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In The News

Roll out the Second Home

Category: RV News
Source: The Boston Globe
Publish Date: Thursday, April 27, 2006
Summary: A younger generation develops a passion for RVs

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By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff | April 27, 2006

Darlene Bell and her husband, Jason, bought a second home in New Hampshire a few years ago but quickly realized they weren't using it as much as they had assumed they would -- a situation made more irksome by the fact that they were paying property taxes and utility bills for that largely unused house.

So they put the house on the market and did what an increasing number of young Americans are doing: They bought a recreational vehicle, or RV. Theirs is a 25-foot-long towable trailer with a bed, bathroom, kitchen with microwave and refrigerator, and hookups for cable TV. It has become, in effect, their second home, but a cheaper one that has turned summer weekends into a moveable feast.

"We don't always have to go to the same place all the time," said Bell, 31, who lives in Hanover. "We can go to New Hampshire if we want, or we can go to Maine, or down the Cape."

Think RV, and you might think of retirees burning up their children's inheritances as they tool down the road in an oversized, gas-guzzling motor home. But the reality is that people under 35 -- who came of age watching MTV's "Road Rules," in which an RV was a vehicle for youthful adventure -- now constitute a fast-growing segment of RV buyers. Last year the number of RV owners in the United States younger than 35 topped 1 million, up from 850,000 four years earlier.

Since that age group also represents a goodly chunk of pop culture's demographic sweet spot, it's no surprise that a heavily promoted comedy titled "RV," starring Robin Williams, opens tomorrow in movie theaters, or that a "Today" show correspondent this month published a book about his family's cross-country RV journey.

"It blows your mind today -- you've got so many people in their 20s and 30s coming in and buying campers," said Mike DiPaola, marketing manager of Bradford RV Centers in Brockton and Raynham. "They're saying, 'We used to do this when we were young with our folks, but we don't want to wait around till we get to that age.' "

Why not? Partly it is because the RVs themselves have adapted to younger lifestyles. For instance, young buyers are flocking to a kind of towable trailer dubbed "sports-utility RVs," according to Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. These trailers allow owners to transport motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles to rugged spots, where they can open the back of the trailer, unload their vehicles and take off into the wilderness, the desert, or the mountains.

"A lot of people are looking for travel trailers they can put their toys into," said Brian Sullivan, sales manager at Campers Inn of Raynham, an RV dealership.

Michael and Susan Conroy of Attleboro, who are in their mid-30s, live the outdoors life: hiking, canoeing, swimming. But camping had always meant staying in a tent. Then they had a baby, so last year they bought an RV with air conditioning, to which they added a flat-screen TV. A number of their friends have similarly upgraded.

"It's kind of like a summer home getaway," said Susan Conroy. "It's amazing what they've come up with. You walk into some of these, you wouldn't know you're in a camper. It's luxury." DiPaola said RV buyers often get satellite TV, deluxe beds, and other goodies. "People want to get away from it all, but they want to take it all with them," he said.

But it's not just new amenities that attract younger buyers. The intangibles of RV culture have long had a hold on the imagination, and the current generation of buyers is no different. Romantic notions of hitting the open road in an RV have figured in movies from 1954's "The Long, Long Trailer" (starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) to 1985's "Lost in America" (starring Albert Brooks).

Yet the end of the road also holds strong appeal.

As he grilled hamburgers outside his parents' customized RV in the sprawling Normandy Farms campground in Foxborough, 32-year-old Brian O'Connor noted that several of the childhood friends he met at the campground have purchased RVs of their own. Like their parents, he said, they are drawn by the camaraderie of campgrounds, a sense of community wherein people look out for one another's children.

And it beats having to plan way ahead and spend big bucks for plane reservations and tickets to Disney World, he said: "Younger couples and families are able to come for the weekend on the spur of the moment" to campgrounds with swimming pools, baseball fields, and hiking trails, said O'Connor, who lives in Foxborough and was visiting his parents at Normandy Farms.

The RV industry overall is booming, notwithstanding the rise in gasoline prices. Coon, the RVIA president, said 8 percent of all US households now own some sort of RV. Some observers attribute the increase in ownership partly to lingering post-9/11 anxiety about flying. Sales are up 15 percent in the past four years (and 58 percent since 1980), according to the RVIA. In New England, the increase is even greater: Brad Moore, president of the New England RV Dealers Association and vice president of Bradford RV Centers, said RV sales are up nearly 40 percent in the region in the past four years.

"We've certainly enjoyed a huge re-interest," Moore said. "People want to stay closer to home and enjoy the great US of A. The tragedy of 9/11 has made most kinds of travel inconvenient at best."

The statistics are revealing. Since 2001, the number of RV owners between ages 35 and 54 grew by 11 percent, from 3.5 million to 3.9 million. The number of owners younger than 35 grew by 18 percent, from 850,000 to 1 million. The number of owners among the 55-and-older crowd grew by 20 percent, from 2.5 million to 3 million, but some of that increase may be attributed to the fact that that age group is growing in size as people live longer, according to economist Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers.

Although many people envision a motor home when they hear the term RV, most RVs are towable trailers of varying sizes and styles. (Motor homes, which generally range in price from $50,000 to $150,000 but can go as high as $400,000, make up only 20 percent of the market.) According to Moore, many first-time buyers start off with camping trailers, or "pop-ups," which run 10 to 12 feet long and range from $5,000 to $15,000, then graduate to travel trailers (25 to 40 feet long, $13,000 to $35,000). An increasingly popular form of RV is the so-called "fifth wheel," a roomy (45 feet long) and luxuriously appointed trailer that fits onto a hitch on a pickup truck and costs $30,000 to $50,000.

Yet even as young buyers redefine the image of the RV, some still dream of one day owning the king of them all: the giant motor home.

"When we retire," said Susan Conroy, "I would love to get the huge RV and maybe go across the country and just stop at places along the way."

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