By CATEY HILL
The generation that grew up with "On the Road" is hitting the highway once again. Only this time, they're leaving the bedroll and taking their granite countertops.
The second home is out. The winter home is for the birds. Baby boomers and retirees are instead turning to luxury RVs -- the behemoth land cruisers that promise the allure of travel without the indignity of airport security, plus all the comforts of home. Retail sales of Class A gas motor homes, generally considered one of the choicest types on the market, grew 7% in 2010, according to research firm Robert W. Baird & Co. -- while sales for motor homes overall grew just under 3%. These homes-on-wheels have always been popular with the 50-and-older set -- the median age of a motor home owner is 54, according to Kevin Broom, a spokesperson for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association -- and as this age group grows it's enthusiasm for the motor home is driving the current surge in RV sales, experts say. The simple reason: "High-end RVs are expensive, and it's often this age group that can afford them," says Rob Tischler, CEO of AllStar Coaches, a luxury RV rental dealer.
Following in the footsteps of the McMansion, RVs are now getting increasingly fancy. Buyers have gotten used to stainless steel appliances, flat-screen TVs and hardwood floors in their primary residence; now they want them in their mobile homes, too. "Luxury is more in demand," says Broom. And as the economy picks up, consumers are getting more comfortable spending on high-end goods, notes Brad Schaefer, an analyst at Sageworks, a trend that extends from companies like Tiffanys and Porsche, both of which saw double-digit sales gains last year, to the luxury RV market.
RV lovers cite the ability to travel without airport lines or security hassles, to go "glamping" (imagine camping in Yosemite within feet of your flat-screen), and to see parts of America that are off the well-beaten path as reasons to hit the road in a motor home. Plus, it's an adventure, which is why the Kohuts sold their Michigan home last year and now live full-time in their 32-foot Winnebago -- equipped with two TVs, a bathroom and fully-stocked kitchen, and two slide-outs, which are expandable sections of the RV that pop out of the body to make the interior space bigger if they need it. "I have my kayak, golf clubs and fishing poles with me," says Mike Kohut, 55. "We get to do a lot of outdoors stuff, and we've helped build Habitat for Humanity houses around the country."
But for those looking for a cheaper alternative for retirement travel, an RV might not qualify. The typical luxury RV with a motor (as opposed to the ones that you tow) costs between $150,000 and $500,000, says Schaefer. For handcrafted cabinets, custom-made furniture, Sub-Zero refrigerators, plasma TVs and infrared cooktops, that price tag can run as high as $3 million, says Tischler. And with many large luxury RVs, owners might only get 8 miles per gallon. At $4 per gallon, a trip from New York City to San Francisco could cost $1,500 in gas alone -- easily enough for two plane tickets and a rental car for a week.
For others, the luxury RV is a much-needed break from decades of working. Just ask 51-year-old Doreen and her husband, who after working for years as psychiatrists, decided they needed a new experience. They cut their hours at their jobs to travel the country in a custom-made 340-square-foot RV, complete with a flat-screen TV that came down from the ceiling, convection oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, custom furniture and built-in bookcases. And though the year-long trip wasn't without its bumps -- including a small fire, an armed robbery and a "shocking" trip to a nudist RV camp -- Orion says "it was wonderful we saw almost every state in the country and got to spend so much time together."
SmartMoney.com looked at six luxury RVs, ranging from a $75,000 towable home to custom-designed models priced at over $2 million.