Vintage camper vans of the 1970s have made a comeback in British Columbia, a trend realtors and consumers link to the rising costs of real estate in the region.
Lightweight, compact, and towable, these moulded fibreglass trailers serve as an alternative for many urbanites seeking remote vacations without the expense of a traditional cottage or cabin.
Real estate costs in British Columbia have surged in recent years and vacation properties are no exception to this rule. The median cost of recreational homes across the province has increased by 19 per cent since 2017, according to a 2018 survey of Re/Max brokers and agents. High-demand vacation areas in the province such as Sun Peaks and Tofino have seen median price increases of 34 per cent and 112 per cent, respectively.
Simultaneously, camper vans have skyrocketed in demand over the past few years, according to Joe Thoen, chief executive of Team Trillium Manufacturing, a maker of vintage-style trailers. He attributes the desirability of new and used compact fibreglass trailers such as Trillium’s Outback model to the rising costs of living in Western Canada, including fuel prices.
“With the price of fuel, people wanting smaller vehicles, and having a place to park them at home where they don’t have to pay for large RV storage sites that might cost 45 to 85 dollars a month, the popularity’s just grown like crazy,” Mr. Thoen said. “They want small, they want compact and they want luxury.”
Kim Little, who lives in Vancouver, is one of those buyers. She bought her original 1970s Trillium trailer this spring, seeing it as a financially viable way not to miss out on cherished summer holidays. She’s since taken her trailer across Western Canada numerous times over the course of the summer. During her trips, she sublet her home in Vancouver as a way to offset costs.
Her trailer, purchased used from an owner in Alberta, cost her $6,200. A good deal for a used fibreglass trailer, according to Ian Giles, vintage camper fanatic and repairman. Mr. Giles estimates the standard used vintage camper now sells for $8,000 to $10,000. Team Trillium’s base price for a new trailer is slightly higher, at $15,000, while higher-end models run between $20,000 and $25,000.
The costs of both used and new trailers pale in comparison with those of cottage properties in British Columbia’s vacation areas, which Ms. Little, a realtor herself, estimates to have surged in the past few years owing to the rising number of baby boomers purchasing these homes as their primary residence.
“Areas that we previously considered as rec properties, like, for instance, the Sunshine Coast or Parksville," Ms. Little said, "the baby boomers are moving there, so they’re selling their main home and they’re buying these places to retire.”
“What I’ve seen is those kind of prices, like waterfront, went … back up to easily [$1.5-million] and $2-million. Now for the Sunshine Coast, you’re looking at a cottage for $1.5-million.”
Elton Ash, regional executive vice-president of Re/Max of Western Canada, says the uptick in the purchase of recreational property by baby boomers has left millennials and young parents who “want to enjoy what the great outdoors has to offer” with little option but to vacation in mobile homes.
“The millennial demographic is the largest demographic segment ever,” Mr. Ash said. “As they are now entering the family-rearing stage of their lives, there is no surprise that there is even greater demand on the RV market.”
The standard vintage camper van provides the basic amenities of a traditional recreational property. The original Boler camper, invented in 1968 and now a much sought-after retro-look camper, was designed to sleep four people and came equipped with a stove, a fridge or ice box, a sink with a hand pump and a movable dinette table.
A 2018 Re/Max recreational property survey found that respondents aspired to own vacation properties to “go and relax and spend time with friends and family” and “do activities I can’t do at my permanent residence, [such as] hiking, fishing, etc.” For those unable to meet the escalating costs of recreational property ownership, camper vans are filling the gap.
That’s certainly the case for Margaret Cormier. The New Westminster resident owns a vintage Boler camper, which she purchased with her partner 15 years ago for $3,600. While the couple estimate they put another $4,000 into repairing the used camper, they still consider the Boler a cost-effective alternative to a cottage.
“We had friends who bought recreational property on Vancouver Island and the Interior and we started looking for opportunities and really thought about, did that make sense for us?” Ms. Cormier said. “We decided that it didn’t make sense for us because we didn’t want the responsibility of having our heritage house to maintain and another house that also needed to be maintained. And then, of course, there’s also the whole cost thing. Oh my God, how do you manage two mortgages?”
For Ms. Cormier, camper vans offer the same type of vacation she would have experienced by purchasing a waterfront property.
“For me, it’s still about getting to a lake or the river or the ocean or something where I can actually get my feet wet and maybe even go for a swim, which is most people’s idea of having a cottage at the lake,” she said. “That’s our goal always; it’s still that lake experience, but it’s a different lake all the time.”