then fix it. It’s no more exciting and complicated than that.
Joe Fairless: And just so I’m clear on the nine times a week… It takes nine phone calls to get one sale or rental, so if you have multiple mobile homes, then you’d multiply nine by the amount of mobile homes that you have vacant or needing to be purchased, right?
Frank Rolfe: Yeah, exactly. Most of these properties fall into a rhythm just based on the size of the market. In other words, if you are in Des Moines, Iowa, you could score 50-100 calls a week there; the homes fly out the door and you really don’t have any vacancy.
If you’re in a market that, let’s say, gets nine a week, that means you can do a home a week. So there’s some properties we have that can do a home a day, we have some that do a home a week, some that would do basically a home a month… This kind of gives you an idea of what the velocity should be. We don’t have any that would need more than one a month. We try to only buy stuff that can do one a week.
Joe Fairless: So you said another weak spot that you identify and then you dig into are collection issues…
Frank Rolfe: Collection issues are huge in the affordable housing business, because the very nature of customers that need affordable housing – they don’t have a lot of money. You probably have read, Joe, that 70% of all Americans don’t even have $1,000 total. What that means is when you’re living in a world without any savings at all, you’re flying an airplane at about a thousand miles an hour about two feet off the growth, and the slightest little thing will crash the plane. All that has to happen is the brakes go out on your car, and to get the brakes fixed it’s $700, and now you can’t pay your rent. Or you have a medical emergency, you go to the hospital, you could break your arm… There’s a million options.
So what happens is when you’re in an environment like that, it’s always hard to get everyone to pay. Now, our prices are very low, so they typically can always afford to pay; it’s sometimes a priority issue, and sometimes a timing issue. But you won’t get paid unless you have a pretty firm program, which most community owners call “No pay, no stay.” That’s true pretty much throughout the affordable housing industry. What it means is if you don’t pay, you can’t live there, so people have to make that choice – do they want to have a roof over their heads, or do they want to buy the big screen TV?
A lot of times you’re having to retrain people into doing what they need to do and not what they want to do. Sometimes what happens is the community managers loses sight of that, because often they live in the community, it’s often some of these people are their friends, and they’ll basically start relaxing the program to make friends, and what ends up happening is it screws the whole property up, and you have to go in and fix it.
It’s something you have to stay vigilant on every month, because even if you get everyone perfectly trained to pay the rent like clockwork, if you for one month stop pushing it, they all go backward again. It’s kind of like pushing a ball up a mountain, or something; if you don’t keep pushing, at some point it’s gonna roll all the way down the mountain again.
Joe Fairless: I know that you all train the on-site person initially – “Hey, it’s no pay, no stay. Here’s the process”, and it sounds like that needs to be continually reiterated, just because of the nature of the business. Do you have a process that you implement on an ongoing basis for those on-the-ground people to reinforce that “No pay, no stay”?
Frank Rolfe: Yeah, we even built an online — like a defensive driving course that we give all the managers on the frontend, and then we back that up, we’re talking to them constantly. Despite all of that, you still have to — typically, when you have as many properties as we have, you have to stay on top of everything, because there are certain people in there who will forget their training or just start doing things they shouldn’t do, which they know they shouldn’t do, but they do out of convenience or to make friends, or whatever.
It’s the greatest training program in the world; our program is about as good as you can get on the training side, but it still won’t solve all your problems.
Joe Fairless: Speaking about the on-site people – how many people do you need to oversee mobile home park? It’s a fairly broad question because I didn’t tell you how many spots there are or whatever, so take it however you want.
Frank Rolfe: Most of our properties have just one manager, and then some of the properties have what’s called a maintenance man, and that’s about all you need.
Joe Fairless: Regardless of the size?
Frank Rolfe: Well, no… In other words, until about 100 to 150 lots, typically your entire staff is potentially two people or one person. When you get beyond that, say you have a 250-space community, then you might have a manager and an assistant manager and a maintenance man. But our industry is relatively low maintenance, because the nature of the business on the park side – you’re just renting land, so it’s very low maintenance. The home side – not that much breaks in the stuff, because most people have in their agreements… The customers do all the small stuff, and we do the large stuff; large stuff doesn’t break that often. So I guess we’re like the Maytag repairman – we still don’t have a lot to do, and that’s why we can staff things without as many people as you might have to have for example in multi-family. It’s just not that much that goes on.
