After a long, bumpy ride, production of RVs has just about returned to where it was before the Great Recession put sales in the slow lane.
Overall recreational vehicle shipments from manufacturers to dealers—a key measure of consumer demand—are expected to increase 3.5 percent to 369,100 units in 2015, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said Tuesday at the start of an industry trade show in Louisville, Kentucky.
Shipments are up for all kinds of RVs, from less-expensive towable ones to stand-alone motor homes, it said.
And the industry expects to ride the momentum into 2016, when total wholesale shipments are projected to reach 375,100. That would be the highest total since the pre-recessionary boom times a decade ago.
"We've come all the way back from the recession low to recover all that ground," RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom said.
The recovery is a boon to Indiana, which is the clear RV-manufacturing leader, accounting for 81 percent of production in 2014, followed by Oregon, Michigan, California and Iowa.
Shipments swelled to 384,400 RVs in 2005 and 390,500 in 2006, and were still strong at 353,400 units in 2007, the last year before sales tanked along with the economy. During the recession, sales plunged, plants closed and thousands of jobs were cut as orders for RVs dropped to their worse level in decades. Shipments sank to 165,700 in 2009, but have steadily risen every year since then.
An improved economy, access to credit and pent-up consumer demand have helped fuel the industry's comeback, the industry said. The plunge in fuel prices has reinforced its upbeat forecast that more Americans will want to hit the open road in the traveling homes.
"I really don't see an end in sight," said Derald Bontrager, president and CEO of RV manufacturer Jayco Inc., which is based in Middlebury, Indiana. "The demographics are all in our favor."
Jayco has expanded production space and added several hundred workers to keep pace with accelerating demand, Bontrager said. The company predicts its shipments will rise about 12 percent this year, with growth of at least 8 percent to 10 percent forecast for 2016, he said.
Dealers are reaping the benefits as well, after struggling a few years ago to clear inventory clogged by tepid sales.
Lindsey Reines has operated an RV dealership for decades at Manassas, Virginia, and now has opened a second location near Richmond. Sales have been strong for his lineup of motor homes ranging from $80,000 to $200,000, he said. Reines said his business has fully recovered from the recession.
"I think it's the perfect storm right now for people to buy RVs," Reines said, citing the stock market, low fuel prices, consumer confidence, an improved economy and low interest rates.
Tom Stinnett, an RV dealer in southern Indiana, said his customers are trending toward the less-expensive towables and more moderately priced motor homes since the recession.
"People still want to spend the money and go do what we offer," Stinnett said. "But they simply aren't spending the amounts of money on this that they did" before the recession.
Towables, attached to pickups or hitched to the back of another vehicle, account for about 85 percent of new RV shipments. Through October, towable shipments were up 4.9 percent for the year, while motor home shipments had risen 5.8 percent, the industry said.
Towables cost between $8,000 and $95,000, with an average price of about $29,000, according to RVIA. Stand-alone motor homes range from $45,000 to $1.5 million for the most luxurious, bus-like vehicles. The average price is about $128,000 for the amenity-filled moving homes.
The recession thinned out the number of RV manufacturers, suppliers and dealers. The manufacturers who survived are now stronger than ever as production returns to pre-recession levels, Bontrager said. "The same size of pie is being eaten by fewer people," he said.