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Sales of RVs rise as consumers seek vacation homes on wheels

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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."

Sales at Chesaco RV in Joppa are up more than 20 percent this year over last, general manager Rob Lentz said.

"Truly it's a lifestyle choice to some degree," Lentz said of the demand for RVs. "This is something people enjoy doing."

RV owners, he said, share "a really strong feeling of community and loyalty."

This year, the dealer, which also has locations in Gambrills and Frederick, has seen a bump in sales of travel trailers in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, Lentz said.

Financing with lower interest rates has helped sales, he said, adding that the interest on vehicles counted as second homes is tax-deductible.

Manufacturers, too, are trying to win over buyers by including more amenities, such as high-end audio and video systems, a homier feel in decor, upgrades in kitchens and bath designs, new floor plans — and power-everything, including the awnings, he said.

"A lot of the allure with the RV lifestyle is the ability to travel with a lot of the amenities from home, to have your own bed and your own bathroom," Lentz said.

Some owners store their trailers at their homes and tow them on trips, while others keep a trailer at a permanent site. Some campgrounds will store trailers in the off-season and then tow them to a campsite for the owners.

Linda Abel and her husband, Frank, just bought a 33-foot motor home with full kitchen, bathroom with a standup shower, living room with leather sofa and big-screen TV, and bedroom with two wardrobes and another TV. They traded up after owning travel trailers.

Before their first trailer purchase three years ago, the Perry Hall couple considered buying a permanent vacation home.

"We had looked at places in Florida … but we're the type of people who do not want to do the same thing every year," said Linda Abel, a retired middle-school teacher. "We want to see different places. You have any place open to you in the U.S. you want to go. There are campgrounds everywhere. You've got your own space and can do it on your own timetable. If you don't like that place, you can pick up and go the next day."

Merkel, of Leo's Vacation Center, said his RV sales have grown about 10 percent a year over the past two years. He sells RVs that range from a $5,000 camper to a $300,000 motor coach.

One customer, Ron German, who is in the military and is stationed at Fort Meade, decided to buy a travel trailer after going tent camping a few years ago with his wife and three children. After a downpour one night, campers at a nearby site invited the family into their trailer.

"The minute my wife walked in, she was sold," said German, an Annapolis resident. "It felt like a second home. All the amenities were there."

Two years ago, the family bought a 29-foot trailer with a bunk area for the kids, full bath, kitchen, living room and master bedroom. The savings on hotels and restaurants has meant the family can go on more trips, German said.

Moreover, he added, "It's a huge family bonding experience."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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