RV on the road
Of the million or so RV owners in the United States, each year about 7 percent cut their ties to home and hearth and go full time, according to estimates from the Good Sam Club.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/30/2009 7:36:29 AM ET 2009-07-30T11:36:29

Jerry Orchard, 73, and his wife Nancy, 67, have always loved to RV. Since buying their first rig, in 1965, they have hit the road for family vacations. But when Jerry retired about 10 years ago, they decided to step things up a notch.

For the last 13 years the Orchards have lived aboard their 38-foot “Dutch Star” motor home, crisscrossing the nation, staying in group camps and national parks from the Pacific Northwest to Maine. They belong to a select set of RV owners known as “full-timers” — people who have opted to live exclusively in their motor homes, or travel trailers.

“At first our RV was for vacations, but when I turned 60 we had a dream of seeing the United States so we went full-time,” said Jerry Orchard. “Now our rig is our cabin in the woods, our beach cottage, our place by the lake or our hunting camp. Unless you’ve very rich, you can’t own all those things, but we have them all in our RV.”

Of the million or so RV owners in the United States each year about 7 percent cut their ties to home and hearth and go full time, according to estimates from the Good Sam Club, a community of RV owners. The organization defines full-timers as those who live exclusively in their RV with no permanent fixed home.

Full-time RV-ers typically spend the winter months in warmer states like Florida and Texas, moving north in the summer months. They usually sell their homes and most of their possessions, or put them in storage, and hit the road, moving from camping spot to camping spot, explained Sue Bray, vice president and executive director of the Good Sam Club.

“People love the RV lifestyle so much that they ask themselves, ‘Why have I got all the hassle of owning my home when I’m never there and RV-ing all the time?’” said Bray. “So I think full-timers find selling everything and hitting the road to be quite liberating. They love the independence, and perhaps these people in their professional lives have always had a boss telling them what to do. Now all of a sudden you have your house there on wheels and you can make all your own decisions.”

In a world of Wi-Fi hotspots, mobile Internet and Facebook pages, full-timers are more connected with friends and family than ever before, making the prospect of hitting the road an easier step to take, Bray said. Online discussions show many serious RV-ers dream about going full time, but only a few actually do it, she said.

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“The full-timers are on there, chatting about places they’ve gone and the things they’ve done. There’s incredible sense of community with these people. There is an aura around going full time in a RV,” Bray said. “People say, ‘We use the RV on vacation time, but we really want to go full time.’”

Nathan and Sherrie Strite, both 55, are planning a move to full-time RV-ing in the very near future. Over the past 10 years they have talked about taking the plunge, but only recently they decided to move ahead, spurred on by news of friends’ inability to become permanent RV-ers because of failing health.

The Strites first started camping by RV in 1992 to get away from the stress of running a local John Deere dealership. They joined a Good Sam Club chapter in south-central Pennsylvania and started meeting and traveling with fellow RV enthusiasts.

Now the Strites are preparing to go full time. They have put their house up for rent and are selling their possessions, and they are making plans to sell their home — but not until they’re comfortable that they can fully commit to full-time RV-ing. In preparation for that day they’re spending as much time as they can in their RV. Since March 1 they have spent only one weekend at their home in Shippensburg, Pa.

“We’ve realized that life is short and you have to enjoy it while you can,” said Nathan Strite. “We started planning for this about 10 years ago, but lately people have been telling us you shouldn’t wait, you should just do it now. So that’s what we’re doing; we’re on our way.”

The Nathans’ plan is to spend winter in a warm climate and return to Pennsylvania in the summer to be with family. Finding a good health care plan has been a big challenge, but they think they’ve found one that they can afford. For living expenses, they plan to pick up casual work at campgrounds and amusement parks.

“We are not independently wealthy, so we’ll have to support ourselves somehow,” Nathan said. “It’s not like we need to make a whole lot of money — just enough to pay our bills, and we’ve rented the house, so we have some income there.”

With money likely to be tight and with no fixed abode, the question is what attracts full-time RV-ers to a life on the open road.

Main story: Plunge in RV sales fails to dampen enthusiasm
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“It’s the sense of freedom; being on your own, enjoying your life and meeting a lot of great people,” Nathan said. “Obviously it’s not for everyone, but my wife and I agreed it’s something we want to do, so there’s not one person pushing the other. And when it comes to getting on, we have been married for 36 years, and we think we know each other fairly well. And on the road you have a different mind-set; you’re more relaxed and not stressing out about things.”

Another attraction of full-time RV living is the lack of a fixed timetable. In 13 years on the road he still hasn’t fulfilled one of his dreams: He wants to spend a month in each continental U.S. state, but he reckons he’ll need nearly five years to complete that task.

“For now, we are enjoying ourselves immensely,” he said. “It’s a way of life we enjoy, and we realize that as we get older and feebler we’ll have to get out of it. But until we get to that point, we’ll keep on getting bugs on the windshield.”

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