RV Ownership for Fun and Profit

“What? Come on! Man, you’re smart. You made poison out of beans, yo. Look, we got, we got an entire lab right here. Alright? How about you pick some of these chemicals and mix up some rocket fuel? That way you could just send up a signal flare. Or you make some kind of robot to get us help, or a homing device, or build a new battery, or wait. No. What if we just take some stuff off of the RV and build it into something completely different? You know, like a like a dune buggy?” – Breaking Bad

overview

Our camp, as viewed by the disembodied spirit of Elvis.

“I can’t believe you did this,” The Boy was flat out surprised.

“Why not?”

“This . . . this is so not like you.”

“This” was buying a Recreational Vehicle (RV), specifically a travel trailer.  You have to be specific when you describe what exactly your RV is, since (upon checking the Internet) everything from a little red wagon to the Death Star© qualifies as someone’s RV.

And, I’ll admit it, when you have a guy that drives a 12 year old car (LINK) until it gets totaled (LINK) it would seem a bit out of character for him to buy what can only be considered a luxury item.  Or at least that’s what I thought of, when I thought of RVs.

The Mrs. and I had actually discussed purchasing an RV for the last 15 or so years.  At first it was a little pop-up camper that occupied our dreams.  When we moved to Alaska, we looked at several different campers and camper types, and were pretty close to offering some money for a little integrated camper with its own engine, etc., but I couldn’t quite get comfortable driving in the bush in Alaska where there were no cell phones with a camper that had 271,000 miles on it.  That’s just asking for Hollywood to make an “Into The Wild”-type movie starring your family and a grizzly bear that stalks you for 231 miles of your trek back to civilization while you have to fight it off with marshmallow roasting forks.

I like to think that they’d get Liam Neeson to play me.  If he works out and gets some bigger biceps.

Anyway, we put the idea of an RV on the back burner living in Texas, because the last thing you want to be is a Texan with an RV.  That’s like ALL Texans, and, since The Mrs. and I have never read Harry Potter, we figured why join the crowd now?

But I like camping, and after a few camping adventures that seem more like a horror movie to The Mrs. (Just a little farther, dear – you can stop throwing up whenever you get to the top!), she decided that she liked . . . showers.  And a bed.  And not throwing up on the trail.

But, to buy a camper seemed so frivolous.  And not that I don’t buy frivolous crap – I do.  Right now I’m wearing a 2016 Campaign t-shirt for The Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine & Brett 2016 – It’s Business Time).

It’s worth the watch – 3:55 minutes of New Zealand’s second most popular comedy-folk duo.

Anyway, it seems so frivolous, something that someone with LOTS of money would do.  It’s something that . . . rich people would do?  Or old retired people who wanted to drive a house around slowly so they could have their house be in different places.  Kind of like the Tardis, but with Social Security.

I started stalking Craigslist around where we live.  And, after getting a whole lot of free Styrofoam packing peanuts, I finally found two candidates.  I’d also looked at a dealer, but the brand new one he showed me had a table that was split open due to humidity.  Not a great selling point.  The one I liked best was an R-Pod.

An R-Pod was designed to be smaller.  We have a generic pickup, and a youth-skewed 4×4 SUV that The Mrs. likes to remind me is older than Pugsley.  Pugsley is 12.  She is not exaggerating.  It doesn’t have a cassette deck, but . . . close.  Both of these vehicles could pull the R-Pod, which weighs in at a whopping 2800 pounds, with a cargo capacity of at least another half-ton.  This is important, since we’d have two vehicles capable of pulling the beast around, since our 4×4 was capable of “only” pulling 5,000 pounds.

First lesson?  If I wanted to do this cheaply (and, Internet, you know I do!) I would have to buy something light, or I’d have to buy a trailer AND a car.

Again, we’d found two of these located two hours away in River City, Lower-Northern Midwestia.  We texted and, without hearing back, turned our pickup to go buy an RV.

Now, I’m not opposed to other people buying brand-new RVs.  If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have a pool of cheap used ones to pick from.  Make no mistake – an RV isn’t an asset.  All it does is either take you to the lake for fishing (or gold panning! (LINK)) or sit in a storage space.  It creates no income.  And every second it sits on the planet it depreciates, until it turns 50 and becomes either “classic” or “constructed entirely of prohibited components like lead and asbestos.”

An RV is not an investment.

So, on our way to River City someone returned my Craigslist email, and said they’d be there when we got there.

They were.  They were a nice couple who had bought the RV to go to musical concerts, but the wife couldn’t manage to get around the trailer.  I looked the trailer over, checked what I could figure out, and then, consulting Kelley’s Blue Book for RVs® (yes, this is a thing), made an offer of $1,000 less than the asking price.  Unbeknownst to me, The Mrs. had been talking to the Mrs. of the owner’s side, and, they’d had it on the market for some time and were just getting ready to lower the price.

So, while I felt like a wheeler-dealer, I probably pegged the number that they really wanted.  I wrote out a check, they wrote out a title, and we hooked OUR RV to the truck and headed back home.  It looked strange, since most RPods have decals that make them look all pretty.  In this case, the original owner (not the one we bought from) had painted over everything to advertise his traveling patent medicine show that he ran with Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.

I know, I know, but you have to give the 70’s some slack.  They’d just discovered polyester.

