This Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Camper: Meet the New Generation of RV Dwellers
Picture a big, boxy recreational vehicle cruising down the highway. You might imagine a pair of white-haired snowbirds inside, fleeing winter in the North for some Florida campground. But there’s a very good chance these days you might need to readjust that picture. In the wake of the recession, recreational vehicles have seen a surge in popularity—and with a far more diverse group of owners.
More millennials and families are buying RVs, part of a growing movement to rebrand the American dream by trading a traditional home for a more exciting life of traveling and working remotely. About 8.9 million households owned an RV in 2011, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Since then, the association estimates that number has jumped to 10.3 million households. And while sales have begun cooling after reaching record highs of more than 500,000 purchases in 2017, about half of all new RV sales are to folks under 45.
“There’s an increasing number of younger, millennial buyers entering the market, making purchases for the first time,” RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom says. “If you went back 15 years, what you saw on dealer lots were gray hairs. Now, you see baby strollers.”
That’s partly because record-high home prices and high property taxes make it too costly for many to afford homeownership. As a result, between 500,000 and 1 million Americans are estimated to live full time in their RV, according to RVIA. RV living makes it easy to travel or to relocate. And you can get a 400-square-foot RV, roughly the size of a tiny home, outfitted with all of the creature comforts you’d find in a stationary house, including full kitchens and bathrooms.
“Particularly after the recession, when people’s home values plummeted and they had their houses foreclosed, they were looking for alternatives,” says RV campground industry consultant David Gorin, a partner at Gorin+Cohen Consulting Group, in Longboat Key, FL. “Living in an RV is certainly an affordable alternative.”
Prices vary widely. RV lovers can score a used folding trailer (which can be used for shorter trips but not full-time living) for a few thousand dollars, while a tricked-out, brand-new RV with a marble entryway and a washer and dryer can go for more than $1 million. Most full-timers buy vehicles in the $30,000 to $100,000 range, says Gorin. They can be financed through a 15-year mortgage.
To keep up with younger RVers, many of the nation’s 4,400 RV campgrounds have become veritable resorts, featuring kids clubs, spas, golf courses, and poolside bars. They’re also offering Wi-Fi so folks can work remotely.
“For some families, it’s a financial decision, but others hit the road to simplify life and spend more time with each other,” says Jill Denkins, who runs FullTimeFamilies.com. The online community has been providing resources and advice to full-time RV families since 2009. “This lifestyle can be customized: It can be a cost savings compared to a traditional house or more expensive due to the adventures families have along the way.”
Raising a family on the road
Denkins and her husband began their RV journey six years ago, originally planning to travel one winter with their children, then aged 7, 6, 4, and 6 months. Instead, they fell in love with the lifestyle.
“We’ve visited 42 states and six Canadian provinces and territories,” she says. “Our kids have grown up on the road, seeing the country, having adventures every day, and meeting friends in the coolest places.”
While the ability to travel while staying “at home” is one of the main draws of RV life, so is the ability to cut costs.
Hilarye Fuller and her husband, Reid, both in their 30s, celebrated one year of full-time RVing in April. With four children aged 3 to 9, the couple had outgrown their Knoxville, TN, home. But they didn’t feel that buying a larger, more expensive home was the right move.
“We’d gone through some financial hard times, and we needed to do something for ourselves that would offer more healing than taking on a giant mortgage,” explains Fuller. “We’d always kicked around the idea of going nomadic, because we love to travel and we’ve been blogging about that for 10 years. And this was the right time.”
The couple rented out their home and bought a used Fifth Wheel RV online for about $28,000. Today, Fuller works remotely, teaching English as a second language online to Chinese children. Their children are home-schooled. She and her husband also chronicle their adventuresand offer tips for other families considering this lifestyle.
Millennials “can travel and have outdoor adventures with the same vehicle in a way that’s much more cost-effective than flying and staying in hotels,” says Broom, of RVIA.
RVs are still popular with empty nesters
Millennials may be hogging the spotlight (as usual). But that doesn’t mean that RVs have fallen out of favor with older Americans.
Empty nesters Shannon and Dino Watt of South Jordan, UT, spent 15 months living full time in a used Fifth Wheel RV with their three children in 2012. Their now-adult daughter loved it so much that she and her husband converted a cargo van into a tiny home on wheels. This way, they didn’t have to pay rent or buy a home.
Now that their kids are grown, the Watts are full-time road warriors again. She writes novels while he consults for dentists and orthodontists through video conference calls. They have a YouTube travel channel called “Watts in the World.”
“We didn’t need a 4,500-square-foot home. We wanted to give ourselves the freedom to travel before we’re too old to enjoy it,” says Shannon, 47. “Our decision was also influenced by the possibility the housing market could cool or have a downturn in the next few years. So we wanted to cash out and put our equity into different vehicles to grow our retirement savings.”
The Watts upgraded their ride to a 2020 KZ Durango Gold Fifth Wheel, which they pull with their new pickup truck. The total cost was $134,000.
“We have a [kitchen] island, a dishwasher, fireplace, big-screen TV, and reclining chairs, plus a pantry and a hall closet,” says Shannon. “It really feels like a small condo.”
The challenges of RV living
But that doesn’t mean the lifestyle is for everyone.
Weathering a thunderstorm in an RV, spotty internet connections, constant driving, and packing and unpacking at different campsites can all be stressful. Unexpected repairs can also throw a wrench into travel plans and take a big bite out of budgets.
“There are trade-offs,” says Shannon, who has no regrets over her decision to embrace RV life. “You’ve got to be able to handle things going wrong or breaking down.”
The Fullers are also happy with the lifestyle, although they haven’t decided how long they’ll stay on the road full time.
“For now, we’re just loving it,” says Hilarye Fuller. We “love seeing new places and giving that experience to our children. Just watching their faces when they see Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon for the first time has been so rewarding. Sometimes we think, ‘How can we ever go back to real life?’”
The spacious interior of Shannon and Dino Watt’s RV \ Provided by Shannon Watt