‘We spent three years shopping for a caravan … here’s what we learnt!’

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It's a jungle out there ... buying an RV is full of hidden risks.

John and Jan Saunders spent a full three years searching for the perfect rig to take them on their dream trip … and they learnt a thing or two along the way. Here, John, shares his insights into what to look for – and what to avoid – on your RV buying journey.

My wife and I were reminiscing the other day about our first home. Back in the ’80s, we bought an old Queenslander, relocated it and renovated it. The mortgage was the massive sum of $40,000! Now, we’re the ‘old Queenslanders’ (needing a few renos!) and we’re contemplating spending double that amount on a 16’ house on wheels.

If I think about it, the prospect of expending that much cash is daunting; hence, why we did our homework prior to making the commitment. So, here’s a few of our contemplations; perhaps they can help you if you are looking for a van or camper.

Firstly, do some travelling so you know what you can live in, what space you really need, what you can live with and what you can live without. Whether you pick up a secondhand tent or camper trailer or hire/borrow a camper or a van and do a couple of trips, it’s up to you – but you need to give it a go. Then you can imagine yourself living comfortably in the new caravan/campervan based upon your experience, not romanticized conjecture and attractive RV magazine videos. It’s called expectation management and will be a guide to your final decisions.

Once you’ve done some basic travelling, ask yourself what it is that you want to do and where do you want to go. If van parks along the black-top is what lights your fire, then you don’t need the fully optioned off-road rig; but if you are hearing the call of the wild and images of the Gibb or Birdsville are floating in your frontal lobes, then you better know what an on-road, semi-off-road and off-road caravan is (your insurance company does!), and whether you need to be fully self-contained. There are cost implications, but you don’t want to be caught out and discover that, as your horizons broaden, you can’t do what you want because of a pre-purchase decision.

Shop around and go to as many van shows as you can; there’s so many out there and there are squillions of caravans and campervans to walk through – and walk-through them you must! Listen to the sales pitch and learn what questions to ask. Start making a list of features which appeal to you. However (and this is pivotal), don’t jump at the first “Sale of the Century” and don’t be bullied into buying by an insistent seller. Stop, walk away, have a cold shower and contemplate long and hard! You want to make the final decision only when you’ve got ALL the facts. Additionally, going to shows will help you prepare the budget and maybe you do need that visit to the financial planner.

You must remember that the most important part of the caravan/campervan is what you can’t see – structurally and hidden between the interior wall and exterior cladding or under the floor. When you’ve culled your list down a bit, do factory tours and see what goes into the rig: is it steel or timber fabrication; are the frames nailed, screwed, welded or riveted; is the Styrofoam insulation thick or thin and is it cut to size or just has loose bits stuck in the wall cavities? Be fussy – you’re going to live in this thing. Have high standards and don’t accept workmanship not done to that standard or comments like “Don’t worry mate – they all do that…”

No matter how good the caravan /campervan is or how good the deal might be, buy from an established company with a proven track record for quality after-sales service. You’re buying more than a caravan or campervan: you’re buying into the longevity and reputation of a manufacturer, retailer, spare parts supplier and servicing provider. It’s not a good deal in anyone’s currency if they’re not up to it or don’t want to know you once you’ve driven out the gate.

Think ahead with regard to technological change – don’t go backwards think forwards. If there is new technology emerging, think about incorporating that aspect when you make your purchase. Not only will it allow you to keep up-to-date, it will also mean that your caravan /campervan will probably be more sale-able when you decide to stop travelling or upgrade.

Lastly for the caravanners, think about what you’re prepared to spend on the tug. It’s no good if you decide you want a 24’ wonder van with an ATM of 3500+kg and you can’t afford the $50,000 for the second hand Tojo…or $100,000 for a brand spanker! Envisage it as a whole package: van and tug. Do the maths and be conservative in your interpretation of the specifications for your tug so that what you finally put together is both legal and safe. You don’t want to stress out on the finances and you’ve got to get the numbers right if you want safety, reliability and stress-free travels.

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