Mobile home park investing is indeed an incredibly less expensive market compared to other real estate asset classes. But with proper strategy and motivation, Todd Sulzinger made this sector an absolute gold mine. Joining Dale Corpus, the finance executive turned real estate investor eventually rose to become President of Blue Elm Investments. He breaks down his well-kept secrets in getting the most out of mobile home park investing, from how he closed his very first deal, the many lessons he learned, and how dealt with various challenges at all levels. Todd also details his experiences with the impact of COVID-19 and his other business venture in mortgage note investing.
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Taking Advantage Of Mobile Home Park Investing With Todd Sulzinger
My guest is my good friend, Todd Sulzinger, who is the CEO of Blue Elm Investments. He’s also a former Silicon Valley executive turned real estate investor with a focus on the growing niche of mobile home park investing. His company has built the expertise to turn neglected mobile home parks into vibrant communities, increasing the availability of safe, clean, and affordable housing for the residents while offering their investors a strategic way to diversify their portfolios. I’m excited to have you, Todd, on this show, because I love mobile home parks, too, and I invest in them passively myself. Todd, thank you for taking the time to be with me on this episode. How are you?
Fantastic. It’s an honor to be here. Thanks, Dale.
One of the things in your bio that I wanted to first talk about was the fact that you used to be in Corporate America as a finance executive and now, you’re a real estate investor. What was that transition like?
I took a path like most people do. I graduated from San Jose State University and got a degree in finance. I started working for a variety of technology companies. I was going to plan on going down that path I haven’t thought to do otherwise. I had an epiphany with one of the first neighbors that I had after I bought my first house. I relate this story to a book called Success Habits of Super Achievers. This guy lived a couple of doors down from me. He’s a real mild-mannered guy and drove a beat-up car. He had a toupee and didn’t dress great. The more I got to know him over the several years we lived next to each other, I would slowly find out about all the things he’d invested in.
He mentioned driving down the street to look at his rental property and then he’d say, “I got to go look at my strip mall over the hill in Santa Cruz.” He’s talking about the apartment buildings he owns and I thought, “This guy doesn’t work. He’s got millions of dollars in real estate.” He’s a millionaire next door kind of guy. It got me thinking about, “Is there a way to start to invest in real estate?” I started listening to podcasts, reading books, and trying to figure out a way to get into it.
It’s challenging in the Bay Area to jump into buying real estate because the prices are so high here and the returns are great. Through The Real Estate Guys, Robert Helms and Russell Gray who used to live in the Bay Area and had a local Meetup, I met a guy who was building turnkey homes for investors in Dallas. I ended up taking a field trip out there with Russ and Robert, touring neighborhoods and meeting property managers, brokers, insurance agents, and the team you need to build around a good investment property. I ended up diving in and buying some single-family homes in the Dallas Fort Worth market.
How did you do the transition then to mobile home park investing?
That was part of that story where I was like, “I’m going to slowly buy a bunch of single-family homes and eventually, be able to replace my W-2 income and become a full-time investor.” After investing for a few years, I realized how long that was going to take for every house I’d want to buy. I’d have to save up $20,000 to $30,000 with the debt. Maybe the cashflow is a couple of hundred a month. While they were good investments and producing good returns, it wasn’t going to get me to that point.Real estate syndications are essentially pooling people's money together to buy bigger assets. Click To Tweet
Also, through Robert and Russ, I went to a few of their syndication training events. For your readers who don’t know, real estate syndications are essentially pooling people’s money together to buy bigger assets. There are businesses around that. When I relate that concept to people, if you drive around anywhere near where you live and you see a big apartment building or a hotel or a big shopping center, it’s not owned by one person. That’s not like somebody just comes up, writes a check, and buys a building. It’s usually a group of investors. It could be a group of active investors or it could be 1 or 2 people running the project and a bunch of passive investors going in to invest.
I started to learn about this syndication concept and went to some of The Real Estate Guys’ training and decided I wanted to build a business around that. I had a great career in finance. I got to travel the world and work with a lot of great people, but I want to have a little bit more control over my destiny running my own business. I knew that I could combine my finance background along with my passion for real estate and build a business doing real estate syndication.
