Dunedin, Florida. Gene Snyder is a boat guy. He loves boats, has loved them all his life. You don’t need to read his resume to know; just talk with him for a few minutes. But when I tell him I'm in Florida to research manufactured-home-communities, a three-generation story unfolds, with even greater enthusiasm than he has for boats. Here’s the story.
“I needed to find a home for my grandfather. He was living in the Keys, south of Key Largo, on the other side of Florida, and he was 91 years old.” Gene explained that neighbors were worried about his widowed grandfather. So was his son, who lived inland. Gene worried, too. But his grandfather was reluctant to move.
“So I asked if he would move to a place that was on the water,” Gene said. That option changed everything. His grandfather sold his place in the Keys for $400,000. He bought a $60,000 manufactured home with three bedrooms and two baths in Crystal Bay on the Gulf coast.
“It wasn’t fancy. But it was clean and the park was spotless,” Gene added. “When he moved in he was the oldest resident and they just adopted him.”
“They have a kind of family there. They have Christmas dinner, dances and other events. We kidded him that he had more friends in the park in a month than he had in a lifetime of living in the Keys. It has a sense of community. The only drawback is that the park is very seasonal. It almost shuts down during the summer.”
Gene’s grandfather died at 103.
“Now my mom has moved in. She says she would have laughed if you had told her she would live in a trailer park, but she’s delighted.” He explains that many of the residents take walks at night but not a lot of walking gets done because everyone visits.
“This is awesome! If you have a canal lot you can have davits and lift your fishing boat out of the water.” Today, he notes, the manufactured homes on canal lots look across the water at a place where lots alone sell for $400,000. Now in his early 50s, with a son in college, Gene and his wife are looking ahead. They hope to sell their conventional home, find a place in Crystal Bay, and live in a place on the water.
That would make three generations, all with many choices, deciding to live in what many still call a “trailer park.” It makes me wonder if we’re at the beginning of a change in how we think about the biggest lifetime expense most people have— shelter.
The next morning I went to Crystal Bay. It is a relatively small park. In the clubhouse I meet Jonie Green, a retiree from Indiana who spends every winter in Crystal Bay with her husband. She showed me the new docks, the pool and other park amenities.
Crystal Bay was an early “resident-owned community.” These are communities where the residents vote to create a cooperative and buy the land in their park, rather than rent it. Today, the manufactured homes and shares sell together and most units are resident owned. (To become resident-owned at least 70 percent of the residents must take part and buy their shares.) On the Crystal Bay website I find only four units for sale. One is $60,000, two are offered at $65,000, and a new and larger unit has a $129,000 price tag.
“The monthly maintenance is $145 a month,” she explains. “And we now have 14 boat docks that rent for $60 a year as well as storage for boat trailers at $40 a year.” There are other costs such as taxes, insurance and utilities, but they are low relative to owning a conventional house.
“Forty of 107 places here are year-round,” she explains. The year round folks are increasing, she adds. We both laugh. After this winter up north, the whole place may be year-rounder’s in 2016.
Florida isn’t the only place for snowbirds. But it has a varied stock of housing including a multitude of both resident-owned and land-rental manufactured home parks. When you look at the investment and expenses it’s pretty clear that this is a great way to have a low-cost second home.
But there is a bigger picture. For some, it could be an entire retirement strategy. It could be a good reason to rethink our shelter decisions.
Next Week: Part 2: How much house do you need? How much house do you want?