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Buying a used RV in USA

Some personal experiences when coming from UK and looking for a used Class C motorhome to purchase. February 1996.

As we were arriving on the East Coast of USA we expected that Florida would be the best place to go, but also had some ideas that it might be worth looking in dealers in North Carolina as well, since we had seen some advertisements in the NC edition of RV Trader.

As it turned out, the snow prevented us from doing much looking around in NC but we did telephone around several dealers in the State. I think that we might have been able to find something suitable there, had it not been for the bad weather. But we proceeded on to Florida, where the weather was better and there was a lot more choice of motorhomes available.

We had set ourselves a budget in the range of $10,000 to $20,000, depending on what we saw and trying to remember that it is "cost of ownership" for the 12 month period, rather than purchase price which is of paramount importance.

We looked in 4 dealers in Jacksonville, I think that is about all there are. One was a huge "Temple of Mamon" and only seemed interested if you had a lot of money to spend on a huge Class A coach. He soon chased us off! One was *very* small and shabby. The other 2 both had a selection, but not large. We were offered 3 Toyota based units, from 1989 to 1992, prices ranging from $18,000 to $22,000. The salesmen were very keen to point out that these prices were negotiable and that we could expect to deal at 30% off the asking price, if there was no trade in. This seemed like a lot of negotiating room, but we got the same story again down in Orlando.

At this stage we realised that we should revise our plan to buy a Toyota based motorhome as, on seeing several again, they seemed too small for our present needs. We felt that it was important to be open to revising our plan, as we gathered more information.

Using RV Trader, we telephoned several private (by owner) motorhomes offered and made a list of all the dealers as far South as Tampa. We made an appointment to see the 23 foot Tioga Arrow, which we eventually bought privately, and set off to Clermont (20 miles East of Orlando).

When we saw the Tioga Arrow, we liked it but felt that a professional inspection could take some of the risk out of buying. The asking price was $10,500 + tax. We telephoned 2 large local dealers to see if they could help. One (Family Camping Centre) said that he could do a full inspection for $425 (8.5 hours), take it or leave it, "that's what Sales have to pay".

The other (Giant Recreation) first wanted to check out whether we were being offered at a fair price, in case he could sell us something himself, and he reckoned that the price was "good".

Giant offered 3 levels of inspection; Gas & Appliance, Chassis, Coach; with diferent prices attached. We chose to have the first 2 at a cost of $150 + tax. The inspection showed a faulty gas valve (leaking) on the cooker, the dash air cond not working and the steering belt slipping plus minor stuff like speaker for radio blown. Estimated cost about $500. We agreed with the seller that we would give him the asking price, if he paid for the repairs.

He would have sold to us at $10,000, so he was all square and we had a comfort factor that (*we hope*) nothing major is wrong. His bill actually came to $600 + tax, but we gave him an extra $100 because he picked us up at the airport and ran us around all over the place, after we took possession of the motorhome.

We did have some work to do once we moved in, which maybe should have been picked up by the dealer inspection, namely; alternator belt slipping ($0), choke not working ($80) and the water heater failed ($200) after being used once. Probably not 100% from the dealer, but not the end of the world.

There were also some other items which needed attention; roller blinds not working and rear lights defunct, which were not part of the inspection, anyway.

So long as nothing major *does* go wrong in the first couple of months, I think the inspection was worthwhile for the peace of mind. Someone suggested that we should try it for a night as a test, a good suggestion, but on the first night we used it the water heater worked for the last time!

I don't know that buying from a dealer necessarily gives you any more of a warranty on a used vehicle and once you have left the area, you are on your own anyway. I mostly buy my vehicles privately, so I don't worry too much about it. I once bought a lemon which I had to dump but then, I once bought from a dealer and had mega trouble getting things fixed on warranty; some of them try to wriggle out, if they can. Buying new is not always any guarantee that everything will run smoothly, either.

While we were waiting for the money to come through, we continued to look at motorhomes in dealers. We saw others in the Orlando area (they are about 10 dealers that we found) that would have done us but none that were as suitable for our purpose or in such clean age/condition for less than $16,000 asking price. We were shown a 21 foot ex-rental with 12 month mechanical warranty for $18,000 asking, with 100,000 miles and I thought the engine was noisy.

Coming from UK, we had the problem of actually paying for the motorhome. If we had bought from a dealer this would have been simpler as we could have had the money wired. But as we were buying privately, I wanted to try to keep control of the transaction and opted to have bank drafts (cashier's checks?) sent from England. This proved to be a nightmare as both Citibank and DHL screwed up and the drafts did not arrive in 48 hours, as promised. To make matters worse, Citibank in London had written Not Negotiable on the drafts which made depositing them very difficult!

