Part one originally appeared in Issue 936 of RVtravel.com, posted February 22, 2020. Each installment followed a week later.
By Chuck Woodbury
For nearly 20 years I have written an essay in this space almost every week. For 15 years before that I wrote them for my quarterly “on the road newspaper” Out West and for newspapers worldwide via syndication by The New York Times.
I traveled by RV all those years, but until RVtravel.com came along in the late 1990s, I didn’t write much about RVing other than an occasional mention that I traveled in a motorhome. The late Charles Kuralt, CBS TV’s beloved on-the-road correspondent, did the same. He called his motorhome a “bus.” You see, back then travel with an RV was not cool, just the opposite. A recreational vehicle was “Grandma and Grandpa’s Playhouse.” My 30-something baby boomer friends wanted nothing to do with one; backpacking was the thing. RVing was for old people. I was an oddball, out there hanging out with people my parent’s age. The most popular RV bumper sticker of the day was “We’re Spending Our Children’s Inheritance.”
I got to know these older folks well. I was “the kid,” and was treated like a son. I enjoyed a lot of free dinners from senior citizens who felt sorry for me being alone. And then one day I woke up and time had passed and I was no longer the youngster, but the same age as those “grannies and grandpas” of yesteryear. You want to know something? Today’s older RVers are indistinguishable from those of 30 years ago, only the equipment has changed.
ONE BIG DIFFERENCE TODAY is that RVing is suddenly very trendy. Millennials are standing in line to buy one. Most buy cheap ones that will fall apart in five to ten years, if not sooner. Truth be told, some of those entry-level RVs are seriously defective right off the sales lot but need significant work that can take weeks or months. The RV industry announced just this week that the average repair at an RV dealership takes 21 days. That’s just the average.
The overall dependability of new RVs has never been worse. In a reader poll we conducted in 2017, 22 percent of our readers rated the workmanship on their RVs as poor or terrible. That’s one out of five. If that same percentage held true for manufacturers of cars, TVs, bicycles or furniture, the companies would go bust.
Today’s buyers, with stars in their eyes, get suckered by high pressure salespeople into financing their RVs for 15 or 20 years. Camping World has perfected the art of selling long-term loans. “Oh, we can afford $400 a month,” the would-be buyers say. They forget about taxes, insurance, registrations, maintenance, storage fees (53% of RVtravel readers pay to store their RV) and replacement parts (like new tires at least every seven years). Meanwhile RV industry flacks send out an annual news release citing statistics that “prove” that travel by RV is the cheapest way to take a vacation. That, my RVtravel friend, is a bald-faced lie! I took a class in college titled “Lying with Statistics,” where I learned you can make a case for anything by twisting the data.
Consider this: You buy a new RV, finance it, and use it a month a year, which is typical with Millennials and others who are still working (many, if not most, will use it even less). The rest of the time the RV sits, often at the mercy of the elements. All the while the owner makes monthly payments and pays other RV-related expenses.
Under those circumstances, get out your calculator and figure out the annual cost of owning the RV, and then apply that to the one month you used it. How much did that one month really cost you? Don’t forget to figure the RV’s depreciation of $500–$1,000 a month (conservative, ballpark figure that is often much higher).
Now compare that to taking a car trip, camping in a tent with an occasional motel stay, and otherwise being frugal. When you return home, your trip expenses are finished. I don’t think many people finance a tent for 15 years. Compare an RV vacation with renting an Airbnb cottage at the ocean. When you return home, no more payments until you take your next trip.
I suggest that if you travel three months or more a year with an RV and compare the cost to staying in hotels, the RV could be the less expensive way to take a “vacation” (and, of course, a whole lot more convenient and comfortable). But for the industry to boast that RV travel is the “least expensive way to take a vacation” is a joke. Sad to say, the advertising-dependent RV industry media prints this nonsense because it’s free copy and it makes their advertisers happy. Who cares about facts?
Fifty-eight percent of all Americans don’t or can’t pay off their credit cards each month according to a Federal Reserve report. Half of those say they pay the minimum amount due, which can stretch out 15 or 20 years or more if they put away their credit card “right now!” My Visa business account had a balance of $5,984 last month. If I were to make only the minimum monthly payment of $118 it would take 19 years to pay off the balance. The total amount I would pay would be $11,070!
So do you think that all of today’s wide-eyed RV buyers who finance a cheap or even modest-priced RV for 15 or 20 years will make their payments right on time each and every month? And they’ll need to do it month after month for all those years — 240 months — 7,200 days — after their cheap RV falls apart and can’t even be used. Sure, they could sell it, but they’d almost always need to come up with cash to pay off the loan.
Pause for one second: Where were you 20 years ago? Maybe you’ve been paying a home mortgage for all that time, but what else? What if you had to make monthly payments for an RV that probably quit working properly years before? And, of course, unlike a home which is probably worth a whole lot more in 20 years, an RV is worth practically nothing!
Do you think that, just maybe, the economy might nosedive once or twice in the next 15 or 20 years, or an RVer might get laid off a job, or get sick and lose the job, or maybe one of his or her children or spouse would be diagnosed with a terrible disease and his or her savings could make the difference between life and death? Would you really care about making your RV payments on time if that was you? Personally, without a moment’s hesitation, I’d help my family member and forget about RV payments. What’s more important?
Is all this just doom and gloom on my part? No way. It’s based on my 35 years of RV travel and two decades of inhaling nearly every article written about RVing, attending a hundred RV shows, hanging out with my RV industry buddies and fellow writers, and talking to thousands of RVers, consoling some of them. Heck, long ago, I spent three years as a TV pitchman for a Northwest RV dealer. I sat in on sales meetings and saw how things work from a dealer’s perspective. To me, that seems like another life ago. I was a different person. I needed money. I’d say about anything. You do things when you’re desperate that you may not be proud of another time. All the dealer cared about was selling as many RVs as possible, whether the customer could afford it or not.
