Decisions, Decisions

Malcolm Street — 3 December 2020
Buying an RV is a big experience and for many people second only to buying a house. Here’s a few clues to simplify the process.

To anyone new to the world of RVs, there might appear to be a mind-boggling array of manufacturers in the market place, not to mention any number of models, both in road tourer form and the ever growing offroad market. The question for the newcomer is often ‘which one’?

For those with little to no previous experience in the exciting world of caravans, it’s worth giving some careful thought to exactly what you want, as buying an RV is quite different to buying a car. For those who like to take their time, I’d reckon that 12 months is not to be considered too long to be looking around! 

Another thing to keep in mind at the moment is that there’s something of a supply and demand problem. Because overseas travel is off the agenda, some travellers have turned to domestic travel by purchasing a caravan or motorhome. Dealers are happy but deliveries are stretching well into 2021 in many cases. 



RESEARCH AND PLAN

For any prospective buyer of a caravan or motorhome, there is plenty of choice, both from a budget point of view and in terms of layout design. For beginners this can be confusing and if you are considering a purchase, it’s worth devising some sort of purchase plan.

Preliminary research is easily done by going no further than this fine magazine and there’s also your computer/iPad/tablet and the internet. Most manufacturers have good websites with pictures and layout designs — although some, as I have recently discovered, lack some essential details (like dimensions) which is not exactly helpful.

BUDGET

For most people, the first thing to decide is budget as it often determines your choice of caravan or motorhome. New caravan prices start at over $50,000, and there’s a considerable manufacturer and model range available between that and $90,000. Above that, vans get more luxurious, with many built for offroad travel. 

Motorhomes are a different kettle of fish, with prices mostly varying between $110,000 and $300,000. Used RVs are often considerably cheaper, which is why some buyers end up with a good second-hand model which has their essential desires yet still fits the budget. 

Keep in mind the associated running costs that go with your caravan/tow vehicle or motorhome. Petrol or diesel are the most obvious and expensive item, but there are other items like consumables, insurance, servicing, repairs, accommodation and storage costs to consider.

DEALER VISITS

Part of any research should include dealer visits, which to some extent does depend on where you live. Most the big cities have a good selection of dealers within two–three-hours’ drive, but those away from the major centres might have to be prepared to travel. On top of this, most medium to large sized caravan and motorhome manufacturers have a dealer network but some smaller ones only have a factory outlet. 

Motorhome manufacturers are generally spread out between the eastern states but about 80 per cent of the caravan manufacturers are located in regional Melbourne. Sydney has less than a handful, but Brisbane is the surprise with quite a few manufacturers, many specialist offroad operators, located in the south-east corner of the state between the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. 

Try not to be hassled at a dealer, particularly if you are “just looking”. Any good dealer will know this and although they are keen to make a sale, they will also know that prospective buyers just need time to sit and think.

SHOW TIME

This year is certainly the exception, but usually there are plenty of big city and regional shows happening throughout the year, and I reckon a caravan and motorhome show is a great place to check out what the industry has to offer — plus, the only travel you have to do is to get to the show.

Having said that, particularly at a big city show, for a newcomer, they can be an eye glazing event given how much is on display. If you are considering a serious purchase, then plan on visiting a show over at least two days. Take a notebook, pen and tape measure along and make the first day a general look at what’s available. The second visit can be more targeted at RV models that caught your interest on the first visit. 

Exhibitors will always be encouraging show goers to purchase their vans with show specials. I’d suggest a bit of research on prices first and these days that can be quite easily done. Don’t be rushed here, as you might regret it later. 

TOW VEHICLES

It’s not a problem with motorhomes, but any caravan purchase has to take into consideration the tow vehicle as well. Some folks buy a caravan and then find a tow vehicle to match but others do it the other way around. Keep in mind that while there is a good selection of vehicles around with a maximum tow rating of 3500kg, above that they are less common and usually much more expensive.

Also keep in mind that while a number of ute manufacturers advertise a maximum tow rating of 3500kg (marketing department), because they also have a Gross Combined Mass (GCM) of around 6000kg (engineering department), the more realistic tow rating is somewhere between 3000kg and 3200kg. 

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

For the newcomer, it’s a good idea to try before you buy by renting or borrowing a caravan or motorhome. Apart from anything else, it’s an excellent way to find out if you really like the lifestyle. 

It is also an excellent way of getting a personal experience with RV layouts. Experienced advice from friends is always good but what works well for one person may not for someone else. 

There are commercial caravan rental companies around but there are also organisations like Camplify and Camptoo which act as agents for privately owned caravans and motorhomes. On the motorhome side of things, rental companies rely greatly on overseas tourists for their business, which isn’t happening at the moment, so you might find a good rental deal or two to get some road experience. Relocating vehicles for motorhome rental companies is another cheap way of getting on the road — see imoova.com and click on Australia (or any country you like if you can get there) for details. 

