By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
It was a zealous bureaucrat at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that prompted the announcement last week that the RV Industry Association and HUD had agreed to clarify the definition of a recreation vehicle.
Gregg Fore, president of Dicor, sat on the committee that drafted the definition. He told RV Daily Report late Friday that the new definition is absolutely a good thing for the RV industry and most RV owners.
Working with the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee, RVIA and HUD agreed to define an RV as “a unit built on a vehicular structure, not certified as a manufactured home, designed only for recreational use and not as a primary residence or for permanent occupancy.”
The definition sparked uproar among RV consumers – especially full-timers — who saw it as a threat to their lifestyle, but Fore said that is not at all the case.
“HUD defines dwellings by its use, but the RV industry never does because we really can’t control how someone uses a product after it is purchased,” he explained. “Regardless of what we say, the bottom line is how the product is used is up to the people who buy them and the communities in which they live.”
Fore said the whole issue of redefining an RV was essential in light of proposed regulation in late 2014 that would include exterior porches on park models when calculating the total space of an RV.
HUD Administrator Pamela Beck Danner issued a memo Oct. 1, 2014, stating that factory-built porches would be included in HUD’s calculation of the square footage of park model RVs beginning April 1, 2015.
But, that was just the first step, said Fore. Danner also wanted to extend the regulations to cover fifth wheels and travel trailers being used as permanent residences at some RV parks.
For years, the widely accepted definition was that RVs could not exceed 400 square feet in total size.
In seeking to justify further regulation of park models, Danner noted that with porches added to the front or back of a park model RV, the total size of the structure exceeded the 400-square-foot maximum size.
Plus, many campgrounds were permanently installing park models by securing them to foundations and hard wiring utility lines, plus attaching carports and decks to the units. They were, in fact, becoming more like manufactured housing communities and, therefore, justified further regulation.
“We needed to be clear that RVs are defined as ‘vehicles’ and not as ‘permanent homes,’ otherwise HUD could have imposed restrictions on the construction of RVs,” said Fore. “HUD has no authority regarding the construction of vehicles.
“With the adoption of this new definition, HUD is basically agreeing with us that they should worry about housing and we, the RV industry, should worry about recreation vehicles,” he explained. “It took us two years to get to this point.”
Fore understands that some people are fearful the HUD definition will allow that agency to step in and regulate how the RV can be used. However, he quickly notes that the agency lacks legal authority to regulate use. And, the proposed definition is designed to draw a clear distinction between what is a home and what is a vehicle.
“RV owners should rejoice that this agreement has been made because it prevents HUD from dictating rules on the construction and use of RVs,” he added.
However, he did admit that many communities will likely adopt the HUD definition of a recreation vehicle when setting zoning laws that apply to campgrounds. For example, a community could not allow an RV park to install a manufactured home for permanent occupancy. But, the community might allow a campground to install a park model to be used as temporary or seasonal living quarters.
Why? Because a manufactured home is a “dwelling,” but a recreation vehicle, by its very nature, is a vehicle. Dwellings can be regulated by HUD, while vehicles cannot, Fore explained.
As long as RVs are considered temporary homes for recreational use, local communities should be more accommodating of campgrounds seeking to install park models or allow seasonal use of fifth wheels and trailers because they bring in tourists for short periods of time – not permanent residents.
If the RVs were considered “permanent” homes, then it could have trickle down impact on other community issues like school enrollment, income tax and census population.
The issue is further complicated by how manufactured homes are financed in comparison to recreation vehicles. People who need to qualify for HUD-approved loans must purchase homes built to HUD-approved standards.
HUD lending programs often enable lower income people to acquire a home at a lower interest rate or without a down payment because HUD will back the loan made by a private bank. The program is similar to loans made available to college students through Department of Education programs.
“Manufactured housing builders have a choice as to what standards to follow when constructing a home. Not all manufactured homes are built to HUD standards,” said Fore. “But, if they want their homes to qualify for HUD financing, then manufacturers must build them to HUD standards.”
RV manufacturers don’t have that luxury of choice, he added. Every single RV built in America is constructed to standards approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is a private non-profit organization that oversees the development of voluntary consensus standards for products.
The idea is that if the RV industry, in cooperation with ANSI, regulates itself by agreeing to and enforcing tough, consistent standards for safety and construction, then government regulators don’t need to step in and dictate how the products are built or used.
