Thursday, July 14, 2016

Buying Odin the RV

Our Class A RV, Odin the Winnebago

First of all, is it an RV (recreational vehicle)?  Motorhome (sounds fancy)?  Coach (sounds expensive)?  Rig (a fifth-wheel)?  It's our home, so recreational vehicle doesn't feel right.  Technically, Class A's are motorhomes (which has the word "home" in it.)  However, the DMV considers RV a legal term.  I've been flip-flopping back and forth.

When we announced on our Facebook page that we were buying an RV, I received a lot of questions from friends contemplating their own RV purchase.  "Gas vs diesel?"  "Class A vs Fifth-Wheel?" Here's how we did it.  Was it ideal?  No.  But as usual, we did a ton of research before taking the leap.  Friends who own RV's gave us a lot of advice along with forums and salesmen(?). This is our experience:

It was similar to buying a boat: 
  • Start your research online early to find out what is in your price range, what is available in your desired shopping area (and around the country), what are standard features, how long they are staying on the market before being sold, etc.  Try to have realistic expectations going in.
  • Initially, travel to an area where you can walk through as many as possible (for the boat it was Annapolis.  For the RV, it was Florida.). It will help you learn your likes and dislikes.  Look at smaller and larger that your desired length.  Look at units over (and under) your price range to get ideas and understand the differences.  (I didn't get The Colonel to walk through a Class B until the very end and it was too late to "turn the ship around."  We already had a Class A we were interested in.)  After day two of shopping, we had a checklist of likes/dislikes/things to check and the search was revised at the end of each day (and meeting several salesmen will help you decide who you want to do business with).  
  • Call ahead to confirm the RV's you are interested in are still in stock.  Just like boat shopping, not all RV dealers keep their websites current. (Camping World Bartow does.  Our RV was immediately changed to "pending").
  • It is difficult to find a sound mode of transportation and fully furnished home that you both love.  When you do, it's easy to get attached and over look problems (or compromise and buy something that isn't perfect because you're tired of shopping.  I probably won't be happy I don't have an oven in the long-term.  And it's feels HUGE but it may be our full-time home at some point.)
  • When you get serious and especially when you are interested in specific models on the lot, avoid weekends.  There are a lot of tire kickers on the weekend and the salesman (and boat brokers) may not take you seriously.
  • Stand in the shower.  Lay on the bed.  Sit on the couch and look around.  Root through all the cabinets.  You'll be amazed what you'll see if you take your time.  
  • Like boat shopping with a broker, don't be bashful about having a salesmen walk with you so you can ask questions.  We quickly learned to speak our mind.  "Nope, I don't like the layout.  What else have you got?"   Or use key phrases to get your spouse to move on.  "I was really hoping for an oven" (from me) or "It smells funny," (from him) means NEXT!  (I ended up without an oven, but our home doesn't smell funny). 
  • Similar to boat shopping, our budget almost doubled as we discovered our minimum likes and dislikes.  Be prepared for disappointment and to walk away.
What we learned:  
  • Similar to buying a boat, learn the key problem areas of RV's in general.  Water leaks result in structural damage that is VERY expensive to repair, ie. "project boat".  A full set of tires for a Class A is $$$$.  Learn to how to check tire dates.  In our case, it was finding an RV with fully functional air conditioning--check the dash air AND the "back" a/c.  The Colonel's focus was, "I can do the work.  What damage/repair requires cost-prohibitive parts?").  Frequent owner's forums.  Research recalls.   Learn class specific strengths and weaknesses (See below.  Many of our friends have fifth-wheels.  That was our original intent, but research showed finding a used diesel in FL in our price range was going to be difficult--and we'd have to shop for two vehicles, instead of one while homeless and staying in hotels...)
  • Don't be bashful about asking to have it powered up earlier instead of later (a/c not working in July is a deal breaker.  Find out early before you get attached).  Ask for the slides/awning to be run in & out (you definitely MUST do this before leaving a deposit, but asking early will reveal a salesman who is reluctant, not knowledgeable or not taking you seriously).  
  • If you are shopping in hurricane season in FL (JUNE/JULY!) shop early in the day.  It quickly becomes unpleasant as the RV interiors heat up and even a good unit takes awhile to cool down.
Our checklist.  Everyone's will be different but some items we considered mandatory since it will be our full-time home part of the year.  Other items were deal breakers.  When you are trying to decide between two RV's, items like oven or convection and extra awnings can be tie breakers.
Here's a link:

Get an idea where to start by your planned usage and price range.  (Yes, renting one to get an idea of your likes & dislikes is a good idea, but expensive)
  • Class A:  Odin is a Class A (looks like a tour bus!).  Class A's are criticized for being hard to drive (we learned the basics quickly and keep the days short but it's not for everyone) and using a lot of gas (see gas mileage below).  We liked the idea of going back to grab a soda while rolling down the road (we used to say sandwich, but honestly, we just pull over and take a break when it's lunch time) and the cat being able to wander around the house without having to be put into a carrier.  Tons of basement storage.  Frankly, Odin the Winnebago feels bigger than our boat (and your living space also expands outside if weather permits) and the basement storage is nice.  We are hoping to clean out a storage unit in MO (without increasing our gas mileage too much).  Don't forget you'll be using truck stops instead of normal gas stations because of your height.

