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Choosing a Compact RV or Camper for Retirement Travel

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An article I posted a while back about our solution for cheap retirement travel — a small RV — continues to receive a lot of traffic….

Nearly 10% of U.S. households own an RV of some sort, and the number is rising. Of households that don’t own an RV, almost 15% express some interest in purchasing one in the future, according to a University of Michigan study.

That earlier article of mine focused on operating costs for using an RV, so here I’m going to discuss some of the issues around the RV purchase decision.

Note: Even if you’re not very interested in RVs, you might enjoy reading the next section for some thoughts on retirement living. It details a few of the general lessons learned from our RV experience….

Lessons on Retirement Living

Before we delve into some details of choosing and purchasing an RV, let me abstract a few lessons learned about retirement living, from my time in and around RVs:

A big part of retirement for many is extensive travel. But travel can be expensive. An RV is one approach to cheaper retirement travel, but there are many others. You could house swap, work for room and board, teach English overseas, stay with friends, or travel in the off-season, for example. Whatever your style, unless you have unlimited resources, it’s wise to come up with some cheap angle for retirement travel.

An RV is a study in downsizing. Some people might see that as a hardship, but anybody who’s lived in one can tell you it’s not. Some things are easier, some things are harder. But the overall feel of living and camping in a small, mobile space is one of freedom. You realize how little is truly needed to be happy. In fact, being happy might be easier, the less "stuff" you have around. And that’s a feeling worth achieving whatever your retired habitat turns out to be.

Lastly, owning an RV is one strategy for being able to downshift your lifestyle relatively easily and quickly. Given the state of the world, especially if you are an early retiree, it is wise to have some strategy in mind for adjusting your lifestyle, should the future not go as planned. You hope not to need it, but nobody can predict 30-40 years into the future. Thinking ahead about ways to significantly reduce your expenses could make it much less painful to adapt to changes should the need arise, temporarily, or permanently.

And now for some particulars on the why’s and how’s of purchasing a small RV….

Why Buy an RV?

There are a number of reasons to own an RV motorhome or camper. For some, like us, it is a natural extension of the tent, truck, and van camping we’ve done over the years. But it is a bit more comfortable and flexible, as we get older. For others, RV’ing is an easy introduction to the camping experience. An RV can also function as a second vehicle, a second home, a guest room, for tailgating or picnicking, and for traveling to shows or large events.

Without a doubt, one of the prime appeals of an RV is the flexibility. You can go wherever you want, whenever you want, without worrying about advance reservations, schedules, lines, or baggage. We have done a number of trips that involved linking together stays with family and friends, camping in remote areas, transporting gear, taking on and offloading family members who were flying for portions of the trip — all with a minimum of pre-planning. This would have been impossible to accomplish at anything like the same cost using conventional transportation.

Modern RVs are plenty comfortable for all but the most discerning travelers. Fully equipped kitchens and bathrooms are standard. Even our small rig has hot and cold running water, gas heat, and air conditioning. We’ve been reasonably comfortable camping in conditions ranging from freezing to around 90 degrees outside. Larger, more expensive RVs have even more finely regulated heating/cooling systems.

A compact RV is a tool for more affordable vacations, however you must use it wisely to realize all the benefits. Studies have shown that families can spend up to 59 percent less when traveling by RV. But I doubt many people realize those kinds of savings, especially if they own large RVs and travel less often. My previous article reviews our own travel expenses in more detail.

Types of RVs or Campers

There are several kind of RVs and campers, and I’ll provide a quick introduction here. For much more about RVs in general check out the RV.NET Blog

Your first decision is whether to own an all-in-one motorhome or a tow-behind 5th wheel/travel trailer. I’ve always loved the simplicity and security of a motorhome (you don’t have to step outside the vehicle at night to go to bed when you’re traveling). But if you already own and need a truck, then a camper you can pull behind makes lots of sense. Another advantage to towing is being able to unhitch and use the truck for local transportation once you reach your destination. (Only the very smallest motorhomes, like our van-based unit, are very practical as local transportation.) If you are going to pull behind, my sense is that 5th wheels (trailers that use a heavier, rotating coupling to the tow vehicle) are roomier and more stable to tow, but I claim no great expertise in this area.

