RV Economics Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, RVs are cheaper than say, a second home, but not as cheap as, say, a tent-camping vacation. I love tent camping, but for right now, communal bathrooms and showers are a nonstarter. I look forward to a time when we can take the tent out. Maybe the backyard first.

Another thing too – tents are, at this point in our life, great for a night or two, but it begins to get a little old after a few days, as I haul dishes to communal sinks for washing or hope I dropped enough quarters into the shower to get all the soap out of my hair. Maybe someday we’ll do more back country camping again rather than drive up sites, but for our child rearing years, we’re bound to some conveniences.

For longer vacations, we’ve typically rented homes through VRBO.com, interspersed with a night here and there at hotels with a water park.

In lodging terms for a week, this tended to range from $1600-$3500 for about 6 nights on our annual trip to the White Mountains, depending on where we rented and what amenities it had. Food, transportation, and other costs are on top of that lodging-only fee.

Since 2016, that lodging alone amounted to well over 1/3 of the purchase price of the RV. So in this particular case, the RV costs are replacing at least one trip’s worth of lodging.

Now, that’s based on purchase price. We still have to keep the battery charged (electricity bill at home), buy propane, and we’ve had to stock and furnish it with some kitchen items, bedding and other basics – ok, we didn’t HAVE to. But honestly it’s easier, and I recommend it. Even after a few years, the cost of ownership won’t be zero. But it will be far, far less than our vacations have cost us.

This year, for 5 nights in New Hampshire, we’re paying $362.50. That includes water, sewer and electric hookups for all nights. Eli and I also have a long weekend planned in Rhode Island, where the total cost is about $170. So this year, for 8 nights in the RV, we’re paying about $66.56 a night to stay in it, plus the cost of gas, propane and anything else we need. We’re not going to get a ton of use out of it this summer because once adoptive kids arrive, we’re home bound for a while. We might take it out to see my older Sister and her family in the fall, but that’s uncertain, and wholly kid-dependent. By next year we can start to think about more intensive use.

So we knew this going in – that we were purchasing something with significant up-front cost and limited use the first 2 seasons. Last year because we picked it up in the fall, and this year because we have other life things going on. So why do it last year, long before we could really start to use it to our fullest benefit?

Because this is a long-game purchase. Right now, before we adopt, we have more time than after. The learning curve on the RV is reasonably steep – Eli spent long hours learning how to navigate, back up and park it. We had to invest our time, in stabilizer blocks, winterizing gear and the basics for making it usable. And now, while we’re not exactly experienced, it, we now know things like if we don’t remember to switch off the water pump switches in the bathroom the battery will die, and what we need to do to get it usable.

By trip 2 last year, Eli and I had figured out how to get us up and living quickly after we arrive at a destination. I take the inside, he unhooks the Pathfinder and gets our water/sewer and electric set. On Thanksgiving night in 2020, we were sitting down to dinner probably 35 minutes after we parked, in large part because we did 95% of the food preparation before we left home.

When we take it out this year, we’ll have those lessons and experience under our belt, and finally be able to spend time using the little outdoor grill and awning as well, things that it was a little chilly to manage last fall. We already learned that bringing the RV literally anywhere for less than 3 nights isn’t worth the effort to set up, and to bring at least twice as many dish towels as we think we’ll need.

We also learned that in this case, the relatively small size of the RV was a good decision. The 24DBS we bought really fits us well. It’s roomy enough to be content to hang out in, and small enough so that getting out for walks and hikes and swims and to explore don’t get lost with the amenities. We’re hoping this remains true as we adopt. We looked at larger RVs that were larger than most apartments, which private rooms and all that but at the end of the day, that would have required us purchasing a truck to pull, was substantially more money and it just wasn’t worth it. Could we live in it? Probably not. But for vacations and other uses (it served as our homeschool classroom for a chunk of the fall) it’s brilliant.

All this accumulation of experience and knowledge will allow us to use our mental and physical energy to ensure our family is happy and that our stress is minimal, and our enjoyment maximized. This is going to be especially important as the children that come to us and augment our family will likely be dealing with significant trauma, and the kinds of disruptions to routine that vacations cause can be tough. Easing the adults into vacation mode will ease them as well.

In addition to site rentals and electricity here at home, insurance and registration runs us about $250 annually for our little tow-behind travel trailer. It’s my estimate that by Season 3 in 2022 our we’ll get about 3- 3 1/2 weeks of use of it and it will cost us less than $80/month including site rentals.

The other component is that when it’s not in use for our vacations, it will be our guest house. While it won’t have running water, we can host guests to sleep May-October. And while we don’t intend to rent it out for others to use on their vacations at this point, we may loan it occasionally.

Still, when you add the purchase price, operating costs, our pending plans for a solar rig and composting toilet so we can go boondocking, It’s going to take about 7 years to pay for itself. We intend to have it for at least 20. For me, that 13 years of almost-free vacations is the ultimate frugal win. We’re not super frugal, but we are super practical, and this is truly going to be both.

In 20 years, we’ll be 67 and 70, and at that point I suspect our needs will be a bit different. If we still have an RV, it would need to have an engine at that point, and we’ll just tow a small car or figure out alternatives. But what we’re going to want when we’re that age is hard to know, so for now we’re focused on the life we have.

