For years, retiree Basil Deem and his longtime companion cruised the country in their 37-foot motor home.
With an RV park membership that gave them access to dozens of resorts around the country, they wintered in Florida and summered in the Northeast and Nevada, often paying as little as $5 a night for a parking site.
But when Deem became disabled and no longer able to comfortably handle the RV lifestyle, the Roseville resident found he couldn't cancel his $99-a-year membership.
Most everyone's heard of time-share troubles, where people can't sell or get out of their annual and often escalating dues and fees at time shares in Hawaii, Cancún or other resort areas.
Last week, in fact, timeshare sales and resales ranked among the top 10 categories of consumer complaints nationwide, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators.
But there's another, lesser-known and less-frequent type of time-share complaint: RV park memberships.
It's difficult to pin down numbers of RV-related complaints to the Better Business Bureau, which lumps them into several categories, including timeshare rentals and resales. Overall, time-share resales and rentals are among the top 100 complaints logged by BBB offices nationwide.
"In general, it's like a time-share rental, only it's in an RV park or campground," said Cailin Peterson of the Northeast California Better Business Bureau office in West Sacramento.
The membership contracts typically require a yearly fee, which entitles the owner to 14 or so nights a year at low overnight rates.
"In these sorts of cases, reading a contract before signing is key," said the BBB's Peterson. "No matter how simple a purchase a consumer believes he or she is making, reading the agreement is important."
In Deem's case, he didn't realize that the small print in his contract with Timber Lodge RV Resorts Inc., an Apple Valley, Minn.-based company, stipulated that the membership couldn't be terminated until "the death of the fourth owner" or third transferee.
In other words, he could sell or let his heirs inherit his membership. But even then there would need to be two more changes of ownership before the contract could be terminated. The company refers to it as a "charter lifetime" contract.
When Deem tried to give up his $99-a-year-contract in 2010, the company declined, citing the transfer clause. It offered to help him sell his RV membership for a $599 listing fee or let him purchase a "lifetime membership" for $996.
Deem, who with his companion spent nine retirement years living in his RV while traveling the country, said it's common practice to let memberships lapse when the owner becomes too elderly or disabled to continue the RV lifestyle.
"This was a shock," said Deem, a retired Air Force master sergeant and former criminal investigator, who admits he feels "pretty stupid" for signing a contract without reading it carefully.
Another former Timber Lodge membership owner, Bay Area resident James Chunn, said he and his wife had about five such memberships and spent 13 years as full-time RVers. The memberships, he said, allowed the couple to stay at RV parks all over the country for as little as $1 to $2 a night.
When they were ready to give up the road, they contacted each company and asked to close their memberships. Every company except Timber Lodge signed off, said Chunn, a retired JC Penney manager now living in Concord. It refused, citing the generation clause.
It took months and a letter from his attorney, who Chunn said called the clause the most "unreasonable and far-fetched" he'd ever seen, to finally get Chunn's Timber Lodge membership closed.
In an emailed response to a reporter's questions, a Timber Lodge spokesman, who declined repeated requests to be named, said the company provides "many options every time a customer requests to cancel the contract."
The spokesman said the company has had only three complaints filed against it by the BBB, all of which were resolved. The BBB cites 27 complaints filed against Timber Lodge in the last three years.
In his case, Deem filed a complaint with a Minnesota BBB office, which took the case to arbitration. During the dispute, Deem said Timber Lodge hit him with several $10-a-month late charges on his $99 annual fee and his account was turned over to a collection agency.
Eventually, Deem said, after he paid about $200 in collection agency fees and late charges, the company agreed to "rescind and cancel" his contract. But his credit score got dinged during the two-year process, he noted.
"I'm trying to let other RVers know that there are predatory companies out there that will take advantage of you," said the Roseville retiree. "If you're not careful, you can end up with a poor credit history and long-term consequences."
As for Deem's RV, it's now retired to a storage lot.
RVs: BY THE NUMBERS
Typical RV owner: Age 48, median income of $62,000
Ownership: 8.9 million U.S. households own RVs, an industry all-time high, up from 7.9 million in 2005
RV sales: Up 2.1 percent through May 2012, including travel trailers, fifth-wheels and motor homes
Average cost: $132,000 for all motor homes purchased in 2011
Biggest gain in buyers: 35- to 54-year-olds, 11.2 percent in 2011, up from 9 percent in 2005
RV owners with children under 18: 39 percent
RV shipments: 252,000, up 4.1 percent from 2010
U.S. privately owned RV parks/campgrounds: Roughly 11,000
Sources: Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds