Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 92

Trailer Park Archaeology

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The bulk of the 44,000 mobile home parks in the U.S. were built between the 1940s and 1970s. So how can you tell which decade your park is from? Why is that important? In this episode of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series, we’re going to discuss the key features that separate parks from these eras and the impact on your investment, as well as what the clues are that allow you to make this determination.

Episode 92: Trailer Park Archaeology Transcript

What do you think about when you think about great archeology finds in World History? The pyramids in Egypt? Ruins of the Aztecs? Trailer Parks? Probably not Trailer Parks, but that's what we're going to go over today.

This is Frank Rolfe with the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. We're going to be talking about Trailer Park archeology, and the definition of archeology is the study of history through the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. That's exactly what we're going to be talking about, only it's going to be regarding Mobile Home Parks.

Let's first talk about the two basic eras we're going to be reviewing. There's two main time periods in the development of the Mobile Home Park industry. One is the 1940s-1950s. That was kind of the start of the whole era of living in what formerly were travel trailers. Then, the 60s and the 70s, when Mobile Home Parks kind of blossomed into this new kind of residential product.

We're going to divide this up into those two eras, the 40s and the 50s as one, 60s and the 70s is number two, because they're very, very different and you can tell a lot about a Mobile Home Park you're looking at buying based on how these archeological remains lay out. Let's first start with the locations. The locations of the 40s and the 50s were in one word, in many markets, amazing. You have Mobile Home Parks that are in areas you would never imagine you would find.

Let's just take for example the park we had in Jeff Co in Arnold, Missouri. This Mobile Home Park was directly across the street from the school campus for the elementary, middle and high. The only form of housing right in that area, surrounded by shopping centers, a high rise hotel down the street. How the heck did it get there? Well, the answer is, in the 40s and the 50s America was in its infancy. It was just growing. Whoever built the property just lucked out and built it in just the right spot.

On top of that, there was no negative stigma against the industry back in the 40s and the 50s. We're talking an era in which most people had been in WWII, or Korea, and they were used to mobile homes, and they lived in mobile homes in the war, and they lived in them in the GI Bill, and they saw nothing wrong with them. Elvis lived in one in the movies, and he actually lived in one in real life most of the time when he was down in Memphis. So, that's why they have amazing locations. There was no pushback. And, they were in the right place at the right time.

Another thing you'll notice on locations from the 40s and 50s are they're typically on fairly major roads, things like Route 66, major highways. That's because, bear in mind, they grew out of the RV industry so these were areas where RVs would typically drive by, then pull in and park, and ultimately live in there full-time. The locations of the 60s and the 70s are a little different. They're still good, but they're more suburban. You don't see a lot of urban locations on parks built in the 60s and the 70s, and that's simply because the industry now acknowledged that it was not a part of RVs, but was a permanent way to live. People were living like they do in regular housing subdivisions, more of a suburban feel. Both locations are good.

Let's move to the layout. 1940s and 1950s Mobile Home Parks are typically in two different arenas. Number one, shotgun style. One street. You pull in, you go down the straight street, sometimes there's not even a turnaround at the end. You have to back into someone's yard to get out. That was the one style. The other was kind of a meandering, no real thought put into it, mom-and-pop style. You really can't understand what they were doing. Some of these road systems looked like a bowl of spaghetti. They were just kind of building it as they went literally themselves.

The layouts of the 40s and 50s are not that good. Typically, they're just not very appealing. Again, they harken back to the roots of being RV parks, or additionally harking back to the roots of mom-and-pop, really not knowing what they were doing. The layouts of the 60s and the 70s are entirely different. They're much like real subdivisions. Part of that is because the government got involved in the industry back in that era, and they offered a very attractive program through HUD. If you would build your Mobile Home Park to the government's specs, they would loan you money, as much as 97% loan-to-value.