Joe Fairless: The last thing you mentioned earlier when you said you’re looking to find the weak spot and fixing it was the property condition. If you haven’t implemented the whatever renovations you’ve already budgeted for, then how do you approach that if you don’t have the money allocated already, because it sounds like that would be a surprise in this scenario, that the property condition is deteriorating?
Frank Rolfe: Well, in property condition, most of that is free. In other words, what it is is enforcing the rules; the whole community has rules, guidelines that people have to live under, and those items include you can’t have junk in your yard, not running vehicles, home has to be kept up to a certain standard, the grass has to be mowed. Those items are free to the park owner; those are things that the residents are supposed to be doing.
The park owner is in charge of the common areas. We’re in charge of the entry signage, mowing the common areas, things like playgrounds if we have them, and then roads, which typically we do a pothole repair once a year. So the biggest part of property condition is just making sure that the manager is staying on top of the rules violations, and that we’re mowing the property effectively. Those are kind of the keys.
The way we do it these days, Joe, which is different than the old days (20 years ago) to stay on top of property condition, you have to drive the property yourself. Today we do everything based on HD videos. Each manager has a Polaroid Cube camera and a suction cup mount. Monthly you put that on the roof of your car, and you push the button and you start about a thousand feet away from the property, so you can see even the front entry, and they drive the entire property; then they take the card out of the camera and they send the card in, and then we download the video, and we watch the video.
Now, the only problem is as large as we are, to watch the videos it’s 16 hours, so it’s a lot of video watching…
Joe Fairless: …for all the properties.
Frank Rolfe: Exactly, correct. But it’s an extremely effective tool, because while it’s not identical to what you see if you go drive, and it is only that one day in time, it looks pretty darn similar, and you can spot problems quickly and easily. You can view all your properties every time you do that. If you wanna take it to the next level, you can actually put that in a GoTo Meeting webinar and you can drive the property with the manager, like you’re in the car with them, and discuss it as you go, and stop and rewind… It’s a super effective tool. That has improved our lives by a trillion percent, because now we can just go out and physically go to the ones that are really of concern, which rarely on property condition there’s enough concern that you’re really freaking out.
The number one issue you have with them traditionally is gonna be in, say, a hundred-space community you might have a couple non-running cars, which means the manager failed to recognize running from non-running, or was trying to maybe help a friend, or something. Then THE most common is that the grass is not getting mowed. So basically, through the entire winter season, life is bliss because there are relatively no problems. But right now we’re entering into our hardest time of the year, which requires mowing.
Joe Fairless: Other than those two things – and maybe there aren’t any, but I bet there are – other than non-running cars — how do you know if a car is non-running by looking at it on a video?
Frank Rolfe: Well, a non-running car – when we talk a true non-running car – will be sitting there on flats, for starters. One item we’ve seen more and more in the industry is that people to either save money or to make it more convenient, wanna create their own self-storage sometimes in the mobile home park, so what they do is they buy a van or a pickup truck and they park it there, and they use that as their own self-storage. The car doesn’t even run. But you can always spot them, because they’re always on all flats, with trees growing up between axels, or something.
We try not to be too picky on stuff that’s just minus the tags. A non-running vehicle, by definition, based on towing regulations, is something that does not have all its tags up to date. So if your inspection sticker is off by a month, you could theoretically have it towed for being non-running. But that’s crazy, because there’s people in McMansion subdivisions that forgot to get their tags renewed, right? So that’s a crazily high bar to set.
Basically, as long as the car is being driven, even if the tags are out of date, we do not call that a non-running vehicle. In fact, if you were to tow that, what’s gonna happen is then the resident — you’ve just created the three-foot-off-the-ground plane crash; now they can’t get to work and they can’t pay the rent. So we try to be very user-friendly, particularly in automobiles, because they’re very expensive to upgrade. We don’t wanna give people more problems than it’s worth, but we can’t afford to have people pulling in a van and letting it sit there rusted on all flats because they like to use that as a mini-storage vehicle.
Joe Fairless: My last follow-up question on this particular topic – when you watch the video with the property manager and they’re not as experienced, besides non-running cars and grass isn’t getting mowed, what’s something else that you might point out to them?
Frank Rolfe: We actually have a whole thing for them – it’s an 11-step process, and it ranges from all signage (we own all the signage on every property)… You want all the signage to look good. That means that — obviously, your entry sign is the key one that kind of sets your first impression, but we do not allow any signs that are bent or rusted or weathered or have graffiti on them. For example, if you’ve got a Stop sign and somebody spray-painted something on the stop sign, you’ve gotta replace the stop sign, or you’ve gotta get it off. But you can’t get i off, so you’re gonna replace the Stop sign. So signage is one of their items.
