Sunday, February 13, 2022


When running a trailer park, marina, or even a hotel or motel, you have to make a hard choice about letting people become "permanent" residents, or "perms."

In my posting Liveaboards Welcome, I noted that some marinas take on a run-down look when they let too many people live on their boats.  It is an interesting equation, to be sure. If you run a marina or a trailer park, you may charge $50 to $100 a night for someone to park their RV or tie up their boat.  On the other hand, if you let someone stay perpetually, you may only collect $400-$800 a month in docking fees.  Clearly one approach is more profitable than the other.  So why allow liveaboards or perms?

For some marina and park owners, it is a matter of laziness accompanied by circumstance.  If your marina or RV park (or motel) doesn't get a lot of visitors, then having full-time residents may be your only choice.  But many park and marina owners tell me they like the "no hassle" convenience of monthly checks from permanent residents.  Overnight or even weekly visitors are more labor - you have to show them to their slip or site or room, and someone needs to man the desk to check them in.

Others take a hybrid approach - with maybe less than half the sites, slips, or rooms rented to "perms" and the rest to "transients".   The problem with this approach is, of course, that transient visitors (often on vacation) don't want to park next to, tie up next to, or sleep next to, someone whose life has gone so far down the drain they are forced to live on a boat or in an RV or in a motel.  Perms drive away transients, and eventually, you end up with all perms.  Income drops, but occupancy is near 100% so the place gets a lot of wear-and-tear but the management has no money to invest in improvements.  The place starts to fall apart, which in turn makes it even less attractive to transient visitors.

The problem with that model, in addition to the decreased revenue and the circling-the-drain effect is that you may raise the ire of local authorities by turning what is suppose to be a marina or an RV park or a motel, into a half-assed apartment building.  In fact, you may be breaking laws by doing so.

Our own little marina is a case in point.  The previous "owners" (leaseholders) allowed a lot of liveaboards in some pretty sketchy craft.  They were not bad people, these "perms" but the boats looked like holy hell - plastic sheeting stapled over broken windows and obvious holes in the hull just above the waterline.  If there was ever a storm, it would be a real mess.   One slip had an 18' sailboat on it, sans mast or rigging, with a young man living in it.  This is just not right.  And we get traffic up and down the intracoastal - people with big, expensive boats who want to spend the night somewhere nice.

But they bypassed our marina.  You're not about to park a million-dollar yacht next to a guy living in a dingy, or a dingy person with 500 houseplants crowding the dock, along with rusty bicycles.  So we lost that business, under the old management.

Although managers of such places claim that "perms" are less effort, I am not sure this is true.  The nice thing about transient visitors is that they leave.  If you have a "problem" client, well, they are not a problem for long.  On the other hand, if you have a long-term tenant, well, not only will they create problems, but they don't leave - and they may have more rights as tenants than as motel guests.

In our little marina, we had this happen.  Some residents started some shit with other residents - over parking spaces of all things.  Someone got mad and called the authorities and let them know that people were living in their boats, which the marina wasn't licensed for.  So the Department of Environmental Protection is called, and all hell breaks loose.  So much for the easy care-free model of perms.

Speaking of Department of Environmental Protection - if an abandoned boat sinks at the dock, the marina owner may be liable for expensive cleanup and remediation fees.  We know of one little old lady in Ft. Lauderdale who decided to rent out the boat slip behind her house to a local who was "living aboard".  The 45-foot boat sank a the dock and the owner disappeared.  The little old lady was on the hook for $50,000 in cleanup and removal fees.  And no, that wasn't covered by her homeowner's insurance, either!

Well, as you have noticed, if you followed this blog, our little island is being gentrified.  As little as two years ago, you could buy a house on our island for about $400,000 or so.  Today, a similar house is selling for $600,000 to $700,000 and up.  The marina now has dozens of brand-new condos for $500,000 apiece, all of which sold out almost immediately.  And we have a new marina manager (lessee) and the "perm" model was tossed in the trash.

The 18-foot sailboat is gone, as is the leaking old wooden Chris-Craft.  In their place are yachts that you might see in Ft. Lauderdale during yacht week.  And the docking rates have gone up accordingly.  We can no longer afford to keep a boat there - not that we could afford it when we did.  Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But quite frankly, the "perm" model of the marina was simply not sustainable nor economically logical.

But there is another aspect of "Perms" that I didn't address before.  And that is the tendency of people who live at a motel, marina, or RV park to take on the attitude that they own the place - and it is their responsibility to police others, particularly the transient visitors.  They tend to view transients with suspicion - which is odd, because the kinds of people who live in RVs full-time or in clapped-out boats or run-down motel rooms are usually the ones to be suspicious of.  So your visitors get the cold shoulder if they are not, in fact, treated badly by the "perms" and this in turn drives away your transient traffic.

There is also the problem of work-campers.   Some RV parks, marinas, and even motels, will offer reduced rates or even a free place to stay, if someone agrees to clean the restrooms or perform other maintenance chores - sort of like being a building superintendent back in the day.  The park or marina owner argues that this is "free labor" paid under-the-table and makes the whole place run on auto-pilot.

But it isn't that easy.  To begin with, it is illegal to pay people under the table, whether with cash or goods in kind, in this case, a free place to stay.  All it takes is one disgruntled former tenant to call the department of labor and you are facing an investigation and possible fines.  This actually happened on our island golf course.  The island relied on "volunteers" to do various chores and in return got free rounds of golf or other amenities.  Someone got pissed off and called the Department of Labor and... well, today the "volunteers" are paid employees, albeit at minimum wage.  When you try to do an end-run on the tax man, you end up with a big target on your back, with anyone you rent to being able to pull the trigger.

