Tuesday, March 30, 1999

Installment Biker IV:

PHOENIX. "We sold our home in June. We got interested in RVs and we

traveled for a while, mostly in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. Then we were looking for a place to spend the winter and we settled here. We bought a Park model. Theres always a lot going on here and everyones very friendly.

"But this summer were going to get out of the heat— weve volunteered for the Park Service. Well take our fifth wheel and do odd jobs around the camp, working 24 hours a week."

The man speaking is Roger Allen. Sixty-five and retired, he lives with his wife in Pioneer RV Park, about 10 miles North of Phoenix. We are sitting in a Cavco RV, Desert Rose model, where he is the sales representative for the day in this community of some 600 spaces and nearly 1200 people. One of these units, which are very much like a small one-bedroom apartment, can be purchased for $20,000 to about $26,000.

The winding streets here are lined with RVs with names like "Casa Real", "Sun-Haven", and "Sun Quest." A bit like circled wagons, the RVs protect a central clubhouse, laundry, and office. After walking the neighborhood you realize that only a small portion of the RVs here are actual RVs— trailers, motor homes, or fifth wheels— that are designed to be moved on a regular basis. Instead, many are moved once, put in place, and never move again: Park models.

"Theyre very compact. Theyre good for two people." Marian Leaf says.

When I asked Ms. Leaf if she would give me a tour and tell me about housekeeping, she laughed. "It wont take long. When my husband retired, I decided to retire from housekeeping, too. We have a small place. All it needs is a little vacuuming and dusting and with two people you find that you eat out a lot."

Mrs. Leaf and her husband are "snowbirds," dividing their time between their RV in Arizona and an apartment in Illinois.

How did you get here?

"We spent our first two years (of retirement) in California, in a condo. But it wasnt too friendly an atmosphere. Then we met a man who lived in an RV park. He offered to rent his fifth wheel. We tried it and liked it. So we decided to buy a Park Model."

Did something draw you to RVs?

"We had both worked so many years and were tied down by work. We wanted to travel. Now weve been to all 50 states."

What about your families?

"We miss our grandchildren. But they have their own lives. You cant depend on

your children or grandchildren for entertainment. You have to live your own life."

In fact, there is a pattern to how people settle at the parks.

"There are about 150 who stay here year round. Each year that number grows. People get tired of traveling and want to settle in.", Park Manager Floyd Nicholls says. In other words, about 25 percent of the park residents are year round residents. And about 75 percent of the residents take annual leases on their spaces.

"There arent many transients," Mr. Nicholls emphasizes.

One reason: powerful economics.

You can rent a space at Pioneer RV Park for $1895 a year. Thats $158 a month. Thats not high, or low, for the parks near Phoenix, in Mesa, or in Apache Junction.

Electricity, the only utility, costs about $70 a month. The basic charge to plug

into the park phone system is $21 a month and you can also access 19 channels of cable for $12 a month. In other words, if you own your unit free and clear, $261 a month covers all the basics of shelter with the exception of insurance and RV taxes. Both are small items. Basically, if you've got the price of the home, the out-of-pocket costs can be covered with only a small portion of the average Social Security check of $779.69.

Compare that to the commitment represented by the median resale value of a traditional home: $130,600 according to the National Association of Realtors. Now add the annual operating expenses, about $7,800.

Most of the average Social Security check.

What does that mean?

Simply this: RV units mean personal and economic freedom for those who choose it, without a big retirement nest egg.