Then I got to the point where bill collectors no longer hounded me, and I could start being more selective in what I said, wrote and did. But, still, I was a pretty good cheerleader for the RV industry. Until two or three years ago.
I recall an older woman who emailed me awhile back. “Help me,” she said. She told me she and her husband had bought a new luxury motorhome, but he had died just months later. “I can’t drive it myself,” she said. “But when I tried to sell it, I was told I’d need to come up with $80,000 to pay off the loan. I don’t have that kind of money!”
THIS HAPPENS. Will it happen to you? Probably not. But imagine the horror an RVer must feel when he or she is in such a pickle, whether they’re “upside down” $80,000 or just $5,000. If you don’t have the money, you’re in trouble — and have fun with the bill collectors! Nearly 20% of our readers reported recently that if they sold their RV they would need to come up with extra money to pay off the balance on the loan.
In all the years I have explored America by RV, I have observed and studied the RV lifestyle. In 2013, the RV Industry Association named me its “Distinguished Journalist of the Year” for all I had done to promote RVing. I seldom did it intentionally; it’s just that my joy of traveling with an RV came through in everything I wrote or said. If you had seen the segment on me on the Today Show or on ABC World News Tonight (22 million people viewed that), or had seen me interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show when it was on late-night on CBS, or read the flattering story about me in People Magazine, you would have thought, “What a life! I wish I could do that.”
I know damn well I “sold” a lot of RVs through all that media coverage!
Few people could live that life, though. There were no cell phones, no laptop computers, no Internet. It was close to impossible to be a nomad and earn a living. The fact that I pulled it off with my unique “roaming” newspaper was why I got all the media attention. I was a rarity.
Then communication technology evolved. And so did RVs. They now had slideouts, built-in TVs, and then washer/dryers (22% of our readers have them), dishwashers, stereo systems, 65-inch high-def TVs, outdoor kitchens, built-in vacuum cleaners, heated floors, wine coolers and the ever-important built-in doggie bowl. Websites popped up to help nomad RVers find jobs along the road.
During the recession of 2008, dozens of RV makers went belly-up or were gobbled up by Thor or Forest River. Those little guys, by and large, had cared about the RVs they built and their customers, whose names they often knew. Then, just like that, they were gone.
Thor, Forest River and to a lesser extent Winnebago (who together now control 85 percent of the RV manufacturing market) are all about the bottom line and pleasing their stockholders. Their job is to make RVs that sell. Period. What the buyers of those RVs do with them after that is not important. If there are not enough campsites to accommodate them, so be it. That’s not their problem. Oh, they pay lip service to it, but they truly don’t care.
The RV industry I refer to includes the RV Industry Association (RVIA), RV manufacturers, RV dealers and campgrounds and their national associations. Each looks out for its own interests. The RV Industry Association earns $100 (plus or minus some depending on the type of RV) for every new RV sold. When RV sales drop from 500,000 a year to 400,000, which has happened recently, they lose $10 million dollars. So it’s pretty easy to see why they want to sell as many RVs as possible. They do not care about the quality of the RVs unless bad press starts affecting sales. They don’t care if there aren’t enough campgrounds for the new buyers. There’s always good ol’ Walmart. But how many GoRVing TV commercials or magazine ads have you seen that show a happy couple camping in a parking lot?
In my 20s, before I bought my first RV, I dreamed of traveling on beautiful back roads, camping by trout steams and the ocean shore. I don’t even recall dreaming about staying in a parking lot (although I did at times because I was so poor). It was pretty easy back then to find free public campgrounds.
The campground industry association (ARVC) represents RV park owners. Its job is to help its 3,000 members run their businesses better so they can earn more money. Nothing wrong with that. But the industry association cares only about its members, not you and me and our serious problems finding campsites without making reservations months, even years in advance.
THE LAST THING AN RV PARK OWNER WANTS is for another park to open up down the road. That would be a very good thing for RVers because we’d have a better chance of finding an available campsite in the area. But for the original park owner, it just means unwanted competition and more work and probably expense to fill its campsites.
Have you ever been to a town with one gas station? In most cases, the gas price is sky high. Right? But what happens if another station opens? The original station’s ability to set its own “take it or leave it” price is over. The locals will soon find reduced prices at the pump because of the competition. It happens with RV parks, too.
The fact is, no national organization is dedicated to representing the concerns of RV owners. None. Zippo. The Good Sam Club once did a decent job, but it now only looks out for the concerns of its money-hungry CEO Marcus Lemonis (who once called Good Sam members “marketing tools”). Today, RVtravel.com is about as close as it gets, but we can only do so much, most importantly raise as much awareness as we can of problems. We’re making progress, but we’re a little fish in a big pond. Thank goodness for our members, our voluntary subscribers, whose support allows us to say what we want, and not just toot the horn of advertisers to get their money.
Cars made by American car manufacturers in the mid-20th century would wear out by 80,000 miles. Then along came Germany’s VW Bug and other well-built compacts from Japan. They cost less, lasted longer, fit into tight parking spots, and burned far less fuel than the big gas hogs American car makers produced. It got to the point where consumers chanted “Don’t buy American.” It took a long time for Detroit car manufacturers to understand they needed to change their ways or perish. It was the high-quality foreign competition that did it.
The RV industry has no serious foreign competition. Many of today’s RVs leave their factories without a comprehensive inspection for defects. Dealers are supposed to do a PDI (pre-delivery inspection), but often don’t or don’t do it properly (hey, time is money!). Read the Facebook group RV Horror Stories to see what happens. It is ugly.
Many dealers often prefer to simply send out the RV with the new buyer without doing anything but a superficial inspection. “If there’s something wrong, just bring it back and we’ll fix it,” they say. Right! And then when the buyer does return, he or she is told, “It will take us a few weeks to get to that.” It can be because the RV dealer is too busy, or that a needed part takes weeks or longer to arrive. It’s a problem the RV industry recognizes, but has not addressed seriously, although that could finally be changing. Stay tuned. And, P.S: Those “three-week repairs” can often take two or three times that long — or longer!
