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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story, published in U.S. News & World Report, examines the flurry of Baby Boomers currently entering, and enjoying, the RV lifestyle.
Nick DiBlasi was never much for pitching tents. “If I wanted to go camping, I’d have joined the Marines,” says the 52-year-old former Navy officer.
Not that the alternative was any better. Longtime Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, DiBlasi and his wife, Sheila, had grown weary of sleeping in hotels every time they hit the road. So three years ago, they tried something they never thought they’d be caught dead doing: They bought an RV.
“My wife used to call them snow-cone machines,” DiBlasi says of the tacky land yachts they’d pass on the road, “because all the people driving them had white hair.”
But the DiBlasis quickly found the view from behind the wheel of their 32-foot TropiCal motorhome – which they picked up used for $20,000 – wasn’t all that bad. Nor was the queen-size bed, the onboard shower, or the kitchenette. In fact, they were so taken with the idea of camping in style that they soon traded up – not once but twice – most recently to a plush, $150,000 model.
“It’s massive,” DiBlasi boasts of the couple’s 38-foot Newmar Kountry Star, which features four slideout sections that accommodate dual facing sofas and a spacious master bedroom suite. “And it rides sweet, too.”
Truckin’. With their kids out of the house and retirement on the horizon, Baby Boomers like the DiBlasis are taking to the RV lifestyle in a big way, plunking down big bucks for the latest middle-age status symbol: the pied-à-terre on wheels. Buyers ages 35 to 54 now represent the largest and fastest-growing segment of the $14 billion-a-year industry, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan, making up more than half of the 8 million RVing households in the U.S., up about 15% since 2001.
Their collective wanderlust owes more to Willie Nelson than Jack Kerouac, who might well be shocked by the modern road trippers’ far-from-simple lifestyle. Just like everything else their fat demographic touches, “they’re completely reinventing what it means to go RVing,” says Michigan researcher Richard Curtin. The never-so-healthy-or-so-wealthy generation shows a growing interest in upscale RV resorts and new condo parks featuring everything from day-spa treatments to WiFi Internet connections.
Not quite ready to utter the “R” word, some take full advantage of new technology to free themselves from their desks. “It was so easy,” Ranae Salem said of a recent lakeside stopover in upstate New York, where her husband, Mark, positioned a satellite dish and transmitted the talk show he hosts on a Phoenix radio station from his onboard studio. “We just enjoyed the view while he did his show. Then we went for a walk.”
Many start out the way the DiBlasis did, buying low-end models but quickly upgrading as they discover just how cushy life on the road can be. Manufacturers have rushed to up the ante, churning out a growing array of feature-laden models – some so tricked out that they rival the swank tour buses of their buyers’ rock-star idols. Prices for some top-of-the-line 2007 models can surpass $500,000 and include everything from high-torque diesel truck engines to home theaters and central vacuuming systems. Even the once lowly travel trailer has been reinvented as a towable country house complete with fireplace and grandfather clock.
Not that the new breed of buyer is content to loaf around in leather captain’s chairs. Many RV owners also bring along their motorcycles and ATVs, bolstering the industry’s newest category: the toy hauler, a crossbreed that combines the features of a deluxe motorhome with an attached minigarage. Retail price: about $100,000 and up.
If all this seems just a bit over the top, well, some industry insiders say it is. For many now hitting the road, the wide-eyed luxury of today’s RVs is “a financial accident waiting to happen,” warns Dave Gricunas, an RV salesman turned appraiser. Much like the McMansion craze that accompanied the recent housing boom, he says, low interest rates and easy credit have made it tempting for novice buyers to get in over their heads. That’s because, unlike buying a house, which can rise in value as the land beneath it appreciates, an RV’s value can only sink, often faster than owners can keep up with the payments.
Moving on up. Of course, buying an RV needn’t send you into hock. The average price for a new travel trailer sold last year was just $15,000. And with campground fees averaging around $25 a night, even this summer’s $3-a-gallon gas wasn’t enough to keep the cost of an RV vacation from comparing favorably with the alternatives.
Yet for many, the temptation to go upscale can quickly overtake any potential savings. That’s what happened to Dolores Merla and her husband after he spotted his dream-mobile on the road: a 42-foot Country Coach Magna Resort motorhome. “He just flipped for it,” she recalls of the decision to trade in their 11-year-old model for an updated version.
By buying a lightly used model with just 19,000 miles on it, the Merlas saved about a third off the $500,000 retail price of a new one. But they soon discovered that all its bells and whistles – dual slideouts, heated tile floors, and a fancy home entertainment system, to name a few –
required far more maintenance than they were prepared for. “We didn’t expect it to be this complex,” Merla says of the coach’s computer-driven electrical and mechanical systems.
A change of both heart and plans prompted the couple to put their RV on the market in May, after upping the odometer reading by only 20,000 miles. Unfortunately, the magazine ads they placed have yet to land a reasonable offer, and the eBay auction Merla posted last month, with a top bid of $144,000, fell short of the $179,000 reserve price she had set. “And it’s going to be even harder when the 2007s come out and flood the market,” she laments.
Flood is right. After years of strong demand and months-long waiting lists for the hottest models, upticks in interest rates and gas prices began to squeeze demand last spring, especially for gas-guzzling motorhomes. That was too late for manufacturers and dealers to dial back. The result mirrors the sharp downturn now underway in the housing market: bulging inventories and listings on eBay and classifieds sites like RVTrader.com. “Just about everyone’s overstocked right now,” says Don Wright, author of the book How to Buy an RV and Save Thousands. He expects the glut to continue through the end of 2007.
In stronger markets, dealer markups can top 40%. But “you can probably offer him less than what he paid [for 2006 models], and he’ll take it,” Wright says.
Even then, buyers should expect a 25% write-down when they drive off the lot; even well-cared-for vehicles can lose half their value within the first 25,000 miles.
Roomy. Wright says those wanting to avoid such steep depreciation might consider low-mileage models built between 1986 and 1994. Many boast engines similar in size and durability to newer models but without the slide-out panels now de rigueur among die-hards.
Those willing to go without the girth-adding slideouts will still get plenty of room – for as little as a tenth the cost of a new one.
Case in point: a 1994 Holiday Rambler Imperial with just 30,000 miles, which Wright recently spotted at a dealer’s lot for $20,000. “It’s got virtually every amenity,” he says of the 37-footer, “and the engine is built to go 200,000 miles.”
That’s a steal compared with the 38-footer Nick DiBlasi recently bought. Not that he has second thoughts. “It’s a lifestyle thing,” he says. “If I didn’t care about space, I’d go tent camping.”