Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 19

Understanding the History of Mobile Homes

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Flat, round and pitched. Mobile homes have evolved over the decades, with each variation having its own benefits and disadvantages. In this week’s Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series, we’re going to explore what the history of mobile homes really means regarding what type of used homes you should buy for your community. You will learn 20+ years of experience on this subject in about 15 minutes. This is the first part of a 5-part series on mobile homes and their use in mobile home parks.

Episode Transcript

Flat, round, or pitched, this will be the first part of a five-part series all about park owned and mobile homes. We're going to talk about the challenges of them, the benefits of them, and we'll be doing a whole lot of insider secrets on them. This is Frank Rolfe of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series.

Let's talk about mobile homes, the history of the mobile home. The things you need to know if you're going to own a mobile home park, because you can't own a park without also being a little bit in the mobile home industry itself.

The early mobile homes were flat-roof. This is true for the 1930s, all the way to the 1970s. The homes were flat across the top. When you look at them on the end, they look like a box. Now, these early flat-roof homes are all typically metal on metal, which means they're metal walls and metal roofs. In some cases, they can even be more than one story. Some of the early models were a story and half. You'll see those bump-ups. When you look at the home in profile, you'll notice the home goes down in a straight line, but then sometimes it bumps-up at one end, or other times it bumps-up in the middle.

This was a design strategy done by the earlier designers to make the home seem more spacious. It would give it a story and a half ceiling. And in some cases, the home itself, actually became a story and a half. There was a little walk-up grotto area, like a loft. You couldn't stand up in it, but you could sit in it. If you look at those early catalogs and those homes, you'll see that, basically, you went up there and typically you and your wife would dress in tuxedo and cocktail party attire drinking martinis up on that second floor.

Now, the early homes were all eight feet wide. That is true today, still, of the RV industry, because remember that mobile homes and RVs were the exact same thing until about the 1960s. You've got an eight-foot wide product and the flat roofs never got wider than 12-feet wide. What you have on the flat-roofs are, you have some really, really well-built homes. These homes often weigh more than new homes, a lot more wood in them, very well constructed. A lot of thought went in. Very nicely finished, these things often have mahogany cabinets and things like that.

But the one thing they don't have is room size. That's the key problem with the flat-roof homes is being only eight to 12-feet wide, rarely could the master bedroom hold a king-sized bed, sometimes not even a queen-sized bed. And all the rooms throughout the house are very, very small. They're very reminiscent, these old flat-roofs, to a Chris Craft yacht of the same vintage. The rooms are nicely appointed. They're often attractive, but they're very, very small.

The designers knew this when they built them. They tried really hard to make things seem more spacious. In some of the 1960s models they would actually have the walls tilt out slightly, particularly in the dining room, so it gave you the feel that the room was even bigger than its eight to 12-foot in width because the walls were angling out. But it does not escape the fact that it's very, very hard to place modern furniture in these old flat-roof homes.

Then the roof line went from the flat to the round, so basically in the late 1970s all the way until the late 1980s, those flat roofs suddenly changed their appearance. They went to a rounded roof. Now, it's not that big of a round. It's basically very, very small peak in the middle of round, but nevertheless, the designers decided that flat-roofs were not a very good idea. Because flat-roofs hold water, they hold snow, so rounding the roof would be much more efficient when it came to dealing with the elements.

They also realized that it would be nice to get the rooms a little bigger. So in the late '70s until the '80s on the round-roofs, you'll find the homes changed from 12-feet in width to 14-feet in width. The early round-roofs were often 12-feet, but the later round-roofs, most all of the round-roofs of the 1980s, were 14-feet wide.

At the same time, they also realized that their whole goal in life with these things was to make the rooms larger. They gave up a lot of little nuances of those 1940s, '50s, '60s and even '70s homes, such as having a master bathroom that held both a shower and a tub. And instead tried to put that footage back into the bedrooms. That's where they decided they were really, really lacking and they were totally correct.

In the 1980s, those 14 wide homes will actually hold a king-sized bed in the master bedroom. The kids bedrooms are big enough to actually have some quality of life. The round-roofs were a huge improvement over the early flat-roofs. They also realized with a round-roof era that making things really dark and dreary was not a good idea. If you look in those early flat-roof homes, you'll see that they were traditionally done in that very dark fake wood paneling with typically dark blue, dark green, or dark gray carpeting. That's a whole lot of dark colors in a very small space and, frankly, it's depressing.