Imagine that the big three RV manufacturers (Thor, Forest River and Winnebago) convened a summit where they would discuss how to improve the RVing experience for their customers, not just themselves. I mean SERIOUSLY discuss. Maybe someone important in the industry, a visionary (wouldn’t that be nice), would convince others with influence that something must be done to improve their customers’ experiences, not just address them with a Band-Aid solution or a PR campaign. Will that happen? Maybe, but I suspect it will be when the companies are forced to change, perhaps when foreign competition arrives. There isn’t a visionary in the business that I can see. Alas, visionaries don’t come along too often.
SPEAKING OF VISIONARIES
Back in 1938 a man named William Piper began producing a small airplane that would sell for about $1,000. He is a great example of a visionary, not to mention a smart businessman. His Piper Cub made flying affordable for just about everyone. The media called him “Aviation’s Henry Ford.”
Do you know the first thing Mr. Piper did when he started selling the Cub? He and/or his representatives toured the country doing their best to persuade small towns to build airports. Piper knew that if his prospective customers (pilots) didn’t have a place to take off and land they wouldn’t buy his planes. If only the RV industry were half as wise.
Ditto Henry Ford, who lobbied for more and better roads. How could he sell his Model T’s if buyers had no decent places to drive them?
So, to put this another way . . .
• Airplanes need places to land and take off.
• Cars need good roads where motorists can drive them.
• RVs need places to stay with them (besides Walmart).
Here’s a post this past week from the Facebook group California RV Camping:
“We just bought our first travel trailer and we’re so excited to take it to all the beautiful California campgrounds. However, I’m getting a little discouraged booking sites. All the great ones seem impossible to get a site for no matter how far in advance I try. Any secrets to this? We live in San Diego so doing first come first serve isn’t ideal for the good places that are 6ish hours away.”
The fact is — what the woman who posted this didn’t know — what nobody told her when she bought her RV — is that all “the beautiful California campgrounds” have been booked for a year, often longer. She probably got suckered into believing she could go anywhere she wanted, when she wanted, as promoted by the RV Industry in its advertising and propaganda materials.
IT’S THE SAME in any popular tourist area in America. In an RV Travel reader poll from last year, nearly 90% of more than 2,500 respondents said securing an RV park site without an advance reservation was more difficult (48%) or somewhat more difficult (41%) than five years before: That adds up to almost 90% who said it was more difficult even as of a year ago!
Try to find an available campsite in any popular National Park — Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia — you won’t unless you make your reservation a year or even two ahead. Heck, try to find any available campground on the fly within 20 miles of a popular park!
The National Park Service reported that at the end of 2018 there were 502 front-end campgrounds in the National Park system with 16,648 sites. These are locations you can reach by motor vehicle, not by hiking or boating.
Yosemite National Park has nearly 1,500 sites, Glacier National Park has more than 1,000, Grand Teton National Park has more than 1,100, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon combined have just a bit more than 1,200 sites. “Do the math and you’ll see that those six parks alone hold 40 percent of those 16,648 campsites,” wrote National Park Traveler.
“Many other parks that are highly desirable with campers have considerably fewer sites,” the website wrote. “Canyonlands National Park has fewer than 40, Arches National Park has 50, Rocky Mountain National Park has around 571, Acadia National Park has a few more than 600, and Shenandoah National Park has 472.” Of course, if you’re looking for RV campsites, they are even more scarce.”
It can be nearly impossible in most popular parks to simply drop into a campground and find a vacant space (that was not true even 10 years ago). Take Yosemite. In January 2020, it was announced that campsite reservations from May 15 to June 14 would be made available online on February 15th. Anyone who wanted to camp in the park during that month had to be sitting at their computer at exactly 7 a.m., Pacific time (and then hope to get lucky) and hit “send” before the campsites were all gone. Alas, within only a few minutes, every single one was reserved. Of the more than 11,000 people who wanted a site, fewer than 40% secured one.
And keep this in mind. According to Statista, 59% of Americans who camp do so with a tent. They’re taking up a whole bunch of campsites; it’s not just RVers looking for a place to stay.
It’s not much different with RV parks:
RV park were far less crowded 15 years ago, when there were fewer RVs on the road and far fewer full-timers occupying a campsite 365 days a year. Today, it’s not just full-timers but other long-term tenants — pipeline workers, wind machine repairmen and workers on long-term construction projects. Some RV parks are fully occupied by these people, most of them in fifth wheel trailers. Do you need a spot for a night or two when passing through? Good luck!
A friend of mine owns a campground in Virginia. It’s a family business where familiar faces return each year for family vacations. One day, a businessman showed up in the office with a proposal: “My company will soon be building a pipeline through this area. We need a place for our workers to stay for one year.” He asked my friend how much he would gross during one year if every campsite were filled every night. The businessman said, “We will pay you that amount plus an additional 20% if you rent us the park.”
My friend turned him down. Yes, it was easy money, but it would have destroyed the goodwill he enjoyed with his long-time customers. He is not the only RV park owner who has received such an offer. Some take the money. And when they do, there goes another park off-limits to you and me if we want to spend a night or two while passing through.
There is, however, more to this than simply a shortage of RV parks. The truth is, there are countless campsites available every night.
There is, however, more to this than a shortage of RV parks. There are countless campsites available every night. But they are either in unpopular tourist areas or along dirt roads where there may be no cell service and no hookups. When surveyed, 25% of RVtravel.com readers reported that cell service was “critical” to where they chose to camp. Another 64% said it was critical, but not essential. Those RVers, I suspect, will never or seldom camp somewhere too isolated to even receive a cell signal. That rules out thousands of Forest Service and other government campgrounds.
In other words, it’s not just about a shortage of campgrounds that has caused a need for reservations. It’s also about a shortage of campgrounds that meet the requirements of the many RVers who wish to use all the creature comforts their RVs afford, which most often means at least an electrical hookup.
When we asked our readers how far they would travel to a campground along a “good dirt road,” nearly 60% of the almost 3,000 respondents said a mile or less. That, too, rules out thousands of primitive (and often beautiful) campgrounds.
