[Paleopsych] NYT: Trailer Trash? Not a Scent of It

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Fashion & Style > Trailer Trash? Not a Scent of It
April 10, 2005


    MALIBU, Calif.

    AFTER making a fortune with his skateboard company, World Industries,
    Steve Rocco could have lived anywhere he wanted. He chose Paradise
    Cove, a woodsy neighborhood on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, where
    he bought a home for nearly half a million dollars and then spent more
    than $1 million replacing it with a Craftsman-style cottage.

    But Mr. Rocco's place is not exactly on millionaire's row. Paradise
    Cove is a mobile home park.

    "It's probably the best spot in the Southern California coast," he

    Trailer parks may conjure images of retirees and low-income families
    in most of the country, but in Malibu parks that once drew the
    elderly, working class and bohemian are now being transformed into the
    new playground for the rich. Here new owners with the means to
    decorate with marble floors, recessed lighting and Sub-Zero
    refrigerators are replacing 1970's flat-roof aluminum metal-sided
    trailers with mobile homes in Craftsman, Cape Cod, Tuscan or Spanish
    villa styles that come with two-car garages.

    In California, the most expensive housing market in the nation, the
    listings say it all.

    "Stunning, drop-dead gorgeous, bluff top, custom architectural home,
    built in '05," read one recent ad for a 2,100-square-foot home with
    panoramic views of the ocean and the Santa Monica mountains.

    The residence is not the detached single-family kind; that could go
    for more than $10 million around these parts, real estate agents said.
    The location is Malibu's Point Dume Club mobile home park, and the
    asking price is a mere $1.69 million.

    "The world has changed," said Janet Levine, the developer selling this
    property and beautifying two others for resale at Point Dume.
    "Spaghetti is now pasta. Religion is now spiritual. It's no longer a
    mobile home park. It's a fab park."

    For mobile home buyers like Mr. Rocco, 45, a former professional
    skateboarder who is more into surfing these days, the main draw to
    Paradise Cove was the beach and a cozier style of living, he said. The
    lots are still slivers of land where homes sit a few feet from one
    another under a canopy of eucalyptus trees, pine and palms, and
    neighbors run into one another at the children's playground or laundry

    Among the eclectic mix of surfers, older residents, celebrities like
    Minnie Driver and affluent professionals and businessmen like himself,
    he said, many know one another.

    "I know my neighbors' names, and I'm not the friendliest guy in the
    world," he said.

    But just like other newcomers in recent years, Mr. Rocco, who bought a
    trailer for $430,000 in 2003 in an oceanfront spot, discarded the old
    structure to build a new one with all the accouterments he and his
    wife needed to make it livable: walls, countertops and beams of
    mahogany and maple with veneer dyed in blues, greens, oranges and
    yellows; shiplike nooks and crannies that hold bathrooms, bedroom
    lofts and a workout room; a Yosemite stone fireplace; a grand piano in
    the living room; upstairs and downstairs decks.

    All in all it is 2,100 square feet, on a triple-wide lot where the
    only evidence of the home's humble origins are the raised foundation,
    a requirement for mobile homes, and the original trailer hitch, where
    Mr. Rocco plans to plant his mailbox.

    His home now sticks out amid the more traditional mobile homes in the
    park, but "it's just a nice house," Mr. Rocco insisted. "I don't have
    gold fixtures." But he was somewhat self-conscious; he did not allow
    pictures of himself or his place.

    If Paradise Cove is a throwback to more congenial times, the more
    upscale neighbors now welcome newcomers with a bottle of Champagne
    rather than pie. That is what Will Conrad, 37, an emergency room
    doctor from Santa Monica, said his neighbors did when a truck brought
    his new manufactured home up the hill to install in his lot last
    summer. It was the replacement, he said, for the $450,000
    1,000-square-foot "decrepit" 1971 rollaway he had bought in 2003 as a
    second home.

    Dr. Conrad said he grew up in Malibu and remembers coming to the
    mobile home parks as a child for classmates' birthday parties.

    "The homes were considered a notch below everybody else's," he said.

    But in adulthood Dr. Conrad has other priorities. A recreational
    surfer, he wanted the waves without the crowds, and Paradise Cove,
    with a guard booth at the entrance, restricts nonresidents' beach

    "If I went to Palos Verdes, I'd get killed," he said, referring to a
    popular surfing area south of here. "People getting into fistfights,
    damaging cars."

