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When The RV Becomes Your Home

A growing number of Americans have given up owning a home and made the RV lifestyle permanent

The freedom to hop in your RV and go anywhere in the US or North America is a lifestyle that many of us aspire to when we retire. But a large (and growing) group of older Americans such as Charlie and Jean Schrenkel take it to another level. Not only do they hop in their RV and go where they want, their home goes along for the ride.

The Schrenkels are among an estimated 1.8 million Americans who own motorized homes and a total of 8.9 million who own recreational vehicles, which includes either a motorized home or trailer. The couple is among the 80,000 members of the Family Motor Coach Association of which about a whopping ten percent are like the Schrenkels live in their motor homes full time.

I think people do it because they want to be unencumbered,” says Pamela Kay, the association’s communications director. “They don’t have a home base to worry about, and don’t have to worry about mowing the grass or their possessions. Many shed them. It’s a carefree lifestyle. They really tend to be happy people and love what they’re doing.

The former police officer who retired 18 years ago as a pilot after flying for Eastern Airlines and freight companies, Charlie, the immediate past president of the FMCA, and Jean, a retired high school bookkeeper, sold their Connecticut home, bought a farm in Pennsylvania and planned to build a home. First, they decided they would try the lifestyle for a year and see if they liked it. They haven’t looked back and have yet to build that farmhouse.

You have this freedom to go where you want yet you have a place to live,” Charlie says. “It’s a lifestyle that grows on you, and you get comfortable with.

I just love going to new places, meeting people and seeing the country,” Jean says. “It’s been great.

It’s a lifestyle that has taken a hit during the Great Recession but starting to make a comeback as the economy recovers. The Family Motor Coach Association, for example, had 130,000 members before the recession, a drop of 80,000.

Our membership decreased with the decline in the economy because it’s a discretionary purchase, and a lot of people had to give it up,” Kay says. “Most of them are retired, and they lost money in the stock market and lost money in home equity and had to give it up during the downturn.

Sales in the industry, however, are picking up again and with a wave of baby boomers nearing retirement, RVs are expected to grow in popularity again.

I’ve seen an increase in people buying them at the entry level,” Charlie says. “I don’t think this lifestyle will ever go away. I think baby boomers see it as an appealing lifestyle and even if they don’t do it full time, the ability to get in your house and go anywhere is attractive.

Charlie bought his first RV in the early 1980s before he was retired. Like many people who own them today, he used it for weekend or day trips and on regular summer vacations across the country.

Charlie paid $5,000 for the 28-foot RV that he jokingly referred to as an ice cream wagon with bunk beds and a furnace that only could be lit on the outside.

Today, the couple has a 45-foot motor home complete with a stove, washer and dryer, toilet, shower and satellite television—units that cost between $350,000 and $450,000. It’s the eighth home for the Schrenkels who have progressed up the ladder in the units they have lived in over the years.

It’s not a cheap lifestyle on the upper end, but it is on the lower end,” Charlie says. “You can start with $25,000 to $45,000, depending on what you want. We worked our way up. It’s still less expensive than owning a home. It may not be cheap initially when you spend the money but cheap over the long haul.

Like many who choose to live in a RV full time, the Schrenkels have a home base, which consists of a concrete pad with a shed at a RV park in Lakeland, FL. The pad’s valued up to $75,000 in today’s market. That’s where they spend November through April unless they take short trips throughout the south, including attending a convention of the Family Motor Coach Association in March outside Atlanta.

There are 2,500 motor homes here,” Charlie says. “It’s a whole community. These people are our friends and we go to functions with them. But you’re not on the road constantly.

Once the weather breaks, it’s time to travel and see the country, even if they’ve been there before. The couple enjoys the Great Plains, including Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas.

The West is so different from New England (where we lived) that it’s just a pleasure to see,” Jean says. “The people out West—where it’s so wide open—are just great where we can feel so claustrophobic in New England.

The Schrenkels say they get questions all the time from people asking about their lifestyle and how it’s possible and advice they have for people who want to start.

It’s not for everybody,” Charlie says. “You can’t always meet your family and you have to give stuff up. The drawback is the wintertime and going back north. We have to see family birthdays on Skype, and our children two or three times a year and they accept it.

Jean says what makes it works for her is that she’s not a saver, and that’s why a lot of women can’t give up their homes because they want to keep their possessions.

I would rather go for the adventure,” Jeans says.

Jean says if you buy something new, you have to throw something out. Charlie says if you have clothing you haven’t worn in one-and-a-half years, it’s time to toss it out.

If you’re going to live in a motor home, it’s important to tow a car behind it and use it when you’re parked at a campground and need to run errands to the store or anywhere else, Charlie says. His RV gets 8 mph per gallon, but it’s cheaper to drive from Connecticut to Florida than it is to heat a home there in the winter, he says.

The couple rarely stay anywhere but the RV. They like their own bed, pillow and bathroom, they say. Charlie joked that his children don’t have driveways large enough for his RV, which means a stay at a nearby RV park. Many charge daily fees that can run as low as $20 a day and reach $80 a day at resorts, he says.

Some 91 percent of the members of the Family Motor Coach Association are married and the average age is 70 for men and 68 women, Kay says. The Schrenkels have been married for 25 years, and Charlie says that more than anything can be the biggest drawback for someone choosing the lifestyle.

You better live in a motor home with your very best friend, because if you have a disagreement where are you going to go,” Charlie says. “If we argue and get mad with each other, it doesn’t last.

Charlie and Jean say they realize the lifestyle can’t last forever. As their health wanes and their ability to drive, they’re going to have to settle in a permanent location. Jean jokes that she won’t know how to adapt living in a home or apartment again.

I won’t know how to clean something that big,” she jokes. “I whip through this in a half an hour.

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