Living Large on a Little: Campgrounds Go Residential in Germany

An increasing number of people are moving to German campgrounds permanently to save money. The little communities of motor homes and trailers offer a comfortable yet affordable lifestyle that residents say they couldn’t find elsewhere.  

Manfred Moser, 70, calls his tiny abode on Lake Starnberg a paradise.

Manfred Moser, 70, calls his tiny abode on Lake Starnberg a paradise.

Manfred Moser says he’s found his paradise. Just a few steps from his front door, then down a small flight of stone steps, and he’s there. When Moser sits on his bench and the watches the sun set over the lake, it’s not hard to understand what he means. “I’m never going to find anything more beautiful than this,” the 70-year-old says.

Moser’s bench sits directly at the edge of Lake Starnberg, quite a classy address. For the last 15 years, he has lived at a campground in Ambach, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Munich. A 1975 motorhome on a 100-square-meter (1,000-square-foot) lot is his own personal castle. He gave up his apartment in the Schwabing district of Munich long ago.

Moser pays just €2,300 ($3,100) a year in rent, which includes gas and electric, for his paradise. Was it financial need, then, that brought him here? “Nonsense,” Moser says. “I have a good pension.” He moved to the campground because he wanted to, he emphasizes. “Look here, could I afford this otherwise?” Moser says, pointing to a sports car parked on his lot, a silver Mercedes SL 350 that is less than 10 years old.

Inside his motorhome, it’s cramped and warm. The cozy sitting area around the table is piled with fluffy blankets and surrounded by dark wood paneling and green crocheted curtains. In the bedroom, a row of glasses for serving wheat beer lines a shelf above the bed. When Moser’s girlfriend visits from Munich, she sleeps in the guest bed across the room.

There’s a small bathroom next to the bedroom. “I can pee here,” Moser explains. For anything else, he has to walk a couple meters up to the campground’s service building, which also contains two washing machines and hot showers. “I have everything I need here,” Moser says.

Campgrounds Turn Residential

Thousands of people like Moser have made the decision to move to a campground permanently. These campsites are transforming from holiday spots to residential communities that offer affordable living, something in increasingly short supply, especially in urban centers. Even those on a limited income can be their own masters here.

“Over the last 10 years, more and more campers have moved in full time,” says Leo Ingenlath, chair of the Association of Recreational and Camping Enterprises in North Rhine-Westphalia. One reason for this is a relaxation of laws that require all German residents to register their address with the government. Tenants are now no longer required to present certification from their landlords when they do so, which means they can in principle choose to register themselves as living at a campground.

Technically, campgrounds are considered recreational facilities, not residential areas, and the presence of permanent residents is something only tolerated by the cities and towns responsible for them. But campground websites openly advertise the option of registering a campsite lot as a primary address. Most of the campers who choose to do so are people who already spent every vacation in the same place anyway. Even Deutsche Post, Germany’s postal service, has recognized this new development and offers tips on its website to those planning to move to a campground full time.

One of Germany’s largest campgrounds is located outside Kamp-Lintfort, around 20 kilometers northwest of Duisburg. The Freizeit-Oase Altfeld (“Free Time Oasis Altfeld”) sprawls across 220,000 square meters and is home to more than 300 residents who have registered it as their primary address. Most of these residents are over 50 years old, but families with children live here as well.

The place resembles a small village, with a restaurant, a swimming pool and even a day-care center. Each campsite has gas, water and electrical hook-ups. On St. Martin’s Day, in November, the campground’s children paraded past the motorhomes with their traditional lanterns. Preparations for a communal New Year’s Eve party are also underway.

Nature and Community

Campground owner Dietmar Harsveldt, a deeply tanned man in his mid-fifties, sees himself as mayor of this place, and people here trust him. He can’t walk through the campground without receiving a hug from one of his tenants. Harsveldt owns seven campgrounds in total, most of them in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Of his 7,000 renters, 2,000 live there year-round, he says, and business is good. But the city of Kamp-Lintfort wants to forbid long-term campers from registering Harsveldt’s campground as their primary residence. The ministry in charge of construction, it seems, is putting on the pressure.

Harsveldt doesn’t want to stand for that. “A campground just for tourists wouldn’t be profitable here anymore,” he says. A number of years ago, he adapted to this new trend and started investing accordingly in items like larger gas tanks. In the past five years, 80 new campers have moved here, making up around a quarter of the current residents.

“People come to me because things are safe and orderly here,” Harsveldt says. Inside the gate that separates the campground from the outside world, he says, no one needs to fear violence, and his campers come here seeking nature and community. “I always say we prevent depression here.”

Ingrid Spei moved to the campground this February with her husband. Both are in their early fifties and plan to retire there. “We wanted to get out of the city,” Spei says. She works as a sales assistant at a poultry farm and her husband Dieter is a truck driver.

The Speis sold two apartments they owned in Duisburg, and with the revenue of around €60,000, bought a mobile home of the type popular in the United States, a small house on wheels. Their 250-square-meter lot in the campground costs just €430 a month, with gas, electric and water included.

Places of ‘Retreat and Rural Appeal’

Mobile homes look much like suburban homes shrunken down in size, one-story buildings with thin, but insulated, walls. They are popular with Oasis residents, and line the streets here in their various colors and variations, most of them surrounded by small gardens. There are no regulations here about hedges, flagpoles or carports. Residents can set up their homes however they like.

The Speis’ home is painted a matte green. A porcelain dog keeps watch out front and a small car is parked to the left of the mobile home. It all looks very tidy. Inside, it feels like a normal, if somewhat cramped, apartment. The Speis’ living space totals 40 square meters. “That’s all we need,” says Ingrid Spei, sitting at her dining table, a corner with a sofa and a flat-screen TV behind her. The Speis’ home also contains a bathroom with a toilet and shower, a kitchenette and a bedroom with a full-sized bed.

Mobile homes are built on a framework with wheels and can be taken wherever the owner chooses. But, says Spei, “We don’t ever want to leave here.” When her husband recently had to be admitted to the hospital, the couple’s neighbors drove him there. “Just like that,” Spei says, adding that they never experienced that kind of neighborliness in Duisburg.

Horst Opaschowski, a researcher who works in the field of “future studies,” describes campgrounds as “emotional places of retreat with a rural appeal factor.” The rising cost of rent and utilities is increasingly eroding the stagnating income of many low-earners, he says, and moving to a campground is one way to escape the problem. “There, people don’t notice as much that they’re actually getting poorer,” he says.

‘Here I Can Live a Little’

Dietmar Harsveldt says he bears a certain societal responsibility along with his campgrounds. He sees himself as a savior of a middle class that is slowly but surely being pushed out of cities. Residents of his campgrounds also include poor widows and recipients of Germany’s “Hartz IV” social welfare payments for the long-term unemployed.

Harald Forst, 58, belongs to the latter group. A powerfully built, bearded, tattooed man, he explains that he escaped from East Germany in 1985. He came to this campground five years ago, and with the last of his savings he bought a little, blue 25-square-meter cabin. His largest piece of furniture is a huge flat-screen TV. Welfare covers a large portion of the rent for his campsite lot.

Forst has a cat and a garden where flowers bloom in the summer. “I like taking care of them so much,” he says. This little cabin at the campground, he says, is the nicest public-assistance housing he’s ever had. “Here I can live a little bit, even though I have nothing,” he says.

– Spiegel