A snowbird experience living part of the winter in a park model trailer
This year I spent part of my snowbird winter in a park model trailer of approximately 350 square feet. It was exactly the type of accommodation I’d deliberately avoided in past snowbird winters, fearing the space would be too small and I’d feel as if I were camping all winter.
Snowbirds, people from Canada and the northern United States who spend a significant part of the winter in a southern, warmer location, live or rent homes of varying types and sizes for the winter, in regular neighbourhoods or inside 55+ communities. They live in “stick-built” homes, apartments, manufactured homes, trailers, recreational vehicles and campers.
My husband and I have spent the past three winters in the greater Phoenix area of Arizona. We lived our first snowbird winter in a rented patio home in a non-age-restricted gated community. Our second and third winters were in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom manufactured home within an active 55+ community. This winter saw us spending less time in Arizona. Looking for more heat than Phoenix offered in January, we spent five weeks in Panama. (You can read about that experience at Snowbirds Land in Rural Panama and Snowbirds in Pedasi – We are Not in Arizona Anymore.) With only one month planned in Arizona, we decided to give the small park model trailer experience a try.
Park model trailers, although considered recreational vehicles, are designed primarily for long-term placement, where they are connected to utilities. In the United States, park models must remain under 400 square feet to qualify as a recreational vehicle to benefit from vehicle status and not be subject to residential tax. The addition of an Arizona room or a storage shed expands available space. The common width for modern trailers is 12 feet. But older models from the 1980s and 1990s, such as the one we rented, were typically 8 feet wide. Some, also like ours, had additions known as “slide outs” or “tip outs” which extended parts of the trailer an additional 4 feet.
Like any type of accommodation (or everything else in life), there were positives and negatives with this experience. The location was great. The space was small but generally adequate for my husband and myself. It lacked room for entertaining, which meant we visited with family and friends elsewhere. I set my laptop up on the table and was able to write and work comfortably, but I had to move it for dinner time. There was a lot of storage space. Unfortunately much of it was cluttered in a disorderly and somewhat random fashion. The trailer was old. Decor was worn and dated and not to my taste, but the bed was comfortable. There was no washer or dryer in the unit. It turned out I didn’t mind using the laundry facilities within the park. The room was large and I usually had it to myself. I used the time there to read or write. I had a choice of three times for morning water aerobics. My husband found other men to play pool with.
The nature of the trailer meant less separation between outside and inside. The trailer became cold overnight as temperatures dipped and stifling hot in mid-afternoon. Fortunately both the heater and air-conditioner worked well. We usually needed to use both in the same day.
The 55+ park the trailer was in was different than the 55+ community we’d been in the previous two years. That community was made up of well-spaced-out manufactured homes with front and back landscaped yards. There were bushes in our back yard and trees and birds were visible from the back patio. We watched hummingbirds and the occasional woodpecker feed from the hummingbird feeder. The park in which the park model trailer was located contained a variety of trailers, small park models, larger single-wide and double-wide trailers, RVs which had more space than our unit, and campers. All were jammed pretty tightly side-by-side. There was at most two to three feet of frontage, leaving little room for greenery. We had a narrow side patio. The view we had was of other trailers. We heard the birds but didn’t see them. The only visible greenery was when we looked into the sky and saw the leaves of the royal palms, which were planted around the park.
Did it feel like camping? In a word, yes. Some might find the idea of camping for an entire season appealing, but I was never much of a camper and when I do camp I expect to experience nature. This was urban camping.
Could I spend the entire winter in this type of accommodation? Probably not. At least not this particular unit in this particular place. Over the last few years my husband and I have realized we can live in less space with fewer things. An updated, redecorated, differently organized space of this size might work for us. But I would want enough room to have friends over for dinner and to accommodate our daughter or other friends and family for overnight visits. And I would like a more permanent work space. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it would be nice not to have to move it anytime we needed the table for something else.