Mowing is one of their items, non-running vehicles is one of their items, the general condition of the residence, homes and yards is one of the items. You’ve got trash dumpster areas – you don’t want any mattresses and junks sitting in those, that’s one of the items. You’ve got the common area appearance of like club houses or any structure – make sure that it’s painted and looking attractive. If you have playgrounds or basketball courts – those are all painted and in good condition. The basketball court has nets on it… It’s those kinds of items.
It’s not rocket science, but the problem is if you let it slide, it hurts the overall community feel, and it irritates people and there’s no purpose. And the worst part you have with property condition is what you sometimes have is you’ll have all these people that keep everything immaculate, and then you’ll just have this one person that just ruins it for everyone. You can see them in most any mobile home park. If you go to any mobile home park, you’ll see that of every 20-30 houses, there’s that one person. That’s not fair to the other people; they have their property looking fantastic, and then here’s this one person who’s home is beat to death, the cars are atrocious and there’s junk everywhere… When we first buy the properties, often they’ve got three pit bulls on ropes in the yard… That’s what we’re really striving to eliminate.
That person either has to move on to another property that says living like that is okay, or they have to clean up their act. That’s one of the key items.
Joe Fairless: Frank, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever?
Frank Rolfe: Are we talking on a macro level or just in my industry?
Joe Fairless: Let’s talk about your industry, let’s keep it focused.
Frank Rolfe: On the industry there are five key things that you have to know about a mobile home park purchase, or you’re gonna get in trouble. We call it the IDEAL system. The I is for infrastructure – you have to make sure the thing has solid infrastructure; typically city water, city sewer, good working water and sewer lines, power system is in good shape, roads are good… That’s the first step
Second one is called density – that’s the D. Density means you have to have lots that are large enough that you can bring new homes into, because the industry has changed dramatically over time. In 1954 the biggest mobile home was 8 by 40, and today it is 18 by 100, so that’s changed hugely. So you have to make sure that your lots — as soon as they can’t hold the largest homes now made… They have to hold at least about 14 by 46, which is a two-bedroom, one bath.
The E is for economics. Clearly, obviously, you have to have a handle on what kind of net income the property produces, what it can produce going forward, and make sure you’re buying it at a price that makes sense based on its net income.
A is for the age of home. We’re probably the only industry in America that tends to favor the older stuff more than the newer stuff, and that’s because an older home is paid for. It really just depends not so much on the age of the home, but whether it’s paid for or has a mortgage on it. When you have customers where the home is paid for, you typically have a customer for life, because there’s no place that they can possibly live cheaper than the mobile home park. So if they own the home and we own the land, they’re like stakeholders in the business. We like our residents to own their own homes free and clear.
The L is for location. There’s two locations that work in the mobile home park world. One is a nice suburban area in a good school district; that comes as no shocker. But the other style which many people find a shocker is that kind of gritty urban living that millennials now choose in their own apartments. People wanna live downtown, and there’s a certain number of people in the mobile home park world that like to live where the action is, in downtown. Those are those mobile home parks you sometimes drive by just outside of downtown or in downtown, and you think, “Oh my god, who would live there?” But shockingly, if you look at a market like Denver, the highest rents in Denver are those gritty urban parks; those get like $700/month lot rent. The rural areas, even the nice school districts get like $300-$400.
I’d say that those five items are key. If you flunk any of the five items… For example, if density is too high to fit new homes on… The only way you can buy a park if one of those five is bad is if one of the other five is good enough to offset that. So it’s kind of like the scales of justice. You can only really buy a property where they’re all balancing, and if they don’t balance, you shouldn’t buy it. If they’re beyond balance on the good side, you should definitely buy it.
Joe Fairless: Wonderful practical information, and thank you for sharing that. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning round?
Frank Rolfe: Sure, absolutely. Go ahead.
Joe Fairless: Alright, let’s do it. First, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.
Joe Fairless: Okay, Frank, what’s the best ever book you’ve read?
Frank Rolfe: The Man Who Bought The Waldorf, the story of Conrad Hilton.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever deal you’ve done?
Frank Rolfe: A park in Iowa, we paid nine million for it, sold it for 19.
Joe Fairless: Over what period of time and how much did you put into it?
