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Basic advice for buying a motorhome

By K. Stephen Busick, F45180  

As motorhome owners, we FMCA members often are asked by friends if they, too, should buy a coach, and if so, which one. Of course, there are no simple answers to these questions.  

Over the years, we've heard many motorhome owners talk about why they selected a particular coach and what features they will look for in their next one. A motorhome, whether new or used, is a sizable investment. In addition to being a motor vehicle, it's a home. For many people, it's the second-largest purchase they will ever make; for some, it's the largest.

It's important to remember that whichever motorhome is selected, it probably will not be the last one purchased. Just as needs related to permanent housing change as a family changes, coach-related needs also change. Obviously, this article will not give the definitive answer to all of your friends who seek buying advice, but perhaps it will provide the information they need to begin their search.

Coach cost

The first question many people who have never purchased a motorhome ask is about the cost. This is even more of an issue at FMCA conventions, where, since everyone already has a motorhome, many of the display coaches are "step-up" units. It must be remembered that although motorhomes are similar to automobiles in that both have a chassis and other automotive systems, they are truly "homes." They have plumbing, 110-volt electrical systems, and heating and cooling systems, plus complete kitchens, baths, and sleeping areas.

Motorhomes have to endure earthquake-type forces every day when they are driven down less-than-perfect roads. And driving through a rainstorm often subjects them to hurricane-force rains. Through all of this, they are expected to stay together, not leak, and to function properly immediately after being taken out of storage. When viewed from this perspective, it's not surprising that even entry-level coaches often cost "more than our first house."

How big?

Another frequent question is what size motorhome is needed. I feel that buying a motorhome is similar to purchasing a suit: you should purchase the one that fits you. A size 52 suit is not the best purchase for a person who wears a size 44, even if they both cost the same. Larger does not necessarily mean better when buying a suit or a motorhome. However, the person needing the size 52 suit will not be happy in a size 44 regardless of how great the deal was on the suit.

Almost the same can be said for buying a coach. While the majority of members that we have spoken with say their next coach will be larger than their current one, buying the "correct size" is important. Just as many owners of large coaches are extremely pleased with their purchase, so are the owners of some of the smallest coaches imaginable. Like any home and every suit, it's the "fit" that makes it comfortable.

Perhaps a rule of thumb regarding size could be, the longer the motorhome will stay in one location, the longer it should be. Obviously, no coach is cumbersome when it's parked, regardless of its size. And, while not all coaches are big enough to live in, almost all of them are big enough to live out of. Awnings, screen rooms, and even folding chairs increase living space.

The interior of the coach should be determined not only by where the coach will be used, but also by who will use it. If the coach will be used in unpaved locations, such as in the woods or at the beach, carpeting throughout may not be a good idea. However, if most use will occur in a resort-type setting, the luxury of carpeting underfoot is hard to beat.  If a family will travel in the coach, make sure there are enough seats with seat belts to accommodate everyone. Sleeping space
Most people don't mind being a bit crowded when they eat, or even eating outside or in "shifts," but sleeping is a different story. Make sure the motorhome can sleep the needed number of people comfortably. While dinettes and sofas are sometimes touted as sleeping two people, those two people often should be children. No seller should object if potential buyers remove their shoes and lie on the bed to see whether it is large enough. One thing new buyers may not realize is that many beds in an RV are non-standard sizes, even if they are called "king" or "queen." Measuring the bed before buying a coach may prevent the new owner from buying fitted sheets that don't fit well.  Pretend to make the bed to find out whether all corners can be reached easily. If the bed is situated against the wall, realize that getting into and out of bed can be a chore when the "aisle" person is sleeping.

Is there enough storage space for clothing? If dresses will be taken on trips, can they hang freely in the closets? Do the drawers work easily yet have some provision for not coming open as the coach is driven?

Kitchen aid

No matter how small a kitchen is in a stationary home, it's probably larger than the one in a coach. Buyers must ask themselves what kind of meals they will prepare in this kitchen. Many pre-owned coaches feature ovens that have never been used. Perhaps a simple microwave or combination microwave-convection oven is sufficient. If not, conventional ovens and other kitchen appliances are available. Make sure the coach galley has adequate storage for both the food that will be prepared and for the utensils and cookery that will be used to prepare it. Is there a spot big enough for the largest pan or portable appliance that will be used?

Bathroom preferences

Coach owners seem to fall into two categories when it comes to bathrooms. Some like large bathrooms, while others prefer to have the extra space utilized elsewhere in the coach, because of the relatively small amount of time spent in the bathroom.

Many families with smaller children insist on having a tub for bathing. Keep in mind that the water heater probably will hold only 6 to 10 gallons, while the one at home may hold 40 or 50 gallons. Thus, frugality with the hot water is essential. Obviously, the same is true when using the shower.