    Old-time residents like John Tindall, 70, a retiree who bought in
    Paradise Cove 18 years ago and still lives there with his wife in his
    1970 model, are reacting to the influx of new affluence with

    "No matter how much they pay, the people seem very friendly," he said.
    "But the more they pay, the less they're here."

    Mobile homes account for less than 10 percent of the overall housing
    stock nationwide. Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Manufactured
    Housing Institute, said that buyers pay an average of about $50,000
    for the mobile home and another $45,000 for the land.

    But he and others in the industry say all bets are off in resortlike
    communities where prices reflect high demand. Robert Kleinhenz, the
    deputy chief economist for the California Association of Realtors,
    said that in a state where median price for the traditional house is
    $471,000, it is not surprising it is leading the trend toward the
    upscale trailer park.

    David M. Carter, an agent with Pritchett-Rapf & Associates here who
    specializes in mobile homes, said he sold his first million-dollar one
    last year but "there's plenty now in the parks that would sell for
    over $1 million if they came on the market."

    Craig Fleming, the vice president of sales for a manufacturer of
    upscale mobile homes, Silvercrest Western Homes Corporation, said that
    beginning three years ago, mobile homes on private property have sold
    for $1 million or more in prime areas of San Francisco, San Diego and
    Orange County.

    But mobile homes come with some drawbacks. Financing is hard to come
    by. and when people do get it, the loan amounts are smaller and the
    interest rates higher, real estate agents note. This is because buyers
    in mobile home parks lease their land space rather than own it (lease
    fees here in Malibu can range from $800 to $2,500 a month), a set-up
    that many of them overlook because of trade-offs like no property
    taxes and rent-controlled lease fees.

    But there is perhaps a bigger hump to overcome, agents say: the
    trailer trash stereotype.

    "You still get the stigma, especially on the telephone," said Mr.
    Carter, the real estate agent. "When you say it's a mobile home or
    manufactured home, they don't even want to listen to you."

    "But when they come out and try to price other things in Malibu, it's
    an easy sale," he said.

    Among the skeptical was Bobi Leonard, 54, an interior designer who had
    a lot of movie star clients as well as businesses who said that when
    she realized that the address for a date six years ago was in a mobile
    home park she almost made a U-turn to go back home.

    "I said, 'Oh my God, I can't date a guy who lives in a mobile home
    park,' " said Ms. Leonard, whose previous homes were in the
    seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom range.

    But the man (Greg Mooers, a life coach and spiritual guide who was
    once a monk) and the park won. In 1999 the couple married and bought a
    corner space in Tahitian Terrace, a mobile home park off the Pacific
    Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. Since then she has spent close to
    $400,000 turning her home into a tropical oasis of bird of paradise
    palm trees, animal prints and burning candles and has helped others
    redesign their mobile homes too.

    "I realized this is a treasure," she said, pointing at 180-degree
    ocean views, quiet environment and 10-mile-per-hour speed limits just
    minutes away from the freeway and city life. "No gardeners. No pool
    men. I began to realize it was a simpler way of life." (Although she
    does have an electronic garage gate and motorized awnings that react
    to wind and rain.)

    Dr. Conrad's wife, Deborah Conrad, 37, a Los Angeles lawyer, admits
    she had to warm up to the concept of having a mobile home as the
    couple's second home and still is "not nearly as enthusiastic as he
    is." She likes Paradise Cove, she said, but even there the homes are
    still movable and too close together, many still look boxy from the
    outside and the public perception still comes from bad news about

    "Most of the time, when you hear about mobile homes, you hear about a
    hurricane that's hit them," she said.

    But it is the residents who bought their trailers at bargain prices as
    recently as a few years ago who are having the last laugh, real estate
    agents noted.

    "In the last five years prices have been doubling each year," said
    Shen Schulz, an agent with Coldwell Banker here who last year moved
    his wife and 6-year-old twin sons to a mobile home at Point Dume Club.

    Now the new buyers who are transforming ugly ducklings into swans say
    they may never sell. Dr. Conrad, who drives a 2004 Jaguar but has
    rented a Ford pickup truck for his jaunts to his mobile home, said he
    hoped his wife becomes comfortable enough to some day retire there.

    And Mr. Rocco and his wife are expecting their first child, whom they
    plan to raise in Paradise Cove.

    "I'm going to raise my kid in a trailer park," he deadpanned.

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