Attention, RVers: it’s brutal out there

Peace River Campground, Arcadia, FL, two days after Ian struck.

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Those words were written by Samuel Johnson about the sentencing of an American clergyman, William Dodd. Exactly 245 years later (as of Sept. 19), they could–or should!–apply to anyone witnessing the twin ravages of Fiona and Ian, which between them tore up tens of billions of dollars in real estate, immiserated countless thousands and claimed an as-yet unmeasured loss of life. If contemplating such destruction doesn’t concentrate the collective mind, we are indeed doomed.

At this writing, the full extent of the devastation in Florida is still unknown, and the swamping of huge swaths of the southeast is just beginning. But the forlorn reports have started trickling in: “The Peace River is still rising!” announced a Facebook post from the Peace River Campground this morning. “If you had ANYTHING on the property, it’s UNDER WATER and not accessible. . . .The water is to the ceiling in the office. . . . We tried pulling campers to higher ground but the river was just too high. It’s catastrophic devastation.”

The Frog Creek RV Resort reported that it has no electricity and no certainty of when it will. “We have power lines down. Our staff is working hard to clean up the debris. Currently park is closed.” The San Carlos RV Park, meanwhile, said it had “sustained massive damage,” adding: “Our computers and records are inaccessible at this time. If you had reservations obviously that won’t happen. We will be working to refund deposits as soon as humanly possible, but please understand the immense task in front of us.”

Those and similar stories will be repeated dozens of times in the next few days, which is tragic enough. But the bigger tragedy is that they’ll be repeated next year, and the year after that–just as they were last year, and the year before that. And it’s not just hurricanes and subsequent flooding that will be the cause, or just RV parks and campgrounds along the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard that will be affected. Tragedy can be caused by too much water, but also by too little.

So it is that the National Interagency Fire Center announced today that 12 new large fires were reported yesterday alone, eight in Idaho and one each in Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Idaho and Montana currently have the most large fires, 59, out of 88 total across the West. To date, 6.9 million acres of U.S. land have burned in 2022, forcing thousands of evacuations and causing more than $11.2 billion in damage, according to Bankrate, an insurance website–and fire season isn’t nearly over.

Hurricanes become stronger and more frequent as ocean water gets warmer, while warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in heavier rainfall. But the same warming climate that pumps too much moisture into one part of the country is baking it out of another, causing widespread–and growing–aridification of all the states from the Central Plains west to the Pacific. The resulting tinderbox makes “enjoying the outdoors” ever more of a gamble, threatening the viability not just of camping but of fishing, as streams dry out and lakes shrink; wine making, as wildfire smoke contaminates grapes and bark beetles start killing off drought-stressed conifers and now oak trees in wine country; and farming and ranching. (As just one example of the latter, 39% of respondents to an August survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation said that wildfires have contributed to crop losses and herd sell-offs in their area in 2022.)

All of the above suggests a screaming need to reevaluate our relationship to the Great Outdoors–to “concentrate the mind wonderfully” on the hard questions reality is demanding we confront. Instead, the reflexive response, as already articulated by the Florida RV Park and Campground Association, is to pull together and rebuild and show some grit. “Our park owners and operators are some of the best people in the world,” association president Bobby Cornwell assured his members in an email today. “I have no doubt the industry will rally together and support all those in need.” Southwest Florida “will, without a doubt, be rebuilt and will be paradise once again.”

But doing more of the same, if spunky and admirable in a fatalistic sort of way, avoids the even harder work of figuring out how to avoid a repeat. It doesn’t engage the mind at all, much less concentrate it. Doing more of the same only assures an endless Groundhog Day-cycle of rebuilding and devastation and rebuilding again, until there’s no energy or money or hope left.

Poetically, both KOA and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds will be holding their annual conventions in Orlando in November–long enough from now for a lot of the clean-up to be done, soon enough that the scars left by Ian will be inescapable. Both meetings would be ideal opportunities to examine what just happened, what is happening elsewhere in the country because of climate change, and how the campground industry could better respond to this existential threat. Ideal–but don’t count on it. That would require too much concentration.

William Dodd, it’s also worth remembering, was hanged.

