Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You can get there from here

When we started seriously thinking about buying an RV and heading out we knew nothing about RV's, there are a lot of people out there that are in the same position so here's how we set about it. You may have different experiences and as we are "newbies" at this it's highly likely that we've made some elementary mistakes that we haven't realized yet. But hey if everything went easy it wouldn't be an adventure right??
The first thing we thought is "Ooooh - lets go out and buy an RV RIGHT NOW! So we went to a local RV Show. We were overwhelmed by all the different kinds of RV's.
Motorhomes come in Class A, Class B and Class C. We didn't even know what each type was. 
Basically Class A's are the big self contained units that most people refer to as "Winnebago's". They are usually the ones stopping you going over 25 mph on some steep 2 lane road. 
Class B's are like vans converted for camping in, basically van sized they don't hold you up nearly as much as the Class A's. 
Class C's are usually a van chassis with a bed that hangs over the cab area and an extension out the back so they can squeeze in things like bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms etc. 
They will be behind the Winnebago's but unless the road flattens out for a good stretch they won't be passing them any time soon.
Then there are Trailers. They come in all shapes and sizes and either tow behind a vehicle using a tow hitch or use a device called a Gooseneck to put the hitch in the bed of a pickup. The ones with the Gooseneck are referred to as 5th Wheelers (5er's for short). There are also popups that are half tent and half trailer and fold up small kind of like the little tent trailer we towed behind our motorcycle.

Having spent the day going in and out of all kinds of beautiful RV's (Rigs for short) and suffering serious sticker shock we left the RV show with bags full of leaflets and a lifetime supply of junkmail from all the places that offered us free camping etc. (More on that later).
There was so much to learn before we came even close to a decision. We turned to the internet. 
Turns out there are tons of RV websites out there, my current favorites are iRv2.com and escapees.com. 
We sat and worked out exactly what we wanted from an RV. We wanted to take our motorcycle along but still have the ability to use another vehicle when we were camping if it was rainy or Barbara wanted to go somewhere on her own because she can't ride the motorcycle. 
We decided that a trailer with a garage in the back would suit us, they are called "Toyboxes", very popular in California because you can throw all your toys in it and head out for a weekend playing in the desert. 
We went to another RV show and looked at Toyboxes. We figured we could drive our existing Ford F150 truck and tow a regular size Toybox trailer behind it with the bike in it. 
Immediately we saw that a regular towed trailer was going to be too small for long term living, 5er's would be just the right size. We already own a pickup truck so we could just install the device to support the gooseneck in the bed of our truck, load the motorcycle in the garage area and we'd be off and running right? 
Wrong.... the big 5er's weigh a LOT and our motorcycle would add another 1000lbs to that. Then add the weight of all your food, clothes, chairs, tables, pots, pans and crockery and you have a really heavy trailer. 
Our F150 truck would last about 30 miles until the transmission came up thu the hood in a big cloud of smoke. So we'd need to buy a new truck too, and a BIG, preferably diesel powered one too. 
A check around the local pickup truck dealers gave us some more sticker shock. 5er's aren't a bargain either so we were right up there in Class A territory immediately.
So we did some math and we don't want to be in debt when we retire so a new 5er and pickup were out. 
Then we looked harder at the Toyhaulers . They have beds that lower down from the ceiling after you roll the motorcycle etc out, so effectively we'd be sleeping in the garage. 
Nix the 5er's.
Now we thought we could load the motorcycle in the bed of the pickup truck and tow the pickup truck behind a motorhome. 
We looked at the motorhomes. 
Class B's are just to small for us to live in for the next couple of years and towing a pickup with a motorcycle in it would be too much for one. 
Class C's can be nice but a lot of them have the bed over the cab and at 65 we don't want to be climbing ladders and crawling over each other to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Plus they are still "Snug" to live in and most don't have a lot of storage. 
Which leaves Class A's. 
Back around the RV show circuit to see what is available. We LIKE looking at RV's and take out time to sit in each rig as though we were ready to spend a day there. Several things made out like/don't like list.