Once I decided to do that, it was a matter of trying to find the right asset class that I wanted to put together deals with. Through a couple of years of process of looking at apartments, self-storage, groups of single-family houses, as well as mobile home parks, I decided to zero in and focus on those. In 2019, I end up buying the first parks through a real estate syndication that I put together in Georgia. In the transition, I was fortunate enough that the medical device company that I was working for down in San Jose allowed me to cut back to part-time. It was a full-time startup, crazy hours, a long commute, and all that. I went to the CFO and told him, “I want to try to focus on building this business. I want to cut back to four days a week. Is that possible?”
Fortunately, I was able to do that. I was able to have not just a hard cut-off to say, “I’m going to quit today and jump into this.” I was able to shift down to four days a week where I could at least spend a day a week looking at deals, talking to investors, and all those things I need to do. I did some consulting work for that company and for a couple of other companies after that. It was more of a slow transition versus a hard, “I’m deciding to quit what I’m doing and jump into this.”
There were so many other asset classes that you could be looking at. It looks like you’re also considering potentially multifamily. For you, why mobile home park investing? Why did you go that route?
First off, I wanted to do something a little bit different. I felt like there were so many people out there offering apartment indications and there’s so much competition in that space from an acquisition standpoint. I was looking for something to differentiate myself a bit. Also, I’ve been learning a lot about mobile home parks through books I’ve read, other podcasts I was listening to, and some other operators that I became friends with. I was intrigued by that business.
It’s got a couple of things that I liked about it better than apartments. One was mobile home parks are typically recession-resistant because a lot of the parks and parks that I purchase are in the affordable housing range. That’s one of the things that’s nice about mobile home parks. The other interesting thing about them that’s different from any other multifamily asset class is it’s the only asset class where there’s a decreasing supply every year. Hardly any new mobile home parks are being developed or built-in any particular year usually because of zoning, not in my backyard attitude.
Oftentimes, they’re being redeveloped for better use. Whereas there are always new apartments and single-family homes being built across the country every year, there’s a dwindling supply of mobile home parks. That dwindling supply but increased demand for affordable housing and I found that to be attractive. Also, there was this less competition in that space. Mobile home parks can be a little bit different to manage, underwrite, and understand compared to apartments so there is less competition. As much as there’s been an increased focus on this niche in the last few years, it’s still not as popular as apartments. Less competition was great and also, a greater ability to find seller financing.
A lot of times, these parks are owned by people that have owned the parks for a long time. They may still want to have income coming in but they don’t necessarily want to take the big capital gains when they sell the park. They also don’t want to continue to run it day-to-day, so oftentimes, getting good seller financing on parks was one of the things I was able to do with the parks that I bought in Georgia. That’s one of the few benefits I liked about mobile home parks compared to the other asset classes I was looking at.
In terms of getting into the mobile home park investing business, how did you even find your first deal?
I’m talking to a lot of brokers. There are a few brokers that specialize in mobile home parks and other commercial brokers that sometimes get listings. I looked at hundreds of deals, underwrote lots of deals, and looked at a lot of different markets. I ended up hiring a mobile home park consulting company that I’m now working for. I hired them to help me with the due diligence and turnaround effort for the parks that I purchased, so they also had access to some off-market deals. I looked at lots of deals and quite a few different markets across the country. Through a mobile home park broker, I found these two parks in Georgia.
I found it interesting that you also said that you were able to get seller financing for some of your mobile home parks. Were they more favorable terms on the seller financing versus what you would get directly from another financial institution? Is that why you went that route?
Sometimes, seller finance can happen for a couple of reasons. One, it could be that the seller doesn’t want to take big capital gains, but still wants that income coming in. Oftentimes, with some of these mom-and-pop run parks, they’re not run as professionally as a similar size apartment somewhere. Oftentimes, their financial records aren’t as clean as you might find in a more professionally run operation. In this case, the previous owner was only accepting cash from his tenants because he didn’t want to report all the income. You got that going on. His bank deposits weren’t going to match the rent roll and the tax returns weren’t going to match up.
