After slumping during the recession, sales of recreational vehicles are on the rise as U.S. consumers give in to the lure of the open road — with amenities — and are once again able to get credit to buy what many consider an affordable second home.
Sales of RVs, which include travel trailers and motor homes, have been rising since 2010, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Today, RV owners number nearly 9 million in the United States — a record.
The increase comes thanks to more available credit, growing interest in RV travel, and a push by RV makers to load up the vacation homes on wheels with high-tech extras, the Reston, Va.-based association said.
And many people are just fed up with traditional travel hassles.
"We're seeing a lot of first-time buyers who have traveled other ways and are tired of the air travel or questionable accommodations when they get where they're going," said Greg Merkel, owner and president of Leo's Vacation Center in Gambrills.
When Pat Barton first set eyes on a Winnebago motor home at Leo's, she knew it was for her.
"It was like, 'This is it,'" said the 65-year-old retired elementary school principal from Anne Arundel County, who had never before owned a recreational vehicle. "I just decided to take the plunge. I loved all the amenities."
But at 30 feet long, the vehicle was intimidating.
"It was scary at first," Barton said. "I've never driven a truck."
Barton got driving pointers from the dealership's salespeople, and by the time she bought the RV in January, was comfortable behind the wheel.
Since buying the Winnebago, Barton has traveled to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and to local campgrounds, where she likes to hike, swim and relax by a campfire at night.
"It's a great way to get back to some of our roots, going out and building a fire and toasting marshmallows," Barton said. "When you go to the campgrounds, you meet people with similar interests from all over the country, and everyone has a story to tell. I think [RV ownership] is something the baby boomers are going to jump into big-time."
Added Barton: "We're retiring, and we can."
Wholesale sales of RVs, which reached a 30-year high in 2006, began falling off the following year, hurt by plummeting consumer confidence and the tightening of credit markets, said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Sales from manufacturers to dealers dropped sharply in 2008 and 2009, the group says.
"RVs are discretionary purchases that are primarily financed," Broom said, adding that would-be RV owners could not buy even if they wanted to during the credit crunch.
That has changed. National sales rose 4 percent last year, to more than 252,000 RVs, and are projected to grow as much as 6 percent this year.
About 90 percent of RVs sold are travel trailers, which cost about $35,000 on average and require towing. The rest are pricier motor homes.
"That's incremental, steady growth, and what we anticipate happening is this steady growth," Broom said. "There's a substantial savings in RV travel, even including the purchase and ownership," because RV travelers — who pay about $35 per night at campgrounds — can forgo hotel, restaurant and airfare costs.
"People want to get out and spend time with family and want the outdoor experience," Broom said. "But they want comfort."