'The shine came off once I bought it': RV sales surged due to COVID, and not everyone is thrilled

·10 min read

It didn't take long for Karin Smith to realize the RV life was not for her.

The Jupiter, Florida, resident and single mom bought a 1995 Fleetwood Bounder in January 2021, not only as a tool for travel but for peace of mind. With rent prices in Florida skyrocketing, Smith wanted to make sure she and her son would always have a roof over their heads.

"I've always had fear about homelessness, which is kind of nutty. But it's always in the back of your mind – we're just one paycheck away," Smith told USA TODAY. "So I was thinking an RV would just solve that for me. My son and I could go see America, we wouldn't be tethered to a house. We would always have a place to live."

But owning an RV was more complicated than Smith thought.

Her first obstacle: finding a place to keep it. She learned soon after making the purchase that her neighborhood wouldn't allow her to keep the 38-foot vehicle in her driveway, so she started paying $125 a month to store it. Then, she discovered its air conditioner didn't work properly – a necessity in the Florida heat and an expensive repair.

Smith was also shocked to discover how much RV parks cost and how little space they offered.

"It just started to feel like a money pit," she said. "I really started thinking about things like: Is this safe? What would I do with Wi-Fi? I work remotely, do I work listening to neighbors (at an RV park) argue or 14 people having a party next door for two days? It all just fell apart."

Smith ended up selling the RV six months after she bought it. She never got behind the wheel.

Karin Smith's RV, which was sold off roughly six months after she bought it.
Karin Smith's RV, which was sold off roughly six months after she bought it.

Smith is just one of many Americans who became RV owners during the pandemic. Many are happy with their purchase and the sales show no sign of slowing, but there are some owners who note that rising travel costs and growing crowds have made RV travel more difficult.

RVS, CAMPERS, TRAILERS FOR ROAD TRIPS: From cheap to glamp-worthy

Strong demand driven by COVID

Bruce Ter Veen, sales director at General RV Center in Wixom, Michigan, said sales have been strong the past two years, with the pandemic driving more people toward RVs.

"First-time buyers coming in the last two years has been a very, very high rate of sales for us," he said. "People (being) able to work and commute differently now is allowing more people to have time in an RV, whether that's partial or full-time living."

Manufacturers have had to increase production to keep up with demand. RV wholesale shipments – the number of new vehicles shipped off to dealers – surpassed 600,000 in 2021, a 19% increase from the previous record in 2017, according to the RV Industry Association.

Video: RV rentals increased by 1,600% in 2020

"The RV industry has been experiencing over 40 years of long-term growth," said RV Industry Association spokesperson Monika Geraci. "The pandemic absolutely supercharged that interest. … There's been this rediscovering of the great outdoors, and that absolutely plays into people prioritizing spending time outdoors and that goes hand in hand with RVing."

Sales aren't expected to slow in 2022. Both Geraci and Ter Veen pointed to attendance rates at RV shows as a barometer for the industry: The 2022 Florida RV SuperShow in Tampa, one of the largest in the country, drew more than 80,000 people last month, a new record.

PLANNING RV TRAVEL FOR THE FIRST TIME: 8 tips for newbies I wish I'd known during my first trip

'There's more planning involved'

But the uptick in RV owners has led to more headaches for some.

John Fisher, who travels across the country in his RV six months out of the year for various American Kennel Club events, said living on the road is "a lot tougher" than it used to be.

Rising prices play a large role. It's not just gas – which is definitely taking a hit on his wallet with the national average for diesel at nearly $4 a gallon – but basics like campground spots and RVs themselves. Fisher upgraded his RV in July and said it was "incredibly hard" to find a model that fit his needs in his price range.

"It's getting so expensive to buy an RV. ... When I started looking, they were about $90,000 new and I picked up a used one for $60,000," he said of his Grand Design Momentum. "The manufacturer in the last year, they've gone from $90,000 (for a new model) to about $130,000."

A 2021 report from data analytics company J.D. Power found standard hitch travel trailer values averaged 33% higher in calendar-year 2021 compared to 2020. The report notes that new and used supply "still lags demand," and says buyers should expect strong pricing to continue in the first quarter of 2022.

Wait times at repair shops have also skyrocketed due to increased demand. Ken Allen, service director of Johnnie Walker RV in Las Vegas, said his business and others have struggled to keep up, but the growing list of customers has made wait times double.

Supply chain issues have made matters even worse, he said.

"So one of the (air conditioner) manufacturers – and there's only a couple – just quit answering their phone about a year ago. They were so overwhelmed," he said.

Fisher has been trying to have a window in his RV fixed since November and has so far had no luck.

"It's probably less than an hour for them to repair it, but I can't get time," he said.

