Looking to buy a camper? New or used, good luck with that

Used campers, such as these at Maine Vintage Campers in Alfred, and new campers at RV dealerships have been hard to find during the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

For two months, Mary and Mike Monck of Waterville have been searching for a camper to take their newly adopted 12-year-old daughter on family trips.

But with the demand for campers – new and used – at historic levels, the Moncks were frustrated. RV dealerships had low or nonexistent inventories, or campers that did not fit the family’s needs. Some of the used campers they looked at from private sellers were overpriced and in poor condition, with rotted or spongy walls. One even had a hole under the bed.

So when they spotted an ad last week for a used camper that seemed promising, they wasted no time checking it out. By that evening, they put a down payment on a 29-foot trailer with a private bunk bed for their daughter and a bedroom with a queen-sized bed for mom and dad. Two days later, they drove it home behind their large SUV.

“People are really jacking up the price,” Mary Monck said of their search. “My husband really liked a 2016 camper priced at $19,000. But we can buy a brand new one the same size for $21,000. But the new ones have been selling so fast.”

The market for recreational vehicles – a term that includes large towable trailers as well as campers that fit on the bed of a truck – has been red hot since the start of pandemic, and shows no sign of letting up this year. Manufacturers shipped a record 430,000 RVs to dealers in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association. The first quarter of 2021 set another record with 148,507 shipped, a 10 percent increase over the previous first-quarter record in 2018, according to the association.

At J&M Camper and Marine in Augusta, owner Jeff Stoddard said the demand for new and used campers is unlike anything he’s seen – and the dealership has been in his family for 54 years.

“Business is very good. It would be a lot better if we could supply the product,” Stoddard said.

Earlier this month, he had two new RVs arrive on his lot that sold within three hours. That’s been the norm.

“It’s the way it’s been since last May,” he said. “Though (the) pace has definitely picked up from last year.”

Jim McCadden, owner of Maine Vintage Campers, measures lumber for a 1970 Avion camper he is currently customizing for a client. The used camper market has exploded during the pandemic. These campers are hard to find, often overpriced and selling at a lightning-quick pace. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

New campers generally run from $8,000 to $20,000 for the smallest pop-up style to around $20,00 to $50,000 for a traditional travel trailer that’s towed. RVs also can run as high as $100,000 to $1 million for the most luxurious travel trailers or Class-A motorhomes.

Maine is a small piece of the RV market, with 2,238 shipped here in 2020. Still, that was a 20 percent increase from 2019, said Monika Geraci, spokesperson for RV Industry Association.

Geraci said much of the high demand stems from people who want to vacation safely during the pandemic, avoid hotels and airlines, and “rediscover the great outdoors.”

The RV Industry Association does not have data on used camper sales, but other data indicates the used inventory is unusually low. Geraci said a recent survey by the association showed that first-time RV buyers – typically about 25 percent of the market – was as high as 55 to 80 percent last year. That means dealers were getting far fewer trade-ins of used campers.

And those that are traded in don’t stay on the dealer lots for long. Craig Goddard, the general manager at Scotts Recreation in Turner, said the dealership received a used RV in a trade-in early May that sold in 22 minutes.

“There was someone here and we sold it to that customer even before we cleaned it up,” he said. “I’ve worked here 10 years. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A refurbished 1962 Open Road camper at Maine Vintage Campers is selling for $13,000. Jim McCadden, owner of Maine Vintage Campers, said he discovered the camper while snowmobiling and made a deal to purchase it from its owners. It was being used as a chicken coop at the time. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Molly Staples of Rod’s Cycle and RV in Madison calls the market “insane.” Sales of all types of RVs are up 85 percent, she said.

“We have waiting list for almost all types at this point,” added Erica Spiller of Call of the Wild RV Center in Oxford.

Several Maine RV dealers said they get fewer used models in trade-ins because people can sell their used RV faster in a private sale.

Mainers searching for used campers say the lightning-fast private sales taking place via social media sites now have driven up prices. Mainers are shopping online for used campers of all types: from the teardrop models and small vintage campers to camper vans and 20-to-30-foot towable trailers that have a private bedroom and bunk beds.

Serena Walker of Biddeford dreamed of owning a small vintage camper for a decade. She and her wife take their five children, as well as their grandchildren, tent camping in the midcoast each summer. Walker decided a vintage camper would make a great kitchen and base camp while the whole clan slept in tents. 

Jim McCadden, owner of Maine Vintage Campers, left his job at a lumberyard to find, fix up and sell used campers full time at his Alfred shop. Here he is installing cabinet doors in a 1970 Avion camper he is customizing for a client. His business grew by 40 percent last year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In the past year, however, her dream became out of reach because of the spike in vintage camper prices, she said.

“It feels like now they are several hundred dollars more than I used to see. Sometimes, they’ve easily been double the price,” Walker said.

Pamela Sawyer of Brooks is alarmed by the exorbitant prices that private sellers are getting for used campers.

“I think it’s disgusting,” she said. “I think some people are taking advantage of people’s fears – just like with the housing bubble right now. There is a lot of fear because COVID hasn’t finished its initial course. People don’t want to be locked in at home.”

Jim McCadden left his job at a lumberyard in 2018 to turn his passion of buying, restoring and selling vintage campers into a business. At the time, he said, a lot of people thought he was nuts. But last year, business at Maine Vintage Campers in Alfred grew 40 percent, McCadden said.

His greatest challenge now is finding weathered old campers to buy.

“It’s been quite unique with everything happening. I knew the interest in vintage campers would be there. It’s actually been very, very good for me,” McCadden said.

While the demand for recreational vehicles has spiked in the past year, the industry has been experiencing growth for decades. RV owners are up 26 percent from 10 years ago and 62 percent from 20 years ago, according to RV Industry Association, with RVs now found in 11.2 million households.

That growth has been obvious to campers who embraced RV travel before the pandemic.

In 2016, Doug and Carole Bruns got the bug to leave Portland, hit the road and live in an RV full time. They rented their home for a year, bought an Airstream trailer, and set out to travel the country for 17 months.

They then bought a small house in Maryland to be near their grandchildren. But next month they are heading out again, this time in a van and their daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids are going with them in another camper.

“I never really wanted to stop,” Carole Bruns said.

Doug Bruns said the difference between the number of people traveling in RVs or van campers now and those doing so back in 2016 is noticeable.

“It’s been huge,” he said. “I definitely had the sense the fuse had been lit – but I think the pandemic was the lit fuse getting to the powder keg.”

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