“From a safety standpoint, the RV industry and RV buyers are much better off that RVs are build to ANSI standards than to HUD standards because we don’t want anyone to tell us how our products can be used,” said Fore.
“Adopting ANSI standards allows us to tell buyers that each community has its own laws on how RVs can be used and it’s up to the buyers to find out what rules apply to them,” he added.
Basically, the newly-proposed definition allows RV owners the freedom to use products as they see fit, while knowing that the RVs were constructed to a high level of standards approved by ANSI, Fore explained.
The issue of labeling
Some RV dealers were concerned by a clause in the new definition that requires units claiming an exemption from HUD standards to prominently display (on a cabinet or countertop, for example) a notice stating that the unit is designed only for recreational use, and not as a primary residence or permanent dwelling. The sign had to remain in place until the unit was sold to a consumer.
Dealers were concerned that this requirement could raise all sorts of questions from buyers regarding safety of the RVs or product quality. Dealers feared that upon seeing the notice, customers would ask what’s wrong with the units if they can’t be used as a primary residence?
However, Fore said the rule applies only to units “claiming this exemption” from HUD standards, and the only RVs that were even close to being regulated by HUD were park models. Therefore, the notice requirement does not apply to fifth wheels, motorhomes, travel trailers, truck campers or folding campers because they are already classified as vehicles.
“The signage requirement is a true statement in that RVs really aren’t designed to be a primary residence,” said Fore. “But, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used full time. They just weren’t designed to be used that way.”
As an example, Fore cited a situation in which someone buys an SUV with all-wheel drive. All-wheel drive was designed to help people better navigate through snow and climb steep hills. But, some of the SUVs were probably not designed for off-road use.
“Could people buy an SUV with all-wheel drive and use it for off-road driving? Sure they could. Nobody is going to stop them,” he explained.
However, Fore admitted that people who buy an SUV not designed for off-road use, but use it in that manner, run the risk of having the manufacturer void the warranty because they used the vehicle in a way in which it is not intended.
And that is a situation that leaves full-time RVers nervous about the proposed definition. They see it as a way for manufactures get around standing behind the products they build because a full-time RVer is technically using the vehicle as a “primary residence,” which is not the way it was intended to be used.
Fore doesn’t see that as a legitimate problem because the definition approved by RVIA is intended to influence local laws governing the placement of RVs. For example, local laws could prohibit someone from parking an RV in the back yard and allowing someone to live in it full-time. And, the local laws could prohibit a campground owner from allowing an RV owner to park a vehicle and never move it for years while living in it full-time as a residence.
However, Fore doesn’t see the definition impacting the ability of people to buy an RV and live in it full-time for years as they move it from one place to another to “see the country.”
Still, full-timers are not convinced that the new definition can’t be used by overzealous bureaucrats to enforce the definition in a way the RV industry, manufactured housing industry or HUD ever imagined.
For example, full-time RVers who travel the country with their children are fearful that a child protective services agency will latch on to the new definition that an RV isn’t designed as a permanent residence as a justification to remove children from the home.
Many full-time RVers have told RV Daily Report of instances in which they have been investigated by child protective service agencies in response to calls from campground owners or other RVers. The complaints are made by people who think it strange that the children aren’t in a traditional school and a belief that entire families who live in RVs full-time must be doing something illegal.
But Fore doesn’t see that as a likely outcome of the new definition because the new definition will influence zoning laws rather than how the RVs are actually used. As long as families regularly move from one place to another, he doesn’t think the families face any legal scrutiny based on the proposed definition.
“Strategically, this was exactly what we wanted. HUD was trying to flex its muscles and move into government oversight of the RV Industry, from which absolutely nothing good can come about,” said Fore. “However, no one seemed interested in stopping their overreach.
“We worked with the House and Senate to forge legislation that absolutely defined RVs and removing them from HUD regulation for good, but we didn’t think we could get it done in time to stop HUD from ruining the park model industry,” he added.
“So we were able to forge an agreement with the modular housing people to exclude RVs,” Fore explained. “We simply had to put a label indicating that these products were not designed for full-time living.
“We, of course, have no control over how people use what they buy and owners are under no obligation to follow advisories,” he added. “HUD was actually trying to control products by how they were used rather than by definition. RVIA has always, and continues to define by definition, not by use.”