Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 178

What If Johnny Appleseed Owned A Trailer Park?

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What are big and green and equally loved and hated by mobile home park owners? The answer, of course, are trees. On the one hand they have beneficial effects both aesthetically and scientifically, and on the other they cause clutter, danger and utility line issues. In this episode of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast, we’re going to analyze the good and the bad and make some hard decisions about those big, green objects.

Episode 178: What If Johnny Appleseed Owned A Trailer Park? Transcript

There are 228 billion trees in the United States, and some portion of those are on the roughly 44,000 mobile home parks. This is Frank Rolfe, the Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast. We're going to talk all about trees. Are they good? Are they bad? Where do they really stand? Let's start off with the science of trees. There's some definite benefits to trees. For one thing, surfaces shaded by trees may be 20 to 45 degrees cooler at peak temperatures than those with no tree shade. That's a pretty important item. Many mobile homes lack really good insulation in the old attics, and as a result, that can really save the resident's cooling bill. Also, it's been shown that trees reduce crime. A study found the minor crimes such as graffiti and vandalism and littering occur much more frequently in areas without trees than those with trees. I have no idea scientifically why, except maybe people don't like damaging prettier areas, and they would rather damage and vandalize areas are already ugly to begin with.

Next, more than 180 million Americans receive quality drinking water from forested watershed, so there we go. Trees are actually giving us nice, safe, potable drinking water, and one large tree can provide an entire day's supply of oxygen for up to four people. So if you have a tree on a mobile home block, that tree probably provides enough oxygen for the household living in the mobile home every single day. Finally, trees increase property value. They found in a study that a home that has trees in the yard sells typically for $7,000 more and 1.7 days faster than those without trees. And why is that?

Well, because the one big upside of trees is, of course, aesthetics. There's no question when you drive in a mobile home park, the ones that you'll say, "Ooh, this is a nice park. This is attractive." What do they all have in common? They typically have trees. There's not a lot of character building in mobile home parks. Let's be honest. The mobile homes themselves, particularly the older ones, are not exactly aesthetically pleasing. As a result, if you take the trees out of the equation, there's not a whole lot to look at. But when you stick that nice, fine greenery, suddenly you have a new, beautiful canvas in your mobile home park.

But if trees have these good attributes, then what are the downsides to trees, because they do have some pretty significant ones. The first one is the ever-present danger of dead trees and dead tree limbs, because a dead tree under the right circumstances can fall over, and when the tree falls, there's no telling what it would hit. Might hit a car, might hit nothing, but it could also hit a house, and it might even land on somebody and could kill them, so there's always this never-ending danger when you have trees that you don't have without trees, so that's one consideration. Also, you have the never-ending cost to remove dead trees and dead tree limbs, and you're always pruning the trees. There are some parks out there that have hundreds and hundreds of trees, so the cost to continue to keep those trees in good working order, it can be pretty large. We ourselves have bought large properties where the cost to initially cull out dead trees and dead tree limbs has exceeded $100,000 of capital, so it is a significant cost to the park operator.

Next item, of course, trees, at least non-evergreen trees, drop their leaves annually, and that can cause a lot of litter on the ground. I have seen mobile home parks with my own eyes where the piles of leaves from mom and pop's inactivity in cleaning them up have sometime ended up in piles as high as the decks on the mobile homes. And that would not be from one year. That'd be from multi-year supply of leaves, but that's an annual cost to go in there and blow and pick up all of those leaves, so that's a continuing item.

And then one that rarely gets a lot of discussion from people who are not in a mobile home park business is the fact that tree roots like water, and they find there's a never-ending supply if they can just get into those sewer lines. Now, trees can't get in to PVC. Connections are too tight. They can't get into cast iron because those are screwed together, but yes, they can get into the old clay tile systems. Even though clay tile's a wonderful sewer product, the problem is it has gaps between the connections, which allow those tree roots to get on in. Once the trees get in, what do they do? Well, they don't typically cause the pipe to collapse. Sometimes over the years with pressure, they can contribute to that, but the one big item they do is they get all kinds of clogs of roots in the lines, which make your sewer no longer flow properly. That can be a real problem.