I should note that a couple of things tainted my perceptions. We arrived in Mesa at the height of a particularly bad allergy season. I suffered for most of the time we were there, living on antihistamines and going through a box of tissues every couple of days. An issue with a leaking hot water heater led the owner to replace the heater half way through our stay. Problems with that installation (or maybe the replacement heater) left us without hot water. The warmest it got was slightly cooler than tepid. The owner was unable to get someone to come look at the problem for two or three weeks. I took quick cool showers or used the shower in the restroom by the pool. We boiled water to wash dishes. This made the experience feel even more like camping. We left a few days earlier than planned. (Note we did get a partial refund on our month’s rent.)
Many snowbirds spend their winters in units like this and have more positive experiences than I did. The units are economical to rent or to own. They are less work to take care of and easier to close up for the summer than other types of accommodation. For many people in this type of unit, the winter is more about life in the 55+ community than life in the trailer. Although on the surface the 55+ parks may look very much like each other, each one has its own personality and emphasis. The average age, activities offered, and nature of the community vary. Finding the community with a focus on the things you like to do and other residents with whom you can develop a connection are what makes these park models become a “home away from home.” As for me, I’ve learned a little more about what I need to feel at home away from home.
Doreen PendgracsApril 10, 2016 at 9:32 pm
Hi Donna. Your accommodations may not have been perfect, but at least there was no snow! We’ve still got snow in Manitoba and tomorrow is April 10th! Safe journeys home.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:39 am
Thanks Doreen. And we were glad to escape the snow and cold.
Noel MorataApril 11, 2016 at 1:10 am
Wow, now that I read this, I’m not sure if you would stay for a longer time frame. I’m assuming there is a big price difference between a manufactured home and community to this type of set up? I think I would also choose Panama or any Latin American country
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:42 am
Noel, for renters this type of accommodation can be cheaper but not always by that much. For owners, the purchase price can be significantly cheaper but ongoing monthly rental fees (includes land lease and access to activities and common areas) are not a whole lot less. I imagine utilities would be cheaper but I don’t know.
Anita and Richard @ No Particular Place To GoApril 11, 2016 at 6:00 am
I’ve long been fascinated with the “tiny house” movement and this fits the model but without the clever organization and multi-use spaces! Over the course of our travels we’ve spent several weeks to month-long stretches in places like your “Park Model” and one thing we’ve learned – you can live in a lot of less than ideal places as long as you know they’re for a short time! A big plus in my book, though would be the idea of a community center to meet other people from different backgrounds and enjoy some activities, especially outside. Anita
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:46 am
Anita, I think it is the community that makes this type of accommodation so popular. I agree it is easier to live in small and less than ideal places when you know it is for short-term. If this had been a longer-term situation, I would have invested some time in reorganizing and making the space suit us a bit better.
lenie5860April 11, 2016 at 6:04 am
Donna, it’s too bad you didn’t really enjoy this part of your snowbird experience, what with the small size, no hot water, boiling water and allergy season. Put that all together and I’m surprised you stayed a month. But it’s all a learning experience, right? Next year you’ll know what you DON’T want.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:47 am
Lenie, there were parts of the experience that were quite good. And in spite of the small space and my running nose I did manage to get a fair bit of writing done.
jacquiegumApril 11, 2016 at 6:58 am
As always Donna, I am impressed with your willingness to give it a go. And as a friend of mine is fond of saying… at least now you have an opinion! And thanks for sharing it!
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:49 am
Jacquie, I certainly have a better idea of what I need to be comfortable for a long-term stay. With some time and a little bit of money I could have made this space work for that, but I wasn’t about to invest that time for a month-long stay.
TerryApril 11, 2016 at 7:04 am
It was nice to see a couple of pictures of what you were staying in.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:49 am
Catarina AlexonApril 11, 2016 at 7:05 am
Donna, I’m impressed that you spent winter in that type of accomodation. Chapeau!
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:50 am
Catarina, it was only one month. I’m not sure I could have done it for four or five months.