Frank Rolfe: Three years; additional capital put in – probably about 1-2 million.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever way you like to give back?
Frank Rolfe: Basically, I am all the time talking to people getting in the industry on how to do it properly. I’ve got a design to it that works and it’s a win/win. What I do is I drive a lot between properties, and when I’m on the road I just turn my phone on speakerphone and I return the gazillion calls I get from people and try and tell them my constructive ideas on parks they’re buying, or valuations on parks they’re doing. It keeps me awake and lively while I’m driving, and it’s a good way to give back to them to help them get their mobile home park thing going.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever way for someone who wants to get started in mobile home investing to find a deal?
Frank Rolfe: The best way… There’s probably four ways to find them, and it varies. They’re all fairly effective. First one is online. Go to mobilehomeparkstore.com. There’s about 800 parks for sale on there. When you do that, you have to understand that only probably 25% of those are deals you would wanna buy. That’s the first place most people go.
Broker pocket listings are big… That’s where half of all of the properties we buy these days come from – pocket listings. These are listings that brokers have that they don’t publicly discuss, because the seller typically won’t let them, because he’s afraid of scaring the residents or the manager, or it’s because the broker could talk about them publicly, but he doesn’t want to because he doesn’t want to talk to other brokers, only to buyers who are not represented, so that he gets the entire commission.
Third level is direct mail. We do that all the time. You basically send postcards or letters to people who own mobile home parks, saying “Hey, I wanna buy a mobile home park. Are you interested?” Like any direct mail, we get typically a 1% response rate.
The fourth is cold calling. You basically just call people up and say, “Hi, I’m interested in buying a mobile home park. Is yours for sale? If so, at what price?” Those are the four most standard ways. There’s a fifth way which is called “drive and talk”, where you pull into a mobile home park and just try and strike up a conversation with the owner, but it’s very time-consuming and half the time it’s of no value, because all that’s there is the manager.
Joe Fairless: What would be a mistake you’ve made on a particular deal, thinking back through the deals you’ve done?
Frank Rolfe: The biggest mistake I ever made was not understanding what makes the business work. In my early, early career I bought some properties in Shreveport, Louisiana that I should not have bought. Fortunately I came out of all of them whole, so I didn’t lose any money on it; I learned a lot. The problem you have is to create affordable housing you have to have expensive housing. Today I call that contrast.
If you’re looking at a market where the median home price is $40,000, nobody needs a mobile home, or a mobile home park. And I didn’t know that. Early on I just thought, “Oh, there’s a mobile home park… Why would it be any different that another one?” I’ve learned over time that there’s huge issues in the market that make some markets desirable and some not. The desirable markets to us are basically 100,000+ population, median home price of about 100,000 and up, a three-bedroom apartment rent of about $1,000 and up… We also like to see market vacancy – the U.S. average of 12.5% or lower… All these stats you can get off BestPlaces.net (that’s where we get them all).
Beyond that, we like to buy what we call recession-resistant economies. That means that they have the bulk of the jobs based on either healthcare, or education, or in government. Markets that are heavy in that – an example would be Kansas City. Kansas City has more federal jobs than any city outside of Washington DC. It also has a huge amount of healthcare, and it also has a huge number of colleges. St. Louis has the same…
If you look at the U.S. economy based simply on how safe is the employment, you’ll find entire regions that are very risky… For example, when you go way out, far East Texas it’s all about oil and gas, right? West Texas is also all about oil and gas… A lot of your Midwestern, Great Plains markets are pretty much well diversified in healthcare and colleges and government, and that’s what we like.
We like the cities where you can have the 2007 Great Recession and nothing changes.
Joe Fairless: Where can the Best Ever listeners get in touch with you?
Frank Rolfe: You can always reach me at my e-mail, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s typically the best starting spot. I am very accessible, because again, I’ve got it now where I’m basically talking to people, and typically everywhere I go in life today I take my laptop with me… Whether it’s to any event, or watching TV, or whatever. So anyone who’d like to contact me, always feel welcome to do so.
Joe Fairless: Outstanding. Frank, I have literally a page and a half of notes from our conversation. This has been just a great crash course on mobile home investing, from ways to solve the occupancy issue – you broke it down very tactically, which was helpful… Then how to find deals, and then overall how to look for it using the IDEAL acronym (Infrastructure, Density, Economics, Age of homes and Location).
Thanks so much for being on the show. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Frank Rolfe: Sounds great!