LIKES
Separate table and chairs
L shaped couch
Recliners
Basement storage
Queen size bed
Slide outs

DON'T LIKES
TV over the driver area (Not easy to watch from the sofa)
Dinnette/Bench seats
Bunk Beds (we have no use for them)
Twin beds (I like to cuddle up on cold nights)
Dark wood interiors (Feels like a dark cave)

Now we narrowed down the field some. We took pictures of the models we liked and what sort of prices they were going for used. We looked at brand new rigs as we reasoned that it would be 3 years or more before we bought and the rigs we looked at new would be good choices used in 3 years time.
When we had a rough idea of what we were looking for we started asking questions about towing a pickup with a motorcycle in it. Immediately a problem came up. Apparently you can't just tow ANY vehicle. 
Ideally you would tow the vehicle with all it's wheels on the ground. Called "Flat" towing or 4 down. 
Most vehicles cannot be towed this way, front wheel drive cars with automatic transmissions generally cannot be towed like that, but you can get a "Tow Dolly". Basically a single axle trailer that you put under the front wheels so they are off the ground. 
Most pickups cannot be towed  4 down without modifications to the drive train to allow the rear wheels to freewheel, otherwise the transmission can be damaged.  
Even if we had our pickup truck modified the weight of the truck and motorcycle would require a BIG RV with probably a diesel engine to tow it. 
Back to the RV show circuit and more sticker shock. RV's with the towing capacity we would need are generally top of the range models and very expensive. 
Back to square one. 
After some soul searching we came to the conclusion that we had to forget about the motorcycle. For the amount of use we'd get out of it it was just unrealistic for us to take it along. Some people do happily fulltime with motorcycles either on trailers or in Toyboxes. There is even an RV with a motorcycle garage in it, and devices that lift the motorcycle up behind the RV like a giant bicycle rack. But for us, with our budget and our particular wants/needs we couldn't do it. Scratch the motorcycle. 

About this time Barbara's old Buick reached the end of it's economic life. She needed a new car. 
We reasoned that she could commute to work in it and we could pay it off before we left on our fulltimer adventure. 
Next we needed to find one that she liked and that was capable of being towed 4 down. The added hassle of getting it on and off a tow dolly or trailer just didn't make sense to us and you also have to store the dolly/trailer at the campground which might be a problem in some places. 
The RV internet boards helped find a list of vehicles that can be flat towed and we set off to find one. Barbara didn't want an SUV so Jeeps and Honda CRV's were out. 
Then we drove a Ford Fiesta and she liked it, it's an automatic and can be flat towed provided you put it in neutral and disconnect the battery negative cable, and it was reasonably priced. So we bought one. We've had it 2 years now and it gets good mileage is pretty comfortable and has lots of cargo space especially if you fold the rear seats down when it almost becomes a pickup! 

The biggest mistake we made was buying a Fiesta! Now we have 54k miles on it and it's had 3 transmissions already and working on a 4th. DON'T EVER BUY A FIESTA.....

