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Reality Check: RV Life

The perks and problems of driving, residing and traveling under one roof

While RV living isn't like living out of a suitcase (as RVer Trudy Lundgren points out, "we're already home"), it is literally living on the road. And, says Lundgren, "You can't do too much research" before taking the leap into full-time RV life.

Lundgren and her partner, Lisa Wade (see Life on the Road), had to learn how to safely drive their 40-foot-long home, which typically has a Toyota RAV4 trailing behind. Steering such a large, two-part vehicle is challenging, and just maneuvering into a parking spot can be a make-or-break test. (See Living and Traveling in an RV.)

Although suburban homeowners often have to manage problems with household mechanicals and repairs, apartment residents (as Lundgren and Wade had been) can frequently rely on a building superintendent when the heat, air conditioning or plumbing conks out. With the RV, Lundgren typically serves as the building super, maintaining and emptying the vehicle's plumbing tanks and connecting the RV to a campsite's energy, water and waste hookups. When the latter's mechanicals run afoul (as they have), RV living becomes extremely foul.

"You have to deal with your own sewage," Lundgren says. "That’s one of the drawbacks. But you get used to it, and rubber gloves are a wonderful thing."

A veteran of half a dozen years on the road, Lundgren offers two pieces of advice.

First, she says, "If you've never lived in an RV before, rent one for a couple of weeks to see if you like it."

It's also important to consider who you'll be traveling with in very cramped quarters. Lundgren and Wade had lived together in a small apartment for many years before moving into the RV. Still, they appreciate the importance of time apart, whether it's to work (Wade's sales job takes her outside the RV, while Lundgren's graphic design assignments keep her in it, at the computer), socialize with other RV campers or buy a single plane ticket to visit city-dwelling friends.

Second, Lundgren says, "Have extra money on hand."

Although Lundgren bought the RV for cash with the proceeds from selling her co-op apartment, unexpected repairs — such as fixing the air conditioning, buying tires at $500 a pop, spending $25,000 for a new engine — have required large infusions of cash on top of the duo's personal expenses and routine RV costs. Those routine but pricey RV bills include the vehicle's regular maintenance, insurance (about $1,500 a year), RV park fees (anywhere from $15 to $75 a night) and, of course, gas. The 25-year-old Bluebird Wanderlodge RV gets, at most, seven miles to the gallon. When Lundgren and Wade set out on their adventure in 2004, diesel fuel was $1.65 a gallon. Today, diesel costs about $3 a gallon.

"We really want to drive to Alaska," says Lundgren, "but doing so will cost us more than it would to go to Europe for two weeks."

Moving from being a homeowner or renter to a full-time RV resident can provide some cost savings, but Lundgren warns that "RV living is not a cheaper way to live. It's just a different way to live."

Despite her warning, Lundgren still marvels at how, wherever she and Wade stop, they find that "every place has something to offer."

RVers, she adds, can target their travels to their tastes: "You can RV to beaches, wineries, the mountains, the desert, and some of the smallest, seemingly dinkiest places have some of the coolest things to see and do."