By the 1980s, they realize that maybe it was smarter to make things more lighter, neutral colored. That, I think, had huge benefits. Then, just as the round-roof had changed the flat-roof, suddenly you have a new roof line, that's the pitched roof. Now, the pitched roof was not a very big pitch initially. These came in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. The very top, the peak of that pitch, is no higher than the very peak of the semicircle of the round roof. So it's not a huge pitch, but nevertheless the concept is that things drain better when there's some kind of angle. And the old theory of why it changed from round to pitched was simply that consumers did not feel that a round roof looked like the home that you think of when you think of the American dream home.

Typically, if you ask a child to draw a picture of a home, they'll draw something with a pitched roof with a smoke stack on it. Well, mobile homes don't have a smoke stack, but, at least, they decided they could have a pitched roof. Now, those pitched roof homes, again, were 14-feet in width, so the bedrooms were nice, the interiors were nice. Those are perfectly fine homes. We have no problem with them, however by the mid-1990s they decided it was time to do something even better. That brought out what was called the modified pitch, which is a much more significant pitch. Which makes the home look much, much nicer from the outside.

Then they also increased the width, yet again. They went from 14 to 16 and then all the way to 18-feet wide. Now, it's my understanding you can't go any wider than 18 feet because the highway department will not allow you to bring something down the highway that is wider than 18 without a very, very expensive wide-load permit. If you want to pull a mobile home with just one truck, without a lot of ancillary additions of different pick-up trucks and things carrying big flags that say, "Wide-load," 18 feet is your limit.

Now, as you can guess, again, an 18-foot wide home is infinitely more spacious than the 14-wide home. Also when they brought out the modified pitch, the whole industry started a segway in the concept of vinyl sided and shingled roof, from that early metal on metal or the composite wood and metal. Frankly, it's much more attractive. Really, the modern home is state-of-the-art, both inside and outside. In fact, if you've never seen some of these new models, I urge you to go to the mobile home show in Louisville, Kentucky, which I believe is in February in 2018, and see them first-hand. Or, at a minimum, just look them up on video and see just how good the product is, because it's really mind-boggling how good it has become.

Now, what are the big takeaways from everything that I just said? These are the key things that I want you to remember. These are the insiders secrets of thinking about flat, round, and pitched. Number one, the 1980s homes, those round-roof homes from the '80s, are the true work horses of the industry. Those homes are really, really well built. It was at a time when people were still into craftsmanship and they built a really, really good product. It also is before the era of particle-board, so a lot of the things in the home are actually just much stronger. I really like the '80s homes. A metal-on-metal '80s home, to me, is a bullet-proof piece of housing that will last forever.

Also by the 1980s, you had really nicely sized bedrooms. You never get any pushback from customers on room sizes. And, of course, all the 1980s home stock, for the most part, is fully paid for. When you live in a 1980s home, you traditionally have no mortgage to worry about, just your lot rent. Whenever I drive into a park that has predominantly 1980s round-roof homes, I'm always happy because I know that those are customers who have a well-built product that they own free and clear.

Also another big takeaway I want you to come away from this with is that old homes are really, really well built. They really are. People have this idea that mobile homes are temporary housing. That they ultimately die, that they wear out. This is a complete lie. In fact, I think that lie came from the retail part of the industry because if you were a mobile home dealer, wouldn't you want people to try and think they have to trade in their mobile home every so many years, so you can get a new sale? I think you do.

A lot of the old dealers would tell customers, all the time, to bring in their mobile homes and do a trade-in on it after so many years. But that was to their own benefit, not necessarily the customers. I've seen no evidence of any of these homes ever truly wearing out. Those metal-on-metal, flat-roof homes, as early as you want to go, we have some of those in many of our communities and they look perfectly fine and are running just fine. Also, bear in mind, that a 1960s mobile home, at this point, is over a half a century old. If it's made it a half a century by now, there's no reason to believe it can't go another half a century and then another century beyond that.

