Ready For A Road Trip? RVs Are Rolling Back Into Fashion

Mar 28, 2016
Originally published on March 28, 2016 2:31 pm

Near record numbers of Americans are buying second homes — the kind on wheels, that is.

The Great Recession almost totaled the RV industry, but now camper trailers and motor homes are popular again. Daryn Anderson is the owner of an RV dealership south of Kansas City, and he says his sales here have roughly tripled since the bottom of the recession.

"Business has been great. Six straight record years and no end in sight," he says. "We're excited."

But seven years ago, during the recession, RV sales tanked. When President Obama wanted to spotlight the worst of the economy then, he actually went to the RV capital of the world — Elkhart County, Ind., where most American RVs are built.

Kyle Hannon, president of the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, says unemployment more than quadrupled as dozens of manufacturers went under during that period of time.

"It was a tough time. A lot of companies were shut down. A lot of people have been laid off," he says. "Everybody knew somebody who was out of work."

Dealerships folded too, like the one Renee Hinson's parents ran for decades near Grandview, Miss.

"If you would have asked me, I would have thought we [the RV market] were sunk," she says.

Now, Hinson is thrilled to be selling RVs again.

"Having seen the business since the 70s forward, it's back to like the 70s," she says. "We've seen astounding growth."

RVs range from small teardrop-shaped trailers, with little more than a dry place to sleep, to the ultra-high-end motor homes Clint Mooney sells.

"That's a 55-inch TV. This coach actually has four televisions — three inside, one outside," Mooney says as he points to a $400,000 Winnebago camper that resembles a bus with swirly designs. It looks like a fancy, spacious apartment inside. The shower has a seat. The camper also has a stackable washer and dryer system.

The front seats are wide, heated, massage-enhanced recliners, sheathed in something called "UltraLeather."

"These sell very well, actually. We have repeat customers who come back and buy them every two or three, four years," Mooney says.

The market has seen astounding growth partially because around 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day.

Grant and Cathy Lowe are in their 50s, and they just bought a trailer.

"We bought us a second home, and I think we're going to enjoy it," Grant Lowe says. "It's everything we want and we're real happy with it."

This camper figures large in their retirement plans. They intend to have it paid off before they quit working, and with the low interest rates and fuel prices, they're in good shape.

"Our jobs are very secure and stable. The economy seems to be on a pretty good rebound right now," he says. "So ... we feel safe that we can buy this time."

Baby boomers are not the only ones driving the expansion: The average age of an RV owner is now just under 50, according to an industry association, and Hinson says she's selling campers to people in their 30s like never before.

In the meantime, RV companies keep hauling out new products, displayed in an annual RV show in Topeka, Kan.

Greg Smith and his wife are customers looking for a toy hauler.

"I'm looking for something a little bigger. I need to put my four-wheeler in the back," he says.

Toy haulers are trailers or motor homes with garages built in. Smith is planning to spend upward of $100,000 on his.

With the broad smile on his face, it's easy to picture Smith enjoying a warm winter evening far from Topeka, out on the road with record numbers of his fellow Americans, hauling a home away from home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Near-record numbers of Americans are buying second homes - the kinds on wheels. The great recession nearly destroyed the RV industry in the U.S., but now camper trailers and motor homes are hot again. We sent Frank Morris of member station KCUR RV shopping to find out more.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: RV outlets, like this sprawling dealership south of Kansas City run by Daryn Anderson, are hopping.

DARYN ANDERSON: Business has been great - six straight record years and no end in sight.

MORRIS: Sales here have roughly tripled since the bottom of the recession. Anderson is sitting in a brand-new building that's four times larger than the one it replaced. Out on the lot, it's cold, with a sharp wind blowing through rows of camper trailers, but customers like Grant and Cathy Lowe are buying.

CATHY LOWE: We bought us a trailer.

GRANT LOWE: We bought a second home that I think we're going to enjoy. It's everything we want, and we're real happy with it.

MORRIS: The Lowes are in their 50s, and this camper figures large in their retirement plans. They intend to have it paid off before they quit working. And with interest rates and fuel prices low, they think they're in good shape.

G. LOWE: Our jobs are very secure and stable. The economy seems to be, you know, on a pretty good rebound right now, so I think, you know, we feel safe that we can by this time.

MORRIS: RVs range from small, teardrop-shaped trailers, little more than a dry place to sleep, to the ultra-high-end motor homes Clint Mooney sells.

CLINT MOONEY: That's a 55-inch TV. This coach actually has four televisions - three inside and one outside.

MORRIS: A big TV on the outside of the camper. Now, this $400,000 Winnebago looks like a bus with swirly designs. We open the door, and it's like walking into a fancy, spacious apartment.

MOONEY: You have a nice, big shower with a seat. And then you have a stackable washer and dryer system.

MORRIS: The front seats are wide, heated, massage-enhanced recliners sheathed in something called UltraLeather.

MOONEY: These sell very well, actually. We have repeat customers that come back and buy them every two or three, four years.

MORRIS: But just seven years ago - you know, the recession - RV sales tanked. In fact, when President Obama wanted to spotlight the worst of the economy, he went to the RV capital of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be back in Elkhart.

(APPLAUSE)

MORRIS: Elkhart County, Ind., where most American RVs are built.

KYLE HANNON: It was a tough time. You know, a lot of companies were shut down. A lot of people had been laid off. Everybody knew somebody who was out of work.

MORRIS: That's Kyle Hannon, President of the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. He says unemployment more than quadrupled as dozens of manufacturers went under. Dealerships folded, too, like the one Renee Hinson's parents ran for decades near Grandview, Mo.

RENEE HINSON: If you would've asked me, I would've thought we were sunk.

MORRIS: She means the whole RV market. Now, Hinson is thrilled to be selling RVs again.

HINSON: Having seen the business since the '70s forward, it's back to, like, the '70s. We've seen astounding growth - astounding growth.

MORRIS: For one thing, around 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, but that's not all that's driving the market expansion. The average age of an RV owner is now just under 50, according to an industry Association. And Hinson says she's selling campers to people in their 30s like never before. Meantime, RV companies keep hauling out new products, as you can see at the annual RV show show in Topeka, Kan., where Greg Smith and his wife are shopping.

Did you guys find something?

GREG SMITH: Best one the house right there, that Montana.

MORRIS: So wait, are you guys actually thinking about buying this thing?

SMITH: Maybe not this one. I'm looking for something a little bigger. I need to put my four-wheeler in the back.

MORRIS: So you want a toy hauler?

SMITH: That's right. That's right (laughter). Yeah, we're looking for a toy haulers.

MORRIS: Toy haulers are trailers or motor homes with garages built in. Smith is planning on spending upwards $100,000 on his. And with the broad smile on his face, it's easy to picture Smith enjoying a warm winter evening far from Topeka, out on the road with record numbers of his fellow Americans hauling a home away from home. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.