Moving from a big house to a smaller one isn't the only way to downsize. Luxurious recreational vehicles, stocked with every possible modern convenience from Jacuzzis to wi-fi, are becoming full-time residences for a growing number of Americans. Some are retirees looking for a new adventure, others have jobs that keep them on the road and see RV living as a way to have a home life, and a few just crave the freedom of being on the go now that cell phones and the Internet allow people to work from almost anywhere.
According to Kampgrounds of America, which operates some 450 campgrounds, 400,000 people are full-time RV dwellers. And many of them are enthusiastic proselytizers for their neo-nomadic lifestyle. "This is the ideal American subculture; it's the way everyone would like it to be," says Howard Payne, a real estate lawyer who, along with his wife Linda, traded a five-bedroom house in Louisville, Ky., for a 400-sq.-ft. (37 sq m) motor home in August 2005.
Some RVs cost as little as $4,000, but it's the luxury market--where units range from $300,000 to over $1 million--that is booming. Country Coach, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of premier motor homes, offers models that include hardwood floors, leather couches and guest bathrooms. Last year the company reported a 22% increase in sales of RVs priced at more than $550,000.
While parking in muddy public campgrounds and Wal-Mart lots provides some full-timers with a convenient and low-cost place to spend extended periods, others are turning to the small but growing number of upscale parks that offer country club-like amenities. One such stop is the Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort. Nestled in a forest in the popular South Carolina vacation spot, it boasts 400 landscaped lots, with access to a pool, exercise room and tennis courts. Each lot has satellite TV and electricity, water and sewage hookups, for a rental fee of about $50 a night or an outright purchase price of around $100,000.
Russell and Rena Knisely, a retired couple from Wallingford, Pa., who started full-timing four years ago, spend the colder months at a lot they own in Hilton Head. Every Saturday morning at the resort park, they gather with a group of friends, cook a full breakfast for everyone staying at the park and trade stories about their road adventures over the shared meal. "Our happiness and health are much better in this lifestyle," says Russell, 64. "We have no worries here." "The only downside is that we don't have a church anymore," says his neighbor Wyn Hull, 73, who was active in her Greenville, S.C., parish before she and her husband took to the road seven years ago. "It's nice to visit other churches, but you have to make more of an effort."
Others have gone mobile precisely because they want to cut old ties and obligations. Kevin Ewert, a programmer for his family's Web development company, sees full-timing as a refuge from the pressures of his more conventional existence back in San Jose, Calif. "I was working my life away, and I just got tired of it," says Ewert, 44. He and his wife Angie, 35, have logged about 13,000 miles (21,000 km) in their 40-ft. (12 m) motor home, which has satellite TV, TiVo, three Internet connections, Sirius radio and a private office space where Ewert works mainly at night, leaving his days free for hanging out with Angie.
Even volatile gas prices do little to temper the enthusiasm of full-timers. Howard Payne estimates that he travels between 1,000 and 1,200 miles (1,600 and 2,000 km) per month, but he still insists that "the cost of fuel is not the big issue many folks think it is." The Paynes, both in their early 40s, opted for an earlier than expected retirement after a FORTUNE 500 company bought their small real estate insurance business and imposed heavy demands that strained the couple's relationship. The choice has required them to live on a tighter budget, but they are closer than ever and happier. "Now I can't afford to play golf, but golf was like an escape for me," Howard says. "I don't need that escape now."