This article is about operating a business out of your RV. It’s about being an RVer first, i.e., someone who chose the RV lifestyle and then planned or stumbled onto a business. It’s not about just working and having to live in an RV. So if you have that entrepreneurial tingling or just need something to do, read on.
RVers regularly travel, see things, meet new people, and may have divested themselves of the house and garage full of stuff. They live from weekends to fulltime in a tiny space when compared to that “normal” home. So, to operate a business, they are constrained by space and the need to move frequently. You can’t add on an office to your RV so banking, taxes, inventory—normal “business” things—must happen in that small, fixed space. How do they do that?
There is a process called “work camping” and for our purposes, this is when RVers trade their labor for a campsite and sometimes a small hourly wage. National and state parks plus private campgrounds commonly offer seasonal work-camping opportunities including maintenance, running the office, or camp host.
However, simply going to work for someone else is not running a business—so we will focus on the business aspect. The most common is selling an RV product. There are also service-type businesses (windshield repair, operating an RV website, etc.) but there are far more product sales than service companies in the RV world.
A Personal Story… I co-authored an RV book (“All the Stuff You Need to Know About RVing”) and have a history of presenting seminars. I needed to get to events where RVers congregate to talk about the book. Sandy (wife) and I became a vendor at numerous RV rallies and shows and traveled nationwide selling books and presenting seminars. It was fun then and still is but I literally stumbled onto the opportunity. It became a real business and had to be treated as such. Since we had sold our home and were fulltimers, the business had to be operated from our RV.
Other Stories… Fulltimers Len and Chris Bunts (RV Special Things) sell products including ITT Flojet Pumps, Dirt Devil RV Vacuum, and the Lowrance GPS. They had to make a living, do 30± shows annually, and RVing allowed them to travel nationwide. Their products consume lots of space so they tow a large utility van. It is used for both product storage and a personal vehicle. Len says a niche product helps but you must establish name recognition to be successful so low income is normal the first year or two.
Fulltimers Reed and Michele Vonhold (Quick Dry RV Carpet Cleaning) provided a service to RVers, did numerous shows, and had to make a living. Their equipment is smaller than normal carpet-cleaning equipment, better fits an RV (for storage and the actual cleaning), and their cleaning process dries quickly. Reed says their biggest problem is finding customers. Michele handles banking by purchasing money orders and mailing deposits to their bank.
Fulltimers David and Lana Greer (D&L Consulting) decided to work part time to provide some income and tax relief. They will work at various RV shows and contract with companies to handle the respective products. David says it is difficult finding a good useful product to sell as there is a small market and lots of competition for limited sales.
After 9/11, USA banks radically changed the way they do business and negatively affected everyone that travels. Today, if you do not have an account with a bank, they will not do anything for you—not even make change. Once, I tried to exchange some $20.00 bills for $100’s—simply change bills for a different denomination. When I asked the bank manager she nearly laughed at me. She told me I would have to open an account with them to do anything whatsoever! I left with my $20’s.
When traveling nationwide on business, one logical answer is a bank with the most “manned” locations. I will not use an ATM for anything. I don’t care how many they have. We chose Bank of America because they are in the most states. We have been happy with our choice. Plus, the ability to bank and pay bills on-line is wonderful.
What if you don’t have access to a real bank? Then do some unusual things to secure any cash you might receive. Get traveler’s checks from American Express or money orders at the Post Office. You also can hide cash in an RV. Think about it, a nonRVing thief would be pretty lost with the nooks and crannies and removable panels we have in a typical RV. Get out your screwdriver and be creative here—in your underwear drawer is not creative
Accounting and Taxes
You can drive the RV but you can’t outrun taxes. Each state has unique sales tax laws and you may have to collect and pay this tax if you sell a retail product. It is your responsibility to apply for a sales tax permit as a “transient vendor.” Do business, follow their rules, and pay your taxes. Occasionally, a town will have additional tax requirements. Check with the RV event planners on this.
For accounting, we use a homemade Excel spreadsheet. Our needs are simple and a daily expense/income worksheet does the job for cash-accrual accounting. We post what comes in (income) and what goes out (expenses). It works. We send this spreadsheet (plus other stuff) to our CPA and they magically calculate what the IRS will get.
We have an excellent mail forwarding service called a “daughter.” Our mail goes to her, when it accumulates she calls, we talk over what to toss, and she sends us the rest. We have used UPS Stores to receive our mail package but their “rules” change from store to store. Some will receive mail in your name, some won’t, some charge, some don’t. You must call and ask. Also ask your RV park if they will receive your packages while you are staying with them. I have used the USPS General Delivery on two occasions and it worked fine. However, I believe that if it’s important enough to send, it’s important enough to have a tracking number.
FMCA (800-448-1212), Escapees RV Club (888-757-2582), and Good Sam Mail Service (888-726-6245) all have mail forwarding services. Regardless of how you get your mail forwarded, get rid of the catalogs and junk mail. It may take months to accomplish this.
The one unique RV business challenge is inventory—the larger the product, the larger the problem of storing and hauling it. Bulk product must be stored (our daughter does this) or shipped directly to you in smaller quantities and at extra expense. We sometimes haul lots of books by carefully packing (stuffing?) them in our RV and tow car if we are headed to multiple shows. While we start out with too many, we decrease our inventory from show to show.
If you are looking for a product to sell, then the size of that product is a definite factor and will affect your lifestyle. I refuse to pull a trailer. A trailer would have to hold our car and inventory—but some RVers do. Service providers often carry smaller inventories but the need for specialized tools, equipment, or repair parts may also consume significant space.
To get in front of RVers (newbies, wannabies, and old-timers), you must travel to RV events. There are two major types of events: rallies and shows. An RV rally is a planned get-together based on something in common, e.g., an “owner’s rally” is based on the RV brand. RV rallies are designed to draw people that already own an RV.
RV shows charge an entrance fee and attendees tour the latest RVs plus see related products such as tow bars, campgrounds, insurance, books, and gadgets. It’s like going to the mall. If your product or service is focused on the “wannabie” (that person looking to purchase an RV), then the RV show is where they will be.
Both shows and rallies charge vendors a booth fee for selling. This can be cheap (we once paid $25.00 for one booth space) to expensive (and once paid $1,180.00 for one booth space). It is a cost factor in operating your business. RV gatherings can be large (40,000+ people) or tiny (100+ people). Remember: to sell directly to RVers, you must travel to RV events.
Life and business would be far more difficult without the Internet, laptop computers, and cell phones. Simply, the ability to keep track of things and to communicate is significantly more efficient now than ever before.
There are four reasons why an RVer would work:
- To make a living
- To supplement their income
- To make their RV and travels tax deductible
- To have something to do—you cannot just rock on the front porch for 20 years!
Regardless of your reasons, the components that make up a business remain the same. With the exception of moving/hauling inventory, running a business out of an RV is the same as operating from a fixed location. Visit several RV shows and rallies, talk with other vendors, observe the process, and simply do your homework before launching into any business.