The Dirty Truth Of Full-Time RVing
People all over the world are daydreaming that someday they will be able to quit their jobs, sell their home, buy an RV, and travel around whatever continent on which they live. They imagine the freedom, excitement, discovery, and cost-saving.
After all, you no longer have a mortgage payment, no homeowner’s insurance, no home maintenance fees, no HOA fees, and you won’t need much, just some food and gas, but you’re already buying those things now, so you assume that it has to be much more affordable than living in a sticks-and-bricks house.
Don’t rush into the lifestyle
The first and most important advice I can give anyone who is seriously thinking about full-time RVing right now is to slow down. There are over 46 million people planning RV trips in 2020 according to RVIA. This is a very popular idea right now, especially since most other forms of travel are so fraught with problems caused by the pandemic.
But this transition from living at a fixed address to living in a moving box that’s about 1/10 the size of your current home changes EVERYTHING. Psychologists warn that too many changes (even if they all represent a positive alteration) can be highly (even dangerously) stressful. On the scale of the top 10 most stressful life events, changing or losing your job, and selling your home are near the top of that list.
How to downsize for full-time RVing
Now add to this stress the additional stress of disposing of all your personal property. Invariably people who make the jump to full-time RVing decide to sell virtually everything they own and what they don’t sell needs to be stored somewhere. Make a note of that, because we’re going to add it to a list of unanticipated expenses later in this article.
The bigger the house or estate, the more difficult this process can be. Some people are able to disassociate their feeling from the inanimate objects around them, but almost everyone has some physical property that is near and dear to their heart.
For me, it was my tools, art, and the furnishings and decorator items my father made for me in his shop. Your thing could be the classic cars you store in your barn, or your sewing machine and quilting frame. Everyone has something, and sorting and deciding what to keep, what to sell, and how to sell every single thing you own is a daunting, draining, and emotionally stressful process.
It’s bad enough to get a house ready for sale, to go through all the upgrades and repairs, to vacate the house for every showings, and to go through the ups and downs of that process, but now take a minute and look around your house. What are you going to do with every single item in every drawer, and cupboard, and closet?
Don’t forget the garage, the shop, or barn, if you have those spaces. Every screwdriver and power tool, the hutch and fine china that were your mother’s special keepsakes, the cute piece of art you picked up on your last vacation in Mexico, your bedding, and clothes and shoes, all have to be sorted….
Take it with you, keep it in storage, sell it, give it away, or throw it away: that is the brutal question you’ll need to ask and answer, regarding everything you own. The more you keep and put in storage the more space that will require and every month while you are out enjoying your new RV lifestyle, that storage bill will come due, and you’ll wonder if you should have even kept the things you did keep.
Check out this Do It Yourself RV article for tips on how to downsize your things for full-time RVing.
How to find the best RV for full-time RVing
Once the property has been sorted, the house is on the market, you’ve said goodbye to your coworkers, met with your financial advisor, and you’re ready to find the perfect RV for your full-time adventure, there are still hundreds of questions that need to be addressed. Again, I want to warn you to slow down. The process of finding the right RV takes a lot of thoughtful consideration. Take some time to learn about RV financing. Bill and Kayla from The Wandering RV have put together an excellent, in-depth article on RV financing and loans called RV Financing: How to Get the Best Rates on Your RV Loan.
There are many RV types to choose from and there are pros and cons for each type. There are Class A, B, B+, and Class C motorhomes, fifth wheels, and travel trailers of various sizes. You may need to tow your RV, or your RV may need to tow your car.
These again are lifestyle choices. How much space will you need to feel comfortable? Are you able to drive a big rig? Can you back a 40’ fifth wheel into a camping space on a dark rainy night? There are stresses involved in living in cramped quarters, and there are stresses involved in living in a larger RV as well. Just driving, pulling, maintaining, gassing, and parking a “big rig” can be stressful.
Then there’s the question of a new RV vs a used RV. Even if you know what type of RV you want, there are hundreds of different floor plans, configurations, appointments, and the new vs used decision affects more than just the price tag of the RV. There are warranty (or lack thereof) issues, and maintenance concerns, and wear and tear that may not be evident until you’ve already taken ownership of the RV. And believe it or not, this is true for both new and used RVs.
I’ve talked to RVers that carefully bought a used RV and they couldn’t have been happier with their decision. I have also talked to people who bought a brand new one that caught on fire in the first week they owned it, and their family was lucky to have escaped with their lives. Other folks swear by the idea of buying a new rig and other people wouldn’t have a new RV as a gift.
Read our post here on the different types of RVs and how to decide which one would be best for you.