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Buying, selling hotels without walls

There are lots of reasons to be wary of the institutional investors that are tripping all over themselves to get into the campground and RV park business. They drive up the cost of entry for the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who have been the industry’s backbone. They jack up prices for campers and RVers, transforming a formerly low-cost form of recreation into an increasingly pricey one. They tend to homogenize the business overall, chasing after the economies of scale that come through cookie-cutter standardization.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this trend is that many of these investors don’t know what they’re buying. They haven’t been campers or RVers themselves. They may not know any campers or RVers personally. They basically know only that the campground industry is a still relatively under-exploited segment of the commercial real estate (CRE) market and that they have a chance to get in early. If they don’t really know the business, how hard can it be? How different can it be from other CRE “hospitality” segments?

No difference at all, according to Bob Kaplan of NAI Outdoor Hospitality Brokers, as quoted by Woodall’s Campground Magazine in its current issue. “If you’ve been a hotel operator, then certainly you can figure out how to run an RV park,” he assured senior editor Jeff Crider. “In my eyes, a highly transient park is like a hotel without walls.” Easy-peasy, and in all likelihood just the kind of reassurance Kaplan provides the investors who turn to him for guidance as they wade into this brave new world.

For someone who actually runs an RV park, however, Kaplan’s assurance is as nonsensical as declaring that anyone who has grown grapes can figure out how to run a winery. It certainly is possible. It’s just not going to happen overnight, and there’s a good chance there will be some bitter missteps along the way. Just as making the jump from vineyard operator to vintner requires sophisticated new knowledge, from soil chemistry, suitable varietals and fermentation to a host of other variables, running a campground requires–at a minimum–the skills and attitudes of a cruise ship director and a farmer in addition to those of a hotelier.

For example, most campgrounds have amenities and activities that are more common to Norwegian Cruise Lines than to Marriott Hotels, from climbing walls and laser tag to face-painting, live bands and bingo nights. True, not all campgrounds fit that description: some truly are just Spartan overnight rest-stops that cater to the traveling public, just as most motels do. But a preponderance of campgrounds market themselves to families, and that means kids in numbers that would set most hotel operators aback. Those kids and families require a level and kind of staffing that hotels don’t experience, a specialized repairs and maintenance budget for all those amenities, and a management sensibility more often found among elementary school teachers than among graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

Even more critically, a “hotel without walls” is another way of saying “outdoors”–with all the blessings and misfortunes that entails. That in turn calls for a farmer’s temperament and outlook, for working with mercurial–and increasingly extreme–weather, with changing seasons and with a campground infrastructure that is far more exposed to the elements than any hotel’s. A hotel with walls doesn’t have to contend with wildlife wandering in or with guests who start campfires without respecting fire bans or with diesel fumes and the rumble of generators. A hotel without walls is by definition thrown open to Mother Nature’s unpredictable and uncaring whims, quite unlike the constrained and regulated bounds of a brick, glass and steel fortress.

A hotel without walls, in other words, requires more time and effort than most people looking simply for a place to “put their money to work” want to expend, so either they do a lousy job of it or–as Kaplan also noted–they turn to third-party management companies, like Blue Water Development Corp., Advanced Outdoor Solutions or Horizon Outdoor Hospitality, to do the heavy lifting. The ones that go it alone, believing that money is a meaningful substitute for long hours and actual work, tend to pump a bunch of it into their new property to justify hiking rates, even as previous levels of hospitality or maintenance decline. The result: a slow overall deterioration that may not be discernible for several years.

The others? Those are the parks that become buffed-up clones of each other, like so many interchangeable fast-food restaurants. They’ll fill you up, but a few days later you may be hard-pressed to remember what you tasted. And you might end up wondering why some people talk about camping as having been such a special activity.

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Is the bloom off the camping rose?

The fall equinox arrives today, marking the transition from summer to fall. Now the days get progressively shorter than the nights, sweaters and jackets make an appearance, leaves turn color and drop. The great wheel turns, and with it we cycle into another phase, another set of rhythms and relationships with each other and with the environment.

So, too, it would seem with the camping industry. After a couple of hot-house years in which RVs and anything to do with them seemingly exploded across the landscape, the first hints of an impending cool-down have become visible, even as broader underlying trends suggest a deeper downturn than many industry participants might be prepared to weather.

In that regard, two sets of recently announced numbers specific to RVs and RVers are especially telling. One has to do with RV wholesale shipments, which now are projected by ITR Economics, which prepares quarterly forecasts for the RV Industry Association, to end 2022 at less than 500,000 units. That would represent a stunning near-17% decline from the 600,240 RVs shipped to dealers last year–and that’s not the end of it. ITR’s mid-range forecast for 2023 predicts another 16% drop, to 419,000 units.