Motorhome RVs break down into several classes:

Class A RVs are built on a bus-like chassis. These are the big rigs of the road. New prices typically start in the 6 digits, and they can be as comfortable, and as well-appointed, as the finest homes. Class A’s are impressive vehicles, and it’s great fun browsing through new and used models to see all the clever living ideas. But you need to be realistic about their role in your retirement picture, especially if frugality is an element of your retired life. Class A’s are the most expensive RVs to own and operate. In most cases, they could save you money as a home replacement, but not as a vacation vehicle.

Class C RVs are an alternative if you need the space of a Class A for full-time or extended living, but want to economize. The Class C’s are built on a truck or van chassis, which makes them somewhat cheaper. The original body is cut away and replaced with a much larger living compartment. New models can be found from about $50K-$60K and up. They can have most of the same features as a Class A, though there is typically a bit less living space (the cockpit is usually not available as living area), and less storage space (the rigs sit lower to the ground).

Class B RVs are built on a van chassis, using the original body or only small extensions to it. These are the smallest full-featured RVs on the road. Some are almost indistinguishable from a conversion van, yet contain the full complement of RV luxuries: stove, fridge, microwave, hot/cold water, shower, TV, gas heat, AC. Some of the fancier units contain "slide-outs" to give you a few extra feet of living space.

Unfortunately "smaller" doesn’t mean "cheaper" in the case of Class B RVs. Because they contain most of the same features as their larger counterparts, but must be constructed in a tighter, less uniform space (our Class B contains impressive custom cabinet work contoured to the sides of the van body), expect to pay more for them than the larger Class C’s. Class B’s start in the $80-$90K range. On the other hand, these RVs can typically be serviced in any auto shop — so you don’t have the expense or inconvenience of taking it to a specialized truck or RV shop.

For more about these smallest RVs, check out the Class B Forum.

Platforms for Compact RVs

All motorized RVs essentially have two manufacturers: one of the major auto companies makes the chassis, then an RV manufacturer (there are many of these) takes delivery of that chassis and constructs an RV on top of it. For the larger RVs the chassis is a bare-bones affair and the RV takes shape around it. For the smaller RVs, usually some or most of the chassis body is reused, possibly with some extensions or cutouts.

For what it’s worth, I have a slight preference for the Ford chassis on smaller RVs. Maybe it’s because this is a finance blog, and Ford was the only one of the big three manufacturers not to need a bailout in recent years! But we’ve owned several Fords over the years and they’ve been solid vehicles. The cockpits are cleanly designed and fairly consistent from vehicle to vehicle. Ford is a commonly used RV chassis, so you may see more choices in Ford-based models. But if you have a preference for Chrysler or GM, I don’t know of any hard facts to dissuade you, so shop for those.

The upstart RV chassis is the diesel Mercedes Sprinter, the second generation of which made its debut in early 2007. Its tall, narrow profile is a common sight in commercial cargo operations these days, and the Sprinter is rapidly gaining ground in the RV industry as well. (We probably would have bought a Sprinter-based RV, except that there were virtually no used ones available when we purchased three years ago.)

The Sprinter’s most compelling feature? A 6-cylinder diesel engine with amazing fuel mileage: generally in the low 20 miles per gallon for a loaded rig. That’s three or four times what a conventional RV gets. And it’s about 7 or more miles to the gallon than our relatively fuel efficient E350-based rig. Though keep in mind that the relative cost of diesel fuel fluctuates, so the increased fuel efficiency may not help your pocketbook out as much as you might like.

If you begin shopping for a compact RV, you’ll soon run into two prominent manufacturers, both Canadian: Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way. These companies occupy the top two spots in the Class B retail market share according to Statistical Surveys Inc. They both make fine products. Roadtrek appears to be the slightly larger and more high-end company, with historically a more extensive product line. Pleasure-Way might be a little less expensive. If you find a floor plan that suits you from either company, you won’t go wrong.

We own a Pleasure-Way and love it. (Though we’re still a bit inhibited about that name — maybe something doesn’t quite translate from the Canadian?) At the time we bought, Pleasure-Way offered the only widely available small RV with a completely private bathroom, a big plus. Our Pleasure-Way is a beautifully and cleverly crafted machine that has functioned well on more than a dozen major road trips now, spread over 3 years and 40,000+ miles.

Now that the world is focused on the cost and availability of energy, and compact RVs are here to stay, the other mainstream manufacturers are jumping on the wagon and offering their own Class B and related models. Winnebago has its Era and View line for example, which may be a bit larger than the typical offerings from the Canadians. It’s probably safe to say that every major RV manufacturer will have an entry in this category before long. And the good news, so far, is that they mostly appear to be of high-quality. Perhaps it’s just too difficult to build something shoddy in such a small space.

