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Motorhome Basics | FMCA

By Paul Helmstetter, F204763  

You’ve finally found the motorhome that meets all of your wants and needs. You’ve negotiated a reasonable price and a good trade-in, so what can you do to make your transition as smooth as possible? Or how can you make sure a previously owned coach is worth the asking price? The answer is to thoroughly inspect the unit before you buy it.  

When buying a previously owned coach, you should examine it meticulously prior to signing a contract. When purchasing a new coach, the timing depends on whether you are buying from stock or custom ordering. If you are buying from stock, you can check out the unit before you sign the contract. If you custom ordered the unit, you already have signed a contract but can inspect the unit before you accept delivery. In both cases, ask the dealer to address all concerns before you take delivery. Dealers may be more responsive to correcting defects when they are making the monthly payments.

Items required to check out a coach (depending upon equipment):

  • Tape measure
  • Voltmeter
  • DVD movie disc
  • CD music disc
  • VCR movie tape
  • Blank VCR tape
  • Flashlight
  • Latex gloves
  • Shop rags
  • Ground cover to lie on
  • Masking tape
  • Writing instrument and paper
  • Thermometer
  • A multi-tool or screwdrivers and pliers
  • Safety glasses
  • Butane lighter

Conducting an in-depth inspection is quite extensive and time-consuming. Do this only when you seriously want to buy a particular unit. Allow a full day to perform it.

Everyone should check the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA)-required label listing the net carrying capacity (NCC) or cargo carrying capacity (CCC) of any motorhome before buying. A classic coach, however, may not have an RVIA label. RVs made in the mid-1990s or later should have one. It's a good idea to weigh the motorhome prior to purchase in any case (added options could change the weights), but it's even more important if the coach doesn't have a weight label. See for proper weight management information. If the motorhome doesn’t meet your needs in this regard, don’t buy it!

Next, have the coach looked at by a qualified mechanic. If the seller won’t let you have it inspected before you buy it, put a conditional clause for repairs or return in the contract. If the seller won’t agree, you have to decide whether you want to go through with the transaction. You should look through the maintenance records of the coach to determine whether the required maintenance has been performed.

If the coach has excessively high or low mileage on the odometer, ask the previous owner, if you can, for an explanation. If the motorhome is 3 years old and has 60,000 miles on it and you are planning on using it for vacations and weekend outings, you probably still have 10 years of reliable service left in the powertrain as long as it has and continues to receive proper maintenance. However, the tires may need replacement.

For any unit, new or used, check the Department of Transportation (DOT) labels on the tires to determine their ages. In the case of a new coach, make sure the tires aren't much older than the unit itself. If the tires are 5 to 6 years old on a previously owned unit, expect to replace them shortly, regardless of the amount of tread.

Low-mileage units can suffer problems from lack of use. In addition to potential mechanical problems, there is the possibility of unwelcome insect and/or rodent infestation. Severe infestation could lead to serious problems. Mice have been known to chew the insulation off wires. This could lead to a short circuit or a ground rendering some electrical equipment inoperative, or even result in a fire.

Other concerns on a previously owned motorhome include wear and tear on the “soft goods” inside the vehicle and the finish on the outside. The caulking also dries up over time and can lead to air and/or water leaks.

Worn carpeting can be replaced in any motorhome. Look for a person or company that specializes in RV carpet replacement. I’ve been told that 100 percent nylon carpeting performs better in a motorhome than any of the blends. The cost to totally carpet a motorhome will run from around $800 to $1,200 for a good nylon plush carpet and padding, depending on the size and number of slides. A custom-sculptured carpet will be much higher.

Seat coverings can be replaced. In general, the higher the cost of a unit, the better the seat fabrics are. Usually, the higher-priced units will be used more than the lower-priced units, since frequent coach users tend to purchase the more expensive motorhomes.

Inspect the mattress in the bedroom. A lower-priced coach may have a foam mattress, while the higher-priced coaches may be equipped with a dual-zone air mattress. If a 3-year-old coach was used for weekends and vacations, the mattress may have been slept on for fewer than 100 nights. If it isn’t stained or soiled, it should still be usable. If the coach was used for full-time RVing and is 3 years old, the mattress may have been slept on for three full years. However, the quality of this mattress is probably better than the one supplied in a lower-priced unit and may still be good.

An RV with a corner bed probably has a special mattress with a modified corner to provide clearance around the bed (usually to the bathroom). These mattresses are quite expensive, since they are not universally available. You probably will have to buy a new one through a dealership or RV mattress company. If the coach you want has such a mattress, and if it needs replacement, negotiate the coach’s price down or require the seller to replace the mattress.

The fiberglass on the unit and the tape stripes can fade and oxidize due to ultraviolet exposure from the sun. To prevent or at least slow down the rate of oxidation, the outside surfaces need to be washed and waxed periodically. By three years of age, a poorly maintained unit will lack the luster of a properly maintained one. The tape stripes will shrink more and the edges will begin to curl. It can be quite expensive to replace them. If you buy a coach with stripes that have seen better days, once again you should negotiate the price down or request replacement by the current owner — or live with the condition. If the unit has full-body paint, it probably was applied via a base coat/clear coat process. This produces a very durable finish, but it still requires periodic waxing, just like a car.