Sabrina QuairoliApril 11, 2016 at 10:47 am
Have you ever heard of Tiny Houses. It is a popular option and becoming more and more available all across the US especially in the southwest area in the last 3 years. Google Tiny House rental to see if there are any in the area you want. They are small, mobile or stationary and have updated fixtures and other things. It’s always good when we can learn something about ourselves in a process. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:53 am
Sabrina, I have heard of tiny houses and am quite fascinated with them. I attended an exhibition of tiny house a couple of years ago. Many of them have even less space than we had in the trailer. While I’m fascinated with the concept I don’t know if I could live in one. I’d be interested to see how you’d arrange one with your organizing skills. I’m sure you’d make clever use of the space.
PhoeniciaApril 11, 2016 at 12:58 pm
It looks rather small but probably feels like an adventure. My family home is on the small side, by UK standards let alone those in the USA! However, we have enough room to manoeuvre which is just as well with the children.
It must be rather fun living in a different home for a few months – like an extended holiday!
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:55 am
Phoenicia, living in another house for one month or several months makes you look at your own home differently. You gain a better appreciation for it. I also learned I need less space and sometimes reorganized a few things when I got home.
William RushoApril 11, 2016 at 1:13 pm
My great uncle and aunt use to take theirs down south every year.
I guess not having a permanent house down south, this would be the most accommodating solution. Not sure if I could spend all winter in one, but ask me when the snows up here return.
Thanks for sharing this with us.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:56 am
William, the accommodation definitely is more appealing when you look at weather reports from back home and see frigid temperatures and blowing snow.
EricaApril 11, 2016 at 3:57 pm
That is a really small space so thankfully it was only a month. I’ve had friends live in places that small, but they were at least single and living alone which makes it easier.
I remember as a teenager I did a travelling show in the summer and we would spend the night on different campgrounds. I remember a retired couple saw us rehearse. They spent the summer in a trailer on the campgrounds. They invited us over and we went to their trailer (which had a little outdoor patio area) and we all had spaghetti. It seemed like it would be fun for a little while, but probably a bit much after a while. They seemed to enjoy it.
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 10:58 am
Erica, it is good to understand how much space we need to feel comfortable. Nice outdoor space extends the living area of units like this.
heraldmartyApril 11, 2016 at 4:57 pm
Ah, snowbirds. The entire south shore of Maui is taken over by snowbirds beginning in January and there are often large Canadian flags draped over balconies. I could probably manage in one of those trailers myself but not with someone else because I n-e-e-d my space and that would definitely be in short supply in one of those. Still, great to read about your adventures as always. 🙂
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 11:00 am
Marquita, one trailer in the park had a flag flying which was a hybrid of the U.S. and the Canadian flag. It had the stars in the corner, but a maple leaf took over the stripes part of the flag.
Peta KaplanApril 11, 2016 at 6:43 pm
Theres value just in the downsizing of ones stuff… Its defintely a change of attitude. But the less stuff, the freer one is and the easier moving around is.
Interesting to read about your experiences. Forme f the bed is comfy and theres hot water then those are the priorities for me!
Donna JankeApril 12, 2016 at 11:01 am
Peta, I downsized a couple of years ago (although not to anything this small) and agree there is something freeing about it. Thanks for stopping by.
Rose Mary GriffithApril 13, 2016 at 11:18 am
Quite interesting to read about this travel experience, Donna. Husband and I talk about traveling in an Airstream after we retire. I’m all for doing a big trial run like this before we make such a huge investment. I think I’d be okay as long as I had a devoted writing space like you mentioned. It’s always intriguing to learn how much we can do without.
Donna JankeApril 15, 2016 at 11:10 am
Rose Mary, I think you could be quite comfortable living and traveling in a small space if you can organize it and decorate to what best suits you. If you get serious about the Airstream thing, I’d recommend making a short trip or two in a rented unit before getting your own. Years ago, when my daughter and step-daughters were quite young, we travelled through southwest England in a motorhome, It was a great experience, but I also learned a few things about what I would have looked for or avoided when purchasing a motorhome for ourselves (something we never did).I would never have considered these things before actually travelling in one.
