RVs: Road to Recovery

Motor Homes • Fifth-Wheel Trailers • Travel Trailers

As the RV industry fights to recover from depleted sales, familiar manufacturers and many dealerships have gone under. Prices have vaulted, and great deals are scarce. Nonetheless, you still will find innovation among the latest motor homes, fifth-wheel trailers and travel trailers, including all-composite construction and outdoor kitchens.

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If you plan to buy an RV this year, it means that you survived the economic crisis better than some RV manufacturers and dealerships did. So when you start to search for a new motor home, fifth-wheel trailer (fifth wheel) or travel trailer, you can’t rely necessarily on the “who’s who” of RVs. Instead, you might find yourself asking “who’s that?” or even “who’s there?”

Struggling sales forced many RV builders to go belly-up. In addition, some manufacturers merged with or were acquired by other manufacturers. And the dealerships that remain aren’t desperate to cut you great deals, unlike 4 years ago.

Yet innovation isn’t a casualty of the RV-industry avalanche. One of the newest manufacturers introduced lightweight fifth wheels and travel trailers that have shells and other components that are made out of composite materials. And the latest trailers have outdoor kitchens that allow you to enjoy the great outdoors while you cook. To top it off, shopping for a new RV on the Internet has become more common, yet it poses new obstacles for consumers before they hit the highway.

DRIVING FOR DEALS. The economic downturn hit the RV market hard. Seven national motor-home manufacturers and seven national manufacturers of fifth wheels or travel trailers have gone out of business since 2008, according to our analysis. In a few cases, former employees created companies from the ashes of the old manufacturers, which means that brands exist that have products that are built in the same factories as before and that are based on construction templates that were used for the previous brand. Experts tell us that those new companies build RVs that are just as good or even better than what the old company made.

For instance, just as Pilgrim International was poised to introduce the first towable RV that had a shell that was made entirely out of composite materials, the manufacturer went out of business in August 2008. So former employees created Evergreen Recreational Vehicles and bought some of Pilgrim’s tooling, materials and prototypes to follow through on the composite trailers, which we’ll discuss later.

However, although the worst of the fallout from the economic crisis has passed for the RV industry, annual shipments to dealers remain down 37 percent from the industry peak in 2006. And the economic factors that created the sales slump still exist, experts say. The result is that the RV industry has been forced to confront reality in the same way that the makers of automobiles and motorcycles have—by cutting production, so dealerships can trim bloated inventories.

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The consequence for consumers is simple: RV dealers no longer are drowning in too much inventory, which they were 4 years ago, so the incentive for dealers to slash prices (to unload inventory) isn’t as great. Even if you can find discounts that are as high as 30 percent for motor homes or as high as 20 percent for fifth wheels or travel trailers, those savings could be diluted by the fact that MSRPs generally have increased from 4 years ago. We found MSRP hikes as high as 25 percent on some models compared with the previous versions 4 years ago. In other words, regardless of what deal you might strike, it’s likely that you still will pay significantly more for a new RV today than you would have in 2008.

And depending on where you live, you might have to drive farther than ever before to find an RV dealer. At least 25 percent fewer dealers are open now than existed 4 years ago, according to Statistical Surveys, which is a market-analysis company for RVs, boats and manufactured homes. It’s possible that what once might have been a 50-mile drive to an RV dealer that sells your preferred brand now could be a daylong road trip. Experts say that could motivate more people to shop online. But don’t jump to the conclusion that buying online equates to getting a better deal than at the dealership.

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