Some friends of ours with the same plan we have, introduced us to the Escapees RV club which is for people who either are fulltimers or are planning to be. They have a good website: escapees.com and have a thing called "RV Boot Camp" a couple of times a year at various venues. 
When Dick and Bonita told us about it we signed up for the one in Congress AZ at the Escapees North Branch park. 
This event is in my opinion worth it's weight in gold. If you haven't bought an RV yet, or just got one and you are confused by all the systems, o to Boot Camp! 
They show you all you need to know about safety, setup, types of rigs, working from an RV, fulltiming, setting up a legal residency in another state. It goes on and on. 
If you go be sure you write things down as you learn them because your brain will explode halfway thru if you try and remember it all!! It even includes breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When we got back from Boot Camp we were so fired up about RVing we started shopping in earnest right away. 
We'd heard that Yuma AZ in march was a good place to shop for a deal. I'm also a Craigslist junkie so that's were we started to look rigs in our price range. 
Our price range was pretty moderate so not many dealers had stuff we'd be interested in. We weren't going to be rushed into buying and were prepared to shop for a long time before we made a decision. 
On Craigslist (CLfor short) I searched for rigs in our local area (Southern California) and there are LOTS of rigs around here. I thought at one time that if you didn't have an RV in your drive you were eligible for welfare! 
Then I used CL to search the Yuma AZ area which is about 150 miles from here. 
Both searches pulled up lots of rigs of all sizes and prices. We saw several rigs that were close but didn't have what we wanted, we didn't even know if there was anything with our requirements for what we wanted to pay! 
Then we stumbled on a rig in AZ owned by a lady from CA who wintered in Yuma. We decided to go see that one first, and look at the dealer lots while we were down there. I loaded all the addresses into the GPS booked a hotel room for a couple of nights and off we went. 
We discovered a couple of nice things about AZ and Yuma in particular. 
First off gas is about 30 cents a gallon cheaper than CA. 
Second an incredible number of people winter in and around Yuma so there are endless RV parks, RV stores, RV repair places and every other kind of RV related items you could imagine prices are good because there's a lot of competition. 
If you want to shop the snowbird areas (That's what they call the people that winter over in the south) be aware that by April 1st they are pretty much gone and so have the deals. 
We drove out to see the first rig and along the way discovered "Park and Sell" lots. 
Like a big parking lot at the side of a busy road, owners of rigs for sale (for a fee) can park them among lots of other rigs for sale and sit and display their coaches. 
There were several along the way to see the first rig. They don't advertise so unless you went there you'd never know about them. 
The first rig we saw was a 1999 Rexhall Rexaire. We'd never heard of Rexhall before we saw this one but when we looked inside it had ALL the features we wanted. It was 36' long had tires that were only a couple of years only (you may not know that RV tires are only good for 5 years and there is a date code on them if you know where to look. (Thanks RV boot camp!) 
If you think that's no big deal consider that a set of 6 RV tires might cost you $3,000!!
The Rexhall was owned by by a lady who had bought it new from the factory lived in it in Yuma during the winter, then drove it back to San Francisco for the summer. Her and her husband loved it and kept up on every last detail in maintenance and had all the records to show it. They had added every useful accessory, kept it spotlessly clean and had it waxed twice a year. And it was in our price range. 
So did we buy it? 
No we didn't. Only because at boot camp they told us that most people buy 3 rigs before they get the one they really wanted. 
We didn't have the money to get it wrong twice, besides everyone tells you DON'T BUY THE FIRST ONE YOU SEE. So we went to the Park and Sell lots on the way out, some dealers lots, some consignment dealers and a bunch of camping supply stores. 
We got back to San Diego and  saw lots more rigs from Craigslist, RV Shows and Dealer lots. 
We created a form to list the features of each rig we saw with pictures we took when we saw each one. 
That way if a particular make and model didn't interest us we knew which ads to avoid. 
I was still in awe of the really big 40 foot long Diesel Pushers (DP for short). I mean those things are top of the line and could tow a fair size iceberg uphill without holding up traffic. But that means they are expensive. One thing we learned at Boot Camp is that before buying a rig have an independent inspector examine all the systems in it and the structure of it because a hidden problem can quickly cost thousands of dollars. For instance an RV refrigerator will work on AC power, DC Power and propane. A new one can be $2000! So check it out before you buy. 
All that being said there was a 1996 model DP for sale on consignment in San Diego and it was pretty cheap. We'd looked at dozens and dozens of rigs by now so we had a good idea of how the systems worked. 