Putting aside the pandemic-blasted sales figures for 2019, that means projected RV shipments for next year will be at their lowest level since 2016. Coming on the heels of last year’s unprecedented construction boom, with RV builders hiring boatloads of new employees and adding assembly plants at a frantic pace, the implications are for a massive disruption of RV-dependent economies everywhere, but especially in Elkhart, Indiana.

The other notable numbers are from KOA, which recently reported a 5.6% increase in short-term registration revenue–even as it reported a 3.4% year-over-year decline in second-quarter occupancy. Moreover, long-term registration revenue for the same quarter was up 6.9%, while occupancy was down 3.3%. There’s only one way to reconcile fewer bodies with higher revenues, and that’s with higher prices, which at the very least should raise questions about the sustainability of such a business model.

Higher prices of all sorts, meanwhile, suggest that the slowdown KOA and RVIA are seeing will only accelerate in the months ahead. The Fed’s continuing interest rate increases, most recently projected to exceed 4.5% by year-end, will further dampen consumer spending, whether it’s for discretionary big-ticket items like RVs or for discretionary leisure activities like increasingly pricey RV sites. And gas prices, to which the RV sector is especially sensitive, may be rebounding after falling from their $5-a-gallon peak, bumping up by a penny yesterday–ending a 98-day streak of declines.

One signal of what’s to come may be getting offered by the investment groups that have been piling pell-mell into campground acquisitions–not that they’re slowing down, by any means. They are, however, lowering their sights, taking more of a long-term view that puts a greater emphasis on getting a foot in the door. As Randy Hendrickson, CEO of United Park Brokers, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine in its current issue, “a few years ago the criteria may have been 200-plus sites in the Sunbelt. [But] investors now recognize that 70-site parks with additional acreage” may be a better option, paving the way for “extracting internal value later through expansion or repositioning.”

The purchase of smaller campgrounds, it should go without saying, also is more easily financed, yet another consequence of higher interest rates. But it also means an unexpected down-market consolidation of the industry, further squeezing out would-be owner-operators.

Yes, winter is coming.

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RVDA pushes back against sales regs

Earlier this week I wrote about a proposed new rule from the Federal Trade Commission that seeks to “prohibit motor vehicle dealers from making certain misrepresentations in the course of selling, leasing or arranging financing for motor vehicles.” Turns out, that doesn’t apply just to your Ford F-150 or Mazda Miata: “motor vehicles,” as defined in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, includes recreational boats, motorcycles, motor homes, recreational vehicle trailers and slide-in campers–to RVs in general.

No surprise, then, that the motorcycle, automobile, RV and marine trade associations have come down with both boots on this one. Mark Steinbach, a past member of the board of directors of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, suggested as much back in July, when his written comments to the FTC warned that the various associations “will be circling the wagons” and claiming “that there is no need for the new rule, that everything is hunky-dory” just the way it is. If only.

Start with the claim that the proposed rule is “ill-conceived, ill-supported, ill-coordinated, untested and unlawful.” That’s just one of the opening broadsides from the National Automobile Dealers Association, which filed a 364-page series of arguments to expand on the idea that each problem the proposal addresses “is already regulated under existing law”– which is to say, hey, everything is hunky-dory. That 364-page rebuttal, by the way, is only ten times as long as the FTC’s actual proposal, which brings to mind that old line about brevity being the soul of wit. This is wit-less.

NADA’s submission, as was true of all industry responses, was filed Sept. 12, on the very last day of an 80-day comment period. This was true as well of the RV Dealers Association, which chipped in with its own 13-page argument–which the FTC didn’t post on its website until Sept. 16– detailing why RVs shouldn’t be lumped in with other wheeled conveyances that are sold, financed and titled by dealers. Given all the time it had to prepare its brief, one might wonder why the RVDA did such a skimpy job of it.

The RVDA’s basic line of reasoning begins with the observation that RVs are discretionary purchases, unlike other motor vehicles, and for their buyers are “not essential for their daily life activities, but a means to escape from their daily lives.” That distinction is important to the RVDA because the FTC’s “stated purpose” for the proposed rule is “to protect consumers for essential motor vehicle purchases used for daily activities.” Translation: federal regulations that apply to “essential” purchases are too rigorous for an industry that sells non-essential ways for its customers to “escape from their daily lives,” even if those purchases may easily cost several times more than “essential” ones. Escape that, you yahoos.

