Mr. Chatterbox - March 2011

By Bob Plunket March 1, 2011

I admit right at the start that I’ve always been fascinated with trailers—or mobile homes, as they are more properly known—and have always fantasized about living in one. Imagine—a little metal house that you can move around. They have amazing design features, usually clever built-ins to increase storage. The newer ones have taken a wrong turn, I feel, in trying to look exactly like a real house. I prefer the retro look, with its fins and curves—something that looks like it should be towed by a ’59 Cadillac.

Well, thanks to the recession my fantasy may soon come true. How else can you retire these days? The problem isn’t buying a new cheap downsize. The problem is selling your old house for any sort of decent price. That’s where a trailer comes in. It’s pleasant living at a rock bottom price.

Sarasota is blessed to have some great trailer parks. Check out Camelot Lakes, the Park Avenue of trailer parks, or the Winds of St. Armands (which us old-timers remember as Windmill Village, with its giant windmill, now tastefully remodeled into a stylish tower). One of its mobile homes is so elegant it was featured in our October Home & Garden issue.

But the incredible retirement finds are in the trailer parks out on the keys. They were developed long ago, more than 50 years in some cases, and that means they have spectacular pieces of land. Back during the boom it looked like they would all be eaten up by developers. Now they’re having a second lease on life.

Let’s start with the most famous, Twin Shores Mobile Home Park on Longboat Key. Located right in the center of the island, it’s a throwback to the old days, when Longboat was not anywhere near as highfalutin as it is now. Twin Shores is neat, clean, and impeccably maintained. It’s set on a grid of little streets and has shell roads, and if I have a complaint, it’s that there isn’t much greenery. The trailers—excuse me, mobile homes—are mostly older models, and rather small ones at that, but the amenities are incredible. One of the finest stretches of beach is right across Gulf of Mexico Drive, and the east side of the park faces Sarasota Bay, complete with a little marina.

People often wonder how much these homes cost. The first thing you have to understand is that there are two types of parks. In the first, you own the little plot of land your trailer is on, like a co-op or condo. In the second, you own the physical trailer, but you lease the land. Thus, the land-owned places are much more expensive than the land-leased places. The monthly fees reflect this. The resident-owned ones have low fees (some starting at, say $200) while the leased places are much higher for the same services. (They can go over $700.)

Twin Shores is resident-owned. It currently has one home on the market for $89,000, but that’s unusual. The next cheapest is $129,000, and some would go for more than $200,000. They recently remodeled an old building overlooking the marina and the bay and have turned it into four condos, and very cute little condos they are. They start at $299,000. You get all the advantages of mobile home living without the mobile home.

And there are advantages. Studies show that retired people who live in mobile home communities are happier and live longer than those in high-rises and other types of communities. They certainly seem happy. I’m sure you’re familiar with the “trailer park wave.” Whenever you drive through one, everybody lifts their right hand in greeting.

When it comes to the picturesque, it’s hard to beat the Pines Trailer Park—yes, they still call it a trailer park—in Bradenton Beach. It has small, often tiny little trailers, some older than the residents, set on meandering narrow streets. They are a little too close to each other, and are often painted and gussied up in eccentric ways. But the total effect is a perfect slice of Floridiana.

Again, the location is exceptional. You’re in downtown Bradenton Beach, a half-block from the shops and restaurants on Bridge Street. The beach is a block away, and again, the park borders the bay. This is my favorite stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway. The boat traffic is plentiful, with two bridges visible. It’s the perfect retirement view—relaxing yet stimulating at the same time. A boat passes and you’re reminded of some long-ago incident in your romantic past. Then another boat passes and you’re reminded that here you are, retired and living in a trailer park. Oh, well . . .

The Pines is not land-owned, but its perfect location has kept prices on the high-ish side. You can easily spend $40,000 for one of the nicer places. But you can also pay a lot less. I checked out one toaster-shaped beauty circa 1954. It is tiny inside but has everything you need, plus a cute porch that you can screen. It’s priced at $12,900, with a monthly fee of $390. I’m thinking of it as a pied-à-terre out at the beach.

If either of the above parks has a serious flaw, it is that they don’t take pets. Oh, they admit they have been known to turn a blind eye to an indoor cat, and fish are perfectly acceptable. But dogs are out. I can kind of see why. There really isn’t any place to walk them, and if you’re next door to a yapper, well, it gets a little tiresome.

That’s what makes Cortez Park so wonderful. They’re pet-friendly and they have an incredible location: five acres right on the Intracoastal, in the historic old fishing village of Cortez. This is perhaps the best piece of land in town. You’ll really feel like a part of the community here, with its old fishing families and bohemian artists and yes, a redneck or two.

This is a resident-owned park, and the homes tend to be a little larger than those in our other picks. They are also set a little farther apart, a big plus.

You can get in for $75,000, with some of the waterfront homes going for $150,000 or more. There’s an onsite marina with a bait shop and fishing charters, and the beach is right across the Cortez bridge.

These are “adult communities,” meaning that you have to be 55 and older to live there. There are ways around this. Up to 20 percent of the residents can be under 55, but nobody has ever been able to give me a good explanation of under what circumstances this can happen. I have been told that each park has its share of older gentlemen with much younger wives, and of course, these women are perfectly welcome. Wow. Old guys with hot young babes living in trailers on the beach in Florida. I can’t wait. 


For more from Robert Plunket, click here to read Mr. Chatterbox's online social diary and click here to read his Real Estate Junkie Blog.

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