I recommend inspecting the roof of a previously owned coach before buying it, or having it inspected by a qualified person. Be careful if you climb up the ladder and walk on the roof. Wet roofs can be extremely slippery. If you can safely inspect the roof, look for evidence of caulking failures at the seams and joints. For rubber roofs, look for delamination of the roof membrane from the roof decking. This may appear as “bubbles” under the rubber fabric. Look for tears in a rubber roof, cracks in a fiberglass roof, or slices and pits in an aluminum roof. While up there, check all of the items mounted to the roof, including air-conditioning units, the refrigerator vent cap, skylights, vent covers, slide toppers, awnings, ladder mounts, roof racks, the TV antenna, and any other item mounted to or passing through the roof. Your roof should be clean, but not so clean you can eat off it. A slight discoloration is normal; barnacles are not.

To check the air-conditioning unit, look at the cover for cracking. Check the condenser heat exchanger fins to make sure they are not bent. Take the cover off and look for “critters” of all types. Check the wiring and the hoses for integrity.

A motorhome has many seals in it. Periodic maintenance is required to keep them pliable so they function properly. If they have not been maintained, they may crack, harden, and lose their ability to seal. Replacing the seals can be quite expensive.

Units equipped with hydraulics, either for leveling or for extending and retracting the slideout(s), should be inspected for leakage, reservoir fluid level, and fluid quality. Wearing protective gloves, take the dipstick out and rub the oil between your fingers and smell it. If the system doesn’t have a dipstick, stick your gloved finger in the fill hole. If the fluid is dirty and/or gritty or has a bad smell to it, it could be an indication that the system is contaminated. Dirty oil or water in the oil may damage the internal seals in the cylinders and the spools and seals in the valves.

Extend the slideout(s) and watch the movement. Each should move smoothly and evenly in and out. If you are testing a flush-floor slideout, the slide will “rock” as it makes the last few inches of movement on the way out, or the first few inches on the way in. A flush-floor unit may hesitate slightly on the way back in as the rollers come up the “ramp” from their storage pocket and the slide “rocks.” When the slide is all the way in, the outside seals should be compressed against the side, and the space between the slide and the side should be even along the entire length of the joint. This includes the top as well as the front and back. If there is a big difference in the gap, you should have a properly trained technician investigate why.

When the slide is all the way out, there are two seals to check. The first, on the outside, fills the gap between the side of the motorhome and the side of the slide. It acts as a “wiper” to remove any water from the slideout sides and roof when it is retracted and offers the first protection against the elements. The other seal, also on the outside, secures the slideout to the side of the coach. Once again, make sure the seal is in good shape. While the slide is out, check the inside fit of the slide to the wall. This seal should be evenly compressed and the gap should be even around the entire perimeter. When the slide is in, check the condition of the seal attached to the inside of the slide or inside of the wall that forms your secondary seal when the slide is retracted.

Hydraulic levelers are basically cylinders used to level and stabilize your motorhome. The cylinders can pick up dust and grit when they are extended. This debris can cut the outside “packing” (the material sealing between the cylinder housing and cylinder shaft) each time the levelers are retracted. Eventually, the packing will leak. When it does, a puddle of hydraulic fluid will form in the leveling pad and the leveler will not support the load. Some of the larger-capacity levelers have a packing that must be greased. The grease provides a renewable seal.

Check your slide mechanism for wear and tear. If it is electric, look at the rack-and-pinion mechanism. You should NOT see a large blob of grease on the rack and/or pinion. The manufacturers don’t want you to use grease, because it will attract and hold dirt, grit, and even small stones, leading to premature failure. It is acceptable to use “thin film” lubrication, which doesn’t attract and hold foreign material. Look at the motor for signs of overheating, and inspect the electrical terminals for indications of corrosion and/or looseness. If the slide mechanism is hydraulic, check for leaks and examine the shaft of the cylinder for scoring (scratches).

If you buy a previously owned coach, extend the levelers and look for evidence of oil puddling on the pad. If you see evidence of this, look for a grease fitting. If you see fittings, ask how often they were greased. If you observe a blank stare, you may be able to make a quick, inexpensive repair or you may have a major repair. Extend all levelers so they are holding a load. Put a piece of masking tape on the outside of the coach near each corner. Measure the distance from the ground to the coach in the four corners and mark the masking tape with a witness mark and the distance. Let the coach sit for a while, then check the measurements. If the numbers are the same, the leveling system probably doesn’t leak enough to be too much trouble. If the distance is less, the levelers are probably leaking.

Start the generator and see how it runs with a load on it. It should operate smoothly and not stall. Look at the maintenance records. Check the oil level and condition. Check the hour-meter readings. I’ve never heard of a generator wearing out, but it probably happens. If a generator doesn’t have enough hours on it, it may be worse than too many hours.