There are a lot more specious arguments of this sort in the RVDA brief, from the observation that the RV market is considerably smaller than its automobile counterpart, to a somewhat strained claim that the RV industry needs special regulatory treatment because RVs are not as standardized as automobiles—that “in the RV industry it is customary to prepare a vehicle before a customer is able to use the RV.” At bottom, however, the RVDA is simply claiming that the FTC is trying to solve a non-existent problem—but that if there is a problem, “enforcement should focus on the bad actors, and not treat every dealership as if it is a bad actor.”

Yep–more of the same hunky-dory.

Given that the proposed rule has drawn almost 28,000 comments, scarcely more than a handful of them addressing the implications for RV dealers, it’s entirely possible that the FTC might not even take note of the RVDA’s hyperventilating. But if it does, one may hope it’ll also give a passing glance to the brief comments of Michael Nicholas, an automotive sales manager for the last 25 years who thinks his industry has become immeasurably more transparent over that time period.

“If you really want to go after a business that isn’t transparent,” he wrote in early September, “you may need to look into boat, RV, furniture and jewelry sales, where their markup is huge and a customer has no way of getting [the actual] cost. . . . Try to find the actual cost of a ring or an RV–YOU CAN’T.”

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Taking the ‘vehicle’ out of RVs

“RV” is shorthand for “recreational vehicle,” a point strongly emphasized by trade groups like the RV Industry Association–which represents RV manufacturers–any time someone begins confusing RVs with housing. Sure, a travel trailer or park model may look an awful lot like a single-wide house trailer, but they’re built to different standards and no one, for example, should expect to live year-round in an RV. “RV housing?” No such thing, regardless of what it might look like.

But once you’ve declared yourself to be either fish or fowl, you can end up in some pretty strange contortions trying to straddle the divide. Take the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, for example, which is embarrassing itself these days by claiming that the vehicles its members sell are, well, not just vehicles. Yes, the automobile industry sells vehicles, but those wheeled conveyances rolling down the nation’s highways are “standardized.” In the RV industry, on the other hand, “it is customary to prepare a vehicle before a customer is able to use the RV.”

See the difference? RVs are non-standard. They deserve non-standard regulatory treatment. Special treatment.

What’s got the RVDA all twisted up like that is a proposed new rule from the Federal Trade Commission that seeks to better protect consumers from being ripped off by unscrupulous dealers. Specifically, “the proposed rule would prohibit motor vehicle dealers from making certain misrepresentations in the course of selling, leasing or arranging financing for motor vehicles.” Any RV buyer who has found himself with a 20-year loan for a rolling box that will have a resale value approaching zero in half that time will applaud the sentiment.

While the RVDA may insist that a Class B Sprinter RV is nothing at all like a Sprinter cargo van, both can be subject to the same high pressure sales tactics that the FTC wants to clamp down on: vaguely explained additional charges, deceptive pricing, reams of paperwork that serve as a graveyard of land mines for the rushed buyer. If adopted, the new rule “would significantly alter the way motor vehicles are sold, marketed and financed in the U.S.,” the RVDA laments on its website, “by adding additional disclosures on pricing, vehicle add-ons and onerous new recordkeeping requirements.” The horror, the horror!

Curiously, the RVDA website also states that the association on Sept. 12 had filed formal comments “highly critical” of the proposed rule, asserting that the proposal would “increase sales transaction times for customers and add to the cost of the RVs.” But while the RVDA thereby poses as a champion of the little guy, the supposed filing is nowhere to be found on the FTC’s very comprehensive online repository of comments. Indeed, of the 26,356 comments the FTC had received as of today, apparently only one came from the RVDA: an Aug. 2 request that the FTC extend its Sept. 12 deadline for comments. The FTC declined.

Anyone around this industry for any amount of time knows there’s a huge need to rein in the flim-flam artists–which is not to say that every RV dealer is a con man, but that there’s no easy way to separate the white hats from the black. Government oversight would go a long way toward leveling the playing field, in an industry that is selling the second-most–and sometimes the most–expensive things most people will ever buy. Moreover, adoption of this rule or something quite like it might set the stage for the next glaringly obvious regulatory need: a crack-down on the industry’s deplorable track record on after-sale warranties and repairs, so that newly sold RVs don’t spend their first year in and out of service bays.