Many RVers need power to run all the electronics they have come to rely on, including residential refrigerators which can only operate on electricity, not propane. So unless the RVer has a sophisticated solar setup, an inverter and a big bank of batteries, he or she can’t stay for long without hookups.
Last summer, we asked our fulltime RVer readers how long they could live in their RVs without plugging into electricity. Two-thirds reported they could last “a few days, but less than a week.”
Did you read our recent article about KOA opening a new RV park near Maine’s Acadia National Park? Don’t bother to show up with your RV: You are not welcome. The entire “glamping park” is permanent “glamping” tents that rent for $218 to $315 a night. And it’s not like this is a new location for KOA. It was a traditional “campground” for nearly 50 years. Now the RV sites are gone, replaced with luxury tents.
KOA has every right to do this. It may turn out to be a big money maker. If so, you can bet other KOA parks will do the same. And, of course, so will other independent campgrounds. But how does that help you and me find a place to stay when every RV park in the area has already been booked for six months or longer?
RV parks across the country are already removing RV spaces in favor of “glamour” accommodations — cabins, cottages, tents, yurts, treehouses, tee-pees and cabooses. Expect this to continue.
Where will they stay?
Depending upon who you ask, there are 13,000 to 15,000 commercial RV parks in America plus another plus 1,600 state parks that cater to RVers. At first, that seems like a lot of places. I believe that figure is misleading.
Off the top of my head, based on my many years of RVing, I would like to ask you some questions to help you determine how many of those parks might be, or not be, available for you. Get out your calculator. Okay. . .
• How many are in the area where you plan to camp? Do you do most of your camping in Oregon, Indiana, Georgia, etc.?
• How many are so dumpy you would not want to stay there? (For example, rule out any with a rating of 2.5 or fewer stars out of five.) I’d guess that’s about 25% of all parks.
• Are you younger than 55? How many are 55+ parks, where younger RVers are not welcomed.
• How many are a long drive away from where you want or need to stay?
• How many charge $75 or more a night, when your budget doesn’t permit that?
• How many are already reserved for the dates you want to stay? (In a popular tourist area many, if not most, may be booked a year ahead.)
• How many are occupied or nearly occupied with seasonal RVers (snowbirds in the winter)?
• How many are essentially “trailer parks” where RVers live year-round?
• How many do not offer Wifi or adequate Wifi, if that’s important to you?
• Is your RV older than 10 years? Some parks won’t allow it – too old.
• Do you have a dog? How many do not permit dogs or have restrictions on size or breeds?
• Is your RV 45 feet or longer, plus a tow vehicle or dinghy behind a motorhome? How many sites are off-limits because your RV won’t fit?
• Do you need to 50-amp service? How many only offer 30 amps?
• How many are open the time of year you want to travel?
• How many don’t allow campfires (if you want to roast marshmallows with the grandkids)?
• How many do not have a swimming pool, if that’s important to you?
If you think long and hard about those questions, you’ll realize that you may be severely limited in where you can stay that fits your needs. Twenty years ago, sites were much more readily available in most parks.
New RV parks and resorts are being built, but slowly. Many of them, a high percentage, from my observations, are “resorts”, where the RVer buys a lot for six figures or more (often far more) and then pays annual homeowners dues. Some have attached cabanas or casitas. Some are for motorhomes only. Others are available as rental spaces similar to traditional RV parks, but the price tags are commonly $100 or more a night.
Twenty years ago I never made a reservation, never had to. I remember a newspaper reporter who was writing about me asking what my biggest decision of each days was. I told him it was whether to turn left or right when I departed the campground! I had no reservations ahead so I could travel any road I wanted, and take the fork in the road that looked the most interesting. I would check my watch at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then start looking for an RV park or campground. I almost always found one with an available space within a couple of hours.
Back then an RVer could truly “go where you want, when you want,” without a reservation. The RV industry still promotes that message in its advertising, but it is no longer true. The slogan should have been retired 10 years ago. It’s far easier today to find a hotel reservation on the fly than an RV park, at least a decent one.
I grew up 20 miles outside of Los Angeles in West Covina, in what was then the rural San Gabriel Valley. The town’s population was 4,000 when my parents brought me there at age 1. My home was surrounded by orange groves. My buddies and I would walk a quarter-mile to the hills behind us to play. We built a raft on a small pond. I grew up a “country boy,” not a “city boy.”
The chamber of commerce could well have advertised “move to the country,” where the pace of life was slow and the air clean.
When my family moved away 16 years later, every orange grove was gone, replaced with tract homes and shopping malls. The air was often so smoggy that our school would cancel physical education classes. Two-lane Garvey Boulevard into Los Angeles was now the San Bernardino Freeway (now I-10). The hills where my friends and I played were covered with high-priced “view” homes. The population was 60,000 (and growing).
The West Covina chamber of commerce no longer had the right, ethically, to use the same “move to the country” slogan. And it didn’t. The “country” was gone.
Just like West Covina, the landscape over time has changed in the RV community. The RV industry has no right to continue advertising that with an RV you can “go where you want when you want.”
From GoRVing.com, where the industry promotes RVing:
“Take control. You decide when and where to go and what you want to take with you…. Your schedule is your call when you’re behind the wheel. Make unplanned stops along the way when something catches your eye. Stay as long as you like or hit the road earlier than planned.”
Nonsense! Not true in 2020 (it was in 2000)!
There are too many RVs these days and too few places to stay. The day of spontaneous travel is over. Today, reservations are the name of the game.
Today, travel with an RV can still be magical. But it’s no longer something you can easily do spontaneously, unless you’re willing to stay in Walmart parking lots when you can’t find an available campsite. For RVers who prefer to carefully plan their trips, plotting out stops and how long they will stay, then RVing today can still be a wonderful way to live.
Today, about 85 percent of all RVs sold are towables. At the low end are popups and short (24 feet or less) travel trailers. Many are lightweight, cheap, and can be towed easily by the family car. What this means is that anyone of even modest means with an SUV, lightweight truck or even four-cylinder automobile can own an RV.
