Two years after the Ford Model T debuted, the first recreational vehicles were built. And while creature comforts were few – a toilet was considered a luxurious touch – they offered the same thing today’s recreational vehicles offer: the chance to take a bit of home with you when you hit the road.
One hundred years later, the appeal is very much the same, even if the vehicles are much more comfortable, according to The Virginian-Pilot, Hampton Roads, Va.
The full array of RVs will be on display at the Tidewater RV Show which started today (Jan. 22) at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. The show runs through Sunday.
And while you’d expect an RV to have a kitchen, how about one with high-end, solid surface counter tops? Or a flat-screen LCD television? How about a central vacuum system, leather recliners or a computer work station?
The amenities once reserved for expensive motorhomes now are available on fifth-wheel trailers and travel trailers.
“Ten years ago, you would have seen a lot more motorhomes on the lot,” said Tim Loen of Chesapeake RV Solutions in Chesapeake.
“The motorhome used to be No. 1, when pickup trucks were crude. Ten years ago, they were construction trucks. They’re not for the construction guys anymore. Today, they are luxury vehicles.”
The result, Loen says, is a declining local market share for motorhomes as buyers realize the SUVs and pickups they use for daily commuting and chores can pull a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel trailer on the weekend.
“The majority of RVs are the type you pull,” says Jamie Dodd of Dodd RV in Portsmouth.
“They are the biggest sellers because most buyers already have an SUV, so they can hook it up and take off.”
They’re also less expensive than motorhomes. Dodd says that travel trailers start around $16,000 ; motorhomes start out at $80,000.
As you’d expect, buyers of less expensive RVs tend to be families, so manufacturers design them to sleep a minimum of six people, and as many as 10, allowing a family with children to take their friends on a weekend trip.
By contrast, motorhomes tend to appeal to retirees who want to visit friends or tour the country for long periods of time.
“Those units are extremely decked out. They sleep two to four people, maximum, and are very spacious for living comfortably,” Dodd said.
Driving a motorhome is similar to driving a transit bus, which limits their appeal. Power comes from a gas or diesel engine built by Ford and General Motors. Typical fuel economy runs between 8 and 10 mpg on gas models.
Diesels are about 10% more fuel efficient, but you’ll pay more. A gasoline-powered motorhome that costs $80,000 jumps to more than $100,000 when fueled by diesel. Maintenance also tends to cost more on diesel engines.
Nationwide, gasoline buyers and diesel buyers are evenly split . In Hampton Roads, about 70% of buyers opt for gas. “We’re in a market with military buyers, who are more price-conscious. Upfront price is key,” Dodd said.
Regardless of price, both Loen and Dodd say that RVs are more affordable than most people realize.
Since RVs have a kitchen and bath, they are considered second homes, and the interest on RV loans is tax-deductible. And unlike traditional vehicle loans, which last three to five years, RV loans stretch over a longer term, which lowers the monthly payment.
The cost is worth it, says Loen, a retired Navy Seal, who started selling RVs eight years ago after experiencing the RV lifestyle.
“There’s nothing better than when I get up in the morning and cook that pound of bacon. My kids are sitting there, telling stories. We get to sit down and talk like a family. We go away and there, we’re all going to sleep in, wake up, and eat breakfast together.”
There’s an attitude that pervades RV life that Loen especially likes.
“We really enjoy going to the campground and finding that the guy next to you could be a carpenter or a doctor. Everyone just lets their guard down,” Loen said. “If I could bottle that, I’d be a millionaire.”
When Paul Stenzel and Chris Clark wanted to see the country outside their upstate New York town, they bought an RV.
They haven’t been back home since June.
Their stops included Deadwood, S.D., Cody, Wyo., and Ocean City, Wash. On Thursday (March 26) they were parked at the American Heritage RV Park in James City County., Va., according to The Daily Press, Newport News, Va.
The two are among millions of RV owners who take to the roads each year.
But the recession has taken a toll on the RV industry, as shipments decline and consumer confidence wavers.
“There is some level of buying, but not what the industry was seeing three or four year ago,” said David Body, general manager of Affinity Events. “Sales are down. The RV industry is impacted like every other industry.”
Affinity hosts about 50 RV shows nationwide a year. While sales are down nationally, people are still coming to local shows, RV experts say.
About 10,000 people attended the Affinity RV show in Hampton, Va., earlier this month. That number was consistent with attendance in 2008, Body said.
Motorhome sales were down 42% nationally in 2008, compared with 2007, according to Phil Ingrassia, vice president of communications for the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA). Travel trailer sales were down 23%.
“RVs are somewhat a discretionary business – our business slows when the economy does,” said Ingrassia. He said the decline in the availability of credit poses a problem for both dealers and consumers.
“I think that right now for customers there is generally a good selection out there and dealers are willing to wheel and deal a little bit because business has been slower than normal,” Ingrassia said.
The RV season typically runs from March to August. At Dodd RV in York County, Va., business is good.
During the first 10 days of March the company’s sales were higher than during the same time in 2008. “One thing that we’re seeing is that the warm weather in the last few weeks has accelerated the pace significantly,” owner Jamie Dodd said.
Smithfield resident Rob Davis purchased a trailer from Dodd last week. Davis bought the vehicle to travel to his 14-year-old daughter’s softball games.
“If you look at the cost of a hotel room and eating out, I actually think it’s more economical for us,” Davis said.
Although the recession has slowed sales nationally, RV experts say many dealers are offering lower prices to move the product – something that Davis and other buyers have run into.
“Now is as good time as any,” Davis said. “If you’re going to purchase, go ahead and do it sooner than later because I think the economy is going to bounce back and the special deals may not last.”
RV shipments in 2008 were down 32% nationally from 2007, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). The industry shipped 237,000 units in 2008. According to the association, the decline was due to tight credit conditions, higher interests rates and falling household wealth.
The association projects that RV sales will continue to be slow in 2009. An estimated 130,100 units will be shipped nationally this year.
“When credit markets are restored, the RV industry will rebound,” said association spokesman Kevin Broom.
Dixie RV in Newport News has seen an influx in traffic in the service and parts department, by owners who want to maintain what they have. That trend is also occurring at local auto repair shops.
Even with more people taking care of their RVs, Dixie vice president Layne Forrest says the economy has taken its toll on RV business.
“When people tighten up their pocketbooks, we’re definitely one thing that gets cut quickest,” he said.
People have continued to pack the American Heritage RV Park, in James City County, despite tough economic times.
The park’s attendance is up 20% from 2008, according to co-owner Bill Rhoads, who said 2008 marked the park’s best year.