As a freelance consultant I often worked in Florida and throughout the Southeast. I “mystery shopped” land-lease communities for portfolio owners/operators, assessed hurricane damage to properties and infrastructure, and taught the basics of home sales, site leasing, and resident relations. I also networked with clients and manufactured housing trade association executives and staff.
Persons and personalities met along the way
Mystery shopping is commonplace for conventional apartment communities nationwide, not so much for and-lease communities.
Despite the high value of their income-producing properties, property owners/operators are reluctant to spend the money to gauge on-the-job performance of on-site staff, curb appeal, and resident relations. The usual mystery shopping assignment included an unscheduled telephone “visit” to the property to discern how the phone is answered, the smile in one’s voice, and efforts to close, such as an invite caller to visit the property.
I would do a drive-through inspection of the community, photographing marketing shortfalls such as lack of signage, as well as the nature and volume of rules violations, and conduct an on-site anonymous visit and evaluation of sales/leasing efforts by staff in the information center. All of this was reported in written form to the property owner/operator, sometimes followed by an onsite re-training session.
One of my most unusual consulting assignments – ever, involved flying into Miami the day after Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Florida in 1992. My assignment was to assess and photograph damage to my client’s manufactured home communities, and report back to him. My uncle, a decorated WWII veteran, met me at the airport and served as my tour guide. All the way down the interstate, highway signs had been blown away, and exit names were painted on the roadway! In community after community we saw single-section manufactured homes askew, often stacked atop one another, sometimes three deep. Large pine trees, 40-feet tall with two-foot diameter trunks, stripped bare of branches. Bulldozers and large-volume dump trucks already were clearing debris, dumping it onto a huge, growing hill, 40 feet tall by 300 feet long. My client lost all the homes in his properties.
Being an itinerant teacher of manufactured home sales, site leasing, and resident relations often followed mystery shopping visits. These frequently occurred on-site in the hot property’s clubhouse, where several to many property managers from several other communities gathered. We taught the basics of telephone etiquette, to answer on the second ring, SMILE, qualify the caller, and invite them to the property. We also covered the importance of fresh and appropriate signage , like a WELCOME HOME sign at every entrance, and parking spots that are RESERVED FOR FUTURE RESIDENT with easy access to the information center, and the value of good resident relations and how that effort translates into a money-making equation; Good Resident Relations = More Resident Referrals = Maximum Resident Retention.
Beyond the Tactical Efforts, It’s the People You Meet
The networking aspect of freelance travel and work was especially enjoyable.
The persons and personalities I met and befriended over the decades, though some are retired or deceased now, were intriguing and memorable.
Martin Newby, now retired, was the founder of Newby Management, a 100% fee-management firm. Newby brought resident relations to manufactured home communities nationwide in the early 1990s. Had a chaplain on staff, and was widely known and respected for his “24 Hour Rule”, which was a mandate to address and correct every resident concern within 24 hours, or to communicate a solution and date in writing.
Florida Communities Team
This tale is well told in “Swan Song: A History of Land Lease Communities & Official Record of MH Shipments”. Here, an aggressive community development and marketing plan was articulated and implemented to quickly fill a dozen communities with an average of 100 rental homesites for Florida seniors. They accomplished this by using conventional highway billboards, attractive entrance and community signage, fresh landscaping every six months, and home sale and site leasing consultants who were thoroughly trained and effectively monitored for progress. We regularly mystery shopped these properties, where the prevailing attitude was “You came here to visit, so you want to buy; you’re not going to leave until you do!” This mantra was so effective, one of our senior “shopper” couples bought a new home from the Florida Communities Team, even though they owned a manufactured home in a nearby community!
The most notable personality, who I never met in person but did some work for his firm, was the late Maurice Wilder, founder of Wilder Management, in Tampa, Fla.
Here are some career highlights of this low profile, high value individual:
— Hailed from Decatur, IL. where he started out as an independent (street) MHRetailer
— Owned ten land-lease communities and RV parks throughout Florida and Texas
— Purchased the Westin Harbour Island Hotel, selling it for $46.5 million in 2014
— Owned eight office towers in Clearwater, Tampa, and Brandon
— Invested in vast reaches of farmland, and was called the king of federal farm subsidies
— Collected classic cars for his auto museum in Branson, Mo.
— Drove a $234,000 Bentley he claimed was faster than his Corvette
— Owned and raised buffalo in North Dakota, as well as ostriches, zebras, and camels in Plant City, Fla.
Maurice died in 2016, but his firm, Wilder Corporation, owns three land-lease communities in the state, and is an active member of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association.
Another longtime land-lease community owner-friend was the late Lawrence Maxwell, founder of CRF Communities, a.k.a. Century Communities, headquartered in Lakeland, Fla., with a portfolio of about a dozen properties. Larry also was the brother of John C. Maxwell, the famous Christian author, public speaker, pastor, and one of 25 authors named to Amazon.com’s 10th Anniversary Hall of Fame, for his business leadership books, each selling more than a million copies. I mention this because, in years past, while visiting Larry at his office, he’d load me down with copies of John’s latest books to read, and I always considered it a bonus to the work I performed for him.
The Northwestern Mutual Real Estate, Murex Properties Partnership
Northwestern Mutual, according to the 32nd annual ALLEN REPORT, owns 10 top-quality land-lease communities with 3,929 rental homesites in two states. And these, for the most part, are fee-managed by Murex Properties from their offices in Fort Myers, Fla. Murex, according to the ALLEN REPORT, owns and manages 7,202 rental homesites in 16 communities. The latest trade news from Northwestern has veteran loan originator, everyone’s friend, John Jacobs, confirming his retirement from the in January 2021. Steve Adler, founder and owner of Murex Properties, is a member of the RV/MH Heritage Foundation’s Hall of Fame Class of 2020 – awaiting induction in August 2021, due to coronavirus pandemic-related gathering restrictions.
The most well-known snowbird Floridian, often in Michigan during spring and summer, is military veteran Lou Vela, loan originator with Q10 Lutz Financial. I don’t know anyone in the land-lease community sector who does not know and like Lou. He’s in his mid-80s and, as they say, going strong. Given the pandemic turmoil of year 2020, he turned from originating community mortgages to commercial real estate sales, mostly selling communities and self-storage facilities. This spring he’s transitioned back to lending, but is focused on securing raw land development financing for clients. And there’s this Lou tale worth telling here. During the 1999 Networking Roundtable, when snowed-in at the Colorado Springs Marriott Hotel, Lou phoned Bill Marriott’s office to have our hotel and bartender provide the group with some beer, so we could properly enjoy the baseball World Series games being played that weekend. That is vintage Lou.