A Summer Cottage–with Wheels

The Washington Post
A Summer Cottage–with Wheels
Park-Model RVs Have Growing Appeal as Second Homes
By Kari Lydersen, July 2007

Nikki Laff, a single mother and dental office manager in Chicago, thought a vacation home “was not in my life plan.”

But then her friend Tim O’Neil shared his idea to fill a campground in southwest Michigan with 400-square-foot trailers called park models, recreational vehicles that have become “Everyman’s summer cottages” for growing numbers of people.

Now, Laff and her 12-year-old daughter spend most weekends at their cedar-sided unit with a knotty-pine interior and expansive deck, which bears little resemblance to a trailer.

“We don’t use the ‘T-R’ word,” said O’Neil, who enforces a one-lawn-ornament-each ordinance so the campground “doesn’t look like a trailer park.”

As long as they are no more than 400 square feet, the park models are considered recreational vehicles and hence can be parked at campsites and are exempt from property taxes. Once the trailers are anchored, owners — there are about 200,000 nationwide — typically cover the wheels with a wooden skirt and build screened-in porches and decks to increase the size. Sleeping lofts also don’t count against the square-footage limit.

“You could buy a million-dollar home and you’d just be sitting in your home with your kid playing Nintendo,” said Laff, 57. “Here, the kids are out on the beach, building huts, dancing with their friends.”

Just don’t let residents hear you calling the site a trailer park. Many take pains to differentiate themselves from stereotypical images of trailer dwellers.

“If you look at the demographics of people purchasing recreational park trailers, it’s not people looking for low-cost housing,” said William Garpow, executive director of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association. “The typical buyers are the kind of folks we’d hope would move in next door to us — family oriented, well educated.”

Like Laff, Jeff Clohessy, a firefighter in the Chicago suburbs, couldn’t afford a second home on the Lake Michigan coast, where beach cottages go for $500,000 or more. After he bought his park model two years ago, his father bought one across the street. “This is small, but it forces you to do things with your family,” he said.

For retired restaurateurs Butch and Lynne Cleveringa, both 60, trading in their vacation home for a trailer in the Sandy Pines park in Michigan gave them the financial freedom to pursue their goal of visiting all 50 states.

“We wanted to retire earlier and not have the big upkeep and big expense of a home in both places,” Butch Cleveringa said. “We don’t have near as much room, but that’s just fine. We can get up spur of the moment and go wherever we want.”

Garpow said the models have been selling since the early 1980s and about 10,000 are currently sold per year. Sales increased 30 percent between 2004 and 2005, and about 10 percent last year.

Bob Klug, a salesman for the Lakeland RV Center in Wisconsin, said the park models account for about 20 percent of his company’s business.

“People started looking for different tax shelters and tax breaks, and as these became more known, I think that’s why they started growing in popularity,” he said.

The idea of the trailers as second homes is becoming particularly popular with single women, who like the extra security and camaraderie of a campground setting and don’t want the maintenance responsibilities of a regular home.

“Now I can host events and family outings,” said Barbara Kendall, 51, a Chicago hedge fund associate who recently bought a park model to put at Lakeside. “As a single woman I never really had that. We’d always do things at my married brother’s place or my parents’.”

Northwest Indiana resident Lana Olenik, 37, met her husband, Don, 38, when both were teenagers camping with their families at the Jellystone Campground in Pierceton, Ind. Now the couple and their two children live at Jellystone in a park model all summer, with Don Olenik commuting to his job as a trucking company manager in Fort Wayne.

“It’s just like a mini-cottage,” Lana Olenik said. “But we live in a campground.”

O’Neil, who owns various properties and bed-and-breakfasts in Chicago and Michigan, got the idea for an all-park-model campground after seeing the trailers at Disney’s Fort Wilderness campground in Florida. Lakeside opened three years ago and quickly sold most of its units.

O’Neil buys from manufacturers in Texas and in Elkhart, Ind. — the park-model-trailer capital of the country.

“I was concerned it would be an oxymoron to have an affordable second home, but it’s turned out to be a really nice niche,” he said.

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