Meanwhile, fish or fowl? If RVIA wants to assert that RVs are not housing, while the RVDA is similarly adamant that they’re not vehicles–at least in the conventional sense–then maybe it’s time for a whole new classification with a whole new set of rules. Perhaps RVs are modern society’s chimera, a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. But even a chimera needs rules to live by, for the protection of the rest of us.

SEPT. 18 UPDATE: Turns out that the RVDA submission to the FTC, although dated Sept. 12, took four days to make it into the online databank. To learn more about it, see the post that follows this one, probably late Sept. 18.

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RVing no longer for ‘regular people’?

“Priced out. Astronomical . . . fees. Rip-off.”

Sound familiar? For too many RVers, that could be the refrain arising from their recent excursions into the Great Outdoors by camping at an RV park. Long gone are the days of a $25 to $35 night with full hookups–in many campgrounds you’ll be lucky to get in for twice that, and rates of more than $100 a night are no longer unimaginable. Want to be assured you’ll get the specific site you reserved? Be prepared to kick in an additional $10 to $25 or more for a site-lock fee. Going to a campground with lots of amenities for your kids to enjoy? Pony up still more in activities fees.

That opening line, however, is not about campgrounds but the lead on a story in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline, “Why Wine Country is no longer ‘for regular people,’ according to some Bay Area residents.” That report followed an earlier piece about an unusually slow summer in Napa and Sonoma, which apparently had kicked off a flurry of comments from readers who complained that they’d been priced out of the region. Higher tasting fees and a recent switch to a reservation-only model, blamed by the wineries on a labor shortage, increasingly deter visitors, according to the article.

“I remember going up there and there would be some $50 tastings, but those were your high-end places,” a San Jose resident who had been visiting Wine Country for more than a decade told the Chronicle. “Now everything seems to be a minimum of $40,” and wineries have become less likely to to discount or waive tasting fees with wine purchases.

But it’s not just the oenophiles who are suffering from sticker shock. Yahoo!sports, citing something called the 2021 Fan Cost Index, last year reported that the average cost for four people to attend a major league baseball game had risen to $253, chiefly on the backs of concession increases ($10 for a beer?); this year the index has risen to $256.41, with concessions holding the line but the average ticket now up to $35.93. Fan comments in response to the Yahoo!sports report could have been lifted from any RVtravel story about higher costs, from philosophical resignation (“The cost of everything is going up. Not hard to figure.”) to the disgusted (“Haven’t gone to a game in over 5 years. When players make more money in one at-bat than some make in a whole year, they lost me.”).

Broadway tickets now average between $120 and $189, depending on who’s counting. Movie tickets average $12 for an adult, although many theaters in large cities are at $15. Want to go skiing this winter? Putting aside the costs of travel and lodging, plan on spending $30 to $60 a day for skis, boots and poles, and $50 to $200 a day for lift tickets, per person. And don’t even think about a Disneyland or Disneyworld excursion unless it’s the only recreational outing your family is planning for this year.

To be fair, all these and other forms of recreation can be experienced at more reasonable prices–if you’re lucky, or can cut corners, or are willing to settle for less than marquee draws. Sonoma and Napa are not the only wine region in California, and others are less pricey. Skip the concessions (although four hours without anything to eat or drink may be asking a lot) and stretch your legs instead of parking at the stadium, and you’ll knock 40% off the cost of that baseball game–or go to a minor league game instead. Go to a community theater production or a movie matinee or a local amusement park and possibly have just as good a time without hemorrhaging money.

And, of course, there’s always a modestly priced mom-and-pop campground or a boondocking site for the frugal RVer. Somewhere. If you look long and hard enough.

Prices in isolation don’t mean much–what’s really relevant is how many hours you have to work to pay for something. The average hourly wage in 1964, for example, was $2.50–so the average working stiff would have had to work an hour to buy a ticket to a ball game, or three hours to see a Broadway show. Today? Fuggedaboudit! You can look at your take-home pay and do your own math and see just how much less recreation you can get for your labors.

RV camping, alas, is part of this same leisure-time cost inflation. The paradox is that even as sales of RVs are booming and campgrounds are overflowing, the opportunities for middle class families to get away for a reasonably priced camping weekend are becoming increasingly scarce. It’s happening everywhere, and across all segments of the leisure economy–and it’s sad thing to observe, because it means people’s worlds are getting much, much smaller.

