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Cheap RV Living Keeps Fun Affordable

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Opting for the open road versus the confines of a house is becoming more popular in the United States, for everyone from young adults to retirees.

According to a survey by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), about 1 million people in the U.S. live full-time in RVs. But while there’s the potential for RV living to be a cheaper alternative to owning and maintaining a permanent residence, Kevin Broom, RVIA’s director of media relations, warns that costs depend entirely on your lifestyle choices.

“The cost of an RV is generally lower than a house,” according to Broom, who noted that it’s ultimately going to depend on what type of RV you buy. Of course, money isn’t the only reason to trade your mortgage for a set of wheels, he added — although some owners live in RVs to save money, others just want to enjoy the open road.

Whether you’re looking to start a new adventure or lower your cost of living, here’s what you need to know to live cheaply in your RV.

The costs of living in an RV

There are a number of things to consider before jumping into living in an RV. Broom suggests that if you are ready to try RV living, you should do research before you buy, so you don’t spring for a larger vehicle than you need or are forced to sell a smaller vehicle that doesn’t work for you.

Learn about the different kinds of RVs (and rent one first!)

The best way to get first-hand experience living in an RV is to learn about the different types of RVs, then try before you buy. “If you haven’t bought or stayed in an RV before, it’s best to rent one and try it out,” Broom said, advising potential consumer to test it out on a short trip — “[go] for a weekend or a week just to see how it feels.”

First, you need to know that there are a variety of types and classes of RV you can choose from. They include:

  • Towable RVs: RVs you can hook up to a passenger vehicle and tow places. These include pop-up style campers.
  • Motorized RVs: These are the kind of motorhome that you drive. They come in three types:
    • Class A: They are usually 21 to 40 feet in length and come with tons of amenities like kitchens, bathrooms and living areas.
    • Class B: These are 13 to 22 feet in length and are often called “van campers” or “camper vans.” They are more compact than Type A and drive more like a car than a large camper.
    • Class C: These RVs can be 21 to 35 feet in length and often have an over-the-cab area for additional sleeping space.
  • Specialty RVs: These are RVs that are created specifically for people who need different things. RVs in this class would include horsetrailers, ice fish houses and trailers for the disabled.

Rental costs for each kind vary based on amenities and size; for example, RVHive lists a cost of $1,909 — broken down into $1,625 for the one-week rental, plus $284 for insurance and fees — for a Four Winds 22-24 Foot Class C. When renting, be sure to check on mileage limits and overrun costs and amenities. Some rentals also come with propane, Wi-Fi and other extras, but they could come at an additional cost.

Decide where you want to be

Part of deciding to live in an RV includes choosing the place you want to spend your time. Will you move your RV around from one place to another? Or do you plan to stay in one place more permanently? There are a few costs and things to consider when deciding where you want to live in your RV.

Campsites and RV parks: Many people who enjoy cheap RV living park at a campsite or RV park for periods ranging from weeks to months. Some sites even invite long-term guests to serve as hosts or otherwise work at the site doing clean-up and other jobs in exchange for a free site (more on that below).

Still, whatever your budget, you can find an affordable location. Offerings range from free sites without amenities to those with water, sewer, electrical and cable/telephone hookups. You’ll need to check with each particular campsite that you are interested in staying at to find out what you’ll need to pay for and what might be included in your camping fee. It varies widely from site to site. You can research the various options at Campendium.

Fuel: The cost of fueling up will depend on how many miles you’ll drive (if you drive) and where you travel. Those on tight budgets may want to budget for their monthly fuel allotment. On average, RVs get about 10 miles per gallon, according to car enthusiast site Axel Addict, so depending on the size of your gas tank (or if your RV runs on diesel) and the size of your RV, you could be spending hundreds to fuel up. Anyone looking to pay the least amount for fuel when they travel should consult the free online service Gas Buddy. You can add the app to your phone and search for current gas prices at multiple stations based on your location, giving you a chance to comparison shop.

Maintenance: Cheap RV living depends on keeping your RV in good repair — again, costs vary greatly. The Mobile Home Parts Store survey found that most respondents paid for repair work instead of doing it themselves. The average annual cost was $1,410.20, according to the survey.

Mailing address: You will need a mailing address to register your vehicle, receive bills and otherwise run the business of your life. A driver’s license is also needed. Most states don’t require special licenses unless the RV is over 26,000 pounds, reported Campanda, a camper rental website. Check their guide for state exceptions. In addition, those that live in an RV can choose whatever state they wish as their “residence” or “domicile”; some RV dwellers may use the addresses of family members or friends. Each state has different laws and regulations regarding residency; Texas, Florida and South Dakota are among some popular options.

The Escapee RV Club, a resource for RVers, offers a guide on options, costs, and convenience for matters of residence.

How to buy an RV

Now you’ve experienced a little RV living and you’ve decided you’re ready to buy, you’ll need to be mindful of what you want from it. The vehicle alone can range from $6,000 for folding camping RVs to more than $500,000 for motorized homes, so it’s important to understand what features are important to you and whether or not they fit in your budget. RVers can choose models that have a variety of sleeping options, kitchen and even floor types. The choices are almost as broad as those found in homes, said Broom.