That brings us to a discussion of some key features….

Evaluating Key Features

I won’t offer a complete rundown on every system in the common RV here. They are, after all, effectively a house combined with a motor vehicle. So your experience with buying cars and houses will stand you in good stead. And a little additional research and education to supplement those skills will be time well spent.

An RV has gas, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems that are not so different from their land-based counterparts. At a minimum, you want to make sure these are in good working order and reasonably easy to operate. But let me touch on a few specific components, to pass along what wisdom we’ve gained:

generator — I was once a humble tent camper who frowned on those uncouth RV generators. But I’ve changed my tune a bit. Today’s generators are reasonably quiet and burn tiny amounts of fuel compared to larger engines. Used intelligently and considerately (only during posted hours at campgrounds), they are an essential tool for efficient life on the road. They give you AC power at the touch of a button, and there are certain appliances — microwaves and air conditioners — that won’t run any other way. Generators also let you recharge your house batteries and battery-powered gadgets while off the grid. A final bonus of a generator is that it can double for backup power at home: We ran an extension cord indoors from ours last year when a storm took out the power for several days, and it saved a fridge-load of food.

inverter — An inverter is an electronic device that converts 12 volt DC power to the 110 volt AC power used by household appliances. Most RVs come with one behind the scenes. Make sure yours does, and exposes some receptacles you can use. It’s a huge convenience to be able to recharge laptops and cell phones without needing any special adapters, without even needing to run the generator, such as at night in quiet campgrounds.

fridge — An always-running gas/electric fridge is a huge convenience on the road. Perhaps one of the main selling points of an RV is being able to transport and eat your own fresh food. Don’t be put off by the seeming small size of RV units compared to your gargantuan household model. Our 3.8 cubic foot Dometic fridge has been a workhorse. We have yet to need more space: we routinely fit about a week’s worth of cold groceries. A bit of unpacking and repacking and some attention to sequencing will make it work.

microwave — A microwave is another huge convenience on the road, from heating up leftovers to brewing a quick cup of coffee or tea (you can save a fortune on Starbucks). Safe to say every modern RV comes with a microwave, but make sure yours is functional and conveniently located.

TV/stereo — To each his own, but we use ours surprisingly little on the road. Even though we love music, and watch plenty of movies at home, there never seems to be enough time on the road. There is always so much else to do and, when nighttime rolls around, we are tired from a day of outdoor adventure.

awning — Another component we rarely use is our roll-out awning. It seems like a great idea and looks beautiful in photos, but we never seem to stay in one place long enough. Perhaps that is a downside of needing our small RV for local transportation. Or maybe by the time it’s hot enough to need the awning, we are generally inside running the AC. Or maybe it’s that we just don’t sit around that much….

tires — With long periods parked in the sun, punctuated by heavy hauling in between, RV tires take a beating. Our off-brand set died in disturbing fashion after only about 10,000 miles. The four pricey Michelin’s I replaced them with are showing virtually no wear after two years, and are expected to go 90,000 miles total. When the time comes, buy quality tires: it’s worth the peace of mind.

The Purchase Process

In my opinion, used is the only way to buy an RV. They are big-ticket items, with such a large first year depreciation (reportedly from 25% to 40%), and such a plentiful pre-owned supply, that it only makes sense to buy used. After all, that’s how most of us buy our homes. If you aren’t comfortable checking out the rig yourself, you can pay a competent RV mechanic to do the job for you. And once you spend a few nights in your new quarters, you’ll feel like it was always yours.

We found our van advertised on eBay. Other prominent places to find used RVs are at RV Trader and your local Camping World. If you’re anywhere near New Mexico (or even if not, because they’ll pay your airfare under certain conditions), check out Vantastic Vans, a dealer specializing in both new and used small RVs.

Our van was offered by an obviously established dealer in another state, so I was reasonably confident doing the transaction online. I emailed them copies of various documents plus a $1,000 deposit via PayPal, and the rig was ours. We flew out a week later with a certified check to conclude the deal.

I had with me an extensive inspection checklist and did not plan to turn over the check until the van met our expectations. When we arrived we went right to work: I crawled over, around, and under the unit and inspected everything. We exercised every system onboard: We fired up the fridge and stove. We ran the microwave. We played music and watched videos. We flushed the toilet. We unrolled the awning. We ran the gas heat. (The air conditioning was already running constantly because it was over 100 degrees outside!)

