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Affordable full-time RV lifestyle using a park model in the winter

TUCSON, Ariz., Feb. 28, 2012 – Al and Bonnie Parsons have a retirement lifestyle most of us could only dream of.

Every summer, they live in their 35-foot Winnebago motorhome and work as volunteer interpretive rangers in the national parks.

"Last year, we were in Yellowstone, and we were in Yosemite the year before that," said Bonnie Parsons, 67, a retired Physicians Assistant. "This summer, we'll be volunteering at Mount Rainier National Park."

And when they're not volunteering in the national parks, the Parsons travel around the country visiting family and friends. They spend the winter at Voyager RV Resort in Tucson, where they own a "park model RV."

Relatively unknown to many RVers, "park models" are 400-square foot factory built cottages, complete with full size bathrooms and kitchen appliances.

Typically upscale in appearance, they often include hardwood floors, bay windows and lofts as well as cherry, oak or maple cabinetry. And because park models are technically classified as recreational vehicles because they sit on a chassis, they can be set up on leased sites in campgrounds and RV resorts in some of the most sought-after destinations in the country, where the cost of real estate is beyond most people's reach.

Park models are what have enabled Voyager RV Resort and other Sunbelt RV resorts to offer a winter home away from home for a fraction of the cost of a site built home or condo.

Park models average about $40,000 and can be set up on leased or purchased campsites in RV parks and resorts across the country, said William Garpow, executive director of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association, adding that about a third of the nation's privately owned parks make spaces available for park model owners, usually for annual lease fees ranging from $2,000 to $7,000 a year, depending on location.

At Voyager RV Resort, used park models often sell for under $20,000, while new units can range from $40,000 to $70,000 or more, depending on the style and amenities.

The Parsons bought a used 1999 Cavco park model last year for $55,000 – a higher amount that reflected the fact that the unit was fully furnished and also included an "Arizona room," which the Parsons use for entertaining. They also pay Voyager about $4,500 a year to lease their site. The lease fee includes water and sewer service and all park amenities, but electricity is not included. Even so, that's well within the Parsons' budget.

So how did they do it? First, they sold their house and Al's financial advisory business in Pennsylvania and used the proceeds to buy their motorhome. They put the rest of their money in the bank and into their investment portfolio.

Downsizing was difficult at first, they said. They had a garage sale and gave several pieces of furniture to their children, but donated most of their possessions to charity. But they still wound up renting a 10- by 10-foot storage unit to store antique furniture, photographs, artwork and a few other possessions that were too sentimental to sell but too cumbersome to take with them on the road. But if you're contemplating doing what the Parsons have done, they offer a few words of advice:

Make sure both you and your spouse are equally committed to having a successful full-time RVing lifestyle: "The secret about fulltiming," Bonnie Parsons said, "is that both people have to be equally enthused." Conversely, if only one person likes the lifestyle and the other doesn't, it won't be enjoyable in the long run.

Read up on full-timing before you do it: Many books are available that describe full-time RVing experiences. Bonnie said she read four of them before deciding full-timing was for her.

Rent RVs and park models before you buy them: Both motorhomes and park models can be rented. Try them out before deciding which product is best for you.

Consider buying a park model if you like to entertain: Bonnie Parsons says the space and durability of park models is essential for snowbirds who like to entertain.

Al Parsons, who is 77, also offered a word of advice to young people. "Start saving now," he said, "and aim to retire as young as you can." People who start saving for retirement in their 20s and 30s can often retire by their mid-50s if they set enough money aside and make good investments. Parsons himself worked as an electrical engineer before starting a venture capital firm, which he sold before becoming a full-time RVer.

For more information on a retirement lifestyle that includes park models, please contact William Garpow at the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association at (770) 251-2672 and visit www.rptia.com.

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