Why Sam Zell Is Considered A "Gravedancer" -- And Why That's A Good Investment Strategy

Sam Zell is the largest owner of mobile home parks in the U.S. He’s also been the largest owner of apartments and office buildings. But regardless of the sector, his strategy has always remained to buy assets that are near death and then bring them back to life. Why has this strategy worked so well?

Who is Sam Zell?

Let’s start off with “who’s Sam Zell?” Born in 1941, Zell went to college to be a lawyer, but only practiced for a week. Instead he went into the apartment sector, beginning with student housing and then moving on to all forms of apartments. But his theory has always been to buy assets when others are selling, with the quote “if everyone is going left, look right” summing up this viewpoint. He is perhaps America’s greatest contrarian investor in the real estate sector.

What does “gravedancer” mean?

“Gravedancer” is a term -- coined by Zell himself – to suggest someone that delights in taking advantage of other investors’ misfortune and having the bravery to walk on the cutting edge of disaster to buy when others are selling. It also has something to do with timing, which has always been one of Zell’s key components to investing.

How is that a good investment strategy?

Buying when others are selling has long been a successful axiom of all forms of real estate, including stocks. It means buying assets at the lowest possible prices – sometimes less than construction cost. Of course, the other side of the coin is to sell when others are buying, and that’s what gave Zell his greatest legend: his sale of $39 billion of office properties in 2006, right before the 2007 Great Recession and the collapse of office pricing.

What Zell’s behavior on mobile home parks would suggest

Zell started buying mobile home parks in the mid-1990s (the same time that we started buying parks) and did so because it was 100% contrarian as no large real estate investor was buying up “trailer parks” in that period. Once again, he was “looking right when everyone else was looking left”, and this allowed him to amass the largest portfolio in the industry. And he continues to buy, so that would suggest that he still feels that mobile home parks have a good future and the timing is not off.

At the same time, despite selling off his office and many of his apartment properties before the Great Recession he has never sold a single mobile home park. This would also suggest that he sees the future of mobile home parks as being bright and is willing to stay in the game despite some claiming that cap rates are too low and that there’s another recession looming in 2021 or so.

Other considerations

Zell is also well-known for his theories on risk vs. reward. Zell’s postulate is that “if the risk is low and the reward high, you should always buy it; and if the risk is high and the reward low, you should never buy it”. This is one of his main doctrines that he lives by. If you have not read his book “Am I Being Too Subtle” it’s one of the best real estate books in the past decade. And we are huge advocates of this, as well, and also strong believers in doing superior due diligence, as this will mitigate the risk.

Conclusion

Being contrarian is a great business model. And there are few investments more contrarian than “trailer parks”. The good news is that the largest “gravedancer” in the U.S. is also the largest mobile home park owner, so you can safely follow his example.

Dave Reynolds is a household name in the mobile home park business for many reasons. First is the fact that he, along with his partner Frank Rolfe, is the 5th largest owner of mobile home parks in the U.S. with over 20,000 lots spread out over 25 states. But he is equally well known for his ownership of MobileHomeParkStore.com - which was the first mobile home park listing service in the U.S. - and features between 750 and 1,000 mobile home parks for sale at any given time.