Whichever style of bathroom is chosen, make sure it fits the buyer's lifestyle and physical body. Take off your shoes and stand in the shower or tub to see whether it has sufficient headroom and enough space to move comfortably. Also, sit on the toilet and make sure there is adequate room when the door is closed.

Washer-dryer units have followers who love the convenience of doing the laundry without leaving the coach. However, other motorhomers would rather use that space in their coach for something else, preferring to do more laundry in less time at a coin-operated laundry facility. Each coach owner must decide what is best for him or her. In smaller units, that choice is often made for the owner; the washer-dryer units simply are not available.

Slideouts

Slideouts — those rooms that slide in when traveling and out when parked — also have staunch supporters and detractors. Slideouts can greatly increase the roominess of the motorhome, but they also increase the weight, complexity, and cost of the unit. Slideouts have enjoyed great popularity in the past few years, but because of their relative newness, little information is available on how they age.

Many other items are important to some people but inconsequential to others. These include window treatments, location of lighting fixtures and switches, and the number and placement of TVs and stereo systems.

Before you sign ...

Before making a final decision to purchase a particular coach, certain issues should be addressed prior to signing the papers. Check with the license bureau regarding the licensing of the coach and drivers. Various jurisdictions are frequently changing these laws, so it's a good idea to ask if any changes could take effect in the near future.

Naturally, obtaining insurance on the coach should be arranged before taking delivery of the unit, even if that is not required by law or by the financing institution. This is also a good time to speak with a tax adviser to review tax implications.

Check to see whether the coach manufacturer is still in business. Although parts such as furnaces, water heaters, and windows are often made by various manufacturers regardless of coach brand, parts such as doors, trim pieces, and bumpers can be difficult or impossible to locate if the coach manufacturer is no longer in business.

Although many people believe such legislation exists, I've never heard of a law that forces manufacturers of a product to continue making replacement parts for so many years after stopping production. From a practical standpoint, how could this be done if the company is out of business? So, while an "orphan coach" can provide great value and years of enjoyment, it also can present unique problems as it ages.

Verify the model year of both the chassis and the motorhome. Manufacturers generally stockpile chassis, and it's not unusual for them to have chassis from the previous model year when production for the new model year begins. This is not bad in itself, but it can cause confusion when having the coach serviced. It might also affect resale prices.

The test drive

When test-driving a coach, it's a good idea to take it on the types of roads that it normally will be driven on, whether those roads are mountain passes, expressways, or back roads. It's unlikely that any coach will handle the same as a family sedan, but if the buyer feels it's too cumbersome, it will not be used as much as it should.

Make sure the mirrors can be adjusted for good visibility. If vision to the rear or side is a problem, cameras and additional mirrors to minimize this problem are available and can be installed at any time. Also, make sure the copilot has a chance to drive the coach before purchasing it.

While on the test drive, have the coach weighed. Ideally, the coach should be weighed at each wheel. At the very least, each axle should be weighed and compared to the weight ratings for the coach. An overloaded motorhome can incur increased maintenance problems and expense, and also be unsafe to operate.

If the coach is empty, remember that water, fuel, tools, food, clothing, people, and all of the other things that go into most coaches will weigh hundreds — and often thousands — of pounds. The power, acceleration, and handling of the coach during a test drive may change once the coach is fully loaded. Of course, towing a vehicle behind the coach will have an impact on performance as well. If possible, talk with other owners about their experience with the same coach loaded for travel.

If the motorhome is new or still under warranty, check the starting date of the warranty to determine whether the seller or buyer has the responsibility for activating that warranty.

Other Concerns

Like any motor vehicle, the motorhome will need servicing. Finding a service center near home that can do preventive and routine maintenance saves time and helps to prevent inconvenient breakdowns on the road.

Tell your friends that when they pick up their coach, the seller may want to verify that any checks they are using are valid. Counterfeit certified checks do exist, and a coach can be driven many miles by the time the former owner gets to the bank. Naturally, the buyer will want to make sure that the person they are giving money to has legal authority to sell the coach.

We've asked coach owners for a one-sentence summary of what they tell their friends to do when contemplating the purchase of a coach. "Take your time," "Do your homework," and "Talk to people" are typical answers. So are "Attend RV shows," "Find a good dealer," and "Check with owners of similar coaches."

Although many of our friends may envy our lifestyle, some will choose not to purchase a coach. That's okay. Some people are happy with other forms of recreation vehicles, and some prefer to stay in hotels or motels. However, the person who says, "I can stay in a hotel many nights for what that thing costs you" will never know the true luxuries that this lifestyle can provide. It goes far beyond not worrying about who slept on the sheets last night. It includes not worrying about finding a good restaurant when you don't have much time; not worrying about finding a clean rest room while on the road. Also, coach owners can stop and smell the roses along the way, because they have the luxuries of home with them.

Best of all, there is a new or used coach for just about every budget and every family. It just takes some time to find it.

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