Check the performance of the refrigerator and freezer (and ice maker if so equipped). When you make your appointment to inspect the unit, ask the owner to turn on the refrigerator. Check the temperatures with a thermometer. The refrigerator temperature should be maintained between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit with the temperature control at the midpoint, even when it is hot outside. The freezer should stay between -10 and +10 degrees. Remove the refrigerator access door outside and look for cleanliness and the presence of “critters.” Look at the flame, which should be well defined. Check the drain line by pouring a small glass of water through it. Cycle the ice maker if possible. To perform this test, you'll need 120 volts to the motorhome along with water, the freezer at temperature, and the ice maker turned on. (Some manufacturers feed the ice maker from an inverter-powered outlet so you can make ice while boondocking.)

Refrigerator technology has improved greatly over the years, not only in insulation but also in flame management and improvements in the metallurgy of the flue pipe so it doesn’t rust easily. Many refrigerators through the mid- to even late-1990s suffered from frequent check light events. The pilot would extinguish, and the check light would illuminate. When this happens, the refrigerator is no longer cooling. You must turn it off for a short period of time before turning it back on to relight. If you did not happen to look at the refrigerator during this time, your food may warm and thaw. Since the late-1990s, this is no longer a common problem, as changes to the circuitry have been implemented along with better shielding to protect the flame from side winds. Ask the previous owner of a coach with an older refrigerator whether the problem exists and whether the circuit boards were ever replaced. Older units required the flue to be cleaned yearly or small pieces of rust would flake off and interfere with the flame. New models are aluminized to reduce rust and don’t have to be cleaned for several years.

To check the plumbing, put water in the system. Without connecting to a city water supply, turn on the pump. Check the water pressure at all of the sinks and the showerheads. Turn off the faucets while leaving the pump circuit on to see whether it cycles. If it turns on momentarily with no demand for water, there is a leak or an air pocket in the system. Connect to city water and re-examine. Check for leaks in the outer compartment from the city water connection. If it has a manifold water system, make sure everything turns on and off properly.

To inspect the electrical system, measure the voltage of the docking receptacle with your voltmeter before plugging in. Check the voltage at several plugs inside the rig, looking for any significant voltage drop (it should be the same to within a couple of volts). Plug a night-light into the outlet equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI or GFI) and push the trip button on the GFI outlet or breaker. See whether the light goes out. Press the reset button and see whether the light goes on. The coach may have one or two GFI circuits depending on its size. The outside outlet(s) should be GFI-protected. See whether it is functioning properly. Plug your night-light into all of the receptacles to make sure they have electricity and make good contact with the plug. Check all the lights both inside and out.

Inspect the batteries. The house batteries should be deep-cycle, not automotive. Put safety glasses and gloves on and check the water level (except for AGM batteries). Look for corrosion on the terminals and hold-downs.

Try out the entertainment equipment using the tapes and discs you brought with you. If you have a distribution system to allow viewing from an antenna, the VCR, the satellite, etc., check all of the combinations.

Turn on the roof air conditioner and see how efficiently it cools. Check the temperature of the discharge by placing a thermometer in an air-conditioning outlet as far away from the air-conditioning unit as possible. Ideally, you should have close to a 20-degree temperature drop from the inside temperature. Move closer to the air-conditioning unit, checking the temperature. RV air-conditioning units are generally designed and sized to provide a 20-degree cooling rate.

Once you’ve cooled things down, turn on the furnace and make sure it lights and can blow warm air. Also turn on the water heater, both on gas and electric mode (if you have enough power available). A water heater will sometimes light and then go out. This is more common when the heater hasn’t been used for a while and/or when propane was turned off. If the water heater lights outside with a long match, you won’t have this feature.

Before driving the coach, check the wipers, turn signals, lights, backup monitor, power mirrors, etc. Check the radio, tape player, CD player, driver and passenger fans, cab air conditioner, cab heater, and sun visors (front and side).

You should take the unit for a test ride on both interstates and secondary roads. Listen for rattles and clunks, indicating possible problems with the chassis or powertrain. Check the engine rpm at idle. Determine whether the engine runs smoothly. Check the ride quality. Check how the motorhome handles bumps. Does it bounce up and down for an extended period of time or sway excessively from side to side? While on the expressway, how does it handle when a big rig passes? Pass a few vehicles yourself. Are you white-knuckled the whole time?

Check the exhaust brake, service brakes, transmission shifting, and any other system you may need to use while behind the wheel.

If you are going to be towing a smaller vehicle behind you, check the tow hitch or receiver rating to make sure it can accommodate the towed vehicle you have in mind. Measure the height from the ground to the hitch or receiver to determine whether you will need to add some type of elevation change to pull your towable. Refer to your tow bar supplier for the acceptable tolerance and make any adjustments needed before you connect to tow for the first time.

Check out the safety devices. Push the test buttons to make sure they are active. Hold a butane lighter with its valve open (don't light it) near the propane detector to see whether it senses the “leak.”

If you do everything suggested, you still may have some problems, but you now will be aware of most of them and should be able to decide whether to proceed with the purchase of the coach or find another unit to buy. If you want that particular unit, you may be able to negotiate a better deal with the seller in light of the problems you discovered.

Once you buy the coach and take it home, make sure you use it and enjoy it!

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