This particular rig had been owned from new by an elderly gentleman who kept it on a local military base RV park, He'd got ill and eventually passed away. The rig sat for a couple of years but the family didn't want it and the military base wanted it gone. It had been with the dealer for several months and the price had just been dropped $10,000. It was clean inside but it wasn't hooked up to water or power so there was no way to test any systems. There was a propane leak somewhere around the stove, so that couldn't be tested neither could the fridge be tested on propane. The batteries both for the coach and chassis were flat and they couldn't get the engine started the day we went to see it. 
We arranged that they would charge the batteries and get it running so we could test drive it. When we went back a couple of days later they had it running and it drove well. They promised to get it hooked up to shore power (120 volt AC) and to fix the propane leak so we could test all the systems. OK I know the advice was to get an independent inspector to check it over but I have good mechanical skills and I can fix 95% of things around the car, motorcycle and house so I was confident I could spot a problem. 
To help I made another spreadsheet with what needed to be checked and how to check it. RV's are VERY complex so trying to do this without a checklist is dumb. 
We were heading towards making an offer on this rig and sat down at home to talk about it. 
There were things in it that were on our "DON'T LIKE" list. Nothing huge but a few. Barbara suddenly sat upright and said "You know, we haven't seen a single rig that we liked as much as that first one we looked at, the Rexhall" 
I hate it when she's right, and damn it she was right, that was the one we liked best. 
I dug out my list and found the phone number of the owner. She answered straight away. She said she hoped we'd call back as she liked us when we met, she'd wanted to call us as the rig was still for sale but had mislaid our number and she was willing to negotiate. 
We set up a date to go see it again the next weekend, test the systems out and get a test drive. 
ALWAYS test drive a rig before making an offer. I've read stories about people buying brand new rigs and finding out they wandered all over the road as they went down the street from the dealer, that was the way they were built!! 
Another thing to think about when considering a rig is all the things you will need to camp comfortably in it. There are things like crockery, cutlery, outside rugs, chairs, sewer hoses, power cords, water hoses, chemicals for the sewer and sink drain tanks. The list is long and expensive, Don't fool yourself into thinking it will be complete when you drive it away. That's why RV dealers have parts and accessory stores right there on the lot. 
When we were having lunch with the owner (Tested the stove that way!!) Barbara casually asked what kind of crockery was best for an RV, china or plastic? The owner looked surprised "Oh you don't understand, when you buy this rig you'll get it complete with everything, pots, pans, knives, forks, cups, plates, hoses, spare parts, outside rugs, chemicals, special accessories for washing the outside of it, the towing equipment to pull a car behind, EVERYTHING" 
I think that sealed the deal, but then she said "Oh by the way the registration expires at the end of the month so I'll get it smogged and pay the registration for next year". 
I thought we had picked a winner and was confident this was a good well maintained unit. She then reinforced that opinion when she said that she wanted to take her personal items out of the coach and take then home to San Francisco. A U Haul would be too expensive so she was going to drive the rig to San Fran unload and then she'd meet us somewhere between San Fran and SD to make the delivery. 
This is a 75 year old lady no taller than about 5'-6". And she going to drive this rig from Yuma to San Fran and halfway back again ON HER OWN! She obviously had no reservations about the reliability of it. 
So we reached an agreement on price, decided that we'd meet up near Palm Springs and do the exchange of money and title, I'd provide her with an airline ticket back to San Fran, a hotel room in Palm Springs for the night and we'd drop her off at the airport on the way back to San Diego. 
And that's what we did! 
We spent our first night RV'ing in a casino parking lot. 
They call that Casino Camping, many casinos welcome you to stay in their parking lots but check before you go as some don't. When you camp there, there are no outside systems to connect to. No water, sewer, electricity nothing, but the RV can function without them with a little planning. There is a fresh water tank you can fill before hand that will hold enough for all your normal needs for several days. There are batteries that provide power to the lights in the living area (These are the "Coach" batteries. The battery that starts the engine is separate and called the "Chassis" battery). There is a propane tank that holds enough for months of cooking, hot water and heating, And there are two tanks under the rig that hold the sewage (Black water) and sink/shower drains(Gray Water) and will store several days worth of those. 
When you camp this way it's called "Dry" camping, or "Boondocking". 
We settled down on our first RV for our first camping adventure and found out the thing had a sleep number mattress that is more comfortable than our bed at home!!


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