Those are things that banks have a hard time with when somebody doesn’t have clean financial records. That’s an extra level of due diligence you have to have. You don’t always know what you’re going to get when you take over a property like that when the financials aren’t clean. When we first talked to the seller, he said, “Absolutely not. I don’t want to do seller financing. You’re just going to have to figure out a way to buy it.” We found out through the broker that his parks had fallen out of escrow a couple of different times in the past couple of years. The biggest reason being, nobody could get a bank to finance it.
Probably about halfway through the due diligence period, we came to him and said, “We’re serious about this park. We’ve got the resources to come in and turn it around. If you think you’re ever going to sell this thing, you’re going to have to carry back a note on the property.” That allowed us to get pretty good terms. We got about a 35% down payment, which was maybe a higher down payment that you might get on a maybe more stabilized property that has cleaner books. We got eight years of interest-only terms, which was great for us, too, versus an amortized loan. It’s a little bit different than you get from the bank, but we felt good about it.
In your first deal, I’m curious, are there any lessons learned from that first deal that you took into account when you did other mobile home park types of deals?In some smaller markets, there can still be a pretty high demand for affordable housing. Click To Tweet
One thing that we weren’t able to do during the due diligence period was to get inside all of the park-owned homes. In the mobile home park business, you’ve got some situations where the residents own their home and you rent the lock to them. There are situations where the park itself owns the home and you’re renting it to them similar to the way you rent a single-family home or an apartment. These parks had a majority of park-owned homes. We were able to get inside some of them during our due diligence process, but not all of them.
After we took over the park, even though we got a written certification from the seller saying, “There’s no serious structural plumbing or electrical issues inside the homes,” after we took over, we found that they misrepresented the condition of the homes. When I was going to do another deal with that many park-owned homes, I would absolutely insist on being able to get in every single one to determine exactly what they look like. If the seller can’t accommodate that, then it’s worth walking away from the deal.
These mobile home parks are all over the country. Are there specific geographic areas that you focus on to find these or is it more so based on the numbers or both?
I narrowed it down to probably 10 or 12 states. I was looking for landlord-friendly states first off, so that kept me away from California, Oregon, and New York. There’s a large migration out to the southeast. I was looking in the southeast. I was looking in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama. I restricted to a few different states. I was looking in secondary and tertiary markets. I didn’t necessarily want to go into one of the top metros because mobile home parks in those markets are less expensive and those are super competitive.
In a lot of the research I’ve done, I found that in some of the smaller markets, there still can be a high demand for affordable housing because there are good manufacturing jobs in a lot of parts of the country in smaller markets. You might have retirees and people with disabilities. In some of the smaller markets, mobile home parks might be one of the only places for affordable housing, even in a town that might have 100,000 to 150,000 people versus a much bigger metro. It’s going to have a lot more diversity in terms of apartments and other housing options.
What are the challenges that you see in this space investing in mobile home parks?
They’re a little bit trickier to underwrite and do that due diligence. Mobile home parks might be on city utilities. Meaning, they’re hooked up to the city water and city sewer. Other parks might have wells or septic tanks or even have their own waste treatment system. Those aren’t necessarily deal-breakers. There’s a lot more that we have to go into, the due diligence to figure out if there are any issues with those in terms of some potential big capital expenditures that you may have to put into the park after you take over.
You rarely would find a 100-unit apartment building that would have septic tanks but in the mobile home park world, because they are often built on the outskirts of town or maybe outside the city limits, they might be on private utilities. That’s something from a due diligence standpoint people take a close look at. Some investors will say it absolutely has to have all city utilities or they won’t purchase the park. Other investors, depending on their level of experience and comfort, may say, “If it’s got septic tanks and septic tanks are in good shape, or they were replaced within the last few years.” If the park is priced favorably enough that even if you might have to do some repairs on those or replace some of those a year or two down the road, you can factor that into your overall plan for the park.
When you’re doing your underwriting and determining if something is a good or bad investment, what do you personally look at to determine whether a mobile home park would be good to invest in or not?
