The cabin alternative

  • Article by: AIMEE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2006 - 12:30 PM

Looking for a place to share more quality time with family and friends on the weekends, the Akervik family combed Minnesota lakeshore in search of a modest lake cabin.

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Looking for a place to share more quality time with family and friends on the weekends, the Akervik family combed Minnesota lakeshore in search of a modest lake cabin.

Instead, they found out-of-reach prices, less-than-desirable properties and then a more affordable alternative. They bought a “park model” RV and a lot near a playground at the Cokato Lake RV Resort for about $70,000.

“We couldn’t find a quality lake for our price range, and for what we could get we would have had to pump in another $20,000 to $40,000 to get the cabin in workable condition,” Trevor Akervik said. “We didn’t want to be pulling campers around, shelling out campground fees and gas money. We wanted a place we could go to, put our groceries in the fridge and start our weekend.”

With lakeshore prices at record levels, many weekend retreat seekers are turning to campgrounds where they park RVs on lots they buy or rent as a more affordable alternative to a traditional cabin on a lake.

The estimated value of a vacation home last year was $300,000, according to a survey of second-home owners by the National Association of Realtors. Those who can’t spend that much don’t have to be left out. “You can get on a decent lake and do it all for less than $100,000,” Akervik said. “I think that’s pretty attractive to a lot of people who don’t make $300,000 a year.”

That’s why park model-style RVs are growing in popularity. Typically, they have about 400 square feet and are designed for part-time use. Even with upscale amenities, such as bay windows, lofts, whirlpool tubs and gas fireplaces, their average price is $38,000. That’s less than the cost of a mobile home of about the same size and a fraction of what it costs to build a home.

And that’s part of the reason that park model shipments nationally were up 8 percent in 2005, the highest annual sales in the 20-year history of the park-model business, according to the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association. The outdoor retail giant, Cabela’s, has added park model cabins to its product line.

Resort conversion

The Akerviks shopped for their park model with their friends, the McCanns, and ultimately bought adjacent lots. Even after paying for their “cabins” and lots, they had enough money left over to eventually add decks and landscaping to improve their lots and buy golf carts to cruise around the campground. Plus, they’re crossing their fingers that the value of the lots will increase and eventually they’ll be able to apply that equity toward the four-season cabins they’ve always wanted.

It’s not just budget-conscious buyers who are driving the trend. With land values rising, more resort owners are struggling to stay in business on their seasonal incomes. That’s why some are converting their resorts into for-sale RV parks and cooperatives.

“Most campgrounds will close and turn into condos or residential property,” said Duane Hoverstein, owner of Gull Lake Campground, near Bemidji. Hoverstein recently converted a portion of the resort into “Summer Haven on Gull,” which will have 95 RV lots for sale and he plans to add about 70 more.

An added benefit for lot owners is that many can rent out their lots when they’re not using them and can use that income to help pay the mortgages.

Next generation campers

Although the Airstream Park in Clear Lake, Minn., has been around since the 1970s and has generally drawn an older crowd, a younger generation is now moving in to take advantage of RV-park affordability. With gas prices averaging $3 a gallon, the park has become an attractive alternative to cross-country driving trips. People who have been coming to the park since it opened develop close relationships with the newest members.

“Robert and David are our surrogate kids,” Will Johnson said of Robert Quene, 39, and David Piehl, 37, who are both new to the park this year. “They’ve definitely lowered the age, but that’s what we want,” said Will’s wife, Jackie.

In April Quene bought an Airstream and a lot at the park, 45 minutes north of his home in the Twin Cities. For about $20,000, he bought a 2003 Bambi, the smallest model in Airstream’s lineup. He paid less than $3,000 for his share at the park, which also operates as a cooperative, and he pays a monthly association fee.

“I would have loved a cabin, but my finances wouldn’t allow it, so this was a good alternative,” said Quene, during one of his many weekends at the park. “It’s a little getaway from the city.”

In addition to a low-cost spot of land on which to park RVs, these campgrounds offer top-notch amenities. At the Airstream park, for example, which isn’t on a lake, members gather at the clubhouse for social hour, play nine holes of golf together and can go for a swim in the community pool.

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