Now, how do you fix it? Well, the Roto-Rooter people can come out, and they've even got a cutting blade. They can go ahead and put on the end of the Roto-Rooter machine and cut all those roots out. So it's not the end of the world when it does occur, but that means you'll have continual Roto-Rooter costs to have them come in and clean out roots, and that can be a hindrance. So good things with trees, bad things with trees. How do you decide as a park owner? What to do?

Johnny Appleseed was a mythical figure going across America, planting trees. He carried a big gunny sack of trees, and he supposedly would walk along planting a tree every few steps. He was 100% the glass is half full with trees, but that's not realistic. You don't want to be that kind of a tree fan, but you also don't want to look at the glass of trees as being half empty, because trees do have positive attributes. So how do you deal with trees as a park owner? Well, here's what we think you should do. Number one, you need to appreciate what you have, so I would not remove a good, healthy tree. I would prune it. I would remove a dead one, but I'm not going to go in and wholesale cut them down. I've seen people do that, and that's a terrible idea. I've seen properties that look pretty darn good, and the next thing I know, it looks like it's a man camp or an army barracks, and there's absolutely no trees and all the character and the charm and the shade, it's all been erased. That's not smart.

Yes, maybe you saved on the root intrusion in the line, fewer Roto-Rooter costs, less cleaning up of the leaves, don't have to prune them anymore, take out the dead trees and tree limbs, and you don't have to worry about them falling down, but what did you give up? That loss of aesthetics, that might lead you to have lower rents, higher cap rate, lower overall value, less attractiveness to banks, buyers. That's not really a very good trade-off, so I would never go in and wholesale cut them down. I would just take what I have say, "Well, you know what? Trees are good. I'm not going to get in the camp that they're bad, and so I am going to prune them per my insurance guidelines."

Now, additionally though, I would go one step further. I think you need to learn more about trees. You see, trees are not all created equal. When I got to the mobile home park business, I thought that trees are all pretty much the same thing. I had a very low tree IQ, so I would looking at an oak tree, I look at a hackberry tree, and I would think a tree is a tree, but it's not true. I would recommend anyone listening to go and look up trees on Wikipedia and look at the lifespan of the trees and the quality of the trees, and you'll see that trees have a wide range of lifespans, a wide range of resistance to disease, a wide range of desirability.

If you have a hackberry tree, for an example, and often mobile home parks, they're hideous. It's a very, very weak wood, very, very weak tree. Entire limbs are known just to fall off, and they have a very, very short life span. So if you go in there and start pruning that hackberry tree, it'll always let you down. It'll always be causing problems, and ultimately it dies at a young age and you just wasted all your money. Instead, you need to put your money towards the good trees. What are the good trees? Trees like cypress, trees like oak, trees that will live for over a thousand years, because, yes, trees have lives just like humans. When you look at the different trees and the different life expectancies, you'll be shocked to see that many of the trees only have a lifespan of around a hundred years. Many of your evergreens that are so attractive, like blue spruces, they don't live forever. They live for about a hundred years or so, and then they die, but there's other trees probably in your yard that have life expectancies of up to a thousand years.

Those are the ones you want to put your money in. So when you're buying that park and looking at all the trees and you're saying, "Well, this tree is a hackberry, and it's a piece of junk." You may say, "I'm going to go ahead and just chop it down and be done with it, because I want to put my investment money, not in this junky, ugly tree that will never amount to anything. I want to put all my money into my pretty trees, my desirable trees, my long-lasting, long-living trees, because that's the smart thing to do as an owner." So again, trees, it's a balance. We love them and we hate them, but we don't hate them enough to remove them, and we don't love him enough to plant them. This is Frank Rolfe, the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.