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Funny numbers should raise red flags

Because I try to keep up with the buying and selling of campgrounds and related businesses, I get a fair number of emails hyping RV properties for sale. Every now and then I get one that is especially striking, and today’s attention grabber was a doozy: a sales pitch from an outfit called The Campground Marketplace for a Florida RV park for which the asking price had been reduced–to just $9,900,000. Wow!

Even in this period of excessive prices, that kind of number catches one’s attention. There aren’t many RV parks looking for an eight-figure purchase price, and when they do go on the market, they typically get shopped to, and bought by, one of a relatively small circle of deep-pocketed investors. A $10 million dollar park would have to be huge, with a minimum of 300 sites; it would have to be jam-packed with amenities; and it would have to charge market-leading rates to underwrite all that real estate. What premier RV park was suddenly on the auction block, why was it being sold in this proletarian fashion–and if $9.9 million is the reduced price, what had it been listed at originally?

The answers weren’t hard to find. Big Oak RV Park is just outside Tallahassee, and while my email said it is now available for $9.9 million, The Campground Marketplace still has it listed at $12 million. So just by reading this post you can save $2.1 million you might not have learned about otherwise–assuming, of course, that you want to buy an attractive 11 acres (yes, just 11 acres) that is home to 156 RV sites (yes, just 156 sites–maybe), plus two bathrooms, a covered pavilion and a rec room.

Or maybe not.

Indeed, the more closely I looked at the listing, the more inconsistent–and incoherent–it became. For starters, there’s the site count: while the listing says there are 156 sites, it also specifies that 20 are wired for 30 amps and 125 for 50, which raises the question of what happened to the other 11. (There apparently are no tent sites to pad the total count.) Elsewhere, the listing states that there are only 117 full hook-up sites (more on that in a second), but the Big Oak RV Park site map quite clearly shows just 113–total. That’s 25% less than the number highlighted in the listing.

Who is on those sites? According to the listing, 109 are occupied by seasonals–which, if the full hook-up count is to be believed, means there are all of eight available sites for overnighters who want water and sewer. Of course, given the site map count, even that number is questionable.

Meanwhile, all this figures into the math a potential buyer will have to do when examining gross sales and net operating income, and the news on that score is even more out of whack. According to The Campground Marketplace, gross sales in 2021 were $820,348 and net operating income was $451,191. That’s about what you might expect from a campground filled almost entirely with seasonal and long-term RVers, since Big Oak’s rates are $800 a month and $350 weekly, but those revenue numbers are nowhere nearly sufficient to support a purchase price of even half the “reduced” asking price.

(For the numbers junkies out there, the capitalization rate on a $12 million sales price would be 3.8, or 4.6 on a sales price of $9.9 million. This in an industry in which a very attractive [for the seller] cap rate would be 8, and in which 9-10 is pretty much the norm.)

None of this is to say that the Big Oak RV Park isn’t an attractive piece of property for what it is, which is a reasonably priced home for RV full-timers. It’s clean, has handsome large trees and provides the basics, such as dish satellite service and wi-fi, a fenced dog run and a laundry room with four washers and four dryers. But it doesn’t have a swimming pool, a playground or other amenities sought by vacationing families, and with a daily rate of just $58, clearly isn’t generating a lot of overnighter income.

I can’t begin to guess why The Campground Marketplace took this over-the-top marketing approach, or why it obviously couldn’t be bothered to check that the numbers it’s throwing around are both consistent and accurate. But just this one example of its handiwork would prompt me to look at anything it’s trying to sell with a jaundiced eye–if I dared look at all.

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Now you can buy a piece of RV history

This 108-year-old RV has a top speed of only 45 mph, so keep it off the interstates–but built in an age when few roads were paved, it’s likely as sturdy as anything coming out of Elkhart today.

Just in time for Christmas (yes, the catalogues have started coming in already!) and boosted by the sinking English pound (now at its lowest level since 1985!), this classic 1914 Ford Model T motor caravan can be yours for an anticipated $30,000 to $35,000 or so–all depending on how the bids come in. That’s right: this piece of history will be going on the auction block on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m. British Standard Time.

Offered by the auction house Bonhams, the custom-made cabin on wheels is being presented as the oldest surviving motorhome anywhere in the world. Built just before the outbreak of the First World War for the founders of a British department store chain, the caravan is based on an extended and strengthened Ford Model T chassis, which had been in production only since 1908. The 2.9 liter flathead inline-four cylinder engine reportedly provides a top speed of 45 mph, although given the weight of the superstructure it has to propel, your results may vary. . . .

