More than 1 million Americans have pulled up stakes, sold homes and hit the road in RVs to travel, see family and even work part-time. It’s easier than ever in an age of cell phones and satellites, but is it the lifestyle for you?
Pat and Dennis Swann had enough money from their pensions and Social Security to live modestly in their Seattle-area home when they retired six years ago. But there wasn’t much room for extras, such as the travel that the couple loved.
“With the expenses of maintaining a house,” Pat Swann said, “we couldn’t afford to do anything except take two or three weeks of vacation each year.”
They could have downsized to a smaller home or moved to a cheaper area. Instead, they ditched the house altogether — selling it to buy a recreational vehicle.
The Swanns are two of the 1 million to 1.5 million Americans that the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association estimates live at least part of the year in their RVs. Although some also maintain homes and apartments, many eschew landlocked domiciles altogether — and a few, like the Swanns, plan to remain “homeless” until they die.
“I wouldn’t buy a stick house again for anything,” Swann said. “If your grass gets too long, you move. If your neighbor’s dog barks, you move.”
See the world for less
Full-time RVing offers retirees a way to see the country, and even the world, for less than it may cost to stay home. For younger people, living in a motor home provides the flexibility to work less, travel more and drop out of the nine-to-five lifestyle well before retirement age.
Jaimie and Bill Hall, for example, were in their mid-30s when they ditched jobs they hated on the East Coast to work at national parks in the West. That was 10 years ago.
Bill typically works on maintenance crews, while Jaimie prefers stints as an interpretive ranger. A former teacher and clerical worker, Jaimie maintains two Web sites — RV Hometown and RV Traveling Tales — and has written books about RVing full time, including “Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider’s Guide to Working on the Road.”
Mobile jobs can run the gamut. Some RVers make a living selling items at swap meets and on E-Bay. Others have online businesses or work as carpenters, electricians, freelance writers, computer consultants, tour bus drivers and traveling nurses.
Living on less than $2,000 a month
The Halls say their low-cost, mobile lifestyle enabled them to spend time with Jaimie’s dying mother in San Diego while her two sisters were tied to their jobs. The Halls are also able to move on if they don’t like an area, a boss or their co-workers.
“We can easily say, ‘Take this job and shove it,'” Hall said. “We can live on a cash basis.”
The biggest expense of RVing is buying the rig, which typically costs around $100,000 new, although prices range from $50,000 to more than $1 million for the fanciest motor homes. After that, RVers say, the costs pretty much depend on how much you want to spend.
More than half of those who responded to an informal RVHometown.com poll said they live on less than $2,000 a month, and 11% get by on less than $700.
“We know one couple who live in a tiny 10-foot-long Casita trailer and are very comfortable on less than $1,000 a month. We know other people who say they can’t make it on $1,000 a week,” said Nick Russell, a former small-town newspaper publisher who took to the road with his wife Terry four years ago. “I would say that if a couple wanted to travel full time they could manage quite comfortably on $1,500 a month if they were conservative.”
Tight quarters, squeezed relationships
Sagging stock portfolios and rising gas prices affect RVers less than many retired folks, said Russell, who now edits The Gypsy Journal, an online newsletter for full timers (see link at left under Related Sites). While others face the fixed costs of owning a home, RVers can trim their expenses drastically if necessary.
Instead of paying $35 a night for a deluxe campground with full hookups, they can camp for free in a Wal-Mart parking lot (a surprisingly popular choice) or in a relative’s driveway. They can also “boondock” (camp without hookups) for little or no cost on Bureau of Land Management property across the country.
When gas prices rise, Russell said, many RVers simply travel less.
Full-time RVers are quick to tell you the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Many people can’t make the sacrifice of downsizing from a 2,000-square-foot home to a trailer that’s one-tenth the size. And most full timers know couples who sold their rigs, or even divorced, after spending one day too many together in such tight quarters.
“You don’t have a garage or laundry room to escape to, no neighbor to go visit when you’re on each others’ nerves. It takes a lot of compromise,” Russell said. “I always tell people that problems in a relationship can only be intensified when you are a thousand miles from family and friends and living together in a 250-square-foot metal box.”
Cell phones and satellite connections
But far from feeling isolated, many of the RVers I interviewed said they have more and closer friendships than they did when they were housebound. RVers tend to be social animals, quick to welcome newcomers and share strategies for successful living on the road.
Swann, who is active in a group for full timers called the Escapees RV Club (see link at left under Related Sites), says she knows she has a potential friend in the making whenever she sees a sticker with the club’s logo on the back of an RV.
“What’s interesting is that nobody cares what you did in your past life,” Swann said. “It doesn’t matter what you did. It matters where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.”
Cell phones and satellite Internet connections make staying in touch with family easier than in the past, RVers say. Some RVers say being mobile allows them to easily keep up with peripatetic children and grandchildren, since they can cheaply visit wherever the children roam.
“Our children moved out of our home in Northeast Ohio, one to (Orlando), another to the Navy,” said Thomas G. Herman Sr., a former software engineer who motors with his wife, a traveling nurse. “Full-timing has allowed us to remain much closer to them.”
When it’s time to hang up the keys
Still, there comes a day for everyone when they tire of being nomads, or get too old to drive. Those who sold their homes and put their money into an RV — a depreciating asset — might find themselves without resources to buy a comfortable home.
Swann says she’s not worried. She and her husband have decided to end their days at a special RV park in Livingston, Texas that offers adult day care along with its hookups.
Called CARE, for Continued Assistance for Retired Escapees, the nonprofit park allows RVers who are ill or disabled to live in their rigs and get daily help for $700 a month. Escapees Club members have used CARE to recover from surgeries, get respite care for spouses with Alzheimer’s and receive hospice care when terminally ill.
“When the time comes to hang up the keys,” Swann said, “that’s where we’ll go.”