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Renting out RVs has become a lucrative pandemic side hustle

Renting out RVs has become a lucrative pandemic side hustle
Posted at 6:15 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 18:15:07-05

When Tim Frye retired from his job as a project manager in 2017, he envisioned traveling the U.S. in an RV with his fiancée. But not long after spending about a quarter of a million dollars on a luxurious, 39-foot 2014 Forest River Berkshire motorhome, his fiancée left him — and he was left with a very expensive vehicle in his yard.

“I could sell it, but I’d lose a ton of money because I had just bought it and wouldn’t be able to get the full value back,” Frye said. “Or I could rent it out.”

Frye, who lives in Flower Mound, Texas, opted for the latter, posting his motorhome on online RV rental marketplace Outdoorsy, which is essentially Airbnb for motorhomes and campervans. Owners coordinate with renters on a meetup spot and handle the vehicle maintenance and cleaning. Outdoorsy handles the booking requests, transactions and RV insurance.

In his first two years renting his RV on the site, business already was good for Frye. But everything changed when coronavirus hit. And for Frye’s RV business, things changed for the better.

“This is the king of side hustles for me,” Frye said.

The coronavirus impact on RV renting

Portland-based Adam Clayton has two 2017 Winnebago Travato campervans available for rent on Outdoorsy. Before the pandemic, Clayton said both RVs were booked solid through October 2020. Given his location about 15 minutes from Portland International Airport, Clayton frequently catered to international visitors looking to road trip through the Pacific Northwest.

But when the pandemic hit, all his out-of-towners immediately cancelled their reservations. With Oregon state parks closed, business was slow in March and April. But as parks reopened, Clayton saw a quick uptick in locals. Eager travelers converted from cruising to camping. They ignored international travel in favor of national parks. And that meant a sudden uptick in people looking to rent or buy RVs.

It was a similar situation for Andrew Carson, who rents his RVs out of his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

“As of early March, we had 11 reservations set up throughout the summer, yet once COVID hit, every single one canceled,” he said. “We panicked, thinking, ‘what have we gotten ourselves into?’ But once things started opening back up — around April — RVing became the hottest thing in America.”

By May, he had already been booked for 120 days straight. Frye was especially lucky; he never even saw an initial dip.

“People came to me because they had trips planned, but suddenly their hotels had canceled on them,” he said. “People were scrambling to find places to stay.”

Frye says his bookings are up an average of 70% year-over-year. But while business is up, most RV owners agree that the type of business has massively shifted. It’s a lot of first-timers (Carson estimates about 70% of rentals this year were to first-timers), which means owners have to spend more time with renters during the initial walkthrough, and there’s higher odds of renters running into issues simply for being novices.

With the usual RV-friendly spots off the list as music festivals remain canceled and many ski resorts are still closed, people are also shifting where they’re headed.

“I’ve already booked two customers who are driving my RV to their parents’ houses,” Clayton said. “Rather than stay inside the parents’ house, they’re going to park in the driveway.”

How much money can you make renting out an RV?

RV rental marketplace RVshare estimates that owners of Class A RVs (those are the largest, most luxurious of the motorized RVs), can earn as much as $60,000 per year through their site.

There are also some costs involved, however:

  • Commission fees: Online RV rental marketplaces typically charge a commission. Outdoorsy takes a 20% cut of the total reservation cost. RVshare is less transparent about fees since the commission rate correlates with revenue, but owners say it’s typically a 25% cut.
  • Monthly payments, insurance and maintenance: If you’re financing your RV, you’ll have to make monthly loan payments, which likely also means interest and fees. Plus, factor in expenses like maintenance and RV insurance.
  • Storage: RV storage can also be pricey if you don’t have your own garage to store it in. Expect to pay at least $1,500 a year — and even more if you’re in a high-cost-of-living area or have an especially large vehicle.

But still, it’s a lucrative side hustle. Frye said after accounting for all those costs, he still pockets $30,000 annually on his single RV.

Virginia-based Carson owns two Class C motorhomes (those are often referred to as mini-motorhomes). Between insurance and monthly payments on his two RVs, he pays about $1,400 a month in RV-business related expenses — which easily pay for themselves. Carson said that this summer he grossed $5,500 per month between both RVs.

Considerations when getting into an RV-renting side hustle

Higher-end vehicles typically work out to be better long-term

Frye’s RV is a Class A motorhome, which is essentially a full house on wheels that’s big enough to stand up straight inside, has a full kitchen and bathroom, and sleeps multiple people.

While they’re more expensive, Frye said he believes Class A motorhomes more easily retain their value versus a cheaper RV, like a campervan. He also said that since the RV is more expensive for renters, it attracts clientele who are more likely to take care of it.

It’s good income, but it’s not passive income

Owning an RV requires regular work. There’s annual maintenance, but there’s also work to be done with every rental. Between doing laundry, power washing the outside and wiping down the inside, Carson estimates he spends three to six hours cleaning the RV after every trip. He also spends about 30 minutes on the pre-rental walkthrough (and sometimes more if the renter is a newbie). Plus, he spends hours each week scheduling and communicating with renters online.

Accept that they won’t be returned in perfect condition

With strangers driving your RV, it’s bound to get dinged up, especially with more first-time RV renters. Even though RV experts will usually tell you they’re not as hard to drive as you might think, they’re still much tougher to navigate than your average small sedan.

“You can’t be too emotionally attached,” Frye said.

While sites like Outdoorsy do provide insurance, Frye still acknowledged that putting your RV up for rent is not for you if you’ll be flustered by every little scratch.

“If they’re seriously damaged, Outdoorsy insurance pays for it,” Clayton said. “But if it’s something smaller — like a faucet breaks — I just fix it. It’s a business, so treat it like a business. If something gets scratched, don’t freak out.”

Location matters

Frye attributes his Texas location as a big factor in maintaining consistent bookings year round, as opposed to owners up north who experience a dip in bookings once it gets colder.

And specific locations within that area make a difference too. Carson lives just off of Interstate 95, the main highway along the East Coast, which means easy access for road trippers headed up to Maine or down to Florida.

Getting into the RV business now

With road trips surging in popularity, it’s a lucrative time to adopt RV renting as a side hustle. But if you don’t yet actually have an RV to rent out, good luck.

Just before COVID-19 was part of the lexicon, Clayton had run the numbers and was committed to buying a third RV to build his small business sometime in 2020. But just as the rental business is booming under COVID-19, so is the business of owning one.

“Every Class B RV — even if it does go on Craigslist — is now exorbitantly priced,” he said. “My only regret prior to all this is that I hadn’t purchased four RVs.”

Frye is in a similar boat as Clayton; three years after buying his RV with a fiancée who has since left him, his only regret about buying one RV is not buying more RVs.

“The RV market is so hot right now,” he said. “I’m trying to find another one to buy, but suddenly since the coronavirus hit, everyone wants to buy an RV.”

And Frye has one more personal reason to add more RVs to his collection: He’s since met someone new — and she and her daughter both love RV camping with him.

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Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: sfrench@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SAFmedia.