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On the Road With Four TV's and a Fireplace

Category: RV News
Source: The New York Times
Publish Date: Sunday, July 9, 2006
Summary: The classic recreational vehicle has been reimagined as a luxury home, though some collectors prefer the cramped, kitschy conditions of the past.

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AH, the life of the modern R.V. owner. The freedom of the open road. The adventure of finding new places and meeting new people. The scenic vistas.

The four flat-screen televisions.

Plus the fireplace, the washer/drier, the computer workstation, the motorized slideout dining room, the master bedroom, the home theater system, and so on.

It may seem that recreational vehicles (the term covers all manner of trailers and motor homes) are getting bigger all the time. After all, they have evolved from tents-on-wheels in the 1920's to rolling households, some stretching 40 feet or more. But federal regulations limit their floor area to 400 square feet, so R.V. builders face challenges like those faced by apartment dwellers in Manhattan: how to pack in all the comforts of a furnished condominium.

Take those televisions. The Sportscoach Elite motor home, by Coachmen, offers one above the "cockpit" (drivers, keep your eyes on the road), one in the dining room and one in the bedroom. An optional fourth TV is outdoors, part of an "exterior entertainment center" with built-in speakers playing CD's and DVD's in stereo.

No matter how remote the destination, the TV's need never go dark: a satellite dish keeps broadcasts uninterrupted, even while flying down the highway.

"It used to be that you would do this to get away from it all," said Stew Oleson, the host of the cable TV show "R.V. Today." "Now you take it all with you."

Get your kicks on Channel 66.

Homes have garages, and now trailers do too. "Toy haulers" combine living space with ample storage for motorcycles, dune buggies and snowmobiles via a garage-type door in the rear. They are among the fastest-selling R.V.'s, especially in the West — "anywhere you have wide open spaces and people who want to waste gas," Mr. Oleson said.

The intersection of rising fuel prices and R.V. girth would seem to invite comparisons to the dinosaurs, which were ultimately doomed.

But so far, the cost of gas hasn't dampened enthusiasm for R.V.'s the way it has for S.U.V.'s. A study by PKF Consulting, which tracks the travel industry, found that gas prices would have to triple to make R.V. vacations more expensive than other types of travel. (Rising interest rates are more worrisome, according to manufacturers.) The industry is on course for its second-biggest year in a quarter-century.

THE most tricked-out models may seem like McMansions on wheels, but for many buyers, R.V.'s are just the opposite: affordable housing.

Besides the retirees who replace their houses with R.V.'s, taking their lives on the road, others opt for so-called park trailers, which reach the 400 square foot maximum but are parked on plots in resort areas for a fixed address. Costs, including land and a sun room addition, can come in well under $100,000.

Gaylord Maxwell and his wife are about to join the full-timers, having traded their Idaho home on 47 acres for a 40-foot Sportscoach Elite. Still, Mr. Maxwell, who runs "Life On Wheels" conferences on R.V. living in conjunction with the University of Idaho and other schools, advises against full-timing just to save money.

"It can be expensive," he said, especially in a motor home like his. "You're going to spend a quarter of a million on an R.V. and you're going to get eight miles per gallon." Campsite charges can reach $150 a night at the top parks.

Mr. Maxwell, 80, says he isn't worried about marital claustrophobia on the road. This will be the couple's third time living in an R.V. over a half-century of travel. He surveys full-timers as part of his research and hears few complaints of crowding, even though couples suddenly find themselves sharing the space equivalent of a studio apartment. "I would rather use the word cozy than claustrophobic," he said.

As the big R.V.'s roll off the factory lots, other enthusiasts are embracing the truly snug dimensions of vintage trailers from the 1950's and 60's, dubbed "canned hams."

Restorations start at a few thousand dollars and go up — way up, depending on the client's obsessiveness — from there.

Living spaces can be spartan compared with those of their modern descendants, but the most elaborate rehabs have plenty of period kitsch — wildly colored upholstery, Leg-o-Matic folding chairs, birchwood paneling.

Toilets? Not necessarily.

In the modern R.V., they're mandatory. Fleetwood, a major manufacturer, debuts some of its 2007 models this week — with second bathrooms.

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