So why would someone blow you into Johnny Law?  Well, that is the other problem.  If you tell Clem he can stay for free if he cleans the bathrooms, he will do the minimum amount of work necessary and even complain about that.  Since he is not an employee, you can't fire him.  And if you complain about his shoddy cleaning work, well, that's when he gets pissed-off and gets even with you.  One phone call is all it takes.  Pretty stupid way to run a trailer park - hoping no one ever gets mad at you.

Of course, there is an end-game to all of this. As I noted in an earlier posting, such run-down RV parks or marinas end up being sold by the owners to some more aggressive person who evicts all the old tenants, raises the nightly rate, and tries to attract a more upscale crowd.  The old-timers never see it coming of course, even as the story is repeated time and time again, across America.  You feel sorry for them, but it is like student loan debt - how could anyone going to college in the last decade not be aware of this trap?  It's not like the media has ignored it - every day for the last decade, we've had student loan sob stories on the television.  Guess the kids don't watch television.  Good for them - but then they should be smart enough not to borrow 50 grand for a philosophy degree.

Ditto for people who crash-land in trailer parks.  Sure, the lot rent is cheap - but you can't expect that to go on forever, particularly as land values around you skyrocket.  But we've seen it time and again - people protesting increases in lot rent, when they should have been looking to move on, ages ago.  And no, there is no law in place saying you can live wherever you want to at whatever price you want to pay.  Some people think there should be such a law.

There is one more thing about "perms" to address and that is abandoned RVs and boats.  It sounds odd, but in every marina we've been to, every RV park (that allows perms) we've been to, there have been abandoned boats and RVs.  In many cases, the owners are paying monthly lot rents or storage fees, often for years or even decades.  They started out going to the marina every weekend in the summer.  Then ever other weekend.  Then once a month.  Then they stopped coming.  That was five years ago.  It is like people who pay monthly fees for storage lockers for years and years - to store things that are hardly worth one month's locker rent!

Now the boat is half-sunk at the dock and covered with mildew and algae - and a coral reef is growing off the bottom.  RVs fare no better, turning molding and green with algae, surrounded and covered with dead leaves and maybe a dead golf cart.  Some marinas and RV parks will pull such units and put them in storage, particularly after the owner stops paying the lot rent or docking fees.  Problem is, the marina or RV park owner can't take possession of an abandoned boat or RV without going through a lot of hassles to obtain title - by attaching a lien for the overdue dock or lot fees.  It would cost more in legal fees than the decrepit boat or RV is worth. As a result, the back lot of such places fills up with broken-down old boats and trailers.  And you wonder where those came from, didn't you?  And you wondered why they don't get rid of them.  They can't - not easily.  In a worst-case scenario, the park or marina owner sells off a derelict boat or RV only to be sued by the owner, who, of course, will claim in court that the vehicle was not derelict but in fact in good shape!  You can't win at that game, your only choice is not to play.  But such scenarios illustrate why astute marina operators and park owners have detailed contacts in place, which assign ownership of the vehicle to the park or marina owner, if fees fall into arrears.  Most of these run-down RV parks and marinas have no such agreements - everything is on a handshake.

The presence of abandoned boats or RVs deters the vacationer from staying.  Moreover, it takes up valuable spaces that could be rented out at a decent profit.  For example, one RV park we know of has perhaps 80% "Perms" but of those, perhaps only half use their rigs regularly.  Some have not used their RVs literally in years.  Sure, they pay $350 a month for lot rent, but that space, rented out for one weekend would yield them nearly $200.  But the owners of the park are turning away visitors because they have no space.  It is simply leaving money on the table.

Crazier still, we tried to check into one park and they told us they were "full."   I noticed more than a dozen empty spots and the manager said, "Well, we have 'regulars' that like to come for the weekend, so I set aside spaces for them!"  These were not people who had firm reservations, just folks that might show up.  An interesting gambit, but suppose those regulars don't come?  And in fact, not all of them do, and as a result, they have empty spaces every weekend when they could have hundreds if not thousands more in the till.  Some people are just not cut out to run a business.

The problem is even more acute in gay campgrounds.  Many were started by one person or a couple, who either inherited their parents' farm, or bought an old Christian revival camp (irony alert) and never thought about the end game.  They get old and infirm, which is one reason they choose these "easy ways out" to run the place on auto-pilot and let it run down.  As I noted before, we went on a tour of 11 gay campgrounds last summer - eight were for sale with no takers.  No one is paying a million bucks for what is, in local terms, about $250,000 worth of land.  The "improvements" in terms of shower house and game room or whatever, really have a negative value.  We like to play a game at such places, called "how many dumpsters?" - as in "how many dumpsters would it take to clean this place out of all the junk laying around?"  Usually we lose count after 50.

Camping went nuts in the last two years, due to the pandemic.  People wanted to get out of the city and away from other people. RV sales skyrocketed and campgrounds and State Parks were full to capacity.  But I wonder for how long.  Once the cruise lines are back in operation and the airlines are going full-tilt, perhaps the glamour (such as it is) of RVing will wear off.

Of course, with a whole generation of people retiring with no savings.... maybe the "Perms" will fill up these places!