Join us for the epic story of how we found our RVs.
Part 1 - A New Hope
We knew we wanted to travel full time in an RV, but that was about all we knew. Neither of us had much experience with RVs. My last camping trip in an RV was when I was six. Sue had never been in one at all. So our first question was what type of RV to get.
In the early part of 2004, we started researching where most people with boring desk jobs start: by Goggling and surfing the internet. This research told us what kinds of rigs were out there and what the pluses and minuses were to each kind. There were a lot of dealerships with pretty pictures, but the best sites I found were parts of RV.net, including the Open Roads Forum and classifieds ads on that site, and RV.org, home of the RV Consumers Group. The consumers group sells detailed ratings on almost all RVs made, and we purchased the CD-ROMs that had ratings for both the motor homes and trailers because we were still unsure what type of RV would work best for us.
For some hands-on learning, we took a trip that spring to one of the local dealerships, Lerch RV in Milroy, PA. These folks were great, taking us out on the lot and showing us thirty different models and walking us through their strengths and weaknesses. They even said we could come back some weekend and just spend a few hours in the RVs to see how comfortable they were. We thought that was very cool, even though we didn’t take them up on that offer.
Now that we knew some of the details, we started to think about what we would need on the road. Several books helped us with this including Complete Guide to Full-Time RVing by Bill and Jan Moeller and Support Your RV Lifestyle! by Jamie Hall. The Moeller’s book is one we both read cover to cover several times. We found we got different things from it at different times during the process.
At this point, in the spring of 2004, we were leaning towards a Class A (one of the RVs that looks like a bus) that we would use to tow one of our cars and a motorcycle behind. But to be sure this is what made sense for us, we made plans to go to an RV show at the beginning of the summer in Harrisburg, PA.
America's Largest RV show was a fun place to see all the different makes and models of RVs under one roof. At the time, we didn’t realize this was one of the biggest shows in the country. We went to a few seminars and learned about traveling with pets and workamping resources. We also talked with what felt like hundreds of different sales people all telling us theirs was the best unit to buy.
We came away from the show thinking that we would like a Class A diesel pusher. We were leaning this way because we did not want our pets to have to travel in the trailer while we moved around, and we figured we could keep my wife’s VW Bug as our toad (a towed car).
Over the rest of the year our lives changed significantly as I quit my job and went to massage school. We also sold our house and started the long arduous process of getting rid of all the stuff that had accumulated over the years.
The spring of 2005 was very busy. I was studying and working at the school. Sue was working for AccuWeather, but wasn’t very happy. And we continued to plan for getting out of town in a year. During our planning, we came to terms with the fact that we could not afford the type of Class A we wanted. Instead of settling for a lesser unit, we decided to go with a quality 5th wheel and diesel pick-up truck instead.
Once that decision was made, we went back to the books and the web for more research. We decided on getting either a Dodge or a Chevy because of their superior towing capacity and the reviews other full-timers gave them. A good resource to find that kind of information is “Trailer Life” magazine’s annual towing guide. We started window shopping for trucks, and in March we were made an offer we could not refuse on a 2005 Dodge Ram 3500. So we traded in our two cars for one big, honkin’ truck.
As we looked for 5th wheels, the “RV Consumer’s Guide” was a huge resource. It let us narrow our search to certain brands that were built well enough for the long-term use, meaning they would be adequate for full-timing. Keep in mind that not all RVs are built for year-round use, especially in not-so-great weather, so it’s very important to do the research on what RV you need for the lifestyle you want. We also spent a lot of time comparing floor plans, both on the web and by visiting local dealers. Sue was very firm about the living area being spacious enough for all the animals and us. She didn’t want to feel cramped, and she wanted our pets to have room to run around.
By the end of July, we knew what kind of RV we wanted - a Sunnybrook Titan. It had the floor plan we wanted and was built with a lot of care put into the guts of the rig. We also knew what price we were willing to pay, so we scoured the internet for a unit that met our needs. During one of Sue’s searches at work, she found exactly what we were looking for...in Maine!
Good Times Unlimited in Farmington, Maine, had a 2004 unit that they had used as a floor model. It had quite a few amenities that we were not planning on, like an electric fireplace, a sliding storage tray underneath and an extra vent in the bedroom, but the price was right, so we gave them a call. After talking with them over the phone, we made an appointment to drive up in early August to check it out.
Sue and our pug, Willoughby, picked me up at school Friday afternoon and we drove overnight from Pennsylvania to Maine. We got to the dealership a couple hours before it opened, and we used that time for a power nap. And even though we were tired, we put the rig through a top-to-bottom inspection using a checklist from the RV Consumer Group. We weren’t happy with a few minor details, but we pointed the flaws out to the folks at the dealership, and they went out of their way to get everything fixed up for us. Negotiations went smoothly, and by two o’clock we were proud owners of an RV.
The dealer gave us a quick lesson in their back lot and on a local road, and then we were on our own. Of course, there were a few problems on that initial drive, including me missing a turn and having to, literally, do a thirty-point turn in the middle of the woods, but we managed to pull it to a KOA in Augusta, ME, and had our first overnight. Even after we got some rest and the sleep deprivation wore off, we were more excited about our new house than we had been about the last one. After all, this house could have a new view out the windows whenever we wanted.
