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Buying a RV
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The RV Lifestyle
Buying a RV
I have a question about RVs. What is the most economical way to purchase one? And what is the most reliable way to make sure that you are getting quality for your money? I have been searching for information, and I have only gotten confused because of all the differing opinions out there. Of course, all salesmen tell you that the products they sell are the best ones. Furthermore, I am unsure about what costs I can expect in the future after the purchase has been made. Help!
Eight Tips for RV Success
I've been an RV owner since 1994, and I spent nearly four years (1997-2001) living in a 22' travel trailer. I've owned several rigs, and here's what I've learned.
Here's some tips about buying an RV:
- First time buyers (and frugal 2nd time buyers) should always buy secondhand. RVs are just like cars and they depreciate a lot in the first few years.
- Spend a lot of time investigating models, floorplans, etc. Don't let a high-pressure salesman convince you that there's "only one" as good as the one you are looking at.
- When possible, keep your eyes out for RVs being sold by older folks. I've seen many GREAT deals in the paper where a nearly-new RV is being sold at a bargain price because a spouse died or has become sick and the couple is no longer traveling.
- When checking out your new RV, ask the seller to demonstrate that all the features work. Make sure the fridge, stove, awning, toilets, water pump, etc. are working.
- Look inside closets, cabinets, etc. and check for roof leaks. Water leaks cause dry rot in the walls and framing of an RV and can be terribly expensive to repair. Leaks are usually pretty evident by discolored patches in the walls and/or ceiling.
- If you aren't sure about what kind of rig you want, then rent first. Although RV rentals are expensive (around $100/day), it's much cheaper than buying something you hate.
- When you find a rig you like, find out the blue book value of it. Then bargain, bargain, bargain!
- If you live in a colder area, do your RV shopping in the fall when the camping season is over. Many RV owners and dealers are looking to offload their rigs cheaper, since there isn't much demand for camping in the winter months in many areas.
Research, Research, Research!
Existing RV owners are usually older and wiser. Look for an RV park close by, go there, and look around. Ask questions when you see a model of RV that you think that you might like. There will be lots of opinions, but you will quickly begin to make up your own mind.
Join one of the RV clubs that has a magazine, and check out some books and videos on the subject. Good Sam Club is one, but there are others. There are some that cater to single RV owners, full-timers, etc.
Go to an RV show and walk the models. Be sure to talk to the sales staff and attend the informational seminars.
Go to an RV dealership (preferably one with a good local reputation) and kick the tires.
Rent an RV of the type that you are considering for a week or weekend to "try it on for size." This will be a little pricey (compared to renting a car), but the lessons learned are invaluable.
Hit the local bookstore, local library or an on-line bookseller and pick up a volume or two on the RV lifestyle. They will usually have a section or so on checking a potential purchase out and cutting costs to the bone.
If possible, have a trustworthy RV mechanic go through a potential purchase, especially check the "systems" (heating, AC, electrical, plumbing, etc.). These can become bottomless money pits if they have been let go until they no longer function as designed.
RV Advice Site
Owning every type of RV on the road during the past 30 years has given me a mixed bag of experiences with sellers, dealers, and manufacturers. My conclusion is the more research a potential buyer does before the purchase the happier the buyer will be after the sale. There are many good internet sites to determine value, issues, and expectations of most any RV in which a person may be interested. One of the best sites I have found is RVAdvice.com . The site includes many links to specific areas of interest.
Concerning quality for your money, I would suggest a used RV with low mileage and some warranty coverage still available. Several companies offer extended warranties and/or service contracts. One very important thing to remember if purchasing from a dealer is "If it isn't in writing, it didn't happen." When you are out walking around the RV sales lot, the salesmen will tell you this and that about the RV you are interested in purchasing. But if you don't require the considerations that are important to you to be written in the sales agreement, you loose. This mistake has cost me thousands of dollars. If you are purchasing from an individual, I would suggest having the potential purchase checked thoroughly by a professional. One final suggestion is read, read, read. "Trailer Life" magazine is a good place to start.
Life On Wheels
Over the past 25 years, we have owned two trailers and two 30' fifth wheels. The options for an RV are endless. There are tent trailers, trailers, fifth wheels and all kinds (classes) of motor homes. One of the very best sources of information about not only purchasing an RV, but also for maintaining one, is attending the week-long Life On Wheels conference that is held in Moscow, Idaho every summer. There you will have lots of opportunity to talk to the hundreds of RV owners, take four 1 1/2 hour classes a day on all aspects of RV ownership and even tour through a lot of the RVs that are owned by participants. About 800 people attend this event every year with about 1/4 being people who are looking into RV ownership. Check out the LifeOnWheels.com site for more information and lots of links to more resources.
One good way to get the funds to purchase an RV is through a home equity loan at your bank. Because the RV is considered a second home, the IRS allows you to deduct the interest on the loan. Certain brands of trailers and fifth wheels that are wood frame construction have a real problem with leaking. One of ours had this problem. Finding where the water is actually coming in is very difficult because where it comes in on the outside is usually very different from where it appears on the inside. For this reason, we have stayed with fiberglass construction and have never had leakage problems. Tour the plants where the RVs are built.
