Hit the road: 8 RV

May 21, 2013

It isn't as well-known as his investments in Heinz or American Express, but Warren Buffett has a stake in the recreational vehicle industry. In 2005, Buffett made an offer to purchase Forest River, an RV manufacturer in Elkhart, Ind. over the telephone just one day after he first learned about the company. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (brka) has since been doubling down, purchasing Coachman in 2008 and Dynamax in 2011 and has singled out Forest River for praise. In his 2011 letter to shareholders, he wrote: "Forest River has 82 plants, and I have yet to visit one (or the home office, for that matter). There's no need; Pete Liegl, the company's CEO, runs a terrific operation."

Buffett's endorsement came as the RV industry was recovering from a once-in-a-generation slump. RV shipments climbed back up to 273,600 units in 2012, their highest level since 2007, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Survey Research Center. The market continued to gain ground in the first quarter of 2013 with total RV wholesale shipments rising 11.2% year over year.

That isn't peanuts. RV's are a $10 billion industry, with 80 manufacturers and 3,000 dealers. Thor industries, maker of the Airstream, and Buffett's Forest River control 65% of the business, which is getting a big demographic boost: More baby boomers are moving into retirement, and buying an RV is one of the ways they reward themselves when they do.

RVs fall into two general categories: towables, where the entry-level RV has no motor and must be pulled behind a car or truck; and motor homes, self-contained units where everything is within arm's reach of the driver's seat. Here's a look at what's out there:

Folding camping trailers

Also known as a folding trailer, tent camper, or tent trailer, these are lightweight units with pullout bunks and collapsing walls. Think of them as tents on wheels. Once erected, they can extend to more than 15 to 20 feet in length. They can come equipped with a portable dinette table, refrigerator, and sink, but owners have to depend on their campgrounds for a shower or toilet.

Price: $5,000 to $22,000
Leading manufacturer: Forest River
Notable brands: Flagstaff and Rockwood

Truck campers

Sometimes referred to as pickup campers or slide-on campers, they are the most versatile of RVs -- mounted on a pickup truck, they can go almost anywhere. Popular with hunters, fishermen, and other sportsmen, their amenities include refrigerators, stoves, ovens, microwaves, bathrooms, and showers. When not in use, truck campers can be parked in a standard driveway or backyard (if the neighbors don't object).

Price: $6,000 to $55,000
Leading manufacturer: Numerous (more than 30)
Notable brand: Northwood Manufacturing Arctic Fox 990

Conventional travel trailers

Ranging from 15 to 35 feet in length and towed by means of a bumper or frame-mounted hitch attached to the rear of a towing vehicle, travel trailers can be disconnected and left at the RV park while the tow vehicle is used for short trips. The best-known is the iconic Airstream, now owned by Thor Industries and built in Jackson Center, Ohio. Of the 400 RV manufacturers in business when Airstream started in 1936, it was the only one to survive the Depression. In more recent times, it has been nicknamed the "Silver Bullet" and adopted by Hollywood celebrities like Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks.

Price: $8,000 to $95,000
Leading manufacturer: Thor Industries
Notable brand: Airstream

Fifth-wheel travel trailers

Designed to be towed by a pickup or medium-duty truck equipped with a special hitch called a fifth-wheel coupling, some larger fifth-wheel trailers are often pulled by small semis. Luxury models offer 46-inch flat panel TVs, washer/dryers, and extreme weather packages for cold weather survival. The Keystone Montana (made by Thor Industries) has been North America's best-selling fifth wheel for 10 consecutive years.

Price: $18,000 to $160,000
Leading manufacturer: Thor Industries
Notable brand: Keystone Montana

Sport utility RVs

Also known as "toy haulers," they are designed to be part living space, and part storage. Either towable or motorized, sport utility RVs have a ramp in the rear that provides access to a garage area for transporting motorcycles, ATVs, and other sports equipment. Slideouts in some models move the RV wall out three feet at the touch of a button.

Price: $10,300 to $170,000
Leading manufacturer: Thor Industries
Notable brand: Keystone Raptor

Class C motor home

This is a motorized RV built on a truck chassis. The average length is 20 to 31 feet. Most Class C RVs have self-contained water and sewage systems. They also have an overhang over the main cab that serves as an extra sleeping area -- a good thing, since these RVs usually do not have a separate bedroom. Living areas include kitchen and dining facilities, as well as entertainment systems and storage.

Price: $43,000 to $200,000
Leading manufacturer: Forest River
Notable brand: Sunseeker

Class B motor home

Smaller than an A, this type of RV is usually called a van conversion. Built on a standard van or panel truck platform, the smaller size of a B makes it easier to drive and park. Bathrooms are standard, and some have pop-up roofs and lowered floors for additional standing room. Roadtreks, made in Canada and based on Chevrolet and Mercedes vans, have been the best- selling class B's in North America since 1990, and they currently represent 37% of the market.

Price: $60,000 to $130,000
Leading manufacturer: Roadtrek
Notable brand: RS Adventurous

Class A motor home

Constructed on a truck, bus, or a specially designed motor vehicle chassis, a Class A motorhome resembles a bus in design and has a flat or vertical front end and large windows. They usually have full kitchens, full bathrooms, and self-contained water and sanitation systems. Many also have a fully enclosed bedroom and a washer/dryer. Some owners use class A RVs for full-time traveling around the country. Sportscaster John Madden used one to get to football games when a claustrophobic reaction made it impossible for him to fly. Winnebago Industries commanded 22.2% of the Class A segment in 2012.

Price: $60,000 to $500,000
Leading manufacturer: Winnebago
Notable brand: Winnebago Journey

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