When I was doing my research, I was looking for landlord-friendly states. I was looking for places where there was a good diverse employment background. The parks that I bought in Georgia are in this town called Milledgeville, which is about 1.5 hours outside of Atlanta and the town itself has only about 50,000 or 60,000 people. Once I dove a little bit more into that market, I found out there were three colleges in town, a Walmart and a Lowe’s, several hotels, quite a few restaurants, and several other smaller manufacturers across a variety of industries.
From an underwriting standpoint, the market still has to be good. One of the metrics that’s often looked at in mobile home parks is how close it is to a Walmart or Walmart Supercenter. This idea that Walmart’s already done all this market research in terms of population and income level around a certain market can be favorable. There were some parks I looked at that were 50 miles from a Walmart in a small town. To me, that would be too risky knowing that if you had a tenant that left, it would be harder to backfill somebody like that. Economic drivers are absolutely critical.
I was looking for value-add projects, which are something you find more so in mobile home parks and in the apartment world. If it’s not being run professionally, maybe it’s being run by a mom and pop owner, they may not have kept up over time with rent increases or kept up with market rents because they may live in the park. They might be friends with the residents or the park might be paid for, so they’re not concerned about maybe maximizing that one in the park. I was looking for opportunities for value-add, whether it be fixing vacant homes, rehabbing those and renting those, or taking advantage of vacant lots. Bringing in refurbished homes into those lots or finding parks that the rents might be far below market.
For your mobile home park syndications that you’ve done in the past, do you have a certain exit strategy and timeframe by which you plan on keeping that syndication going?
I’ve done two deals so far. The one is in Georgia and the other one in Tennessee. For the Georgia parks, we plan for a five-year exit, and the plan for that was to get the park stabilized. We have vacant homes. We introduce infill on the vacant lots and slowly get rents closer to the market with an expectation of targeting an exit after five years. The park in Tennessee is a little bit different situation there where we have a three-year plan to get the park to over 50% occupancy and leave a little meat on the bone for the next owner to come in and take it to the next level. In that one, we put together a three-year exit strategy. It does depend on the park, where it is, and the value-add turnaround phase.
How active are you in managing the day-to-day? Do you do everything all yourself? Do you have a team that operates everything? Where do you fit into the overall part of the syndication model for your stuff?
I mentioned before that I’ve hired this company, CCI Investments, which is a mobile home park consulting company. They work nationwide managing about 85 to 90 parks across the country. They manage my parks as well. I’m fairly active, probably more active than most owners partly because they’re turnaround parks and they need more attention. Also, because I have limited partner investors that I need to keep abreast of what’s happening at the park.Investing in passive syndications is great because you get the diversification of deciding how you can put money in mobile home parks. Click To Tweet
They have a management team based here in California that is active with the local onsite manager. I interact with both of them. I was on a phone call with my primary contact for the property manager, walking through several issues that are happening at the parks. Either update that I need to stay on top of in terms of what’s happening at the park or approvals for how we’re going to deal with any variety of issues that come up.
A lot of the readers are active professionals, W-2 jobs, or own their businesses and they wanted to do this on the side. What would you recommend as ways they go about looking into investing in a mobile home park?
Passive investing is a great way to get into that space. I had invested in syndications myself before I started to put together my deals. Investing in passive syndications is great because you get that diversification of deciding how you can put some money in mobile home parks, some apartment deals, and some self-storage deals. That’s a great way to get into it. We have some other clients through the consulting company that I’m working for who have decided to jump in themselves.
I helped a couple of guys buy a park in Mississippi and they want to jump in the business themselves. They found a park that was around $350,000 to $400,000. Seller financing as well so their down payment wasn’t huge. They decided that they’re going to jump in and own the property themselves. CCI will end up taking care of the turnaround plan and managing for them. There is a way that some of our clients that have thought about investing passively have decided, “I’m going to go ahead and jump in.” Own a park themselves and take advantage of the full upside around that.
What state was that mobile home park in, out of curiosity?
It’s in Mississippi, outside of Tupelo where Elvis was born.