CHECKING THINGS OUT — NEW CARAVANS

When contemplating what RV to buy, considering all the features is definitely important. All RVs these days will come with a cooktop, fridge, sink and microwave oven in the kitchen. Many will have a bathroom, either combo shower/toilet or with a separate shower and toilet, and dinettes usually with seating for two–four people. Beds are usually a double island bed but can also be a corner bed or single beds or, the latest innovation a drop-down bed which is stored in the ceiling area by day and drops down by night. 

Up from the basic level, things start to change and be added in. Full ovens, large three-way or compressor fridges, air conditioning, entertainment systems, solar panels, generators, washing machines, bike racks — it’s almost an endless list. Family vans for the most part will have fixed bunks, rather than fold down beds. 

When looking through RVs, spend time in each of your prospective purchases. Have a think about how you are going to live in it on your travels. Go through all the motions of living, cooking, eating, making up the bed and keeping clean (if there is an onboard shower). Does the kitchen have all you need for your culinary style? Is there enough bench space and is everything more or less where you want it? That little pop-top caravan might look great to tow and park, but is the small internal space going to drive you and your partner nuts?

It’s often items like the main bed which settle the decision on design. Single beds are undoubtedly the most practical from a design and use point of view, but most couples prefer a double which takes up space. Certainly, the advent of the drop-down bed has solved that problem to some degree, but easy access is sometimes an issue. 

Are there enough lights for evening activities and where will the lap top computer be plugged into? Is that funny shaped cupboard going to annoy you? Where will all your precious belongings be stored? Are there enough storage compartments and will everything that is required regularly be easy enough to get at?

CHECKING THINGS OUT — NEW MOTORHOMES

At the small end of the scale, most campervans are unlikely to have a shower or toilet cubicle on board, unless they are one of the Mercedes Benz Sprinter/Fiat Ducato sized units and they are likely to be quite compact. However, that will not be a problem if you mostly use the amenities blocks in caravan parks and just want to use the on-board facilities occasionally. 

Most motorhomes these days have a ‘flat floor’ design, that is a ‘walk through’ from driver’s cab to the rear of the motorhome. It’s a convenient feature to have, and many people appreciate the security aspect of it. Some designs will have the driver and passenger seats swivel around, so that they double as lounge chairs, which is an effective use of space. 

Quite a few motorhomes (and often caravans too) will have slide-outs, often only 300mm wide, but which make an amazing difference to the internal space.

WEIGHTY MATTERS

This is really an entire subject in itself, but excessive caravan towing weights have become a subject of interest recently. As noted previously, tow vehicles have a maximum tow rating which the caravan when fully loaded cannot legally exceed. All new caravans should have a rating plate, usually located on the drawbar or in the front external storage compartment. Amongst other things it will show an Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) which is the maximum loaded weight of the caravan. Tare is another figure of interest — the unladen weight of the caravan and does not include filled water tanks and gas cylinders. The difference between the two is known as payload and for a tandem axle van with a bathroom, it should be over 500kg. 

The other figure of interest is the Tow Ball Mass (TBM). All tow vehicles will have a maximum tow ball rating and the caravan’s loaded TBM should not exceed that. 

Motorhomes will have a tare figure, but the maximum loaded weight of the vehicle is called Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM). Motorhomes with a GVM up to 4500kg can be driven on a car licence, but above that a Light Rigid licence is required. 

TEST DRIVE

Not so much caravans, but with any motorhome purchase, even a new motorhome, a test drive is important, especially if you have never driven one before. Quite a few buyers spend ages on the layout but forget to sit in the driver and passenger seats, where considerable time will be spent. Motorhomes are mostly van and truck based, and drive differently to normal sedan cars or SUVs. Even new ones will have a few squeaks and rattles that can be disconcerting if you are not used to it. 

Spend a bit of time in the driver and passenger seats making sure that there are enough storage pockets for maps, mobile phone and all the little things you like to have with you when travelling. 

WARRANTY TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Before signing on any dotted line, it’s important to understand the warranty details which vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Often warranties are split up between the chassis, bodywork and appliances with differing time periods for each. There’s some debate about the legality of that but any warranty on the body or chassis these days should be at least two years.

Some manufacturers have caveats in their warranties about service requirements. Make sure you understand those because I am aware of several manufactures who play hardball about warranty claims because of a lack of servicing. 

THE BIG MOMENT

When signing, do be prepared to haggle. See if you can get any of those desirable accessories included in the sale price, and make sure you understand when the delivery date will be. As noted above, delivery times are quite long at the moment. 

HANDOVER

Contemporary RVs are quite sophisticated devices and for the newcomer, it can be something of a steep learning curve. For a new caravan or motorhome, expect to be at a dealer’s yard for several hours during this process. There are some dealers around who do the handover and then send you to a local caravan park for the night to make sure that everything was understood. 

After that, it’s time to hit the road. 

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