At the time, Mitch, 30, was searching for a condominium to rent. Looking at the mobile homes in the real estate magazine, he thought: "There's no way I'm living in a trailer."
A condo rental in Granada Hills, near where he and his mother operated two laundromats and a small publishing company, would be a step up from the various apartments he had rented since he left home at 18.
With the rent on his latest apartment increasing to more than $1,000 a month (this was a few years ago), he decided to find a condo, figuring he could pay $1,100 to $1,200 a month.
Buying a place had not yet occurred to him: "I think of myself as a renter."
His mind changed when he toured Oakridge, a large, gated park tucked up against the San Gabriel Mountains in the far northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley. Besides winding streets of well-kept factory-manufactured homes that seem more like cottages than trailers, the park offers a 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, two jacuzzis, a pool, tennis court, and billiard room with five tables. As a family park, it is open to children, and there is an average age of 50.
The prices were appealing to Klapow. He could lock one in for less than $100,000 at the time, he said, still sounding incredulous. "It's a joke. It's ridiculous."
While he would still be renting the lot, he would also reap the tax and equity-building advantages of owning a home.
What appealed to Mitch most was the attentive on-site management, led by park manager and real estate agent Ginny Harmon, who moved to the park decades, two months after it opened. As Mitch was to find out for himself, the park’s tidiness is largely Harmon’s doing.
“If you have chipped paint, you get a note from Ginny,” he said. “She’s hard-core and I like it.”
From early in the year when he started looking, to the close of escrow in the Fall, Mitch looked at dozens of mobile homes in the park.
“I drove those ladies crazy,” he said of Ginny and the two other licensed real estate agents who live and work in the park. The newer homes Mitch declared “too white,” while the older ones were too brown, on account of their prolific wood paneling. Finally, he decided on a strategy that would reap him an “acceptable” mobile home: buy an older coach and do an extensive remodel.
As a “guy who likes to shop,” Mitch knew it would cost $25,000 for a remodel that would give him the slate floors and upscale doors and fixtures he wanted.
Throughout the year, Mitch shopped both for a suitable mobile home and for the ingredients he wanted in a remodel. Even a year later, park manager Harmon recalls Mitch’s priorities: privacy, a garage, and a garden.
It took months to find the right unit, but he finally made an offer on a 1982, yellow-and-white, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with 1,288 square feet, an added sun room, and a two-car garage to hold his pristine Corvette. Ending up with a carport instead of a garage would have been disappointing.
“To me, that was the point of having a house. I wanted a garage door. I wanted my own trashcans. I love taking out the trash.”
By the end of escrow, Mitch had lined up the materials and workers to pull off the eight-week remodel. The biggest project was pulling up the gray carpeting that was “everywhere” and replacing it with a new subfloor and 1,200 square feet of slate flooring. To make sure the jacks holding up the coach could handle the added weight, he called in a contractor knowledgeable in mobile homes for a consultation, and the contractor suggested the Mitch add a few more jacks for support.
Another big project was cutting open the wall opposite the kitchen and adding sliding French doors that open to the side garden. In a “privacy lot” such as this one, park rules prohibit the owner of the adjacent unit installing windows that would overlook Mitch’s yard. Likewise, he cannot add windows that would overlook the garden of the neighbor on the other side.
A set of French doors was also added from the sunroom at the back of coach that lead to the master bedroom. Thick moldings were added around both doors, which not only covers the wall area disturbed for the door additions, but make the large doors appear even larger. The molding compliments the crown moldings added throughout the home.
While Mitch got much of what he wanted in his coach, it did not come with “big luscious bathrooms.” To approximate those, he added slate in both bathrooms, along with a “full on” shower in one bathroom, and a deep tub in the other. Much of the budget was spent on pricey Baldwin hardware and Newport Brass fixtures. To give him the feeling of a luxurious home, Mitch tried to upgrade all those thing he would be touching—counters, doors, hardware, and fixtures—while leaving many of the existing kitchen and bathroom cabinets in place. “There are certain issues where budget takes over,” he said.
To bring color into the home, he painted the ceilings—which he said he’s “king of” in his circle, calling it “decorator tip number one”—the same dark tan as the walls in the living room/dining room/kitchen. The library adjacent to the living room is green, and the master bathroom is “where taupe meets gray.” All trim is painted Navaho white. Lamps and accessories came from Fabby and Zipper, both in Los Angeles, and Restoration Hardware in Woodland Hills.
Before the project was totally finished, the budget was used up. Mitch still wants to add concrete steps from the sliding French door to the garden, and to replace the old stove with a stainless steel one. But he feels he got the ingredients that make him feel he is living in a luxury home.
“How do I know that I’m 23 inches off the ground, that there are jacks under there?” he asked. “You forget about it.”
The success of the remodel might launch Mitch on a new career. Several people who saw the home asked Mitch if he hired out his decorating skills. “Sure,” he told them. “I get 20 percent of everything we spend.” His first two jobs made him enough to pay off the Neptune washer and dryer, which weren’t in the budget but which he “had to have.”
But the new house comes with a downside. “It makes me nervous living in it. I’m afraid I’ll break something,” he said. “I’ve never had this good of stuff of my own.”
While Mitch suggests the mobile home park to others, he does so with a caveat. “They would be turned off by these places,” he said. “You have to move in with the idea of redoing it.”
From his experiences, Mitch said he has discovered, “How to buy your first home, how it can be fabulous, and be under $100,000.
“People can do it,” he added.
Strategy: Buy a mobile home with the goal to remodel it
Park: Oakridge Mobile Home Park, Sylmar
Remodel cost: $25,000
Real estate agent: Ginny Harmon, Oakridge Mobile Home Park, (818) 367-1128.
Owner/builder/decorator: Mitch Klapow