Clearly, people said, "Well, I'm willing to go the extra mile and build that little nicer property to get that very attractive debt." So, when it comes to layouts, deathly 60s and 70s, so much better than 40s and 50s. It's not even funny. Let's move on to the lots themselves. Lots of the 40s and 50s were relatively small. Why? Because the homes were small. The biggest home back in the 40s was 38 feet long. The biggest homes in the 50s were also about the same length, maybe up to 40. Therefore, a lot of lots in those days were only 50 feet in length. That's not very long, considering modern mobile homes can be all the way up to 76 feet in length.

Lets segway into the 60s and the 70s on lots. Well, by the 60s and the 70s, they were building lots much larger. Most of your parks from the 60s and the 70s will hold 76 foot homes, which are the largest homes they manufacture. If not 76, then something that's equally large, maybe 68, 72, things like that. So the bottom line is, the lots of the 60s and the 70s were far superior to the 40s and the 50s because now they handled the larger homes that most customers prefer.

Now let's turn to parking. In the 40s and the 50s, basically you parked in your yard. Sometimes they had maybe a couple of those old time-y runners for your car tires on them. The other option is on the street. Some of the better builders in the 40s and the 50s would put the parking on the streets. They'd make extra wide streets, so you'd park your car right in front of your home. That's how these and most of those Elvis movies... If you look at the parks that Elvis lives in, in those movies, you'll see that typically that's how you park. You park right in front. Your little [inaudible 00:05:57] sports car right in front of your mobile home.

The 60s and the 70s, it changed significantly. You still had on-street parking in some of the earlier parks, but by the later 60s and 70s, it was all about concrete pads, or asphalt pads, and you parked on these two car pads typically right in your yard, right next to your mobile home. That's sort of what the customers prefer, because that way you're parking by your door and it's more reminiscent of actual subdivision living. That's how the parking works. Typically, 60s and 70s parking was far superior to the 40s and 50s.

The roads themselves back in the 40s and the 50s in the earlier parks, most people built them using gravel. They didn't see the reason to make them paved. These were RVs. Who cared? No big deal. A lot of those early 40s and 50s parks were typically built behind motels or restaurants, catching that highway travel and telling people, "Hey, pull your little RV or trailer thing right back behind the building."

The later ones were paved. Some of the paving's not bad, but also a lot of the pavings typically very crude. What happened was Mom and Pop did a lot of their own paving, and didn't want to spend the money for the professionals, and so therefore the roads are typically not very good in the 40s and the 50s. By contrast, in the 60s and 70s, the roads were really, really good because again, you had that government program through HUD offering people very attractive financing if you'd follow their directions. They liked to build really big, wide, very thick paved streets.

Also, by the 70s you started to see concrete coming into use as the streets and Mobile Home Parks. So, definitely when it comes to roads, the 60s and the 70s are far, far better than the 40s and the 50s.

Let's move on now to utility lines, and the archeology of utility lines. Well, in the 40s and the 50s you'd find the average Mobile Home Park had galvanized metal, water, clay tile sewer, or possibly cast iron sewer. Those are very good ways to build utility lines. Really, the 40s and the 50s were just fine as far as the way they built their water and their sewer. Now of course, there's no really pure, true park from that era still remaining that does not have at least some part of its water and sewer system replaced with modern PVC.

It's kind of unfair to say, "Oh yes, well this is what we've got going on," because you really don't. You're not going to find any park that has pure, 100% galvanized metal water through some PVC that's patched in. The same with the clay tile. The same with the cast metal. Now, in the 60s and the 70s, it started off with all the same materials, and that's great. But, then they went on a bad departure. They started using a thing called orangeburg in some of the sewer lines. They also used a thing called... A very early PVC. Neither of these are very good products.

Orangeburg is a terrible product, but orangeburg is by definition, paper pulp that was covered originally back in the 1800s with pitch, which I think is kind of like mud. In the modern version, they used it using a kind of sealant, but it didn't really do any good. All you have to happen is that first tree root taps into the pipe, and once the water gets into that paper pulp, the line turns to mush and ultimately falls apart. Early PVC had the same problems. They didn't know it when they built it. It became very brittle when buried. Very subject to collapse.