Camping World and many other dealers will gladly finance even the least-expensive trailer for 12 to 15 years (and 20 years on some), which is far beyond the life expectancy of most. Plenty of naive buyers fall for this, and I suspect most regret it later for reasons I have explained elsewhere.
In the RV industry, as in every other American manufacturing business, “bigger is better,” which in the RV world can also mean “more new gizmos and gadgets is better.” Every year RV manufacturers try to outdo their competitors with new features. In the process of doing so year after year, they have created “mobile homes” — vehicles as suitable for “living” as traveling. I am referring mainly to towable RVs, although luxury motorhomes fit the bill, too.
Today’s large fifth wheels and travel trailers are so comfortable they could easily be compared in how they’re used to “mobile homes” of yesteryear. The difference is that present versions can be easily moved from place to place with a pickup truck or other passenger vehicle. It was a big deal to move a mobile home: They were designed to stay in one place, and usually did.
Think about the RVs (travel trailers mostly, and early motorhomes) from the mid-20th century: They were downright primitive. Few people could live in one full-time without sacrificing most creature comforts. And few did. Oh, yes, there were trailers back then that were used as homes, and they could be easily towed from place to place. But when residents of many low-end parks became labeled “trailer trash,” the vehicles were rebranded as “mobile homes.” Today, they are known as “manufactured homes.”
Fast forward to today. Even an $80,000 fifth wheel trailer can be equipped with multiple slide-outs, a residential refrigerator, fireplace, big screen TV, outdoor kitchen, heated floors, soaking bathtubs, wine cooler, built in vacuum, washer and dryer, dishwasher and, increasingly, two bathrooms. They’re as comfortable as most traditional homes or condos — and at a fraction of the cost — and they come fully equipped with all basic appliances and furniture. And no property taxes to pay, either!
In 2016, shipments of fifth wheel trailers surpassed Class A motorhomes almost four to one. In 2017, shipments climbed to more than 4.5 to one. In January 2020, fifth wheel shipments were nearly five times greater than motorhomes. In other words, of the two most popular full-timer rigs — fifth wheel trailers and motorhomes — the popularity of fifth wheel trailers is growing faster.
The reason: They sell for far less than a motorized RV and, per foot, offer more living space. Of course, with no engine they are far less expensive to maintain. The federal government, by the way, allows the owner of any self-contained RV to write off the loan interest the same as if it were a home mortgage (check with your accountant).
Even though shipments of conventional travel trailers are far greater than fifth wheels, from my observations, fifth wheel trailers are overwhelmingly more popular with full-timers. It’s easy to live in one without sacrificing any creature comforts. The advent of the toy hauler option meant abundant storage space, serving much the same function as a garage back home. You can, with one of these RVs, “take it with you,” as many full-timers do.
RV manufacturers, by adding new creature comforts every year, have made the RVs so comfortable that people who might have otherwise bought a vacation cottage or second home at the beach or in the mountains buy an RV instead. Why build a second home that doesn’t move, when you can buy one (fully furnished, of course) that’s equally comfortable and for far less money, that you can move on a whim to the ocean, a mountain lake or into the warm desert in the winter?
Or maybe you could just park your home in a senior retirement park, maybe one in the Southwest or Florida in the winter and then back up North in the summer. Not a bad life. . .
RVs are, by definition, made for “temporary living.” That’s according to the RV Industry Association. Yet they are now being advertised as “full-time ready.” Some insurance and extended warranty policies will not cover full-time living. That will likely change, but for now any new full-timers should read their policies carefully. Thousands of current full-timers who believe they are insured are not. In an accident they could lose their life savings.
Also, a comfy fifth wheel trailer is almost made to order for families where the breadwinner travels. That means pipeline workers, wind machine crews, or construction workers on temporary assignments. An RV can be a comfortable home for traveling nurses and for entrepreneurs who can work from anywhere because of modern communication technology. There’s no need for a worker to leave his or her family behind at home and rent a motel or apartment. With the RV, he or she can bring the family along wherever an assignment awaits and then easily move on to the next one.
The downside for you and me to this ease of mobility for temporary workers is that RV parks across America, once popular with RV travelers, are now heavily occupied seasonally or even year-round by these nomadic workers who need a space with full hookups. In some cases, as I have noted before, companies rent an entire RV park for their workers. The result is that just dropping into an RV park on a whim for RV “travelers” is far harder: Reservations, often far in advance, are necessary far more often than not.
So when I say fifth wheel trailers are “ruining” RVing, I am not talking about the RVs themselves. Frankly, if I weren’t so nomadic by nature, I’d buy a fifth wheel trailer as my only home.
No, I am referring to a fifth wheel’s incredible comfort, and how appealing it can be to make one your home — not for recreational purposes but for living purposes. And because so many fifth wheels are being sold for “living” — for RVers who travel to camp or see the sights, available space in RV parks is increasingly unavailable. The idea of “going where you want when you want” as advertised by the RV industry a big, fat joke — a leftover slogan from yesteryear that should be retired.
Of course, full-timers live in motorhomes and traditional travelers as well. But when I look into my crystal ball, I see more full-time RVers opting for fifth wheel trailers in the years ahead.
And it’s these RV owners’ long-term occupation of RV park spaces that I believe will ruin RV travel for those who travel with the purpose of “going where they want when they want.” I see the future of RVs being more as about RV “living” than RV “traveling”.
SUMMING IT UP: Coming soon
During my Federal career, I welcomed staff to bring issues which they felt should be addressed. I asked them to bring forward at least one possible solution, thereby multiplying the brainpower in problem solving.
As the article points out so well, we know this industry is fraught with systemic problems that largely are dictated by the almighty dollar. Perhaps collectively multiplying our brainpower to develop a plan of action in effecting much needed changes might be a worthy endeavor? For example, plan an en masse notification of all members of Congress over a week or two week period to bring the lack of industry standards and commitment to quality control to light?