Full-time RV regrets
There are as many decisions to be made about your future home as there are about the physical property in your old home. I met a couple who had just started on their full-time journey in a brand-new Class B RV, and the first thing they said was that they wished they had purchased a bigger rig like a mid-size Class C. Another couple went through 5 different RVs (each one bigger than the last) in the first 6 years of their marriage, and they weren’t even full-time RVers at that time.
On another occasion, we met a recent full-timer in an RV park in Tennessee. We pulled into that park about an hour after a freak 70 MPH straight-line wind storm tore through that area, toppling trees, crashing limbs onto the parked RVs, scattering outdoor BBQs, chairs, and mats across the road, and pushing several RVs and trucks onto their sides on the freeway causing widespread power outages.
This couple had their brand new fifth wheel parked in that campground during the storm and we met him while he was on the roof inspecting it for damage. He told us they were on their way from Michigan to the Texas Gulf where they hoped to spend the winter, and they had already been through two massive storms—plus, he damaged his new RV by driving under a low structure in a parking lot. He and his wife regretted selling their home and all their physical belongings because the stress and unanticipated expenses of the new traveling lifestyle had already taken its toll.
They had no home to return to and were nervous and anxious for what lay ahead. The threat of winter storms along the Gulf Coast, the uncertainty of where else they could winter, and the difficulty of driving and parking a huge fifth-wheel trailer, were all stealing the joy and excitement of this new life they had chosen. This man was distraught and he described his wife’s emotional state as even worse than his.
Choosing a domicile for full-time RVing
Part of my slow down mantra is a warning that the dream and the reality are not always in alignment with each other. Some people adapt to the uncertainty with very little psychological impact. But for other people, the uncertainty, and rootlessness of the full-time RV lifestyle are deeply unsettling.
When you make the change to living and traveling in an RV, you give up more than your house and personal property. Your choice changes EVERYTHING and affects others with whom you are associated: your routines are all gone, friends, family, church associates, and members of other groups will also be impacted by your decision. Some people will cheer you on while others will resent your choice.
You’ll also need to decide where you want to domicile. There are some states that make this easier than others, but wherever you decide to “call home” (or domicile) that is where you will vote, register your vehicles, get your mail, list as your address for insurance, and pay taxes. South Dakota is one of the most liberal states in which to domicile.
There are service providers there to receive and forward your mail and you only have to be in the state for one day, to get your domicile set-up and to register your vehicles. We are from Oregon and we decided to remain Oregonians after going full time.
There are tax disadvantages in that decision, but it felt right to us. We contacted the elections office and explained our new situation; they now mail our ballots early with the absentee ballots, and the Oregon DMV has identified us as “Continuous Travelers” which is stated on the first line of our driver’s licenses. Where you domicile is an important decision and needs to be researched.
Cost of full-time RVing
There’s just so much about this full-time RV lifestyle that are not immediately apparent. In the interest of full disclosure, there are many more expenses involved in this lifestyle than you may think. You can park your RV on some BLM or public land for free, so there are no camping fees.
You can also stop for free in most rest stops for a night, or stay in the parking lot at Walmart or Cabela’s, without any fees. But when you are living in an RV full-time, that only takes care of a few days while you’re traveling. There are 365 days (and nights) every year and you’ll need a place to park your RV for every one of them.
Additionally, even if you have huge holding tanks and are very conservative, you’ll eventually need to hook up to a sewer connection and fresh water supply. Camping fees add up quickly.
Best memberships for full-time RVers
You can purchase memberships in discount camping clubs to help mitigate some of these costs. With a KOA membership, you can save 10% on every night’s fees. That could save you $4 or $5 per night and the KOA annual membership fee is under $50. Other camping clubs that can save you on fees include Thousand Trails, Passport America, etc.
We are members of two of these and have spent roughly $4000 in each of these membership programs. In Thousand Trails, we can stay in any park for three weeks at a time and pay no camping fees. With our particular level of membership, we can also go from one Thousand Trails park to another without any “out” time.
The couple we are currently camping next to in a Thousand Trails campground told me that they only camp in Thousand Trails parks. They are from Florida and we are camped next to these full-time RVers in a campground in Northern Washington State.
They have traveled across the country camping only in Thousand Trails campgrounds and after paying for their initial membership fees, they only have to pay their annual dues of about $700. These folks are getting the full value out of that membership program, but most people do not camp exclusively within their membership campgrounds and that is when the camping fees begin to accumulate.
We follow one family on Instagram, and they spend 10 days out boondocking (dry camping on public land) then they check into a campground for a week. There they get their laundry done, empty their tanks, take on fresh water, enjoy long showers, and recharge their batteries (both physical and emotional). Every 15 days or so they pay a few hundred dollars in camping fees.