Part 2 - The Dealer Strikes Back
It was a beautiful spring day in 2010 when we were headed up to a summer workamping gig in Custer State Park. We had spent the night outside of Cheyenne, WY and got our usual early start (8ish), excited because we planned to be in Custer that night. A few miles out of Lusk, WY we were going through a stretch of construction that had the road torn up when we felt a tug on our truck. I looked at my driver side mirror and wasn’t sure what to make of a tire bouncing up the road beside us.
Not sure what happened we took a nearby turn off and pulled off the road. When we got out and walked back we saw a hole where our rear tire had been and the back cap of our fifth-wheel flapping in the breeze.
It turns out that the lugs on our tire had sheared off, and when the tire ripped free it took the back out of our house in the process. Needless to say we were a bit in shock. But a call to our insurance company got a truck on the way that could scrape the RV off the road and take it to a dealer near where we would be based at. Another call to our employer got us set up in some employee housing that was currently vacant. And a call to the dealer the rig was being taken to assured us they had a service facility that could handle our problem.
Looking back I guess we were fortunate that two out of three worked out.
We were lucky that the only tow rig within 300 miles that could handle our RV was located back down the road in Lusk. The driver was a wiz and got our RV loaded on the truck and was ready to haul it up to the Black Hills in the morning.
We met him there the next day as he was unloading the rig at the dealer’s lot. Looking around I was a little nervous because this dealer had next to no inventory, but the head mechanic came out and took a look at the Sunnybrook and said it could be saved….for a price. I put the dealer in touch with our insurance company and we headed on to our jobs. They put us up in a nice little apartment for the duration of our problems.
Over the next few weeks we were on the phone every day with our insurance company, the dealer’s maintenance manager or both trying to figure out if our rig could be saved and how much it would cost to do so. As these problems continued, we found ourselves looking at other RV’s and started to face the fact that we might not be getting our home back. To be honest, we loved our RV that had served us well over the last five years, but as the days drug on we wanted to just get things settled.
Finally the insurance folks told us they would not total the RV, but would pay over ten grand for the repairs. I had talked enough with the folks at the dealership to be pretty sure that, while they might slap the rig back together it would never be “fixed” and the insurance would not pay for the rig to be towed to another shop. So we started to weigh our options.
The dealership we were stuck with would probably have needed a few floodlights shining on them to make them just “shady.” They were getting ready to declare bankruptcy (something I didn’t find out until our deal was done), and had sold most of their inventory at auction. Of the three rigs they had left on the lot, we had been admiring a Keystone Challenger since our first visit. When faced with the option of them dragging out the repairs on our RV until they could skate with the insurance company’s money, the Challenger was looking better and better.
Finally, after going over the Challenger with a fine tooth comb, we made them an offer. They played the game, hemming and hawing and saying we were ripping them off, but eventually we came to an agreement. Even though we felt okay about the deal, I’m pretty sure we saw them dancing a little jig as we drove off the lot.
Over the next few years, the Challenger was a good RV for us, but it was never the home that our Sunnybrook was. There was always the feeling that we were forced by circumstance into buying that RV, and that it was never quite what we would have chosen. But when life puts you over a barrel, you take what you can get.
And there was always the next rig….
Part 3 - Return of the Research
Our first beloved Sunnybrook fifth-wheel RV went to the happy campground in the sky as we trucked through Wyoming and we were forced by circumstances into buying a Keystone Challenger. The Challenger was good, but it lived up to its name in many ways. Our biggest complaint was the electrical system. We had to replace the inverter about eight weeks after we got the rig. We also had a continuing problem with a short in the wires leading to our LP gas detector. These are just two of the examples of how the rig didn’t have the guts we look for in our RVs.
Then in early 2011 our problems began, not with the RV, but with our truck. It was a cold winter’s day at Grand Canyon National Park when an error message came up on our truck odometer. We looked the code up online and it said it was a problem with the transmission. We asked a few friends in the area if they could recommend a transmission shop, but no one had used any place nearby. That is when we made the biggest mistake of our RVing lives. We went to the AAMCO in Flagstaff.
Now there are probably some honest AAMCO shops in the country. The one in Flagstaff was not. They told us that our transmission was on the verge of a total melt down and that our only real option was to replace it. Like many RVers we relied on our truck for everything – pulling our home, running to the store, getting to workamping gigs and going out to see the sights. We went ahead with it, reminding them that our truck had to pull 14,000 lbs. of RV, so we wanted it done right.
They had our RV for a week and when we got it back, things seemed okay. Then a few months later we were headed to our summer job in the Tetons and about 50 miles from Jackson the transmission blew. We were able to limp in to our campground and park our house. We called the AAMCO (because their work was supposed to be under warranty) and they told us we would have to take it 500 miles away to the nearest AAMCO in Utah to have it looked at. That was an impossibility, so we took it to the Dodge dealer in Jackson. They took things apart and told us that AAMCO had used substandard parts and the whole thing was trashed. AAMCO refused to stand by their work and so we were stuck getting another transmission within a few months.
