BY STEVE DINNEN
Flummoxed by months of lockdown, people are itching to get out of the house, travel a bit and maybe breathe some virus-free air. They’re not especially keen on staying in hotels as they wander, which helps explain why there’s a been a surge in sales of recreational vehicles — campers that will serve as your personally cleansed lodging.
Ed Garner said he’s not seen much like this season in the 51 years that he’s owned and operated Autorama RV Center on Southeast 14th Street in Des Moines. His sales in June were up about 20 percent from the previous year. Garner stocked up on inventory during the winter, before the pandemic hit, and by now there are huge gaps in the sales lot he operates because so many trailers have been sold and he can’t get replacement units from manufacturers.
A recent Saturday “was our busiest day in years,” Garner said of crowds that poked around the lot — a former drive-in theater — looking for tow-behind trailers, or fifth-wheel trailers that attach themselves to hitches in the beds of pickup trucks. Like other RV dealers, Autorama also sells motor homes, which are either campers that are plopped onto a chassis and cab/engine built by auto manufacturers, or purpose-built motor coaches that are like plushed-out intercity buses complete with living rooms, dining areas, showers and pull-out sofas.
Historically, RV buyers are older couples, often nearing retirement. They want to grab an RV so they can tour the country during their golden years. But this year, at least, Ed Garner and Debbie Garner, his wife and the general manager of the business, said they’re seeing a lot of younger buyers, people with kids to haul along for the ride.
“It’s a way of taking a family vacation,” said Debbie Garner. That means campers with bunk beds have been in demand, as it lets the owner tuck an extra body or two into their home on wheels.
The Garners said current buyers are for the most part first-timers. But Ed said they also seem to have done their homework and show up with papers in hand, indicating they’ve done online research about specifications of campers.
Campers are surprisingly affordable, with entry-level, tow-behind models starting for under $20,000. You can add as many bells and whistles as you wish, however, and the more luxurious motor coaches run $60,000 and up for the smaller units to $200,000 to $1 million for top-of-the-line models. If you don’t have that much cash laying around, no problem; Garner said most motor homes qualify for financing of up to 15-year terms. He estimated that 75 percent of campers sold are financed.