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In The News


Land Yachts Fit Travel Budget

Category: RV News
Source: The Boston Globe
Publish Date: Sunday, June 4, 2006
Summary: Cozy or not, motor homes often make sound economic sense.

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By John Stilgoe | June 4, 2006

As gasoline prices continue to climb, traveling in a motor home might seem like a foolish idea for saving money. Yet, prospective buyers of motor homes from all over the state still flock to the cluster of competing businesses on Route 44 near the Route 24 interchange in Raynham, all thinking of traveling in ways the public rarely studies. Using equations high school algebra teachers too rarely apply to real-world issues, many arrive convinced that buying or renting a motor home might prove economical for travel.

Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts Bradford RV Center, Giant RV World, and Campers World all sell vehicles vastly different from those on most other motor vehicle lots everywhere, as do Camping USA, in the Elmwood part of East Bridgewater on Route 18, and a handful of others south of Boston. The firms sell and rent all sorts of motor homes, vehicles that raise deep philosophical questions about modern American life.

When does a vehicle become a structure? Land and structures sometimes have "No Trespassing" signs attached, but vehicles and other machinery tend to have "Keep Off" signs. A sign reading "Danger: Do Not Enter" might warn the unwary away from factory or electrical room doorways, but "Keep Clear" signs signal danger from a machine.

A mobile home might be a trailer used seasonally. It becomes a house legally only when put permanently in place, its wheels and axles removed or at least jacked off the ground. A mobile house is one being moved by structure movers, usually short distances involving informal parades of police cars, utility trucks, and the moving gear carrying the wood-frame building. A motor home is always a vehicle, because it has an engine. If it is jacked up, it is because its owner or operator is changing a flat tire.

The words "house" and "home" figure only slightly in legal language. Dwelling is more typically used, although sometimes legislators and lawyers use two words, "dwelling house," to differentiate between dwelling and domicile. The latter term designates the place where a person intends to live for an unlimited amount of time. A south-of-Boston executive transferred to Japan for a year dwells in Japan no matter what sort of structure shelters him, from hotel room to tent, but is not domiciled there. A boarding house may or may not be a private dwelling house for the landlord. The law distinguishes between landlords who live, usually with families, in the boarding house and those who reside in the structure chiefly to manage it. Judges must often tease out the most subtle of meanings, as when someone converts a single-family residence into a boarding house, but keeps on living in it, or when a developer converts a large old house, legally a private dwelling house, into apartments, each of which becomes a private dwelling inhabited by people with leases that may or may not indicate intention to reside permanently. In the end, "dwelling" means something as permanent as a house, but not necessarily used permanently as a domicile.

A summer cottage visited seasonally exists legally as a house but is less than a house or home because its owners do not intend to live in it permanently and, at least on the seacoast, may have to move it due to beach erosion. A house must have beds for its occupants in order to be a dwelling house. Sleep remains the key element in distinguishing dwelling houses from all other structures, including tents and shopping malls. Once someone regularly sleeps lying down, not slumped over a desk, the law understands the shelter as a legal or illegal dwelling unit.

As Rockland authorities recently discovered, someone may live in a garden shed. The occupant is not homeless, but living unsafely in a structure not built for residency. Yet by sleeping regularly in the shed, the occupant makes it a dwelling. Many long-ago improved cottages in Marshfield and elsewhere began as mere sheds in which vacationers stored rowboats, chairs, and other equipment, including the tents they erected when visiting.

When speakers dwell too long on a topic, audiences grow restless. Used this way, a dwelling may not be permanent.

Usually, we think otherwise, and we miss a wealth of opportunities involving coziness and adventure.

Coziness itself perplexes many analysts. Motor homes prove cozy. But mobile homes tend not to be cozy, in large part because designers shape them to imitate framed houses. Large pleasure boats tend not to be cozy, but the cabins of small wood sailboats, often fitted with tiny wood-burning stoves, appear regularly in children's books as snug or cozy. Tiny apartments often strike occupants as cramped, and even large motel rooms make many travelers claustrophobic, usually because the bathroom enclosure creates a wedge-shaped floor plan resembling an old-fashioned mousetrap. But a motor home or recreational vehicle demonstrates instantly that coziness can go adventuring as well by land as by sea. Indeed motor homes resemble finely built small yachts.

It seems counterintuitive, but motor homes often make sound economic sense. Adventurers calculate gas mileage against not needing motel and restaurant facilities. Many simply drive to pieces of land they own, but scarcely improve, and on winter nights they know their coastal or mountain cottage is secure in the backyard. Bicycles, fishing poles, and other recreational gear travel easily, and in time many owners find whole networks of other adventurers who congregate for special events.

First-time adventures may lead only from area backyards to the KOA Campground on Route 44 in Middleborough, often in a motor home rented as a test. After a few short-distance successes, however, owners dream of Alaska or Nova Scotia, and they do algebra involving number of children versus airline tickets, maintenance on a second home versus motor-home depreciation, and even more difficult equations involving friends renting the motor home just as they might a cottage.

Always coziness seems a factor, a sort of mystery component in the equation of family or retirement happiness. Given the skyrocketing price of second homes, the motor home may make even more sense as gasoline prices rise. Anyone who sees one pass on the road can muse on the oddities of language, culture, and legal terminology.

Norwell resident John Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University.


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