OXFORD — Interest rates are up, fuel and diesel prices are near record levels and inflation fears are real and growing. Yet, one sector of the economy is still booming — sales of new and used recreational vehicles, or RV’s.
“People are still buying,” was the unhesitant response from Rick Emmert, sales manager at Call of the Wild RV Center in Oxford.
The March 2022 shipment report from the RV Industry Association shows 64,454 units were shipped, an increase of 18.7% over March 2021, when 54,291 units shipped. The association does not offer membership to RV dealers, instead, its focus is on manufacturers, suppliers and RV aftermarket companies. The forecast for RV sales for 2022 points to a second best year in the industry, according to the quarterly forecast prepared by ITR Economics for the RV Industry Association.
Craig Kirby, president and chief executive officer of the association, said, “consumers continue to desire ways to get out and experience an active outdoor lifestyle.”
“Crazy” is how Emmert describes the situation. “We’ve had to learn to sell a different way. Before you had a lot of inventory,” referring to the pre-pandemic days. “Inventory’s been a huge challenge across the board. What normally would have taken four to six weeks if I had ordered you a trailer, now it can take as long as a year.”
Of course, if the travel trailer or motor home you want is on the lot, grab it quickly.
At Mountain Road RV in Sabattus, general manager Abbie Sullivan is experiencing a very different situation. “Compared to last year, it’s definitely slower, I don’t know why.”
Sullivan was quick to point to rising gas prices as the culprit. She feels her customers are feeling the pinch and that higher gas prices are scaring people away. She added that getting new inventory last year was a challenge, so they had to rely on used RVs to generate sales. This year, the dealership has some new models on the lot but they are not selling, forcing them to once again rely on used sales.
Emmett said he is selling more RVs over the phone than he ever used to. Customers can choose what they want online, take a virtual tour, compare prices and even locate where the unit they want is available.
“We’ve had customers from Puerto Rico, California, Missouri and Florida buy on the phone,” Emmett explained. “Then they fly up here and drive away.”
If you are in the market for a new RV this year, Bob Zagami, executive director of the New England RV Dealers Association, predicts discounting is just around the corner. “When gas prices and inflation started to rise in the past few months, some of the mega dealers canceled major orders.”
To explain, there are five “mega” RV dealers in the country, meaning they have 100 or more locations with massive showrooms and lots, and the ability to order tens of thousands of RV’s at a time. Zagami says that’s exactly what happened last year, as manufacturers could not meet the demand for new units.
Now, orders of 10,000 to 15,000 units are going to be made available to smaller dealers.
Discounting has not happened in the RV industry for the past two years. Zagami said to look for Camping World, Lazy Days and the other mega dealers who have high overhead to start discounting in order to sell inventory. That will lead to a trickle-down effect at smaller dealers who don’t want to lose out. But don’t look for discounts on popular models.
Why prices are higher now
It’s the perfect storm 2022 version. High demand, low inventory, rising costs for materials and labor and supply chain roadblocks. Manufacturers can’t source some appliances like microwaves, air conditioners or refrigerators, which all use computer chips. Chassis for some motor homes are imported and on back order. Furniture is on back order.
Emmert estimates retail prices are up about 20%. A November 2021 report by J.D. Power and Associates indicated RV prices were up 40% over the previous year, with some reporting showing new prices were up as much as 60%.
A 2019 Keystone Cougar 29BHS travel trailer that sold for $34,000 will now set you back $60,000 for a 2022 model, give or take a few thousand. Motor home (self-propelled or motor coach) increases are less drastic, but are still up in the single- and double-digit percentages.
It’s a real problem for RV dealers, who can usually overcome objections to the higher price by offering service packages, add-ons and other incentives. But price increases from the manufacturers are unpredictable. “If we order something and we think it’s a set price, that doesn’t always happen,” Emmert explained. “Because the factories are bumping those prices up, so by the time we get it, there could be two, three price increases.”
Emmert said if the RV you’re looking for is on the lot and close to what you want, take it. If it’s not on the lot and he has to order it from somewhere, the average wait time is five months. Even that can get pushed back.