When it was all over we had found a number of significant but fixable problems, and our trip was delayed for a couple days while the dealer addressed them all, at their expense, including reimbursing the extra days on our rental car. In the end they felt a little beat up, but we got the mint condition vehicle that was advertised, and they got paid.

RVs are houses on wheels. They are a bit different from land-based homes, neither better nor worse. These modern campers aren’t particularly complex — using relatively old technology compared to most of our digital toys. But any system that runs only occasionally can develop some problems. Expect a shakedown period after you take possession, before you get everything working and customized to your taste.

In the end, it will likely all be worth it. We have no regrets about our choice of a compact RV motorhome for retirement travel. We feel it has already paid for itself, with a dozen memorable vacations, and the promise of many more….

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Comments

  1. Barry Gray says:

    Fantastic post, Darrow! We're part of the 15% that thinks about a class B RV (I didn't even know these letters until reading your post). Barry

  2. An excellent article about RVs for those who see this as a form of travel in retirement. Can I also suggest Home Exchanging as another great way to travel cheaply when retired. Many of our members combine both forms when on a trip.

    Brian Luckhurst

  3. Darrow Kirkpatrick says:

    Barry: thanks, and good to hear from you! Those classifications are handy to know. The main thing, if you're in the market, is to find an RV that is economical to purchase and operate, with a floor plan that suits you.

  4. Darrow Kirkpatrick says:

    Brian: thanks for the feedback. Your site looks helpful as well, with informative FAQs on the mechanics of home exchange. Good wishes and thanks for dropping by.

  5. Lots of good stuff in there! It's getting me itching for my own camper again. I'm torn on the Class B because I love my truck so much, and I use it for tent camping too. I think we'll stick with a small travel trailer for our next purchase, but that may change when the kids are out of the house and when we retire for good.

    I'd like to add that sometimes renting an RV or trailer can make a lot of sense despite the high sticker price (which can be more than a hotel room, before gas and camping fees). Just as you talked about miles/trip, cost/campsite, etc., you have to measure the cost of a specialized vehicle that is parked vs. being used. Buying a high dollar vehicle to sit most of the time could be more expensive than renting (unless it's your 2nd car like Darrow)

    If any readers are military, or retired military, it is worth looking at military campsites, as well as RV rentals from MWR. I was just down in Virginia Beach, for example, and Naval Air Station Oceana has about 30 trailers available to rent. They aren't cheap, but they could be cost effective for campers who venture out only a few times a year.

  6. Darrow Kirkpatrick says:

    Thanks Rob! You could always look at a slide-in truck camper to approach Class B driveability, while keeping your tent camping options. (Though I never found getting our truck camper off/on the truck particularly easy.)

    And thanks for the helpful comments about renting and military options. I agree, buying any kind of high-dollar RV that sits unused most of the year makes little sense.

  7. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    Ha! You don't have to be retired to have a camper. I have a cute little 10 ft pop up I use for camping with family and friends and I'm definitely no where near close to retiring!

  8. Darrow Kirkpatrick says:

    Love it! Good choice on the size. I found that for most scenarios, other than full-time living, only the smallest RV's made economic sense. Thanks for the comment Jenna!

  9. Boondocking, that is staying away from RV parks and staying on public lands (BLM, National Forest out west in particular) can greatly cut RVing costs, to the point of absurdity sometimes. In theory you have to move 25 miles away from your prior campsite every two weeks, but there aren't exactly an army of BLM or Forest Service employees patrolling the backwoods enforcing these rules. Also, taking advantage of mother natures air conditioner (elevation) and mother natures heating (lack of elevation) can minimize or negate the need for generators and A/C's. An ideal "RV" would be a pop up truck camper (Four wheel or All Terrain models) on a light pickup (Tacoma or Ranger). Good gas mileage, easy to get into the backcountry. Combine it with a 80 watt solar panel, roof mounted RV swamp cooler (a company called turbokool still makes one), and your major limiting factor would be access to fresh water.

  10. Darrow Kirkpatrick says:

    Awesome Dave. Love it. Thanks for the comment and the helpful details!

    A couple of decent books on boondocking include:

    The Complete Book of Boondock RVing: Camping Off the Beaten Path

    Boondocking: Finding a Perfect Campsite on America's Public Lands