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Big RVs mean big business

By Daniel Silliman

Brad Walden's going to watch the recreational vehicles trekking down Tara Boulevard this week.

He'll see them driving south, toward Atlanta Motor Speedway's big RV lot, and some of them will turn into Southern RV and talk to Brad or one of the other Waldens at the family-owned RV dealership.

Race fans stop in, sometimes, just to talk about RVs, Walden said. The sales of parts jump by about 40 percent, during big weekends at the Hampton race track. "You're talking about a house on wheels," he said. "There's an endless amount of components that can fail."

RVers and race fans both tend to be blue-collar workers, conservative, over 45, married white males, and earning more than $50,000, statistics from RV and race-marketing studies show.

Which is why Atlanta Motor Speedway has 5,000 RV parking spots. At the Pep Boys Auto 500, this weekend, there will be whole neighborhoods of RVs: Winnebagoes and Fleetwoods, Moanoco Coaches and Starcraft RVs, Heartlands, Newmars, Dutchmen, Gulf Streams and Jaycos. Some of them will stretch 30 feet, from bumper to bumper, and some of them will cost more than $100,000.

It's a big business, according to Walden. At Southern RV, 9672 Tara Blvd., they've been selling the vehicles for about 28 years. Last year, they sold about 600 RVs, and the market is expanding toward a boom, with the onset of the Baby Boomers' retirements.

Last week, the Waldens sold seven RVs. Most of their vehicles cost between $40,000 and $80,000, Walden said, and they're sold to retirees and businessmen who travel a lot.

RV buyers tend to think of the purchase in the category of a second home, Walden said, and the interior styles of recreational vehicles shows it.

"What's popular in new homes is popular in new models of RVs," he said. Unlocking the door of a CrossRoads-built Seville, Walden reveals an interior covered in tan wood. Kitchen counters are topped in faux marble. A black, $3,000, "absorption cycle" refrigerator is built into the wall. In the living room, two tan, vinyl recliners face a black, flat screen TV, which is built into the back wall and housed in a shock-absorbing double case.

The vehicle costs about $70,000 and looks like the scaled-down version of a nice, staid suburban home. Sitting in the back of the Southern RV lot, the long, white trailer hasn't been customized, and a potential buyer would consider hundreds of options.

"It's really become a personalized purchase," he said, "and the boomers have pushed up the market. They need more space."

The market for RVs has also increased since the terrorist attacks of 2001 have increased airport and airplane security measures, making air travel more complicated and cumbersome.

The way Walden calculates, it costs about $2,000 per year to maintain an RV and pay camp ground fees. Owners can get 15 to 20 percent of the RV's cost written off on their taxes, and a vehicle's value depreciates at about seven percent per year -- "More than a house, but less than a car," Walden said.

The cost is considerably less than a traveler would spend on hotel rooms and rental cars. "Besides," Walden said, "you can say, 'Oh I have a long weekend,' hitch up to it, and off you go."

RVs are expected to last about 20 years, he said.

Some older models, though, last a lot longer. Inside Southern RV's shop, a streamlined-looking, chrome-and-rivet trailer, built by Tradewinds in 1958, is being refurbished. It's still a solid, durable trailer, Walden said, but it needs a refrigerator.