That superstructure, by the way, is an impressive piece of woodwork. Modeled on the railroad carriages of the day, the caravan features a polished pine floor, arched wooden roof trusses, and Welsh dresser-style cabinetry for inside storage; external storage is provided by lockers under the floor at either side and rear. The auction prospectus notes that there are “four berths in the living area, while behind the cab on the offside is a wood-burning stove;” it does not note that the caravan comes without plumbing or electricity, so period charm will have its drawbacks for some. On the other hand, the many brass fittings do include a mail slot.

Driving with a living room vibe.

Perhaps the most astonishing feature of the vehicle is the driver’s “seat,” which in fact is a plush, deep-buttoned leather couch for two. The couch–with integral storage box –can rotate 180 degrees to face the living quarters; the steering wheel, because it’s positioned for British roads, is only slightly right-of-center.

Extras include interior ornaments, brass lamps, pots and pans, pictures and antique memorabilia, as well as external lamps, a fuel can and, yes, a spare wheel. The big unknown: how today’s frou-frou campgrounds that prohibit RVs more than a decade old will take to this Methuselah, so caveat emptor!

AUCTION UPDATE: Yes, the 1914 Ford Model T caravan had a successful bidder. No, it wasn’t you–unless your bank account is now £63,250 lighter. That works out to about $73,376 (including the premium), or roughly double expectations. Hot stuff!

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Labor Day cook-out in extremis

As the American public heads outdoors to celebrate the traditional fare-thee-well to summer, summer shows little sign of leaving. With a heat dome parked over California and temperatures projected to be 10 to 30 degrees above normal as far east as Wisconsin, more than 40 million people are under extreme heat alerts through the weekend. A third of the country could see record-setting temperatures over the next few days.

That outlook doesn’t seem to have deterred the camping public, however. Yosemite National Park, to cite just one example, is at capacity even though the valley floor is expected to warm up to 106 degrees–and that’s at an elevation of just under 4,000 feet. The heat, on top of the drought, means additional wildland fires are sure to follow the ones that have erupted in the past couple of days, like the fast-moving conflagration in northern California that has forced thousands to flee their homes just since yesterday.

Even without the fires that it invariably spawns, high heat is remarkable for the human toll it exacts. Tornadoes and floods get most of the press, if only because they wreak so much obvious damage in addition to the lives they snuff out. High heat, on the other hand, just bakes everything. Other than turning the landscape brown, it’s not an immediately obvious cause of destruction and it kills by comparative stealth. Yet if you look at a graph of weather fatalities compiled by the National Weather Service, above, the number of deaths attributed to heat stands head and shoulders above all other causes.

Because it’s so seemingly innocuous, extreme heat on the order that we’re seeing this long weekend isn’t deterring people who wouldn’t dream of heading into an area battered by tornadoes, hurricanes or flooding. So the campers are out there in their tents or RVs, attempting to enjoy the great outdoors, firing up their charcoal grills and roasting their marshmallows over open fires. And when the inevitable happens, the resulting fatality statistics won’t get lumped in with those attributed to high heat, although an argument for doing so certainly can be made.

The increasing ferocity of wildland fires over the past decade is taking a toll in another way: it’s hollowing out the state and federal agencies charged with battling the blazes, through death, injury, stress, overwork and PTSD. Incidents of drug addiction, binge drinking and suicide are growing. Yet as the total number of acres burned each year has doubled over the past 20 years, hundreds of fire fighting positions remain vacant and the number is growing.

Unlike the other “natural” disasters graphed above, all of which are exacerbated by climate change and a warming planet, wildland fires are triggered in the vast majority of cases by man and his works: a carelessly tossed cigarette butt, a dropped power line, a hot car or RV muffler sparking a fire in dessicated grass. The resulting conflagration, battled by an exhausted and undermanned force of fire fighters, spreads farther and hotter than it would have otherwise, taking a further toll on the fire-fighting ranks–which means that the next go-round will be still more unevenly matched . . . and on and on.

Common sense suggests that in circumstances like these, people should just stay home–just as they would if they learned a snow storm were going to drop 30 inches of snow on their heads. But common sense seems so, well, un-American when it might disrupt a ritualistic obeisance to Labor Day, which we celebrate in observance of–what, exactly?

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