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by Melissa Stanton, June 14, 2010
First, some vocabulary: Most RVs — short for recreational vehicles — have all the comforts of home (a kitchen, bedroom, living room and bath). They are built for travel and come in styles ranging from towable RVs to motor homes, and many can, with essentially the push of a button, expand to provide more living space when parked. By comparison, mobile homes, with which RVs are often confused, are made to stay put.
The basics covered, here are some details:
1. Cost: The sticker price for a new RV can start below $100,000 for a small or medium vehicle, but then the sky's the limit. While buying a used RV will result in a lower purchase price, over time, after repairs and upgrading, the cost may wind up being the same as a new model. (Worth noting: New RVs come with some sort of warranty while used vehicles generally don’t.) For anyone who thinks an RV is a good long-term investment, think again. Unlike with most homes, an RV depreciates in value the minute it's put into use.
2. Gasoline and mileage: The reality is that RVs are gas-guzzlers. RV veteran Trudy Lundgren (see Life on the Road) jokes that her 40-foot home on wheels can get "about 6 or 7 miles a gallon with a tailwind going downhill. If we’re going uphill and there’s a headwind, the mileage goes down to 4." Filling her vehicle's 300 gallon gas tank with diesel fuel tops $900 these days. One silver lining is that because the tank is so large, Lundgren can typically hold out for refueling until she finds a gas station with a good price.
3. Transportation: Yes, many RVs are vehicles, but they're not practical vehicles for taking on a quick jaunt to the supermarket. (If you have trouble parallel parking or backing into spaces with a regular car, well, good luck maneuvering an RV.) And once an RV is nestled into its spot at an RV park and hooked up to the park's water and power supplies, that's a lot of work to casually undo. For those and other reasons most RV owners also own a car, which they use when the RV is parked. The car attaches to the RV by trailer when it's time to relocate.
4. Insurance: As with any vehicle, comprehensive insurance to protect against damage and liability is a must. But since an RV is a home, its contents need to be insured, as well. And RVers who own a car must also insure that vehicle.
5. Camping and settling down: Public and private RV parks can be found throughout the United States, in both scenic and not-so-scenic settings. The quality, amenities and daily rates vary by location and season. Advanced reservations are often required. Stays can be for as short as one night to weeks or months on end. Some properties are geared toward full-time RV living. (See Assisted Living for RV Residents.) An important point is that RVs are sometimes prohibited from using certain roads and highways, and some neighborhoods in the non-RV world don't allow RVs to be parked for a long term on public streets. RV owners should inquire about driving and parking restrictions before visiting a new place or attempting to park in a residential area.
6. "Boondocking": At times, an RV driver just needs to stop for the night in an unplanned location because of exhaustion or bad driving conditions. In such instances, many RV owners "boondock," which is slang for having to stop (dock) in the middle of nowhere (the boonies). RV drivers boondock in highway rest stops, on the sides of roads and in parking lots. (Then they lock the door, run their utilities off generator power and go to sleep.) Wal-Mart and Sam's Club are among the retail establishments that are intentionally welcoming to RVs drivers, who know they can safely park in the well-lighted parking lots for the night, and then pop into the stores after daybreak for breakfast and supplies.
7. Driving skills and licenses: Requirements vary by state and an RV or trailers's size, but motorized RVs come in three class types:
• Class A: These are the biggest RVs (Winnebagos and the like). They range from 15,000 to 30,000 pounds and are about 40 feet long. (A typical car is about 2,000 pounds and 12 feet long.)
• Class B: Although still considered an RV, these vehicles are typically camper or conversion vans. They generally weigh less than 8,000 pounds and top out at 19 feet. Class Bs don't have the amenities of a full-fledged RV but they are easier to drive and usually don't require a special license.
• Class C: Often called "Baby RVs," these are scaled-down versions of the Class A vehicles; they weigh about 10,000 pounds and are 20 to 30 feet in length.
Before setting out on the road for fun or forever, it's smart to take RV-specific driving lessons. Classes can be found through a local RV dealer or at RVSchool.com.
7. Mail/Internet/cable: Wireless, broadband and satellite technologies have been enormously helpful to RV dwellers, who can now stay in constant contact with the sticks-and-bricks world. E-mailing and Internet-based social networks enable RVers to connect with old friends, as well as the new ones they meet on the road. For postal mail, RV residents either use their permanent home address (if they still have one) or they register with an RV community (the Escapees RV Club is one) that will serve as their official address and collect and forward their mail.
8. Power, water, waste and maintenance: RVs have several batteries, a few of which charge the vehicle for driving while the others power the living quarters. The batteries are recharged when the vehicle is moving or hooked up to power sources at an RV park. For water, an RV has holding tanks for clean water, gray water (i.e., runoff from showers and washing dishes) and bathroom waste. Because these tanks need to be properly managed, an RV owner must be comfortable performing physical labor and getting his or her hands dirty. Also, since road emergencies happen, an RV driver should be able to perform at least basic vehicle maintenance and repairs.
10. Medical care: Since seeing one's own doctor or dentist isn't always possible, most RVers will make an annual or occasional trip to their official hometown to receive routine medical or dental care. For medical situations while on the road, walk-in clinics, emergency rooms and local practitioners need to suffice. As such, it's important that an RVer's health insurance not be limited to in-network providers or require a referral from a primary care physician.
11. Taxes: RVers can't drive away from federal income taxes, but they may be able to avoid paying state and local taxes. Many RVers who have sold their homes or don't have hometown roots select income-tax-free states, such as Texas, Florida, South Dakota or Nevada, for their official addresses.
12. RV resources: The Internet features numerous resources for information about buying, renting and living in RVs. Several organizations, such as Good Sam, provide RV travelers with discount services. The following websites are a good place to start:
• Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
• RV Advice.com
• RV Consumer Group
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