Just lookin’ for a home . . .

While most people, I suspect, still view RVs as–well, as recreational vehicles–the truth is that a growing proportion of all that rolling stock is being used for permanent housing. Sometimes that’s because RVs are mobile and their owners are seeking a gypsy lifestyle. More and more often, however, it’s because they’re relatively cheap and therefore available as default housing for people one step from homelessness.

One set of clues about this development comes from U.S. census data, another from manufacturing statistics from both the RV and manufactured housing industry associations. What the latter show is that for decades after World War II, low-cost housing in the form of mobile homes was cranked out by the tens of thousands, eventually peaking at nearly 580,000 built in 1973 alone. The average cost for a new house trailer that year was under $9,000–compared with an average $32,500 for a site-built home. No wonder, then, that by 2001 slightly more than 7 million house trailers dotted the American landscape, with roughly one-third of them concentrated in mobile home parks.

But by then, the leading role of house trailers as the cheapest form of housing was already being eclipsed by the RV sector: in 2,000, for the first time in U.S. history, RV production exceeded that of mobile homes, 300,100 to 250,400. And while RVs come in various shapes and sizes and even today are bought more often for recreational purposes than for residential ones, the production gap grew wider every year thereafter. By 2020, only 94,400 house trailers rolled off the production line, compared to 430,400 RVs. This year, more than 600,000 RVs will be produced, and even more are projected for 2022.

With RVs priced, on average, slightly more than half of what it costs to buy an average mobile home–$42,617 vs. $78,500 in 2020–and only a fraction of the median U.S. home price of $374,000, it’s easy to see why people with little money might start looking to RVs as housing alternatives. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau, observing a slow but steady decline in mobile homes in its biennial housing surveys, in 2015 made up much of the difference by adding a new housing category labeled simply “other,” defined as “boat, RV, van, etc.” “Other” clocked in at 69,000 in 2015, 75,000 in 2017 and 96,000 in 2019. The 2021 numbers should be out soon, and undoubtedly will notch another increase.

None of this is definitive–yet–but does strongly suggest that more people are turning to RVs for affordable housing. That, in turn, means more demand for RV spaces in campgrounds, as well as on the streets for people who can’t afford campground fees.

There’s one more data point that’s relevant: the growing number of “tiny homes,” which unlike RVs are intended as full-time residences but which usually don’t meet zoning and other requirements for conventional year-round housing. Half beast, half fowl, they often cruise the countryside on their wheeled chassis in a frustrating search for a roosting place. This week the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. came to their rescue, issuing a nationwide list of “over 250 places to park your tiny house”–the great majority of them, it turns out, being RV campgrounds.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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