But the main thing I want you to think about when you compare the flat, the round, and the pitched and this is the big item is the obsolescence of room size. That's really the key issue. When you've got a home that is from the 1960s, it's well built, I promise you that. Look at the title, look at the weight on that title, versus the weight on modern mobile home of the same size. You'll see that it's much heavier from the '60s. So I'm not worried about it wearing out.

What I am worried about is can the customer come to terms with living in really, really small rooms? One thing I found, selling and renting mobile homes for over two decades, it's very, very important to the customer to have a large master bedroom that would hold a king-sized bed. Why not, isn't that what we all like? When you go to the hotel and they say, "What size bed do you want?" Don't you always say, "I want a king-sized bed." It's perfectly reasonable for customers to want to have a large bedroom, but the problem is in those older homes, the homes prior to the '80s, you just really can't offer that. You can't stick a king-sized bed in a 12-wide mobile home and certainly not in a 10 or an eight.

As a result, you can't have what you want. This is America, people always want to have what they want to have. If they're paying for it, they want to have it. If they want a king-sized bed, by heavens, they need a king-sized bed, but they just can't do it. It just will not fit in those early homes. The rooms are just simply too small. Additionally, your kids' rooms in those early homes are really, really small. You can barely put a single bed in there with just like a chair, or maybe the world's smallest dresser. They're really tight and kids obviously want to have some space in their room. They want to have room to sit on the floor and play with toys. So it really becomes a hassle when there's simply no floor room at all.

Let's not forget the living and dining room. In those early homes, the living room couldn't hold nothing more than a love seat and maybe a chair or two and that was it, even then it's very, very cramped. Dining room you'd be lucky to get in a little round table with four chairs. It's the room obsolescence that really has to be your worry when you look at these older homes.

Now, there is an offset to that however. In really, really great locations people are willing to live with those small room sizes just to share in that terrific location. We have a property in Arnold, Missouri that is right across from the main school campus for the elementary, middle, and high school, and within walking distance to every possible city service you could imagine. There's shopping centers. There's restaurants, everything. Residents flocked to that park and we stay completely full despite the fact that almost every home in there is from the 1970s or older. The room sizes are very, very small. Why do people do it? Why are people flocking to move into that park despite the fact that these homes are only 12 feet and 10 feet, in some cases, wide? They're only two bedroom, one bath. The master bedrooms won't hold a king-sized bed. Why are they flocking to it? Why do we get often 40 and 50 calls a week for the property?

You guessed it, it's just the location. You see that in other markets with the traditional stick built single-family housing market. Correct? You'll see homes that are not very big. Homes that are really not very good looking, but the locations are stellar and, therefore everyone wants to live there. The same thing with older mobile homes, so if you've got a mobile home park and your housing stock is older and it doesn't have big bedrooms it doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel. What it does mean though is if you've got a lot of these old flat-roof homes, you have to counter-balance that with a really, really terrific location. One that makes people say, "Well, you know, I wish I had something a little more spacious, but I'm willing to sacrifice that in order to have my really, really, really nice location."

Now, another thing you can do to battle having those smaller room sizes is if your property offers some other common areas that people can hang out in, other than their home. That's why a lot of mobile home parks, in the early days, particularly back in the '50s and '60s, had clubhouses and other common areas that people could hang out in. Because that way they're only in their home a limited portion of the day and otherwise they're hanging out together.

Take for example Airstream Village, the RV park/mobile home park owned by Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas. We went there this year and walked around. They gave us a tour of it. What was interesting to note is you've got some very, very upscale folks, including Tony, who's a billionaire, all living in really small Airstream RVs. What's going on there is they've tried to focus everyone to meet outside and they only go into their Airstream to go to bed. They've put a lot of time and energy into building lots of elaborate common elements, not really expensive. A stage, a ping-pong table, an outdoor billard table, not things that are really, really that expensive to do, some fire pits, a lot of chairs, but the concept is that if your home is not really big, at least, there's somewhere for you to hang out in that is really big before you go back to your home just to go to bed.

Again, I want to give you some insider secret thoughts on flat-roof, round-roof, and pitched roof homes. On our next segment of this five-part series, we're going to be going over the insider secrets on how to buy a used homes. This is Frank Rolfe at Mobile Home Park Mastery and we'll talk to you again soon.