An RV with brick floors?
Todd Cutrer's digs boast some of the hottest amenities in interior design: Custom leather sofas. Dark-cherry cabinets. A 68-in. projection TV. There's stainless steel in the kitchen, brick and hardwood on the floors.
"Where I'm from in the South, real wood and brick, that's a stately look," says Mr. Cutrer, who owns several financial-services firms in Baton Rouge, La.
But his place also has a few features you won't find in the latest issue of "House Beautiful": a 525-hp. Caterpillar engine, a full air-suspension system, a 150-gallon fuel tank, and 22-1/2-in. alloy wheels.
Cutrer's abode rolls. It's a custom recreational vehicle riding the extreme edge of a broad trend toward more "residential" design, a boomers-with-bucks phenomenon that is relatively resistant to run-ups in fuel prices - and likely to make tread marks across all levels of an industry in overdrive.
"It's not your grandfather's RV," says Ken Sommer, a spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, in Reston, Va. "It's all about taking the comforts of home with you."
More like mansion. Fireplace? Winnebago, among other manufacturers, offers one. Airstream builds an RV with a rooftop patio. Gulf Stream was among the first of many firms to offer four "slideouts," outward-extending rooms that widen floor space for migratory full-time RVers or weekend travelers seeking campground bragging rights. Those who convert buses - Prevost is a common make - start with wide-open interior spaces and rock-star dreams. "Basements" hang down between front and rear wheels. Some RVs feature 7-ft. ceilings and second lavatories.
"There are awnings with wind sensors" for automatic retraction, says Robinn Gould, a spokeswoman for the Family Motor Coach Association in Cincinnati. Inflatable spas stow away in two square feet and open to seven feet in diameter. "Every year there's something new, where you think there's nothing else that can be modified," she says.
Last year was the industry's best since 1978 for factory shipments, says Mr. Sommer, and 2005 is on course to cruise into second, with much of the action in the buslike land yachts called "Class A."
In 1992 fewer than 100 RVs priced higher than $200,000 were sold in the United States, according to Sommer. In 2003: nearly 14,000. (That doesn't include private bus conversions.)
"Our industry, particularly on the Class A side, is very much a feature-driven business," says Roger Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Winnebago, in Forest City, Iowa. "People assume that someone buys a motor home and that's the one they live with, but that's not the case at all," he says. "Owners are trading on average every three to five years." Radical floor plans get consumers' attention he says, citing his company's Adventurer 38T, with its "great room" feel. On the outside, those old aqua-and-teal decals are giving way to more sophisticated color schemes.
Customizers can deliver a scaled-down version of virtually any appointment found in a "stationary home," working within regulations and a client's budget. The 900 or so units shipped each year by Country Coach of Junction City, Ore. (Cutrer's make), start at around $250,000 and run to seven figures. Smaller shops report a wave of six- to seven-year-old coaches rolling in for increasingly elaborate modifications.
"If they have one slideout they want two," says Dale Whipple, who runs Coach Design in East Taunton, Mass. "We can tweak a motor home after the fact pretty cost-effectively."
"We have one customer who 'visits' his coach on a regular basis," says Ron Hawkins, president of Innovative Coach Works in Goddard, Kan., near Wichita. "He takes it out, brings it back, and we do several thousand dollars worth of work on it." Mr. Hawkins sees rising interest in electronics, especially LCD TVs. He has also installed a fair amount of marble flooring.
Don't expect pump prices to nudge rolling palaces off the road. Many RV drivers are committed to the lifestyle. "Some have scaled back," says the FMCA's Gould. "Others say, 'What's a couple hundred dollars? I'm going to go out and enjoy what I want to do.' "
Cutrer doesn't miss staying in hotels. His coach's 22-cubic-ft. refrigerator is bigger than the one in his home. His in-motion satellite system lets his kids pull down their favorite channels. And once parked, his RV's AquaHot system uses a small amount of his engine's diesel fuel in an arrangement that trumps the hot-water heaters found in traditional motor homes - and many houses.
"I can take a shower for two hours," he says, "and the water stays hot."