Legal Issues

Several issues come up when living in an RV, especially if you’re full-timing. One of the main things you’ll hear about a lot if you read the online forums or some of the books that may be on the market, is the sticky question of Domicile Laws and Residency.

If you live in an RV then just the same as everybody else on the planet, you need an address where Big Brother would like to think he could find you. The most common advice given is that the two best choices are moving, at least on paper, to either Texas or South Dakota. The main thrust of the argument is that they are the two states that are most RV friendly. Texas makes it easy to renew your registration, and although they do have annual vehicle inspections, you can defer them for a little while until you’re back in the state. South Dakota make it ridiculously easy to get a driver's license, all that’s required is a receipt showing that you spent at least one night in a campground or local hotel.

Other arguments made are that there may be tax advantages if you’re purchasing a high dollar motorhome. For someone in a paid for older rig, the sales tax is not something to worry about. The other persuasive reason for many people in choosing South Dakota as their official place of residence is that auto insurance can be very cheap compared to other states.

In addition, because of so many RV owners using the state as a domicile, both Texas and South Dakota have many businesses catering to the market. Mail forwarding is a good example. For a fee, there are a number of companies, and many are small home based businesses, that will provide you with what appears on paper to be a physical address in the state. When mail arrives for you, they will forward it to wherever you are that month, and that usually means General Delivery at the local Post Office. Others offer a more sophisticated service that will open your mail, scan it, and then email it to you!

Only you can decide if you need these services and want to move to a state where they are readily available. Mail forwarding is for people who want to maintain a relatively normal lifestyle while full-timing. They want to receive their catalogs, voter registration, bank statements and bills. If you don’t care to vote, and opt for the paperless online options that most banks and insurance companies offer these days, then the question becomes one of is it really worth a monthly fee to receive what will be mostly junk mail.

The bottom line on domicile and residency issues for full-timers, who just want to live their lives in a casual way, and without all the stress of the concrete jungle, is that I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. You already have a driver's license from the state you’re living in now and it’s legal in all the others so does it really matter where it’s issued? Tax is only an issue if you own real estate or owe them income tax on money earned.

Before you head out on the road, get your ducks in a row so you won’t have to worry too much about anything later. Rent a PO Box at your local Post Office so that you still have a legal presence in the state. Many states, like California and Oregon, will allow you to use a PO Box as your official address on your driver’s license. Even the ones that don’t will let you use it as a mailing address. Plenty of people live in motels, rural areas, and other places where they are unable to receive mail. If you’re smart and do everything online, and you can even the PO Box renewal itself online, then the only thing arriving at the box will be your annual vehicle registration. Most states offer online renewal but they will want to mail you out the decal. If you have a friend who can pick it up, leave the key with them and ask them to mail it to you General Delivery somewhere.

If you’re not getting any mail then the worst case scenario is simply that you may have to plan on swinging by your home state once a year or so and then stop at the first DMV you find when you cross the border. As long as you are aware of the expiration date then it shouldn’t be a problem to renew over the counter at any office in the state.
Another issue with the DMV in some states is that they will only issue a temporary driver’s license at the office and want to mail you out the actual card in a week or so. That might be fine when you live in town but when you’re traveling and you’re standing at the counter, then you want to be able to walk out the door with it in your hand. Most states are good about having that kind of information online so it might be a good idea to check what your state’s policies are before you commit to maintaining your residency there.

If your state also does annual smog checks then that may be something you may want to avoid by either changing counties to one that doesn’t smog test or perhaps even taking the state off your list altogether.
Everything else is doable online including auto insurance. Some companies still insist on mailing out physical proof of insurance cards but many don’t. Geico for instance, is one company that does everything electronically and when you renew your policy, it’s simple to print out the insurance cards directly from the website.

On the subject of insurance, make sure you’re carrying at least the basics plus a little bit more if you can. This is your home and you wouldn’t want to lose everything that you have if there’s a fire or accident. Shop around and find the best deal but make sure that you’re purchasing RV insurance and not auto insurance. There’s a big difference and not all companies offer it. Sometimes the agents are not sure themselves and will sell you whatever they think fits your needs but often that turns out to be wrong.

Geico, as mentioned above, offers very flexible RV insurance at the time of writing and so does Esurance. Progressive have a full-timer's packages as well as many other options for insuring your RV, as do plenty of other companies. Contact the one that you’re currently with and ask them what they have but don’t hesitate to shop around if they are too expensive. Remember that all insurance companies have to pay out whatever the minimum requirements are in the state that they’re operating in, so in that sense, all the basic policies, by law, have to be identical. The only difference is the price. That changes of course when you start adding options like roadside assistance and collision but by shopping online it makes the different RV packages easy to compare.

Another question that comes up from time is whether to carry a firearm. Gun laws vary wildly from state to state and some states take policing them more seriously than others do. There have been entire books written on the subject of travelling with firearms but the bottom line for full-timers is that you have to watch what you carry. A shotgun is legal in all states and although there are legal quirks in some areas, if you want a gun for home defense in your RV then that would be the safest bet. Handguns, even if you have a carry permit, will get you in trouble if you are pulled over in states like New Jersey.

I’m sure that there are gun enthusiasts who would argue that they wouldn’t trust the safety of their family to anything less than a loaded firearm. Security is rarely a problem when parked in a motorhome, whether it’s in a populated area or the middle of nowhere.

If you're worried, or just to be cautious, then I would recommend one of the wall mounted pepper spray canisters sold for home defense. Only buy a respected brand like Sabre Red and mount it right by the door so that it’s there in case of need. If you have someone at the door threatening you, a squirt to the eyes will have them on their knees and screaming in pain. Modern pepper sprays are not like the old mace that people on would not always be effective against people on drugs or with mental problems. They act on various aspects of the nervous system and work the same on everybody.

Unlike in a bricks and mortar house where an attacker can trap you while you wait for the cops, once the attacker is disabled, you drive away and call the police from down the road. All you want to do is stop them from getting inside the RV.

Whether it’s personal safety or keeping your paperwork in order, knowing the basics of the law and working within it is a good recipe for not getting hassled by the police, especially in an older motorhome. Life on the road is wonderful and apart from the basics, it only has to be as complicated as you make it.