It’s important to consider things like sleeping spaces, kitchen size and other amenities that will fit with the kind of lifestyle you want to have. Once you’ve chosen the right vehicle and are ready to hit the road, there are a few tips you can follow to keep your costs of living down (to be detailed below). Before you buy, calculate what type of RV you can afford with this RV loan calculator.

Don’t forget, there’s a healthy used RV market, too, that can likely save you thousands. You can research the fair value of a used RV at The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). And if you opt for a used RV, check the vehicle history at RV Checks. Knowing the history of a vehicle can save you money when negotiating the price and budgeting for future repairs.

The RV purchase is typically the biggest expense for those wanting to live in the vehicle full-time, but there are other considerations you should examine, including your budget. Of course you want to shop:

Financing: Shop for the best deal on interest rates to finance an RV, just as you would when buying a car.

In fact, buying an RV is much like buying a car. You need to decide on manufacturers, models and most importantly your budget.

You can also fill out an online form at LendingTree, where you may be matched with offers from up to five different lenders based on your creditworthiness. Lenders generally recommend you put down a 20% down payment but may take as little as 10%, depending on various factors including your credit score.

Six tips for affordable living in an RV

Buying an RV is a lot like buying a car. You want to find the make and model you most want, with all the features you want, negotiate the price, register the vehicle and consider warranties. But while it’s important to note that most lenders want borrowers to have a minimum of 20% for the down payment, you can still shop for used RVs.

What differentiates an RV from a car is the amount of time you’ll spend in the vehicle; that’s why it’s so important to consider all the things you might want or need on the road. Once you’ve locked in the RV and location you want to take it, there are a few ways you can live in an RV on the cheap.

1. Consider Wi-Fi: Cheap RV living doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice Wi-Fi. Some RV parks offer free Wi-Fi, which Broom said is suitable for the casual user, who takes weekend trips to relax and does some light web surfing. Just don’t expect to be able to stream Netflix, or send large files, however; sometimes Wi-Fi at parks is slow or faulty. Keep a list of free Wi-Fi hotspots handy as you travel, though; according to Broom, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Apple stores are the ones most RV travelers rely upon.

You can also consider buying a mobile phone that allows “unlimited connectivity” for as little as $50 a month. Just remember that some plans cap high-speed data use — that means your connectivity will slow considerably if you reach the plan’s upper limits.

Most RV owners use one of these two methods, according to Mobile Internet Resource Center. They offer a free guide to various options but caution technology changes quickly. Don’t buy a mobile device until you’re ready to use it.
Savings: $50-plus per month.

2. Eat at home: Many people equate travel with trying new restaurants and eating on the road. Those that live full time in RVs may want to buy rigs with kitchens for at-home meals — so fold-downs and truck campers likely wouldn’t work for them. Consider that average restaurant prices clock in at just over $20.37 per meal, while home cooking is $4.31 per meal, according to Forbes.
Savings: $16.06 per meal per person.

3. Limit your travel. Yes, part of the fun of RV living is traveling. Still, many RVers carefully plan their trips. That saves gas, which can cost as much as $4 a gallon. A fill up can cost hundreds of dollars if you are going on a long trip, so plan accordingly.
Savings: $800 for a 2,000-mile trip in an RV that gets 10 miles per gallon with gas costs of $4 per gallon.

4. Consider working for your site. Some campgrounds waive fees for longer-term guests in exchange for work ranging from serving as a greeter/host to helping with trash collection, said Broom. Kampgrounds of America, known as KOA, offer a formal Work Kamper Program: workers in that program are compensated to help maintain the grounds, but the nature of the program varies among campgrounds. Ask your RV park manager about opportunities, said Broom.
Savings (for non-paid work): around $45 per night on average, according to CamperReport.

5. Don’t automatically use an RV shop to fix your rig. The average cost of labor to repair an RV at a dealership is $129 to $189 per hour, reported Axel Addict. If you need routine maintenance, like refrigerator repair, consider contacting the same type of company you would for a standard home. According to Axle Addict, this can save you considerably since those repair shops can usually do the work for a fraction of the price you’d pay at an RV dealership, reported Axel Addicts.
Savings: Vary widely.

6. Consider a tow vehicle: Living life in an RV can have some downsides, including having to drive the home everywhere you need to go. That means you’ll have to pack up camp every time you need to run to the drugstore if you need aspirin late at night. Many owners of motorized RVs purchase some type of smaller vehicle for those quick jaunts, said Broom. A tow vehicle can save you plenty of time and gas, too, he said. But remember, you’ll have to not only buy the car, but pay for insurance, registration and maintenance as well. Plus, towing a car will cause your RV to get worse gas mileage and you’ll likely have to fill up more frequently as a result.

You should also be aware that different RVs have different towing capacities that need to be considered when choosing a tow vehicle. Thor Industries offers a free, downloadable Trailer Life Towing Guide for those that are serious about choosing a safe RV and tow vehicle combination.

The bottom line

You can enjoy cheap RV living and not sacrifice lifestyle, but it will take a fair amount of work to find the right vehicle and location for you. Many rigs come as fully equipped as traditional homes and are much more affordable, said Broom. Still, it’s important that you analyze your budget, consider your lifestyle, and weigh options before you join the army of full-time RV residents. Doing so ensures you’ll have many happy trails ahead.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing.


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