The Military Officer’s Association of America utilizes pre-addressed, pre-printed postcards in their monthly magazine for members to fill in their personal information and drop in the mailbox for important topics they wish to bring to Congress’s attention. Perhaps the same could be done via email or some other media?
About the cost of owning a RV especially the depreciation. As most of know that our RV will depreciate $500 to $1,000 per month and some even more. To compare my personal experience, my 5th wheel I paid $40,000 for and sold for $26,000 4 year later, that is about a $300 a month depreciation, that doesn’t include the $5,000 in upgrades. I now have a motorhome (2019) I paid about $105,000. I suspect I will lose or it will depreciate somewhere around $500 or more a month.
Now compare this cost to my stick built home I bought 9 years ago for $229,000. It’s market value today is around $429,000. That’s an appreciation of $200,000. My mortgage is $1500 a month, the appreciate is over $1,800 a month, so it was like living here for free. So do you want to waste money on a RV or buy a cabin as a 2nd home get-way?
I’m on my 3 RV now and have been camping all over America for 20 years and I really enjoy seeing all the national parks, small towns and making new friends along the way.
But now I am older (69) I feel I am near the end of traveling by RV and the huge expense of payments, repairs, rv park cost etc. I’m also tire of slow repair service and stress. It cost me about $1,000 a month with the RV just sitting in storage. If I take a trip to visit my family 1600 mile away, that’s additional cost of $3000 for a 30 day trip in gas and RV park cost. Maybe it’s time to give up the RV traveling and buy a cabin as a 2nd home and stop losing so much money.
So now we know the truth about the RVIA….does that call into question the credentials and credibility of an RVIA Certified Inspector?
I still wander around the RV storage lot where I keep my Aliner popup, looking at all the expensive Motorhomes, trailers, and fifth wheel trailers that have not moved in years. I wonder what happened, did they lose interest, illness, death in the family, or finances sucked the life out of them. They can afford the rent, but not to use their RV. It’s very sad.
Chuck, I read your two essays with great interest. Hubs and I have been researching B+ RV’s for the last 3 years or so. I have to tell you that the more I learn and read – the dimmer the RV dream becomes for us. Between poor quality construction, high prices, lack of campground space, expensive, slow and shoddy repair shops – we’ve all but lost interest in buying one. We’ve been tent campers for years, and currently pull a small pop up tent camper behind our motorcycle. This works for now, but we are in our mid 60’s and were dreaming of having an indoor bathroom! I’m not sure what needs to be done, but I’m not optimistic for the future of RV’ing, especially after all of us old folks die off.
This is the invisible hand Chuck….working. If you want to improve things, must have solutions—can be both economic and regulatory, if you have enough lawyers to motivate politicians. Cannot just complain about OEM’s acting in their best interest. If you were CEO of Forest River (or even Warren Buffet for that matter) what would you do differently? Meanwhile your articles seem to have influenced “Shredder”!
While the editorial in fact is true, the same can be said about most of life in general. Everything changes and there is the good with the bad. Just as the media can give you the impression the world will collapse tomorrow, there are still so many positives that offset some of the bad. Dont be discouraged as my wife and I are planning to start our full time adventure in May. We have been planning this for a long time and have made changes to the way we look at full time life on the road. We plan on keeping our older 20 year old RV for the near future and will deal with the ups and downs that life beings. Dont let editorials defer you from doing what you want to do. Life is short, be smart and use caution, but RVing is still a good thing for most people we have met along the way. Good luck and hope to see you on the road!!
Thank you for the encouraging words, John!
I agree with John. My husband and I have an apartment in Nevada as a base, but have been traveling around the country in a 25 ft. Airstream full-time for the past two years. We love it. Are repairs a pain? Sometimes. Are campgrounds expensive? Sometimes. But when we compare the cost and inconvenience to the 3,200 sq. ft., 3-level house on a 1/2 acre lot that we lived in for 15 years we are now in heaven.
Houses are also subject to high prices, poor quality construction, and shoddy repairs. Our house was beautiful, but it sucked up every spare dollar and every spare minute the entire time we owned it. When we sold it we felt like a huge albatross had been taken off our shoulders.
We took the equity and paid cash for our truck and trailer, which is home to two adults, a Labrador Retriever, and two cats. It’s hardly spacious, but the size curtails any recreational shopping urges and I can clean it in 30 minutes. Also, being debt-free we can eat in restaurants, take in plays and local culture, and experience a lot of what might be considered a high-end lifestyle because our income isn’t taken up by a mortgage, property taxes, lawn care, etc.
When we bought the trailer we thought we’d RV full-time for 5 years and see the country we didn’t have time to see when we were both working. But every time I get the urge to look at houses I get a sinking feeling. As my aunt once said, once you buy a house you are “put” so I’m thinking we’ll just stay on the road as long as we can, or as long as it still feels like fun.
Buy a rental rv, they are cheap, and tend to be well tested. We bought a three year old unit, and rent it out. Now it is six years old with 60K miles, it has more than paid itself off too.
A RV mobile repair tech once told me to never buy a new RV to buy one that is at lease 2 years old. By that time all there warranty work and the bugs have been worked out and the biggest depreciation hit has already taken place. You just have to make sure the a professional RV inspection has taken place before you buy something used. RV’s need to be stored under cover too or all the trim and caulking dries out causing water leaks later.
We have a 2005 Georgetown. Not fancy, but a fabulous layout. A few years ago, when we first looking to trade in our 5th wheel, we looked at a new RV. It was priced right. It was clean and sleek, full of bling and pretty things. But having RV’d with my folks for years, we knew what we were looking for – functionality. And, one thing was a place for a small garbage can. When I asked about that (the under-sink area was so small and slim, there was only room for single cleaning items placed in a row), the saleman said: well, just put it against the wall after you open the slide! I said, for $85,000 it should come with a place for the garbage can… That is how we got our old, solid, 2005 Georgetown. A bit worn, but had everything we required (although my husband would like more bay storage..we’ve adapted). We go to RV shows to see what’s out there and end up keeping our RV. Salespeople are all about the bling, but the functionality continues to be lacking. And, when we ask (we’ve got 20 years experience now), sales people don’t know where this, that, or the other thing is…but…hey…look at the lovely lighting! Sadly, new RVers, often weekenders, don’t know the difference – you can live with anything for a few days. That is why I love your articles and we are voluntary subscribers. Thanks for being an advocate.
