Caravan Buyers Beware

Peter Quilty — 7 January 2019

“Let the buyer beware” is a translation for the Latin term, caveat emptor. It’s the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made — and that the onus is on them to conduct due diligence before handing over their money. The principle also suggests that buyers typically have less information than sellers about the goods or services they are purchasing. 

This ‘information asymmetry’ is alive and well in the caravan industry! Thus there are many questions buyers, especially first-timers, should ask when talking to caravan dealers and manufacturers, prior to embarking on a caravanning adventure. 

In this first instalment of a two-part series we offer our own words of wisdom for first-time buyers and also get some sage advice from Goldstream RV sales manager, Mitch Damyon, who is at the industry coalface and fields many cautious enquiries, predominantly from first-time buyers. 



Caravan World provides the following advice (based on new RVs) in an effort to give first-timer buyers, in particular, some peace of mind before, during and after making that all-important caravan purchasing decision.

TAKE THE NEEDS TEST

So you want to enjoy the great outdoors in an RV. The first question: where to start?

You need to consider travel intentions — weekend trips, school holiday vacations, or extended excursions? Do your plans include any rugged offroad destinations?

Do you have the right tow vehicle or do you intend to purchase one? If you plan to purchase a towable RV then we suggest doing so before deciding on your tow vehicle, as your intentions may change once you start researching (eg.: how many beds will be required; will bunks be suitable for some; is a bathroom/ensuite essential).

You also need to consider whether you intend to camp out away from 240V mains power or stay the majority of nights in a holiday park with full facilities.

YOUR WISH LIST

Start compiling your ‘wish list’, however it's best to be flexible. Divide your list into: must-haves, would-like-to-haves, and not-really-need-to-have features.

Break down your wish list into categories, including chassis, exterior, interior, bathroom, lounge, kitchen, major appliances, 240V/12V power requirements, fresh/grey water holdings and storage, heating/cooling etc.

Most RVs include the more popular items within their standard specifications, so many of these may be on your wish list.

WEIGHTS & REGULATIONS

The ‘tale of the tape’ is often overlooked when considering the purchase of a caravan or motorhome.

Irrespective of your intentions, you must take into account your current or future tow vehicle towing capacities and capabilities. Many soft SUV vehicles have restricted towing capacities so be careful and check the ID plates or handbooks.

When considering whether your tow vehicle is up to the task, you need to take into account not just the Tare weight, or weight of your empty RV, but also the total weight of the unit when it is fully loaded with items like food, bedding, kitchen utensils, toys, tools and don't forget fresh and grey water. This total weight may restrict the ball download weight. 

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Armed with your needs test, wish list and tow vehicle’s maximum permissible weights including ball download weight, it’s time to kick-start the research phase.

Narrow your search to a specific RV category. As well as specialist magazines such as Caravan World, use the internet and word of mouth to learn more about specific brands and models that may suit your needs.Caravan/ RV shows and RV dealerships are another great wealth of information. 

If you have a budget in mind then stick to this: check the history of the brand(s) that interest you to ensure they are reputable. Online forums are also useful for this.

Most RV manufacturers provide customisation, so check if you require an item they may not display. 

DECISIONS, DECISIONS!

After exhaustive research you should have narrowed the field to two or three RVs. You should have their detailed specifications, warranty, delivery schedule and quotes to commence comparisons.

It’s time to cross check your lists against each brand and highlight any omissions and take into account any bonuses.

PURCHASE STAGE

Now you have come to the buying stage. Some RV manufacturers have multiple retail dealerships while others have only one or two.

A couple of obvious questions are: should I wait for a caravan show to buy? And how do I obtain the best price?

It probably depends on how quickly you want your new RV. Some dealerships may have aged, display or demo stock to clear that meet your specifications and are keenly priced.

The classic term 'you get what you pay for' is no different in the RV industry. The Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA) has a division that provides essential information to its RV manufacturing members and audits for compliance.   

Keep in mind that RVs generally increase in price year-on-year due in part to labour-intensive manufacturing, so what you buy today may be 20 percent more expensive in five years time. 

Depreciation in towable RVs can be minimal if they are looked after and well maintained. Motorised RVs such as motorhomes and campervans will depreciate due to kilometres travelled.

Once you have placed an order, you need to ensure everything you wanted is on the contract of sale including specific items and weights required to suit your tow vehicle. You can then use this to recheck the specification on delivery.  

STAND AND DELIVER

Check the RV specification against your contract of sale and discuss any variances with the dealership. Should you have any issues that cannot be resolved amicably, you may seek clarification from a state-based RV industry association, or consumer affairs.              

Check the ID plate on the RV to ensure the weights specified are within your tow vehicle’s guidelines. 

Obtain the warranty card and complete this, and insure your RV before leaving the dealership. Most dealerships offer registration so accept this rather than taking the RV to a registration office yourself, unless you’re an interstate buyer.