As to expenses you will incur once you have your own RV, there really are a lot. There is insurance, license fees, the same vehicle expenses you would have with owning a car if it is a motor home, and the cost of purchasing a tow vehicle if you choose a trailer. You will need to supply the RV with things like toiletries, cleaning supplies, and linens for bathroom, bedroom and kitchen.
The special toiler paper that is used in the black water tank is a special, and very expensive kind. You will want dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances. An RV has lots of maintenance like keeping the outside clean and waxed, checking the roof, maintaining the air conditioning unit, buying propane, winterizing the tanks in the fall and purifying those same tanks in the spring. You will be dumping your black water (sewage) tank every few days when you are using the rig and again once you arrive back home with it. Find a place close to your home where you can do this. You'll need leveling jacks and boards, artificial turf or carpeting for outside, lounge chairs and perhaps a BBQ. Most cities will not allow you to store your RV on your property, which means you will need to pay between $50 and $100 per month in a storage facility.
Probably the biggest expense, once you have bought the rig of your dreams, is either the tow vehicle or a small vehicle to be towed. With a trailer of any size, you need to have about a 3/4-ton truck with a special towing package and heavy-duty suspension. If you opt for a motor home, you will need to tow a small vehicle to get around in once you are set up in a campground. You can't just take the motor home into town for an evening out, a gallon of milk, or sightseeing. You need to have the RV stay put in order for the refrigerator to run so your frozen food will not thaw or your other foods won't spoil.
Financing Your RV
Because motor homes are considered for mortgages, a 15-year loan is the best way. However, keep in mind that a 5th wheel is not classified as a motor home and is not available to be purchased by way of 15-year mortgage payments. Motor homes are classified as homes, therefore the interest can be considered a tax deduction, but if you have a part time business and file tax paperwork on it, you also have the option of depreciating the unit.
Motor homes cannot be insured with just anyone. Check around, and if you are over 50 with a good driving record and own another home, you may qualify for multiple discounts as well.
As far as quality goes, look for sound wood on cabinets and detailing. While I do not own a Jayco, I love the quality that is put into them. Winnebago has really come down on their quality as well as Coachman. Jayco still holds onto the adage, "you get what you pay for." They are a little pricier, but when you are talking about a 15-year loan on a vehicle that looses value when you drive it off the lot, I recommend their product.
Plan to buy one and only one! Because they lose value like an automobile, buying "up" is a joke. Most salespeople will end up rolling the shortage into the new loan. My advice is go for 30 feet if you are two to four people traveling constantly. If it is any smaller, you will feel cramped. Also look for one with a "basement" option. The hoses for water and tanks are located there. If you travel in colder climates, most motor homes will have the option for an air vent to blow heat there so the "pipes" and tubing won't freeze on you. You also get a heck of a lot of "free" storage.
You want to buy an RV? Great! Here's how I made my decision:
Do you know what kind of RV you want? You can buy a trailer, camper/pickup, chassis-mount or a large self-contained model. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Do you want a brand new one with a warranty, or will a used one do as well? How many people will you have to find sleeping quarters for, and will all of them be with you on every trip?
Salespeople are fine as a source of information, but don't let them make your decision for you. I always buy used vehicles, but I have an excellent and trusted mechanic who charges $60 to check over a vehicle and tell me everything he learns about it. He has kept all my various vehicles running well over the last ten years or so. You really can't beat a good mechanic. He can tell you what types of vehicles are reliable and which ones "won't pass a garage." I found mine by word of mouth. He doesn't advertise anywhere and has minimal information in the phone book, yet his yard is always full and his shop has almost more work than they can handle. He isn't cheap, but he is worth every penny I pay him.
Pop-up trailers are very inexpensive, but they can get cold if you enjoy winter camping because there is no insulation. Also, they are not very good if you camp in areas that have high wind conditions. If you have a growing family and not much money, a used pop-up trailer can be a good buy. Check to see if a toilet/shower add-on is available (Coleman sells them). If you are buying used, open up the trailer, check all hinges and hardware, make certain everything works as it should and check the fabric and netting for signs of fraying. Fabric replacement is expensive and could be the reason the seller will "let it go cheap." You may want to have a mechanic check the axles, wheels and brakes. Put soapy water on all gas line fittings, open the valves and look for bubbles around the outside of the fittings, which indicate leaks. Ask the seller to replace leaky gas fittings if you do not know how to do this yourself. Check inside for signs of water leaks and/or mildew. Smell the cupboards, mattresses and cushions. Look underneath the carpet in the corners. Make sure your truck has a towing package and can handle the weight.
Hard-side trailers are much better in rain, wind or cold and also cost more. A well-cared-for trailer will still be as good as a new one even after 30 years of use. (I know people who have gotten really good deals on nice old trailers.) If buying used, again, check the axles, all gas line fittings, and look signs of water leaks and/or mildew. Remember to make sure your truck has a towing package and can handle the weight.