RV Economics Part 1

Chilling Out

The last several weeks have been cool – it’s still quite chilly in the mornings and evenings, and there’s been a lot of rain. I like the rain, and I love that everything is green around me, but I would love just a bit more sunshine. Fortunately it’s coming, as is summer.

And that means we’ll take the cover off of the RV and begin to use it. We bought it last year, but it’s a purchase that we’ve both thought about for years both individually before we were together and afterwards, jointly. Once we decided to do it, we moved fairly quickly, but only after significant research. As RV sales are booming and it’s a way cheaper investment than a second home (bonus: you can take it anywhere there’s a road) I wanted to talk about how we decided on ours, what the cost were, and how we’re thinking about it one year in. If you’ve been thinking about diving in to the RV world, I hope this is helpful.

First, what we bought. We own a Prime Time Tracer 24DBS travel trailer that can sleep 8. After looking around for a used Airstream – new not really being in the budget – and day-tripping to Vermont to drool over a 1960 model with stained glass windows that would need a completely new interior, we realized that with our current and growing family, plus our time limits, the time to refurbish an Airstream wasn’t now. Once we made that decision, our options shrank. We have a Nissan Pathfinder that can tow a maximum of 6000 pounds, and we knew we needed the ability to sleep a lot of us comfortably. And I wanted a u-shaped dining area so we could all sit and eat together. At the end of the day, only one make and model fit exactly the kind of layout we needed, the 24DBS.

Then we set out to find it. Last year the RV market went crazy in the pandemic, and finding this one model was a challenge. There just wasn’t any within 500 miles on the used market, and the ones that were out there weren’t much – if at all – cheaper than new. but we did find a new one about 90 minutes away from us. One. We went to look at it, and noting the folks lining up to look at it after we went in, we bought it on the spot. While new vehicles aren’t normally what we want, I’m totally comfortable with our decision for a few reasons:

  1. We bought from a nationwide dealer, RV Camping World. This means that there’s likely to be a service shop within a reasonable distance from wherever we go, and as newbies, that’s nice to know
  2. Because we were new to this, the hours Eli spent with their folks going through the details of how to hook it up to the Pathfinder and all the features stem to stern were invaluable.
  3. They installed our tow hookup as well, so we only had to go to a single place

This decision isn’t for everyone, but for us, with limited time and zero knowledge, it was absolutely the right decision. We have no regrets, and expect to enjoy our RV for many years. While new isn’t necessarily right for everyone, spending months looking and long road trips during a pandemic weren’t the right things at the time.

After doing a bunch of research, we decided if we were all in, there were some things that would make our lives easier that were worth the upfront costs.

  • Beddys. These things are great, and in the tiny, cramped spaces around the beds, make everyone’s life easier. They have regular BoGo sales and are super cute and easy to maintain. After reading rave reviews by every RVer that has invested, we went all in. Plus the kids got to pick theirs.
  • A completely automated hook up with backup camera and secondary electronic brake in the car. This makes navigating so much easier for Eli, and was worth every dime.
  • The Camping World roadside service plan. While this is not a necessity, it gives me a ton of peace of mind, and it’s also good for the vehicle pulling our new vacation digs.
  • An inexpensive set of knives, bowls, flatware and plastic drinking glasses that live in the RV
  • A percolator coffee pot that doubles as as backup to our house coffee pot
  • A covered bamboo bowl set (well, my big sister bought me one of them, because she’s wonderful) for salads and serving

All in, the ‘extras, were about $3900 on top of the $28,985 purchase price, but I will say that after having made many ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ decisions over my life, these up front adds have been worth it.

For the rest, we repurpose extras pans and dishes from our kitchen to cook with. This year, I may buy a cheap stick vacuum for the interior, as well as a towel rack, and Eli bought a toilet paper holder (please note that this is not something built in, and to avoid soggy toilet paper in a super small RV bathroom, you’ll want to invest) eventually we’d love to move away from the heavily brown interior and do a bit of slipcovering and redecorating, but generally we’re set.

So let’s talk about using it. So far, we have not added solar or a composting toilet, which will allow us to move away from RV parks and into the backcountry, what RVers call ‘boondocking’. It’s in the plan, but by the time we bought it, had the hookups installed and got it home, it was September of 2020, so we used it a couple of times and then winterized it.

We used it twice for a total of 5 nights last year. The first was a weekend in New Hampshire in October to try it out. We stayed in an RV campground with a wonderful staff, and when we realized we also didn’t have a sewer hose, another thing that doesn’t come standard, they got us set right up. We learned from this trip how much gas the Pathfinder uses hauling it (a lot, we now carry a gas canister at all times) and how to use it. The kids really loved it, and so did we, a not-insignificant outcome for something we’d bought without ever so much as renting a camper in our lives.

Eli and I then took it to Maine in November and spent Thanksgiving weekend. We learned a lot that weekend as well – such how quickly the propane tanks empty when you need the heat on, which we learned by waking up and being able to see our breath, to be grateful I’d brought extra blankets, and a much-needed reminder that advance meal prep is a great way to ensure you don’t eat out when you are starving after a long hike.

RV sites with full hookups, i.e. water, sewer and electric range from about $46 a night to about $90, infinitely cheaper than your average hotel room. Given that we had been spending about $200/night on hotel rooms and house rentals on vacation, this is a substantive savings. But it will still take a long while to amortize those savings against the cost of the RV.

I can tell you though, it was worth every dime.

Next time: The cost of RV vacations and getting it to pay for itself