The interesting thing is you can’t even get a one-bedroom condo for $350,000 here in the Bay Area.
This was a 39-space mobile home park, probably about 60% occupied. It needs some work and it’s going to need some investment to fix some of the houses. Once it’s fully stabilized, it’ll probably be generating 12%, 13%, 14%. There are some good opportunities out there for people who want to buy parks that are neglected, not 100% occupied, super clean, paved roads, and a beautiful park that you might only be able to buy that’s going to give you a 4% or 5% return. There’s a lot of other parks out there that because of years of neglect, maybe the previous owners haven’t had the time or inclination or resources to turnaround, the right owner can come in and they can make a big impact.
The thing that I love about situations like that is that, like in this park in Mississippi, these guys are going to come in and fix up 10 to 12 houses and provide new places to live in this community where there’s not any new development. People aren’t going into places outside of Tupelo and building a 50 or 100-unit B or C-class apartment. The economics aren’t there for that, but there’s still a need for affordable housing and these guys are going to be able to come in and provide that for people.
Since COVID has happened, has your outlook on mobile home park investing changed? Has the asset class been affected at all by COVID?
It has been and that’s one of the things I was mentioning about the benefits of mobile home parks, which is recession-resistancy. I can’t say recession-proof because this recession here with COVID was different from the others. Historically in a recession, people might go from A class apartments down to B down to C class and maybe people who have two incomes have gone down to one. There’s always this base at the lower end of the wage scale. Whether it’s retail or hair salon or light construction or lawn care or maids and things like that, those were affected by this pandemic. You had people at the lower end of the wage scale who would typically be in this affordable housing class, who haven’t been able to pay rent or lost their jobs combined with this eviction moratorium that’s still in place.
Georgia, for example, is typically a landlord-friendly state. The tenants all know that if you don’t pay your rent, then you’re going to get a three-day notice and you’ll get evicted. In states like that, it makes people behave better. Once the eviction moratorium hit, we had this combination of people taking advantage of the moratorium because they knew they couldn’t get evicted. We also have people whose jobs were affected by COVID.
My parks have been affected due to a combination of those things in terms of how people have been affected personally as well as taking advantage of the moratorium. It does depend on the park, market, and tenant base. There’s been other parks and other markets in a situation where you might have this park where the tenants own their own homes where they might be at risk of losing the house. Those have fared better during the recession because they don’t want to lose their homes. There’s been other parks and other markets where people continue to make their payments because they’re responsible citizens or their jobs may not have been affected or they will somehow weather through COVID. I still feel positive and good about the asset class. This was a recession like no other.
What advice do you have to someone wanting to get started either investing in media mobile home park syndication or even getting a small mobile home park outright themselves?
Probably the big thing is to try to educate yourself as much as possible. There are some good podcasts out there in the mobile home park space. Learning some of that terminology, understand that concept between park-owned homes and tenant-owned homes and what that looks like. If a passive investor is presented with a specific deal or investing in a fund, be able to understand some of those metrics in terms of, in a park-owned home, you’re renting the house and, in a tenant-owned home, you’re renting the lot. Getting used to some of that terminology is critical. There are several operators doing mobile home park funds where they’re raising money upfront from investors and then going out and buying parks.
There are situations like in my case where I’ve identified parks, created an individual LLC for that park, and then raised money and we’re all partners in that LLC. In the situation with my parks, people know what they’re getting. They’re part of this LLC and they know the story about what they’re buying. In the fund model, they’re trusting that the operator will be able to take the funds that have been invested and go out and find attractive parks for them to put into the portfolio.
I know that your main focus is on mobile home park investing. Are there any other asset classes that you also invest in, out of curiosity?
One of the ones that I like is mortgage note investing. I started investing in a fund probably at the end of 2017 with this company called American Homeowner Preservation, AHP. I had heard about them on a podcast and did some research and due diligence on them. I liked that constant behind that company. Something that a lot of note investing firms have out there is trying to buy distressed mortgages from banks or hedge funds, but then working with the homeowners to keep them in their house. It’s this great model where you can go to a homeowner and say, “You’re behind on your payments. You could get foreclosed on, but we can come in and restructure your mortgage at a lower balance than it was before. We can keep you in your home while at the same time because the mortgages were purchased at a discount, it can provide a good return to investors.”