A truck carrying a camper is versatile and my own choice. You can drop the camper and use the truck to haul trash to the dump or help your kids move to a college dorm. Your truck can tow a ski boat in addition to hauling your camper, something you can't do if you use a trailer! But this kind of rig is top-heavy and can be difficult to drive when the wind blows hard. Also, backing under the camper and securing it to the truck requires at least two people, unless you have had a lot of practice. If you buy used, look for leaks and so on the same as you would for the trailer. Make sure your truck has heavy-duty suspension and is capable of carrying the load. You'll also need to put heavy-duty tires on it. If you like to read, I recommend "Travels With Charley" by John Steinbeck. He found out about the tires the hard way!
A chassis-mount is the cab of a van or truck with a camper attached, mounted directly on the frame. You can't take it off the way you can a slide-in camper, but the rig is the same size as a large van and is easier to drive and park than a big RV. They are roomier inside than a camper/truck and get about the same mileage. You can tow with them. I had one for a while and they are nice, but I needed a truck in addition to a camper and wound up going to the truck/camper combination. (By the way, after I paid my mechanic the $60 inspection fee, I used what he told me to chew the seller down $1,000 on the price when I bought the van!)
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Self-contained RV coaches, such as those made by Winnebago, are very comfortable and convenient. They are roomy, often have awnings and air conditioners, and new ones have built-in microwave ovens. Some come with TV sets and dish set-ups for a wireless computer connection. Larger models often have units that "pop out" sideways, usually the kitchen, to give you more room when you are parked. You can tow a small car, which is a good idea if you get a huge one, as they are difficult to drive in heavy traffic or on narrow streets. If you live in California and your RV weighs more than 26,000 lbs. or has a long wheel base (a bus), you'll need a Class B license (check your own state for licensing requirements). Some large luxury models cost as much as a small house!
Some other things to keep in mind:
- RV's get lousy gas mileage. Some RV's have diesel engines, which last a lot longer than gasoline engines, but in some areas (like around where I live), it can be hard to find a really good diesel mechanic. If you have a truck/camper rig, you really need that auxiliary gas tank. The last trip I took when all my children were still at home (a 10-day trip for four people), our biggest expense item was gasoline.
- Where are you going to keep it when you are not camping? A lot of cities have ordinances restricting the size of vehicles that can be parked on city streets. If you live in such a city and purchase a large RV, you may have to rent storage for it, unless you can drive it into your back yard.
- Are you paying cash, or will you finance your purchase? RV loan rates are generally higher than auto loans. Shop around for financing before you make your purchase. If you belong to a credit union, they often finance used as well as new RVs and you can't beat the rates. Financing arranged through a dealership often comes with a high APR.
- Check with your insurance agent about coverage availability and cost. It would be such a shame to buy a nice RV and then discover you can't afford the increased insurance premiums!
- I will never forget the day my kids and I watched a motor home burn completely on the 190 west out of Death Valley. The road out through Emigrant's Pass has a long, steep grade. We found out later that the transmission had overheated, setting the carpeting on fire. It blocked the narrow, two-lane road in both directions while it burned, even though the guy had pulled it over onto the shoulder. The propane tanks and tires exploded one at a time, making it dangerous to be anywhere nearby. By the time a fire truck got out there, nothing was left but a charred frame and puddles of melted aluminum on the ground. Fortunately, they'd driven out as part of a group and had a ride home and money to buy food and clothes. A Park Ranger told me they have one burn like that every ten days or so during the peak season (which in Death Valley is November through April). Here' the lesson learned. Always have a trusted mechanic go over your rig before a long trip. Fix any mechanical problems right away. A temperature gauge for the transmission, and/or a separate cooling system for the transmission fluid would be worth the expense.
- If you still can't make up your mind, consider renting an RV for weekend trips so that you can try a few before you buy. If you check on the Internet for local businesses, you can rent nearly every type of RV made. Where I live, there is a tent-trailer rental and sales business at the local Auto Mall. They rent out Coleman tent trailers (pop-up trailers) for two to three years, then sell them as used. They are well cared for, maintained between rentals, and can be an excellent buy if that is what you want. One large, nation-wide rental outfit is CruiseAmerica.com. I have seen rigs of various sizes with that web address painted across the back in campgrounds and at beaches everywhere. If you want a list of referrals, www.rvra.org has a worldwide directory of RV rentals and dealers. Typing "Rent RV" into the Google search engine resulted in over 200,000 hits!
- An RV is not a good investment. They are expensive to buy, expensive to keep, and you'll never get anywhere near what you paid for it when you sell. If you have the money, they are a wonderful way to see the country and build memories with your family. My parents had a truck/camper rig and towed a ski boat. We went camping all over California, and I will never forget the good times we had together. Plus, you'll always be a welcome houseguest when you bring your own bed! Good Luck to you!
GM in California
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