Some RV brands will have warranty guidelines to fulfil in order to cover any issues that may arise. Read the fine print.

Have the dealership team assist you with setup of you new rig so that the brakes, lights, weight distribution etc is perfect before you drive off.

SHAKE DOWN

Now for the fun stuff — it’s time to try your new RV over a weekend getaway.   

Select a location not too far from home. Practice connecting and disconnecting the RV from the tow vehicle. Ensure all safety devices are operational and towing mirrors fitted if required and then drive safely to your destination. 

Carefully set up your RV and use the information supplied in the handbooks or CD/USB to learn the tricks. Try out all appliances on gas, 12V and 240V if applicable, and keep notes of issues so they can be addressed on the first service.

Beware that RVs are subject to a maximum limit of 15A so if your model is equipped with an air-conditioner plus several other power-hungry 240V appliances and you have three or more on at the same time, you may have a sudden power loss. You have tripped the ‘safety switch’.

ADVICE FROM THE EXPERT

Goldstream RV sales manager Mitch Damyon says there a few tips to keep in mind when buying a recreational vehicle. These handy hints will save you some money and time when choosing your perfect RV.

“Set a budget, but be flexible,” Damyon says. “It’s always better to pay that little bit extra to get what you want, rather than compromise on quality or features that you’ll be using for years to come. For example, you might start out looking for a good late model used caravan, and find you can get a new caravan for not all that much more ­— one that’s more suitable to your needs and which will have a full warranty.”

Damyon also offered the following pointers to select the ideal product:

Check the towing specifications of your vehicle in your owner’s manual. If it’s not able to tow the caravan you’re considering buying then look at a different size or model. You might even consider updating your tow vehicle to suit the caravan you want. If your tow vehicle information is not available, contact a dealership. In most cases they’ll be able to provide you with the information you need.

Should I get a camper, pop-top, or caravan? Each type of RV has different features that will be more suited to different lifestyle needs. Call in to a dealership that has all three types and ask for advice.

Is storage in a garage or carport an issue? Check your storage height and look for a product that suits.

Will you be free camping? If so, then a 12V battery system is a necessity and is ideal if you decide to use solar power.

Stoves are available with one electric element in addition to the three gas burners. This can be handy when staying in holiday parks on powered sites so you don’t have to use up your gas.

Check out the features and how they benefit you, do the comparisons and understand that cost is often not the most important factor when you weigh up how much time you’ll be spending in the RV.

Ensure the caravan you are buying conforms to Australia’s Recreational Vehicle Manufacturing Accreditation Program — RVMAP code of standards and practices. If it does, it will have a 'RVMA' accredited badge affixed to it.

Ask a dealer for advice on the correct towing aids to fit to your vehicle. They will generally have these in stock on the premises and will be able to set them up correctly for you.

Buy a recognised and respected brand, one that will stand the test of time and one that is styled for the current era. This is most important, as this will have an affect on your future resale or trade-in value.

To Consider:

Before you sign on the dotted line to buy your new RV, make sure you get all the information you need to make an informed decision. Here are 10 questions you should ask yourself before you buy.

We’d also suggest you do your homework by visiting dealers and shows before committing. Let’s face it, RVs are a significant investment and many are luxury items. So it’s important to obtain an understanding on what stacks up best, dollar for dollar, in the market.

It’s also essential to know van and vehicle weights — what you can legally tow — before taking the financial plunge. 

You should also take into serious account the type of travelling you’ll be undertaking —bitumen, dirt tracks, caravan parks, free camping — plus your external/internal storage requirements.

Other relevant considerations include sharing driving responsibilities, prioritising on essential features, financing, and how long you plan to RV.

  • Do I want to camp in a national park, or glamp in a holiday park with full amenities? 
  • Will I be travelling perennially, or staying put in one location? 
  • How many people will I be travelling with? 
  • How do I know I’ll enjoy the caravanning lifestyle before parting with my money?
  • What happens if I need assistance while travelling?
  • Do I need a family or couples' van (full caravan, pop-top or camper)? 
  • What features would I like or need (ie full oven, leather upholstery, air-conditioning, an offroad pack for gravel/dirt roads)?  
  • Is the product made by a reputable company and can they be trusted?
  • Will the product be safe and meet all the Australian Standards?
  • What happens if I need to sell the van?

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

Here, in the final instalment of a two-part series, industry stalwart Colin Young — Caravan Council of Australia (CCA) honorary manager — offers myriad invaluable ‘buyers' tips’.

His main piece of advice is to have a good idea of what you are after — and stick to it.

“Don’t get talked into buying something that does not ideally suit your desired travel plans or is outside of your budget,” Young says. “Buying a caravan is a very big investment, and it is essential that a potential buyer thoroughly does their homework beforehand, to best ensure that they make a sound and wise investment,” he adds. 