At least 80% of all RVs manufactured in this country are made in Indiana, specifically Elkhart. Winnebagos are made in Iowa and Aistreams are made in Idaho. Shipping costs have risen as much as $6,000 per unit, according to an unnamed dealer from Oregon in a September 2021 conference call.
Used RVs still commanding top dollar
The past 18 months have also seen a surge in demand and prices for used RVs of all types, especially models that are less than two to three years old. For now, sales of used RVs remain hot and dealers say they still command “top dollar,” as they struggle to keep them in stock.
Some industry analysts are predicting a slowdown in both demand and prices for used RVs this year, but for the camping season ahead, at least, there’s no relief in sight.
Tips for buying a used RV:
• Do your homework — check pricing online and at local dealers for the unit you are looking for (NADA and Kelly Blue Book have RV pricing).
• Be flexible and ready to compromise — you may not find the exact RV you want.
• Consider looking out of your immediate area to find what you want.
• Inspect the RV for mold, cracks and telltale signs of age and lack of maintenance.
• Have a professional inspect a motor home or motor coach (self-propelled) for mechanical and electrical issues.
• Ask how and where the RV has been stored — excessive sunlight and weather exposure can damage exterior finishes and compromise the structure.
• Don’t become emotionally attached — if the seller knows you really want it, they’ll be less likely to negotiate the price.
Who is buying RVs today
A simple question, with a simple answer: Everybody.
“You’ve got people who are just getting ready to retire,” Emmert said. “This has been their plan, they’re going to travel the United States, so that’s one group. You’ve got younger families who are just getting into it.” With nearly 20 years in the RV business, Emmert feels this category is expanding more so than before and he connects the demographic with remote working.
First-timers are a huge group — one estimate shows as much as 48% of current buyers are first-timers.
There are also repeaters — people who’ve been into RVing and want to trade up to a nicer, bigger unit, with more amenities.
The results of a 2021 Go RVing study found an almost equal split for ownership of RVs for those over the age of 55 and under 55. The 18- to 34-year-old age group makes up 22% of the market and growing. Among millennials and Gen Zers who own RVs, an astonishing 84% said they plan on buying a new RV within five years. Among that group, 78% said they plan to buy a new RV.
Campgrounds hard to come by, but not impossible
You’ve bought the RV of your dreams, or perhaps just a starter unit and you want to go camping. In our area, as is the case across much of the country, many campgrounds are booked solid for the season and usually one year ahead.
“A couple of years ago I could call a campground that I know and probably get a seasonal site for a customer,” Emmert recounted. “There weren’t really (waiting) lists at the time. Now those same campgrounds have lists of anywhere from 50 to 100 people on them, waiting for seasonal sites.”
In fact, some campgrounds in the area have gone to all seasonal sites or at least weekly only reservations, making it more difficult to find a site for two or three days, especially a weekend.
This has led to a relatively new phenomenon.
John Young, owner of Range Pond Campground in Poland, confirmed the stories that people looking for sites are buying older campers parked on a site, hauling them off at a loss and replacing them with a new or newer RV or camper. He said it’s usually a seasonal customer in Florida who may have health issues, or simply can’t travel back to Maine and no longer wants the camper or the site it sits on. So, they put it up for sale, frequently at inflated prices.
But Zagami said he has seen other campgrounds in Maine cut back on seasonal bookings, which are usually discounted. Some have realized they can actually make more money selling prime sites during prime vacation times.
Campgrounds along the Route 1 corridor cater to more of the tourist crowd. The campgrounds have more amenities and are closer to places like Acadia National Park or Orchard Beach. The rates can be significantly higher, but you are more likely to find short-term availability at these campgrounds.
The bottom line is campground availability is tight and is likely to remain that way for some time.
Experienced RVers will tell you it’s always been the case that good campgrounds in prime locations are always booked well in advance. Many state and federal campgrounds allow you to book one year out and now more and more private campgrounds are doing the same. So, sites are difficult to find, but not impossible.
Tips for finding a campsite
• Book as far in advance as you can.
• Be flexible on your dates and look for midweek availability.
• Consider boondocking; camping without power, water, sewer connections.
• Consider nontraditional options like wineries, farms and ranches — a growing number now offer RV camping through online booking.
• Most campgrounds have last-minute cancellations. Call the day of and ask if they’ve had any cancellations, if you can be spontaneous.