Susan cooperApril 13, 2016 at 2:17 pm
I could live in one of the new mini houses that are all the rage now especially if I had decorated and designed it. But the whole winter in a run down small trailer I think wouldn’t last long for me either. If it has to be small i want it to be nice and homey. 🙂
Donna JankeApril 15, 2016 at 11:11 am
Susan, being able to set up and organize a small set to what suits you best is key to feeling at home I think.
klagowskiApril 13, 2016 at 8:52 pm
Brave you for spending an entire winter in that trailer! We used to have a tiny cottage up north that I adored, but it had no indoor plumbing and was not winterized in any way. It’s great when you can spend most of your time outside (which we did) but a bummer when the weather got cantankerous. Still, it looked cozy and I’m sure you have some fond memories!
Donna JankeApril 15, 2016 at 11:14 am
It was only one month, not the entire winter. Like your cabin, being outdoors is a big part of the attraction for this type of unit.
Jason BApril 14, 2016 at 8:21 am
I’m always eager to read about your different travel experiences. I think I could live in a trailer for a month of two. It would be fun and get me out of my comfort zone.
Donna JankeApril 15, 2016 at 11:26 am
ramonamckeanApril 14, 2016 at 11:38 pm
Yes, Donna, you’re an adaptable soul who’s willing to give something a try! Sounds like you did remarkably well. Another new experience in making a home away from home. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Donna JankeApril 15, 2016 at 11:29 am
Ramona, I think I am fairly adaptable, although there are some living situations I know I would not be comfortable with. I’m learning about making a home away from home. I have actually been thinking a lot lately about what home really means.
ramonamckeanApril 15, 2016 at 1:47 pm
Donna, usually I’m not one for what I deem to be “trite” (as in cliche-ish) expressions, though I must admit that they often speak true. One is “home is where the heart is.” I also think it’s possible to have many different homes, physically and emotionally. The homes can be where we lay our heads down at night or where we walk along the streets. We’re both travellers and I’m pretty sure you know what I mean! 😉
Janice ChungApril 16, 2016 at 11:59 am
I really appreciated learning more about what it would be like to live in a trailer park. Certainly having no “stunning view” would be one of my biggest concerns. That, and the limited amount of space. When you said park models must remain under 400 square feet I had no idea. But I think the best part of your vacation was simply being in the warmth (OK, during the day!). So nice to get away from the cold Canadian winters!
Donna JankeApril 23, 2016 at 4:49 pm
Janice, the entire purpose was to get away from the cold and that was great.
Betsy WuebkerApril 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm
My parents cashed in their life insurance and bought a brand new park model in the late 70s. It was in a beautiful location on the Myakka River outside Venice, Florida, and they spent ten winters there. Dad had the time of his life going fishing every morning, and some other legendary adventures we still laugh about in the family. Mom didn’t initially want to go at all. but later when her health failed we had a dickens of a time getting her to leave. As you say, the key factors are location, flexible use of space, lack of clutter, and amenities. I wouldn’t have been happy in the unit in your photo, but I could definitely be very comfortable in a similar situation such as my parents had. The space as I remember it, feels just right after a nomadic existence in hotels and other temporary accommodations.
Donna JankeApril 23, 2016 at 4:51 pm
Betsy, it sounds as if your parents had a great experience in their park model in Venice.
Jeri Walker (@JeriWB)April 21, 2016 at 2:29 pm
As someone who aspires to live in a tiny house or RV one of these days, this is really fascinating to me. I love the communities for travelers and snowbirds like this that exist. I also love old trailers and have often thought about restoring them.
Donna JankeApril 23, 2016 at 4:53 pm
Jeri, restoring old trailers could be a fun thing to do. I love when people find clever and attractive ways to maximize use of small spaces.