Does anyone know where I can get the media coverage on Chuck that he referenced in this article ie the Today Show, ABC World News Tonight, The Charlie Rose Show and the article in People Magazine?
Chuck, I agree with your basic premise that if you must finance an RV then finance it like you would a motor vehicle, not a house.
But you told an oft repeated lie about credit cards. If you paid the minimum which right now is $118 each month and continued to pay $118 each and every month, it would only take you 5 years to pay off your credit card. What takes 19 years is if you only pay the minimum which will decrease each month.
Other than that I agree with you that the industry is dysfunctional. Finding service for an RV is a nightmare. No one wants to work on them. I experienced that first hand. The service aspect really needs to be addressed.
The problem with repair service be terrible is because the number of RV’s being produce every year out number the number of repair tech’s being hired. The RV manufacture’s are now showing up at the end of high school graduation to try and generate students interest in a career of RV manufacturing. If you drive around the Elkart Indiana area home to most all the RV company’s you will see signs for “Hiring” everywhere from fast food, RV industry, machinery, service etc. Even at the RV plants an employee will only work a few months then go across the street for $2 an hour more, they change jobs more than a customer changing clothes in a dress room.
The RV industry are trying to steal employees from the marine industry too.
My friend that was starting up a RV mobile business and there was plenty of customers but could not find qualified employees. I had 3 of his brand mobile vans sitting in my backyard because the one person he finally hire as the regional manager quit 2 weeks later. I had to shipped all the vans to Florida to help out there because he could not find employees. I tried calling around to other RV repair centers and they told me they were all hiring and could not find people.
I just do not understand people who finance RVs…If you are at a point in your life that you can afford one, pay cash. It’s done and paid for. Dealerships absolutely HATE this. But I said, “Take the cash or I walk away.” They desperately wanted me to finance it, but I said NO. I have the tools and knowledge to fix things myself. At least I know it is done properly. And I was not sold a bunch of crap tied into the financing. Ten days later I had title in hand. Been in fith wheels for 15 years, and nothing I could not fix. Slide out leak…. $10 tube of Dicor caulk, a wet dry vac and a dehumidifier. Broken blinds…. WalMart. This is not Rocket Science, folks. Trim separating… some 3M caulk and a brad nailer. YOU bought it, YOU maintain it. Just like a house.
Thanks for your articles. I had intended to buy a travel trailer and be a full timer until I got tired of traveling. I have always wanted to see America at my pace. Riding shotgun in a long haul truck just made me itch to get out on the road.
After researching trailers and going out to dealers and checking them out. Having to deal with pushy salesmen who really did not answer my questions about service and repair. Being pushed to finance rather than a cash buy, I decided to dig deeper. I found this link and signed up. I really appreciate the bluntness of your editorials.
I have decided I will still travel, but not full time. I’ll be investing in real estate as a home base and travel out from there. When I can see shabby workmanship in new trailers there is no way I would buy one because who knows how bad it is where you cant see how well its built.
I’ll be exploring other ways to travel without using motels. (Have pickup, will travel!)
Thanks again! There is a lot of very good information here for anyone who travels!
First time buyer in my late 50s here. Decided to look for a travel trailer but I’m wore out looking and researching for quality,features and pricing. I may give up soon, any suggestions? Budget is under 25k on a 28 ft trailer.
I too have been researching and looking. I have decided to forget buying a travel trailer.
With industry standards for quality being so bad it is just not worth buying a trailer. Hope you fund your solution!
Here are several brands that have good reputations that meet your price point and are less than 28′. These are all used but if you hire a competent certified RV inspector you can be reasonably assured you’re getting a quality camper. Other brands that weren’t represented here are Oliver and Bigfoot. https://www.rvtrader.com/Used-Travel-Trailer/rvs-for-sale?type=Travel%20Trailer%7C198073&make=Lance%7C2279192%2CLance%7C2279192%2CNorthwood%20Mfg%7C765318892%2COther%7C765320755%2COutdoors%20Rv%20Manufacturing%7C718477430&price=20000%3A25000&condition=U&length=22%3A26
Oops….apparently the search filters at rvtrader.com don’t work very well as there were some brands included that I would not suggest…
Thanks for the 2 articles. As a RV Park operator and RV for the last 25 years I would like to speak to you about a couple accuracies regarding your comments about parks. In addition I would like to see what you are suggesting we do to improve the situation. If you are willing contact me.
Patrick, would love to talk with you. Please send me your contact info at email@example.com
Keep up the good work Chuck. We have learned so much about RVing from you. My family has camped for over 50 years starting with a tent like so many others. My wife and I have gradually moved up to camping in a small 21 foot trailer and are on the road a couple of months in good weather. The current state of the RV industry reminds me of American Car Manufacturing in the 1970s. We were gung ho General Motors buyers until then. The junk they were manufacturing (and then lying about), “drove us” to look at the imports. It took a long time for American car manufacturers to wise up. Maybe that would cure the ills of the RV industry. Maybe it’s time for European or Japanese imports.
I looked at some the Japaneses imports. They look good but less safe than american models . Plus— can you really get them in the usa
In the 1964, the US government placed 25% tariffs on light trucks, including many motorized RVs. The tariffs are still in place and are known as the “chicken taxes”, since they were retaliation for European taxes on American chickens. The Europeans dropped the chicken tariffs decades ago, but the US auto industry (and, I’m guessing, the RVIA) has worked hard to maintain the light truck tariffs, so they are still in place. If the tariffs went away, you’d see European and Japanese motorhomes competing with US ones.