While boondocking can save you a ton in camping fees, you will also need to head in well-prepared. Make sure you have this essential gear for off-grid camping and go in prepared knowing these boondocking lessons.
Other full-time RV costs
State parks cost between $30 and $45 and the amenities can vary. Private parks can cost anywhere from $20 to $120 per night, again depending on the season, location, and amenities. Federal parks, and forest service park prices vary but many of these are rustic camps with no hook-ups.
Another expense you may not have thought about is the number of times you will want to go out to eat. Part of the fun and excitement of traveling is experiencing the local cuisine and there’s only one way to do that.
Additionally, when you live at a fixed address, you have places you typically shop that you know will have what you like at a price you can afford. But when you’re traveling, you have to shop in unfamiliar places and they often are not the most economical providers.
And let’s not forget the storage fee for all the property you kept and put in storage. I pay over $150 per month for a 10 x 10 heated storage space.
Then don’t forget the cost of fuel, which can add up fast if you travel between campgrounds often. Lastly, some of your unanticipated expenses may be in the form of insurance. Because we’re driving a 26,000 lb vehicle, we know that an accident with another motorist could cause a lot of damage, so we carry an additional $2 million in liability insurance, in addition to our regular insurance, just in case.
How to get started full-time RVing
I’ve tried to give you a larger view of what this daydream of full-time RVing could actually be. The experience is different for everyone. It’s perfect for some and a nightmare for others. My caution throughout this post has been to slow down and acclimate to all the changes brought on by this new lifestyle a little bit at a time, to reduce stress and to keep you from making any serious mistakes.
The perfect scenario would be for you to purchase an RV while you’re still living in your home. Take your RV on many trips, get a feel for what it’s like to live in a small space and to drive, park, and camp in an RV.
Try to imagine camping in this small space for weeks on end. think about what it would be like in the middle of winter when it gets dark outside at 4 PM and stays dark until after 8:00 AM and it rains all night. Imagine Thanksgiving and Christmas in your RV. If you can’t afford to buy an RV, then at least rent one for an extended vacation or two and do the same evaluation.
How to find campgrounds and RV parks
One of the most stressful aspects of full-time RVing is planning where to camp and making the reservations. It takes a lot of time to research new locations and to contact the parks. When you’re traveling you may not be familiar with what’s available along the road ahead, so tools like RV Trip Wizard and the RV LIFE App With RV-Safe GPS are absolutely essential. When we drove from coast to coast and back, we used RV Trip Wizard and the integrated Campground Reviews to locate and contact campgrounds in every state in which we traveled.
Learn more about finding campgrounds, gas stations and and other points of interest on RV Trip Wizard here.
Full-time RVing: It’s not for everyone
I don’t want to be the voice of doom or try to dissuade you from pursuing this dream. We’ve been doing it for over three years, and we just love it. This lifestyle is perfect for us. We don’t like the heat in the summer, so we spend our summers in places that are relatively cool.
In fact, last summer we were on Vancouver Island and spend most of the hot summer months in sweatshirts because it was that cool where we were camping. We also don’t want to get caught in any huge snowstorms, so we spent two winters on the Oregon Coast, and last winter we camped in the sunshine in Palm Desert.
We’ve driven from one coast to the other and back again, and have been all across the south. We’ve discovered that people everywhere are open and friendly, and always willing to share a story or lend a hand to help if needed. We enjoy exploring when we have the opportunity, and we enjoy working in our motorhome just as much. Like I said, this is perfect for us. But it may not perfect for you.
The last thing I would want for you is to be the folks who had just started out as full-time RVers and had overwhelming regret that they had sold their home and all their personal belongings, or the other couple who wished they had purchased a Class C RV and not a Class B. I’d hate for you to be the people who bought and sold 5 RVs in six years just because they didn’t take the time to understand what they really needed in an RV.
For more insight, check out this video from Youtubers Liz Amazing on the downsides of RV life:
Join the discussion with other full-timers
Living full-time in an RV can be exhilarating. The things we’ve seen and done in the past 3 years will be precious memories for the rest of our lives. But this lifestyle has its own set of challenges, and I implore you to do your research and get all the facts before you commit with no way to go back.
We bought our first RV in 1999, we camped in it for about 18 years before we decided to go full time. In that amount of time, we knew what we were getting into and because of that we have been able to make the dream come true.
The best way to transition into full-time RVing is to do it slowly and do your homework before you make the switch. You can learn a lot about RVing and from other RVer’s experiences on Facebook groups and RV forums such as iRV2.