The more prospective RV owners I meet, the more I appreciate the enormous diversity in their lives and their mobile lifestyle goals. Some have a family and want an easier way to vacation with their kids and pets; others are approaching retirement and are contemplating the expanded freedom for travel; some want to give up on their sticks-and-bricks house altogether and become full-time RV nomads. Fortunately, the wide range of RV types (from towables to motorhomes) provides a lot of choice for prospective owners – in fact, the research can seem overwhelming if you’ve never purchased an RV before. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, it is hard to project what you will want and need, and many do not get it exactly right the first time. This is such a common issue that standard advice from seasoned RVers is “to buy your third RV first.”
Having recently transitioned from a small to a large motorhome, I am still bridging both communities of owners and, frankly, I’m fascinated by the differences. However, there is one dominating parallel among the two groups of people that I follow closely: they all have bought their motorhomes from manufacturers with a similar history and reputation. Both companies – Leisure Travel Vans and Tiffin Motorhomes – are family-owned and have been building RVs for over 50 years, and they have both earned reputations for quality workmanship, customer service, and customer loyalty. Both sell motorhomes that are generally considered to be near the top of their market segments – “luxury” motorhomes that cost more but feature better construction and materials.
This narrower pool of motorhome owners makes it easier to make direct comparisons of their decision-making process. Many of the most involved and dedicated owners are members of Facebook Groups that are largely focused on discussions about their particular motorhome choice and their corresponding lifestyles:
The “Leisure Travel Vans Enthusiasts” Group is for people interested in the diesel-powered Class C motorhomes built by Leisure Travel Vans; these RVs are 25 feet long.
The “Tiffin Open Roaders” Group discusses gas-powered motorhomes (“gassers”) built by Tiffin; these represent the shorter spectrum of Class A motorhomes and have an average length of about 35 feet.
The “Tiffin Motorhome Owners” Group has a membership dominated by owners of diesel-powered Class A motorhomes; these have bigger engines to propel Tiffin’s largest RVs, which reach a maximum of 45 feet long.
The fact that there are three distinct Facebook Groups devoted to these motorhomes emphasizes why I included the “25-35-45” decision in this article’s title: I think these represent three semi-distinguishable groups of people, and not just because of the size of motorhome they own. Their buying decisions seem to correlate with certain characteristics that might help you predict which sort of motorhome would be best suited for your own situation. I’ve been polling these Groups with identical questions to ask generally about the lifestyles and buying history of their members. With 830 people responding to my most recent set of surveys, here is a summary of the most interesting results:
Let’s get to the most predictable conclusion first: As you would expect, the larger the motorhome, the more likely it is that the owners live in it full-time. Only 6% of “Group 25” (Leisure Travel Vans owners) are full-timers, compared with 13% of “Group 35” (Tiffin gasser owners) and 28% of “Group 45” (Tiffin diesel owners).
This next question is more complex: Which of these Groups has the highest proportion of owners who are not working (most often, retired)? The answer surprised me: Group 25, where 69% of the owners do not have a job. I expected that most people not working would have the most amount of time for travel, and I thought their preferences would follow the “full-timer” pattern described above.
Instead, I think this has much more to do with economics. First, there is the issue of how much money someone wants to invest in a depreciating asset like an RV, especially for people who might be on a fixed retirement income. Although the purchase price of a new motorhome for Group 25 and Group 35 is nearly identical, the motorhomes purchased by Group 45 have a much higher retail price (at least $100,000 higher, and usually much more) as well as costlier maintenance expenses for the diesel chassis. Second, Group 25 owners have more choice in where they can camp cheaply; for example, the largest motorhomes will have trouble accessing inexpensive campsites at state parks. And third, these non-working owners may want maximum mobility and flexibility now that they have time to travel and explore, and the Group 25 vans are ideal for that.
Among these three groups, which has the highest proportion of owners who are working full-time? The answer is Group 35, where the proportion of owners working full-time is 41% higher than those in Group 25. I think the reasons are both demographic and economic. The owners who are still working full-time are likely to represent a younger cohort, with less time to travel and perhaps the least disposable income thanks to expenses like a mortgage and saving for college. Motorhome ownership costs (factoring in purchase price, insurance, maintenance, and depreciation) are highest for Group 45. At the other end of the spectrum, Group 25 has substantially less living and storage space, a problem for people traveling with their children.
Can we conclude that Group 35 represents the sweet spot for prospective motorhome buyers who are working full-time? I don’t think it’s possible to generalize that far from survey data like this, since the questions and answers are too limited to correlate demographics and lifestyle precisely. For example, my survey did not probe camping patterns of people who have full-tme jobs: do these owners spend their limited vacation time taking short trips to single destinations, or do they consolidate their vacation leave into longer trips with many destinations? A better survey would ask those questions and more: what are their income brackets; do they travel solo or as a couple or with children; do they favor expensive RV resorts with elaborate amenities or remote wilderness sites with spectacular scenery? The answers to all these deeper questions will impact their RV decision much more than the simple question of whether they are working or not.
But the most important limitation in these survey data is that they just represent a snapshot. Survey information that spans time – and probes decisions that individuals make over time – would be much more valuable than these one-time polls. Some people who invest in a motorhome are thinking about the future and others are thinking about their immediate needs, figuring they’ll switch to a different RV when those needs change. In an earlier survey, I learned that among those in Group 25 who have previously owned an RV, 32% had downsized from a Class A motorhome. Such Group-to-Group transitions occur in both directions. That same survey revealed that 49% of Group 25 owners are first-time RV buyers (like I was), and some will end up transitioning to larger motorhomes as they learn more about their camping preferences (like I did). The bottom line is what I wrote at the beginning: this is a complex decision, and it’s a decision that often gets made more than once.