If I had had my New York clearing check book, it would have been simpler as we would have just had to wait 3 days for the checks to clear. What we did should have worked, but it didn't; I do not know what we might have done for a better result on this occasion.

Insurance was the next hurdle. State Farm and Foremost refused to quote because we had no US driving record.

National General were reluctant to quote until pressed and then insisted that we get US Driver's Licences; 12 month premium of $674 for $100,000 bodily injury, $15,000 damage, $2,000 contents with a deductible of $250 and a maximum 6 month (renewable) initial term.

Gilbert's quoted premium of $638 for $50,000 bodily injury, $25,000 damage, $50,000 full-timer's liability, with a deductible of $1,000.

Miller's quoted $933 for $500,000 bodily injury, $500,000 uninsured motorist, $250,000 damage, $500,000 full-timer's liability, $5,000 contents, with a deductible of $250. We went for this one as we felt that the level of coverage on the others was far too low (possibly illegal in Florida) and Jane at Miller's was very patient and helpful. There was a discussion when we went to get registered about whether Miller's were registered to write business in FL; this was not obvious from the paperwork which they had faxed through.

We made a lot of enquiries and deliberations on the topic of registration and sales tax and finally decided to do it in Clermont FL, using the sellers address, where the tax is 7% on the first $5,000 and 6% on the rest, there was a first time registration fee of $100 and the annual is $46. The annual is a rip off because they do it up to your birthday for the first year, so for 12 months we will have to pay for 2 full years. But we needed minimal documentation, just Certificate of Title and proof of insurance, no emission tests, no vehicle test. So on balance, bearing in mind the low purchase price of the motorhome, I don't think it would have been worth the hassle of trying to register in another State.

Doing all of this yourself is not unstressful, but we have a motorhome which, after 2 weeks, still seems to meet our requirements and we saw nothing better or as well priced in any of the dealers where we looked.

As a footnote, there was not that much choice in used Class C motorhomes at dealers. They all had plenty of Class A's and several said that they had had some Class C's the previous week as trade-ins from shows. If this was true, then it might be better to be looking in FL in January rather than February.

Since setting off in the motorhome we have had to sort out quite a few things:

  • the rear light assemblies had to be replaced as the bulb holders were badly corroded ($20)
  • the water heater failed after a few days and had to be replaced by a dealer ($200)
  • the dealer who did the inspection had not topped up oil, transmission etc as promised, which caused a degree of consternation as we could not figure out where it had all gone so soon
  • the alternator belt needed re-tightening
  • the electric choke needed replacing ($80)
  • the coolant overflow bottle leaked (we knew about this), fixed with resin ($2)
  • the tire pressures were seriously low
  • the fridge gas burner needed cleaning after some debris fell down the chimney
  • the generator was overfilled with oil
  • the roller blinds had to replaced ($90)
  • there is a rain leak in the back which we have, so far, only partially cured
  • there is an unsolved problem with the propane heating furnace

Plus, we have had a lot of equipping to do, all of which takes time and costs!

To summarise my main feelings about how things worked out:

  • If you are buying on the East Coast, go straight to the Orlando/Tampa area, nowhere further North compares at all for choice.
  • Buying a nine year old motorhome and getting on the road using it as home base is not easy and takes a lot of patience, time and perseverance. I don't regret doing it, but some of the problems did get me down at times. Don't attempt it unless you are prepared to get your hands dirty. Expect to have to spend some extra money sorting out problems.
  • If you are going to buy used I personally feel that you can have just as much grief from a dealer purchase as buying privately. Once you are away from the dealer's area you are on your own anyway. Unless you are practical, perhaps nothing more than 3 or 4 years old would be best.
  • I am in two minds about the pre-purchase dealer inspection. I do not feel that it was actually that thorough, but the things which have actually gone wrong *did* work at the time of the inspection. It did help in getting the most serious problems fixed before we took the MH and offered a comfort factor. Importantly, it put the onus on the seller to run around getting the work done, which was very helpful.
    The alternative of inspecting it thoroughly oneself, if confident, and spending a night in would not have shown up some of the later problems either.
    I think you just have to be prepared for some problems if you buy a used vehicle more than a few years old.
  • The administration of the Money for Purchase, Insurance, Registration was not easy either. I think that you just have to go through it is you are buying this way and expect there to be some hassles.
  • We are pleased with our motorhome and are enjoying ourselves. We have travelled about 1,600 miles so far and are preparing to visit the National Parks of New Mexico and Guadelupe Mountains NP in the next few days.