Really, in this case, the 40s and the 50s is probably better than 60s and 70s as far as utility lines are. However, in the 40s and 50s, they also used a lot of master metered electric in some of those early Mobile Home Parks. They did that so the customer could just pull in, plug in, and turn on their stuff.

To do that, you have to have every plug in the entire park hot 24/7 with power in it. The only way to do that is if the park pays the bill for the whole park. That means, there's just one giant meter that services the very whole park, and then everything after that is all of the responsibility of the owner. So, your kind of in the power business.

In the 60s and 70s, that all changed. They no longer were looking for people who could just plug in and turn their stuff on. People realized by then you had larger homes that needed the same kind of expertise as regular larger homes with inspections by the power company and better connections to the power and everything else. Basically, park owners got out of the power business in the 60s and the 70s. In the master metered power front, definitely the 60s and 70s are superior to the 40s and the 50s.

What about gas? Well, they also had master metered gas in the 40s and the 50s, but they still had that offered in the 60s and 70s. It's something we don't like very much. There's a good deal of risk in having a master metered gas system, but that's kind of a neutral between the two.

Now, let's move on to the clubhouse and the office. In the 40s and the 50s, there wasn't really the concept of the clubhouse with the pool and those kinds of items. That just didn't exist. Some of the parks from that era that have pools only have them because the old motel that the park was built behind is long gone, and the pool is still there from the old motel. Mom and Pops just traditionally did not build elaborate pools and clubhouses. It wasn't part of what they did.

In the 40s and 50s parks, today normally the clubhouse, if there is a clubhouse, is basically Mom and Pop's old house, which was often at the front of the park. Also, a feature of the 40s and the 50s is the laundry room, because mobile homes didn't have washers and dryers back then. Traditionally, people had to have a place to go and do their laundry with washers and dryers separate from their homes.

In many parks, you'll see laundry buildings and typically there's one laundry building for about every 30 or 40 lots. If you're looking at park that's got 80 or 100 lots, you'll often have two laundry buildings in there. That's really all they're for, they're just normally a masonry building or a framed building with washers and dryers in it.

By the 60s and 70s, that all changed. You had that HUD program started in the 60s with very attractive financing, and people started building larger clubhouses, much more elaborate. The typical HUD clubhouse around that era had to have in it an area to have a communal meal, so it had a commercial kitchen. It had to have his and hers commercial bathrooms. Typically, it would want to have a pool table, ping pong table, pinball machine, adequate seating, and then a swimming outside that again had tables and chairs for the community to gather.

The HUD was attempting to build communal spaces to create relationships between residents and give them recreational time. That was a great idea, and that fostered a lot of bonding in those properties because started hanging out together. When it comes to clubhouses and offices, then the 60s and the 70s were far superior to the 40s and the 50s. However, that's not entirely true because there were some glamor parks of the 40s and the 50s, that had over-the-top amenities.

Some of the finest clubhouses and pools I have ever seen in Mobile Home Parks came from the era of the 40s and 50s. That's simply because back in that era, we thought the industry was going to be a glamor industry, so as a result some of the early builders thought they were harnessing the future on the front end. There's a Mobile Home Park in Fort Worth, for example, that has a gigantic Tudor mansion as the clubhouse. What were they thinking?

Well again, they thought this was going to be the way people of extreme disposal income were going to live into the future, wearing black dinner jackets to dinner, and the wives wearing cocktail dresses while they sat in the mobile home sipping martinis. At least that's what the ads from that time would suggest. Some people built over-the-top stuff. But by and large, the 60s and the 70s is back when the government got involved, and finally there was some kind of order to it all, with fancier clubhouses, and pools, and the like.

Again, this is Frank Rolfe of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. I thought you'd enjoy this breakdown of the archeology of Mobile Home Parks, looking at the two different eras, and what they all featured, and how they were different from each other. As you can see, it's a varied industry. A lot happened there back in era from the 40s up through the 70s, the bulk of the time of which all Mobile Home Parks were built.

There's so much to learn by studying these older parks. It'll show you a lot as far as your investment type, and just a quality of life that customers can expect. Again, this is Frank Rolfe of Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and talk to you again soon.