Class B Winnebago Era

  • Class B:  A camper van.  I get B's and C's confused.  I believe the lines are becoming blurred.  However, in general, this is a van chassis (yawn!)  
Class C Winnebago Aspect

  • Class C:  Based on a standard truck chassis, you can differentiate by the truck "cab".  These are AWESOME!  They are starting to make them with slides so they would have been the perfect size for us (although, if we ever full-timed instead of just 6 months a year, this may become a little small).  We found one we liked with the overhead bunk for a reading nook or storage, Captain's chairs that swiveled for additional seating, a slide to increase to the living area and a slide to increase the bedroom area (we prefer a queen size bed and want to get away from someone having to crawl over like we do in the boat).  You give up space somewhere, so you have decide if that's the shower, the bed access, kitchen or the aisle in the living area.  You can park it anywhere including almost any grandkids driveway.  Easier to drive.  The downside is the PRICE!  We bought a used Class A for half the price of a new Class C.  There aren't a lot on the used market.  People hold onto to these.  They are very popular right now.  (And the reviews are mixed as to whether they tow a vehicle well.  See gas vs diesel)
Fifth-wheel courtesy of
  • Fifth wheel:  Fifth-wheels are distinct for the RV overlapping the truck bed.  Several friends swear by their fifth wheels.  They love the space and "not feeling like their car is in their living room."  Many have multiple slides.  Advantage is you have a second vehicle or toad/dinghy when you want to leave the rv park for groceries.  Cons are: you need a good size diesel truck that can pull the weight.  (Don't get stingy here).  If you already have the truck and want to full-time, this is probably the way to go.  Another con is putting the cat in a carrier to ride in the truck on hotter days, which is most of them for us right now.  Also, we've been told that maneuvering in hilly campgrounds can result in the hitch dragging.
Let's talk towing capacity.  A Prevost pulling a pickup truck with a golf cart in the bed.

Gas vs diesel pusher:
The Colonel should really be writing this section but that's not going to happen.  These are my notes as we learned the pros & cons.  Any good info is his.  Any typos or incorrect statements are mine.

It's common knowledge in the RV world that diesel is preferable over gasoline.  So why aren't they all gasoline?  Sticker price!  As we continued to research, we learned it's not only for durability and gas mileage but various other factors.  Here's some food for thought.  (One salesman said to estimate your mileage vs budget.  He sees many people pay the additional for a diesel and end up putting very little mileage on it, negating the advantage.)
  • Torque:  This is the first thing a salesman will say (YAWN!)  Diesel's have more torque.  Hands down.  It has to do with being able to get over the mountains, la, la, la.  (Our first trip took us through the Smokies and on to Loveland, CO.  No pulling over to wait for the transmission to cool on steep climbs.  That's a good thing.)
  • Engine access:  Now I'm paying attention.  The Colonel is a mechanic.  There is a good chance if we break down, he may be able to fix it!  Diesel engines are in the back of the RV and generally have better access (you can tell if a motorhome is diesel by noting if the engine grill is in the back).  Engine access is usually under the master berth mattress which gives lots of room for maintenance and troubleshooting.  (Just like boats, don't forget to see the engine access of each model.  Deal breakers!)
  • Handling:  Another biggie we didn't know.  Because diesels have the engine in the back, there is less noise and vibration in the cockpit, which results in less driver fatigue (and less wear & tear on the structure overall).  I can't testify to the ride of a gas RV, but our diesel is very quiet up front while on the road.
  • Turning radius:  With the engine in the rear, the turning radius of the front wheels is usually increased to 55-60 degrees (increased turning radius GOOD when you're trying to turn your house around in that campground that looked good on paper).
  • Air-ride suspension:  We've heard complaints that gas-powered RV's are squirrely when it's windy, when towing or when passed by semis.  Diesels have an air-ride suspension that smooths the ride out, resulting in less rattling dishes (I can't explain WHY!  Sorry.  We have it and it's a good thing!)
  • Air braking: Diesels have air brakes (like semis) that help when coming down large hills without overheating the brakes.  We learned our air brakes quickly in the Smokies.  They would hold us at about 55 mph (depending on what gear you were in before they were applied).  Easy peasy.
  • Increased towing capacity:  Since we are full-timing (6 months a year) we will eventually buy a dinghy (car that we will tow).  Diesels can pull from 5000 to up to 10,000 lbs easily.  You can pull a full-size pickup with a Class A, if you want to (nascar pic)
  • Durability:  The estimated service life of a gas engine is 100,000 miles versus diesel engines which are designed to run a million miles before needing a rebuild.  Diesel runs at a lower RPM, thereby increasing the engine life (this is a long-term investment or means you can buy a used diesel with higher mileage diesel than gas)
  • Chassis:  Gas will likely be a Ford chassis (used you may find a Chevy).  Diesel is usually Freightliner, Road Master, Spartan which are basically the same as an over-the-road semi!
  • Gas mileage: Both have similar mpg but the cost of diesel fuel is higher (Supposedly offset by the decreased lifetime maintenance)
  • Operating cost:  The operating cost of a gas RV is less than diesel.  Instead of going to a normal shop, you'll be going to a specialty diesel maintenance shop.  There are more filters and oil is gallons instead of quarts.  I mentally blocked out the cost of a set of tires for a diesel-pusher.  See gas mileage above.
  • Increased living area:  The diesel manufacturer's claim that since the entry door in front of the passenger seat (instead of behind in a gas) you have increased living area.   This is a weak excuse to me, but may affect your interior layout preferences.
  • Storage:  The diesel RV has increased basement storage because of the raised frame
  • Resale value 
So the moral of the story is, decide what's right for you (and in your price range).

Whew!  That felt like a book report!  

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