The Dodge folks promised us the moon and the stars, and after a week of work we had our truck back. Can you guess what happened the next time we towed our RV? Yep, it happened again.
We were headed
back to the Grand Canyon that fall and were about 40 miles from the
Entrance when things blew. We had to limp into the Village and park our RV. Then we talked with some new friends who recommended the Transmission Man in Flagstaff. These guys were great. They did the work that was needed and were able to get us back up and running. When we called the Dodge dealer up, he was willing to get on the phone with them to explain what happened and helped us get a partial refund for the work they did wrong. We were so happy that we brought the truck back to him for some follow up work the next year and he gave us a great deal.
Still, all the transmission troubles wound up costing us around $11,000 that year. So we decided to stay put at Grand Canyon for a while to rebuild our savings. While there we moved up in the organization and were offered park housing. Since the Challenger had never been our favorite, we decided to put it up on consignment and then get an RV we really wanted when we were ready.
Over the next two years the consignment lot didn’t do much with our rig. But I just looked at it as free storage. Then in 2014 we both started to get the travel itch again. We weren’t ready to hit the road, but we needed something more than car camping. So we started back with the research.
At first we were looking at fifth-wheels again, but couldn’t find any floor plans we liked in the size we wanted. Plus, we had sold our truck to save on fuel costs and would have to buy a new one to haul the rig. We went to the local Camping World and toured the lot one afternoon. What surprised us both was that after looking online and in person we were more interested in a motorhome than we were in a trailer. After talking about the pros and cons, we decided to look at a Class C or Class A this time. Countless hours of web searches and reading RVing forums we eventually narrowed our interests down to a few manufactures. So next stop…a RV show.
Being in Northern Arizona, there aren’t too many places to look at RVs. Instead of waiting for the Phoenix shows in the winter, we decided to head out to the California show in October. It was a nice show with all the manufactures we were interested in represented.
Our first stop was the Winnebago lot. Winnebago has a great reputation, and our research seemed to back up what we had heard about them. We were interested in the Vista line, which had several floor plans we liked. We ran into a salesman named Idaho Bill who took us around and showed us the models we were interested in with no pressure. After looking at them, we loved the 2015 Vista 30T, but we wanted to see everything, so we told Bill we needed to go look around the show. He said he understood, but was sure we’d be back, so he gave us his card and we went on into the crowd.
Our next stop was the Nexus lot. Nexus is a small outfit that came together after all the manufactures went belly up in 2008. Online the RVs look great and they have lots of videos from the factory showing how the rigs were built. I’ll be honest and say they were the reason I wanted to come to this show. They don’t like dealerships, so almost all their sales are direct from the factory. This is great, but it makes looking at them in person pretty tough.
When we got to their lot we were disappointed in the limited selection they had. It was the first weekend of the show, and most of their displays were still on the way from Indiana. No one greeted us on the lot, but we found the model we were interested in. Man was it a letdown. The constructions that looked so good online looked very shoddy in person. And it is a small thing, but they hadn’t even bothered to clean and set the rig for the show, so everything was covered with dust and dirt. After giving the rig a thorough going over we sat in it a few minutes and both agreed that we could cross Nexus off the list.
We wandered around the show for a while, poking our heads in this RV or that one. We spent some time with the Coachman dealer, but he was more interested in showing us the exterior TVs than anything else – even after we had told him we thought that was the biggest waste of space we’d seen. Then we checked out the Itasca line – Winnebago by a different name. They had their version of the Vista, but there was something about it that just didn’t fit us. So back to the Winnebago dealer.
When we went back we came in through the cover of the crowd to get another look at the rig by ourselves. We checked it out for a while and the display had just about everything we wanted. We had found our new home.
Before coming to the show, we had talked with some dealers and knew we were seeing some great pricing on the RVs. Way under MSRP. We were hoping that the dealer, Giant RV, would not play the same games others do at the dealerships and figured we would see what they could do for us if we bought the show model. We found Idaho Bill, and he took us back to a set of trailers, and unfortunately the same old song and dance took off. First we talked to a sales manager. Once we got the price and payments set then we had to talk with the finance guy. And finally after enough signatures to give you carpel tunnel the deal was done.
When we told our consignment dealership in Phoenix that we were trading in our old RV, they amazingly got the first offer they had received in 2 years for our full asking price. Fortunately this didn’t muck up our deal; we just took the trade off and had the full down payment.
Looking back I do think that we got a great deal on our rig. Is it better than we could have gotten going into a dealership? I don’t know. But having done our research on these RVs we knew we were getting a price we were comfortable with and now we have a new motorhome to go play in.
What have we learned from these three different experiences?
- Do your homework – find out as much as you can online and in person before making a choice.
- Be thorough when you examine the rig – check lists and a second set of eyes are recommended.
- Know what you want to pay, and stick to your price – dealers will do everything they can to get your money, so it is up to you to be willing to stand up and walk out.
- Every RV will have problems when you get it home, but if you have followed the first thee recommendations, they shouldn’t be a big problem.