Rebecca French of Clarksville, Indiana has been waiting to get her travel trailer into an auto shop for more than two weeks to fix a leaky tank.

"There are more people camping because I think they think this is a cheaper way to go ... (but) it's not as cheap as you might think," she said.

RV TRAVEL: Take your road trip to the next level in one of these over-the-top camper vans or RVs

Thomas Croft, who has been RVing full-time for six years, noted that campgrounds are also more expensive now that demand is through the roof. Before the pandemic, Croft estimated that a spot would cost $10 to $15 dollars a night, depending on location. Now, it's practically doubled.

"A couple years ago, I'd go to the campgrounds and there'd be a million spots open. Now, I go and I can barely get a spot. So I've got to call ahead," Croft said. "It's changed a lot. There's more planning involved."

Fisher said he's also had to get used to planning out trips to keep mileage and costs down.

"It is a financial inconvenience," he said. "I make my living on the road, so something has to give. I'm gonna have to raise prices or rethink it, and it's tough. I'm not sure that my customers are ready to accept a price increase at the moment."

Rebecca French of Clarksville, Indiana noted that rising costs are one reason why she hasn't been able to travel as much in her RV. She's considering selling her 18-foot Fleetwood Pioneer Spirit, although she may downsize rather than give up RV travel altogether.

"(My truck) gets about nine miles to the gallon, so that really has deterred me from doing what I want to do," French said.

Rebecca French on an RV trip to Maryland.
Rebecca French on an RV trip to Maryland.

RV TRAVEL BOOM: More turn to RVs, motor homes to escape COVID-19 – and get away from it all

'It's hard work'

Vickie Gould of Kingwood, Texas and her husband purchased a new Jayco Jay Flight in the summer of 2020 "out of boredom" in the early months of the pandemic, but didn't realize just how much prep work the RV required for each trip.

Gould said she and her family "went hardly anywhere" with the brand-new RV the year they had it. They hooked it up at a friend's place twice, and there was one trip to a river in New Braunfels, Texas.

It didn't go well.

"We had to stay five miles from the river because you couldn't find a spot," Gould said. "It's still too busy."

Vickie Gould poses with her husband and grandchildren next to their RV. The couple sold the RV late last year.
Vickie Gould poses with her husband and grandchildren next to their RV. The couple sold the RV late last year.

And the difficulties around controlling a 31-foot RV didn't help the situation.

"We almost got a divorce trying to back it into the driveway," Gould said. "It's hard work. It's scary."

At least selling it off was easy; Gould said they found a buyer online in just four days.

"My husband was so ready to rid of that thing, he said just give us the payoff and that's it. We gave them everything we had bought (for the RV)," she said.

Smith, the short-term RV owner from Flordia, also said finding a buyer was a breeze. After fixing up the RV a bit, she was able to hand it off the day it was posted on Facebook Marketplace for $14,000, roughly twice as much as her original purchase.

That's not to say all new RV owners regret their purchase. Ter Veen said many of the people he works with are only selling to upgrade larger models.

"We are seeing a higher return rate for first-time buyers, where that first-time buyer may have waited four to six years before they upgraded to their second RV. We're seeing that timeframe shorten," he said. "So our used inventory has spiked quite substantially in the last year."

Despite selling her RV last year, Gould said she has no regrets over her purchase and is considering purchasing another once she and her husband retire.

"I would love to do it again," she said.

RV TRAVEL TIPS: How to rent an RV this summer without getting ripped off – literally or figuratively

'The shine came off once I bought it'

Smith said she's glad she got to dip her toes in the RV world, but warns potential buyers to weigh their options before making the purchase.

"The shine came off once I bought it," she said. "We all watch the blogs or the YouTube videos and (RV life) looks so cool. … I thought we would visit all the national parks and honestly, we can. We can drive to them in a comfortable car, we can fly to them and stay in the parks. We can rent an RV for cheaper at this point."

Gould suggests people who are considering buying rent first to get a feel for it.

A photo Rebecca French snapped while camping on the Chesapeake Bay.
A photo Rebecca French snapped while camping on the Chesapeake Bay.

And French, who is considering downsizing, said she has no regrets about her purchase.

The 68-year-old has degenerative disc disease, which makes travel and sitting for long periods of time difficult. Despite the pain RV travel can induce, she said she's proud of the trips she was able to accomplish on her own.

"When I pulled my trailer out east to Maryland and parked my trailer right on the ocean, I was just so thrilled," she said. "I would never discourage anyone from trying (RV travel). It's one of those things – if you don't try, you'll never know. … Don't hesitate. Life's too short."

NATIONAL PARK GALLERY: These were the most-visited national parks of 2021

Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Considering that RV sale? Some owners are regretting the purchase