According to Young, ‘self-certification’ of caravans unfortunately does not provide potential buyers with anywhere near the same degree of assurance of compliance or quality compared with motor vehicles, where all compliance evidence is examined by Vehicle Safety Standards before a new vehicle model is approved for Australia.

“In addition, a sample vehicle is thoroughly inspected by government officers, to ensure that the vehicle does indeed completely match the compliance evidence provided,” Young says.  

“Motor vehicle manufacturers are required to have a professional quality assurance program in place, to best ensure that all future production vehicles are fully compliant. 

"Clearly, the Federal Government has realised that there are a number of major shortcomings in the caravan industry, as new more stringent regulations are being introduced.”

RING OF CONFIDENCE

Young says it is a real concern that so many caravan manufacturers have gone out of business in recent times, hence a potential buyer needs to be ultra-diligent when selecting a new caravan, so as to have a high level of confidence in the future prospects of any particular company. 

“In order to improve the professionalism of the industry — and to better protect potential buyers of caravans and camper trailers from bitter and costly disappointments and traumas — hard-hitting questions must be asked for response from a supplier,” Young adds.

“If a supplier is unable — or unwilling — to answer any question, a potential buyer may well wish to ask ‘why?’ and seriously consider if they feel comfortable doing business with them, and handing over a lot of dollars to them.  

“One would hope that a professional dedicated manufacturer, or dealer, definitely would not object to answering any of the questions, knowing that some competitors might object — as nothing is confidential, and that they would welcome the opportunity to make a sale." 

Young says dealers should realise that the buyer would be completely happy with both the product and the service if they are open and up front with them, and would sleep well at night knowing that the van was in top-notch condition, and extremely unlikely to present any problems in the future. 

These important questions are in addition to having the supplier complete and sign compliance and pre-delivery checklists. A copy of suggested questions and checklists are available by emailing caravancouncil@optusnet.com.au.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Young advises buyers to expect the dealer to take typically four-plus hours to fully inspect, test and explain all items. 

"Do not be pushed, do not assume anything and take your time to be sure you understand fully," he says. "Ensure you have at least a basic understanding of the Australian Consumer Law.”

“You are making a major investment. Make sure you do not finish up with any regrets.”

Young says many problems and complaints would have been avoided if buyers had been much more thorough in selecting their RV.

“Buying a high-quality, fully compliant RV from a respected and knowledgeable dealer or manufacturer will greatly increase the probability of having a safe, reliable and durable vehicle, with a high resale value,” he adds. “If a merchant cannot tick all of the boxes on the checklist by having a thorough knowledge of your proposed vehicle, be extremely careful.

“Clearly, the number one issue with vans and camper trailers — and by far the main reason for complaints and litigation — concerns ratings and masses,” Young says.

“There is much troublesome misunderstanding and confusion about the definitions of the relevant terms, especially Tare mass.” 

In closing, Young reiterates his key message to RV buyers. 

“Do your homework thoroughly before you buy a new caravan," he says.

The CCA may be able to assist buyers by suggesting some professional qualified engineers who can hopefully inspect the vehicle and prepare a report on a commercial basis.

This may be sufficient to encourage the dealer/manufacturer to reconsider their position on the issue. There is no obligation whatsoever to engage an engineer who has been named by the CCA.

If the issue is still not settled, it will be necessary to take legal action via a solicitor or Consumer Affairs. This is, of course, a last resort. In this case, it would be necessary to engage a suitable engineer to prepare an expert witness report.

Footnote: If a caravan owner has a technical, compliance or quality issue with their RV, they can contact the CCA (caravancouncil@optusnet.com.au) in complete confidence and with no cost, to see if the issue can be quickly and amicably resolved. The CCA website (www.caravancouncil.com.au) also has a number of professional, independent, documents available to RV buyers under its various menus.

CCA CHARTER:

The Caravan Council of Australia (CCA) assists the local recreational vehicle industry. It provides professional independent services to RV owners and potential buyers, as well as manufacturers and dealers.

Recreational vehicles include caravans, camper/tent trailers, motorhomes, campervans, slide-ons, and fifth wheelers.

The CCA is not involved in — or in any way competes or conflicts with — state association issues, or any RV lifestyle-promotional activities. It is only concerned with vehicles.

Vehicle compliance, safety and quality are the prime areas of interest and action.

The CCA is completely independent, does not have any members, is non-profit, non-commercial, and non-political. It does not mention any RV make or model, and operates on a strict and confidential basis, under the Institution of Engineers, Australia Code of Ethics.

Being completely independent means that information provided is unbiased, with no possible conflict of interest.

The prime aim is to best ensure a level playing field, in that both locally-manufactured and imported RVs are fully compliant and of acceptable quality, so that RV buyers can have confidence in the vehicles that they purchase.

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