Excellent article and I hope the next installments remain this good. I also hope you address what I think is the biggest problem today: servicing your RV. They keep cranking out the vehicles but do nothing to grow the service industry and that leaves all of us stuck with 3-6 month wait-times for appointments and outrageous labor rates because it’s a supply and demand issue. The manufacturer’s should be dedicating at least 1% of their annual sales (if not more) to training RV service technicians and building more generic (i.e., not attached to a dealership) service centers. These would be good-paying jobs and help all of us get more time with our vehicles. If there is a grass-roots movement to bring this issue into the light I haven’t seen it. Would appreciate knowing more about what is being done to address this.
As long as people can get relatively cheap loans for long periods of time, they will. I think it is partly the fault of lenders making big money easy to get. Make loans more stringent, cut loan times and require down payments of 20%, like a mortgage does. Lenders got in trouble in the early 2000s because they made mortgages too easy to get (Fed’s fault) and then thousands went into default. As long as the money was easy, no one cared, but once the chickens came home to roost it was a different story.
Please, people, always consider a worst case scenario when buying anything and then be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t happen, rather than the opposite way of thinking. We started out in the mid 1980s with a tiny 1965 HiLo ($500) which was considered “old” then. We upgraded to a 1969 HiLo ($1800) a few years later. No, no AC or toilet, but I had 3 kids in it and we still had fun. Still have that camper and attend vintage camper rallies with it. We put in a small AC unit and we’re happy with just 2 or 3 of us in it now. It only costs me tires now and then. And you know what? I’m just as much a camper as the people in the huge expensive rig next to me. We seem to keep everything forever. We also have a ’99 Terry and still use it, even for living in when we need a place (our job is transient at times). So it can be done if you lower your expectations and do the maintenance necessary. Glad I came from a poor family – it taught me how to save/spend money.
Whoe. Hold on folks. The enemy is not the ceo’ and the large corps. They are only the opportunists. They are only tapping a field of opportunity that we provide them. THE ENEMY IS US. Every time we or our neighbors purchase a new rv we play right into their plan. STOP BUYING NEW! If we did that we would have them at their knees. And Chuck, I’m tired of your whining, always blaming someone else. Offer some solutions sometime. A wise employer once told me “bring me solutions, not problems. “. Escapees, FMCA, and others are at least advocating for us. What have you done beside whine? The only way to solve the problem is to be smarter with our money than the other guy who wants it too. Just saying!
Sorry one more comment. Chuck you said “we are only a small fish in a big pond” and there’s not much we can do. We’ll try this. One or two small fish can plug the drain hole and back up the pond. Then see what happens. It’s a start.
Yes, the CEO’s and big corps ARE TO Blame. They don’t give a hoot about anything except their bottom line. An RV buyer usually is a BABE IN THE WOODS when they go to the RV shows. They’re made to believe everybody is buying them etc.OF COURSE YOU CAN AFFORD IT. SO CHUCK KEEP DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING and we’ll ignore the comments from industry TROLLS.
Chuck, please ignore these comments from this individual. He fails to understand that the reason you keep at the manufacturers is that they continue to take advantage of anyone who has hopes of the RV lifestyle, and refuse to change their ways. Until they do, please don’t give up like this guy would. He obviously, doesn’t get it…
First of all, Thank you for your insight into the RV dilemma. It seems that you and I have a lot of the same opinions regarding a lot of the negative and positive issues of RVing. I’m turning 73 in April, so I am not a spring chicken anymore and I hope I have learned a few things over the years.
My family and I started out camping (not glamping!) in tents in the wilds of Alaska. First we purchased a jet boat to explore the rivers and back country of Alaska, camping in tents! We graduated to a few inexpensive slide-in truck campers and finally to an older Class C motorhome. It was small but kept us out of the rain, most of the time anyway. in 2007 we purchased our first fifth wheeler toy hauler and loved it! After trade-ins and some money paid down, we had a small note that we paid off in 5 years.
Then we purchased a 40′ Montana 5th wheel and loved it! But I had always wanted a Class A and found one we could afford in Oregon from a private party. It was 15 years old, but by selling our Montana, we could afford to pay cash.
Unfortunately, the coach needed a lot of work and we have put about $40K into it since the purchase last year. We are now ready to take her out to the lower 48 next year for a 15,000 mile trip to see family and friends. We will spend this year here in Alaska working the “bugs” out of her and make sure it is boon docking ready!
The gist of this story is that we would have liked to jump in with the biggest and baddest RV in the beginning but we couldn’t afford it, so we took “baby steps” and worked our way to nicer and larger RVs over time. Now we are ready to start our RVing journeys in our dream RV that took us about 40 years to get. And everything is now paid for so there is no worry about being upside down if we need to sell. And I think the older coach is built much better than the newer ones and I can even work on it if need be!
My advice is to get something you can afford and pay cash and eventually work your way up to something nicer without putting your financial security at risk! Just my two cents!
See you on the road!
Hi, I’ve purchased two Class B RVs over the years. Both were purchased as used vehicles and neither had to be financed.
Yes, I am one of those people that pays off the credit card every single month … I do not like being in debt … to anyone.
Hi Chuck, you mention in Part 2 that an established RV Park owner does not want a new competitor opening nearby … prices would drop.
Well, considering you have a contradiction in terms of there not be enough available spots, the supply/demand factor would result in a status quo … particularly if the owners in the area form an association and agree to charge the same rates (similar to the lack of true competition with gas stations – you can have a station on each corner, but they all charge the same price and even, automagically, raise or lower prices within minutes of each other).
Both Canadian and USA ( federal, provincial, and state) legislation lacks consumer protection for the RV consumer. The RV consumer who has an issue and are at their wits end have only pursuing litigation for redress. The only winner is the party with the deepest pockets and like it or not it is not the consumer.
The internet is a wonderful thing, and using it to expose unsavory sales practices and poor quality manufacturing is the way to go. However imho the majority of RV owners who use their RV on weekends aren’t significant concerned.