Duane Irvin, 62, has worked full-time from his motorhome for the last four years and never looked back.
“The RV lifestyle gives me the flexibility to move around. Flexibility to work remotely and visit each of my kids and grandkids,” Irvin said. This sentiment is shared by many full-time RVers, underpinning a growing trend.
First pioneered in 1915 and made affordable in the 1930s, this adventurous American lifestyle was once mostly the preserve of retirees and vacationers, but few young couples and families.
With the advent of mobile internet, some professionals started working online while living full-time in their RVs. These “digital nomads” were the vanguard for a fast growing and diverse population who embrace the lifestyle.
“There are an estimated 1 to 1.5 million American’s living in an RV currently,” said Monika Geracia at the RV Industry Association, up from an estimated 1 million in 2018. In 2019, a survey found almost half of RVers travel full-time, while almost 60% work remotely either part- or full-time. More than 75% are couples and only 3% are families, according to the Escapees website.
In San Benito County, campsites are seeing a rise in demand from RVers needing a place to stay. Manager Rachel Labas from Betabel RV Park is finding that “people living and working from coaches has certainly increased. They can work remotely from anywhere. We see more people in the park during the week, especially families with children who are distance learning.”
The Bolado Park Event Center near Tres Pinos notes a similar upward trend, according to CEO Dara Tobias.
“We do see more people working full-time and living in RVs,” she said. “Some are on temporary construction crews or working in hospitals. We have seen our requests increase this year. Some are full-time RVers who work in the area.”
San Benito County has seven RV parks that provide long-term campsites: Betabel RV Resort, Bolado Park, Thousand Trails RV and Camping Resort, Casa De Fruta, McAlpine Lake & Park, and Mission Farm RV Park. Most of these have a waiting list. As more people choose full-time RV living, there is a concern that RV parks may not be able to keep up.
Increasing numbers of RV residents have been forced to live this way by economic circumstances. Some have lost their homes in wildfires. Many others choose this lifestyle for its flexibility and the opportunity to work remotely while cutting their bills and spending more time outdoors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many more office employees to work remotely this year. According to a Stanford survey, 40% of working days are now spent at home, up from 5% before the pandemic. Half of this work-at-home time could become a permanent feature of the American economy, a four-fold increase from pre-pandemic times. The Stanford study suggests this transition will depopulate cities and be “a boom for suburbs and rural areas.”
The RV industry is benefiting from the economic transition too, as manufacturers have seen surging sales in recent months. They are busy re-equipping RV models to meet the needs of new remote workers.
San Benito County has a diverse group of full-time RVers, including local contract and permanent workers, remote workers and retirees. Some stay year-round in one park, some migrate seasonally, while others hop from park to park in the local area.
Until recently, traveling remote workers were a small group of full-timers. Only a few types of jobs allowed employees to work remotely without checking into a physical office regularly.
Fifty-year-old Sharon Troutman from Idaho, a registered nurse by training, has been full-timing since 2017. She works remotely as a telephonic case manager.
“My last couple years in Idaho, we had really horrible fires. I would go to the Oregon coast for weeks at a time,” she said. “I am asthmatic and was having a hard time with the smoke. I wound up buying a 25-foot Class C motorhome. I decided to buy a bigger RV and traded my 25-foot for a 33-foot. Sold my house in Idaho and took off.”
Like some other full-timers, Troutman moves every three weeks, from Paicines to Morgan Hill and back again.
Irvin also moves every three weeks. Asked if living in an RV was affordable, he said, “It depends, you have all sizes and types of RVs. Trailers, Class C, fifth wheels, Class A motorhomes of all sizes. Depending on how much you want to spend, brand new trailers can be anywhere from $30,000 to 50,000. My motorhome is somewhere from hundreds of thousands to half a million. It is affordable and cheaper than buying a home in this area, a three-bedroom house in this area would be three-quarters of a million.”
RVers pay rent, unless they have secured a campground membership that covers their fees. Challenges include the cost of gas and finding good internet reception in isolated areas for work and kids’ distance learning.
Troutman finds that her bills aren’t really much cheaper.
“Money just goes on gas and repairs, internet instead of utilities,” she said.
Rvers say affordability, outdoor access and flexibility have made this pandemic period manageable.
“I love this way of living!” RVer Skip Orsik said. “In fact, I am thinking about continuing it and not returning back to a house.”
Orsik, his wife Ashlei, and their two children, Amanda and Peter, have been full-timers for just under three years, staying three weeks at one park then one week at another. Orsik works as an auto repair mechanic in Gilroy. His wife lost her job, but now volunteers at a Gilroy day care, while her children distance-learn alongside her.
“I am seeing a lot more people doing this, especially young people, families. Before we mostly saw retirees,” Orsik said. “My closest friend now also is a full-timer and has children who travel the same schedule as us, so that’s great for the children.”
Some full-timers stay in one place while working as contract employees. Kristy Craft is a travel nurse who works at a Monterey Hospital on contract. Her four children are homeschooled.
“My older ones are self-sufficient for distance learning and my younger ones, I set tasks for them,” Craft said. They plan to move to Alaska, living in their RV in the summer and a house for the winter.
Does she find RV living more affordable? “Yes!” she said. “I get paid a stipend for rent and food, with my membership, I get to keep the rent money! It’s by far cheaper than renting here.”
Tim Clyde, 69, and his wife Shelia, 67, are retirees who set out from Texas after selling their home a year ago.
“We both watched a lot of YouTube videos of full-time campers, something we wanted to do when we retire,” Clyde said. They said they have no regrets.
“We sold our house of 20 years. We’re so happy as we have our home with us. We are safe.” They advised, “Don’t wait until you get old. Do it when you are younger. We see lots more younger people and families full-time living as we travel now.”
Sharon and Lisa DeSocio-Sweeney have an annual site at Thousand Trails RV Resort near Paicines. They inherited their motorhome, which they call MoMo, then fixed and remodeled it in preparation for their retirement. Sharon is retired, and Lisa is a registered nurse in Fresno.
“Once Lisa retires, we would like to consider full-timing and traveling up north to Washington. It could be in MoMo,” Sharon Said.
“Our ultimate dream would be an Airstream,” Lisa said. For now, however, they are enjoying their second getaway home on Lisa’s extended days off after long hospital shifts.
The U.S. has a unique RV subculture, kicked off by Roland Conklin’s 1915 cross-country trek in his Gypsy Van. RVs soon gained massive popularity and press coverage of the comfortable journey westward. Compared to renting a train cabin, a purchased vehicle held massive appeal to would-be outdoor enthusiasts.
Arthur G. Sherman’s “covered wagons” made the idea affordable for ordinary people, selling for $400 in 1930 at the Detroit Auto Show. These new travel trailers catered to vacationers who yearned to get into nature without leaving their home comforts behind. The trajectory for the entire RV industry was set, with Sherman selling over 20,000 units each year by the end of the 1930s, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.
In modern times, RV living is now part of the transition to remote working and distance learning. This flexible and affordable housing option is helping local people adapt to uncertain times in San Benito County and the Central Coast region.
BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is working around the clock during this time when accurate information is essential. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s news.
BenitoLink Hard to Count reporting was partially funded by the Census Fund through Community Foundation for San Benito County.