I’ve been investing in that fund for a few years and a couple of other funds. I like that model. It’s great because it’s backed by real estate and mortgages. The people that run the funds know what they’re doing, it’s complicated to do that in terms of what to look for and how to buy them correctly. It’s a good return profile for the investors. Usually, no upside, so it’s more of a fixed return. Whereas in real estate, mobile home park, or apartment syndication, there could be potential for greater returns at the backend when you sell a property. In the mortgage note world, it’s more of a fixed income play. To me, I like it because it’s solid. I’ve been talking to several different people about possibly putting together a fund like that for my investors because it’s something that I’ve been happy with and had good success investing in myself and that would be a good offering to put together for my investors.
I completely agree with you on investing in mortgage notes because I do a lot of that stuff inside my self-directed IRA. It’s a perfect asset class for that. I am with you 100%. Next question is, how does somebody even invest with you?
First, the syndications that I put together for your investors that may or may not know, there’s either syndication where you can bring in accredited investors where they have a certain income or net worth requirements or non-accredited investors that don’t have those requirements. To bring in non-accredited investors, I would have to have a relationship with them. I would have gotten to know them a little bit, let them know a little bit about me, and learned a little bit about their financial situation.
The syndications I put together thus far have been what they call 506(c), which lets me bring in non-accredited investors. In that situation, it takes joining my investor club, and then jumping on a phone call to spend some time, build that relationship between us to let them know what my company, Blue Elm Investments, is all about, and understand what their financial situation is. It’s based around the SEC, wanting to make sure that somebody is not just picking up a phone call from somebody and taking their last $25,000 or $50,000 and putting it into a deal. There’s got to be some work that somebody who’s a general partner like myself putting deals together, once you feel comfortable that somebody knows what they’re doing when they’re getting into an investment like that.
This is a general question and it deals with real estate investing overall. What has real estate investing done to your overall life? Now that you’re not in the corporate world anymore, what have you gotten out of real estate investing?
I finished my 2020 tax return, so tax benefits are huge. When you’re working full-time in real estate, you can claim real estate professional status from a tax standpoint, so that gives some huge advantages. When I put my syndications together and let those tax benefits mostly related to depreciation flow through to my limited partner investors. Depending on their situation, they can take advantage of those as well. This feeling of autonomy, running my own business, and getting to come on shows like this and talk to you and talk about ways we might work together has been fantastic. Getting a paycheck every two weeks from a company for twenty-plus years was something that’s easy to get used to and hard to break away from. There are certain parts of that I miss, but having that independence of being my boss and having real estate be a vehicle to do that has been fantastic.
How can someone learn about you and your company?
My company is Blue Elm Investments. They can find me at my website, www.BlueElmInvestments.com or Todd@BlueElmInvestments.com. If somebody reaches out and joins my investor club, I’d be happy to talk about real estate and mobile home parks. I’m always happy to help educate and teach people about this space and what passive investing is all about.
Thank you, Todd. Thanks for coming on to this episode.
You’re welcome. Thanks for providing value to my readers. To my readers, thank you for checking out another episode of the show. Until next time, live life abundantly.
- Blue Elm Investments
- Success Habits of Super Achievers
- The Real Estate Guys
- CCI Investments
- American Homeowner Preservation
- Investor Club
About Todd Sulzinger
Todd is the founder of Blue Elm Investments, a mobile home park operator specializing in adding value to and transforming distressed mobile home parks across the country. Whereas many investors have overlooked mobile home parks as a profitable real estate niche, Blue Elm Investments has built the expertise to turn neglected mobile home parks into vibrant communities, increasing the availability of safe, clean, and affordable housing across the country, while offering investors above-market returns.
Prior to Blue Elm Investments, Todd spent over 25 years as a finance executive for several Silicon Valley technology companies specializing in financial analysis, business modeling, and investor relations.