The Mrs. and I talked about what to do about our generic, white RV.  In general, we decided we should either paint it like the mystery machine or like the shuttle Galileo from TOS Star Trek.  In general, we both liked the way that we imagined the shuttle . . . . and we’ve gotta paint it . . . but can we bring our phasers?

Upon getting it home and hooking it up to power, I found that everything was functional, except the refrigerator and sensors that indicate the levels in the waste tanks and battery.  RV refrigerators are mind-numbingly expensive, since they are configured to run on propane, plug-in power, batteries, and hope.  They are apparently only made in Germany by small gnomes that live in the Harz Mountains.  I resigned myself to buy a cheap college dorm fridge (there was a plug in) and move on.  I went to work (mildy) brooding on this.  Primarily I was depressed because the nice man hadn’t told me the fridge was on the fritz.  I would have still bought it.

Most RV folks say the sensors are useless, and often stop working quickly.  Not a problem.

I decided to not make our new toy a source of sadness.  I buried any disappointment in a determination to fix it.

Pugsley had spent the night in the trailer.  The Mrs. had bet he’d get in the first night it was home, but he waited until the second night to make his move.

Upon returning home from work, I decided to check out other systems.

Nothing electrical worked.  Nothing, except the air conditioning, microwave . . . . hmmm.

It was hot, I was sweating, and I began to check various components.  I suppressed the burning desire to choke Pugsley.  I really reasoned that he was only a bystander – and honestly, the fact that everything was broken was really encouraging.

I know, that sounds weird.  But when one thing breaks?  Yeah, that thing is generally broken.  When it all breaks?  That means your mind can generally fix it if you think smart enough, or have a great deal of experience really screwing things up.  Me?  I have a great running history of not giving up when I should (LINK).

After a bit of investigation, I found that two main fuses were blown.  I sent The Boy to buy new ones.  During his absence, I flipped the battery terminals on the brand new battery the previous owner had installed.  The Boy arrives.  I pop in the fuses.

Everything works.  Everything.  Including the German Ice Machine!  Even the sensors that tell me how much onboard poop we have!

So, in best Star Trek® fashion?  REVERSE THE POLARITY AND EVERYTHING WORKS!!!!

picard polarity

The previous owner had flopped the terminals on the battery.  Now I had a flawlessly working system.  Yay!  And, unlike constructing tire chains by hand, this didn’t take sixteen hours to noodle through.

During this time, I remembered that the previous owner had stressed I should look at the wheel bearings.  For those of you that may not be aware, a wheel spins.  But the trailer does not.  The contact part for the spinny-part to meet the non-spinny-part is the wheel bearing.  It’s essentially a bunch of greased up balls (no jokes here) that allow everything to spin around without getting hot or grinding the nice metal into a pile of hot, combusting metal dust.

vulcan stand up

On side had a great place to inject grease into the bearing, which is what we used to do when Nixon was president (or so I’m told).  Now most cars have sealed bearings that would last to Jupiter and back, but in the 1960’s (I’m told) you had to grease stuff all the time or else you’d die when the wheels flew off of your Model T at 22 miles per hour.

My crappy $500 trailer has sealed bearings.  Not this trailer.  Nope.  It has bearings that must be greased.  So I greased the ditch-side (think about it) bearing.  There’s a small dust cap that covers the grease Zerk.  The grease Zerk is the fitting that allows grease to be pumped on a one-way journey to the bearing, and is named for . . . Austrian engineer Otto U. Zerk.  I know it sounds like a joke.  It’s not.  It should be.  It’s not.  Otto.  U.  Zerk.

Anyway – one side done, new grease covering all the nice bearing parts.

Next side . . . where’s the Zerk?  Where’s the cap that holds the grease in?

I pulled the Zerk off the other side – Otto’s THREADED Zerk!!! – and put it on the other wheel.  And pumped in a LOT of grease.  And resolved on our trip to gold country that I’d pump grease into that wheel every hundred miles.  (Spoiler, that seemed to work.)

Things I never really thought about:

  1. It takes a LOT of gas to pull even a small trailer. I thought that perhaps if I had one much larger that I’d need to pull a small refinery behind me to supply me with gasoline.
  2. Even a slight uphill was devastating to our progress. Speeding?  Uphill?  Ha!  Never, never, never going to happen.
  3. What I could normally do at the Real Speed Limit (normal speed limit +5 miles per hour) I now had to do at my Maximum Thermodynamic Speed Limit – which was often normal speed limit -5 miles per hour, sometimes -20 miles per hour.
  4. It matters how you load a trailer. For the first 90 miles, whenever I approached 55 miles per hour, the trailer would start to sway from side to side like a break-dancing backup singer during a seizure.  When I stopped to fill the Wildermobile with gas the first time I looked up “Trailer Sway” on the Internets.  It turns out you simply have to put most of the weight forward so that there’s more weight on the hitch.  I moved a bunch of things forward, and it worked like to stop the sway.
  5. I’m not comfortable running a consumer engine at 5000 RPM for 12 hours. I let it back down to 3000 RPM just so I didn’t wreck the family’s hearing.  Mine is already shot.  Thank you very much, Iron Maiden.

But it worked.  We even had one offer at a gas station (while we were on our way) to buy the trailer from us for what we paid for it.  Nope.

The issue we had that concerned me the most was the trailer breaking.  Apparently all travel trailers have electric brakes.  These brakes interact with the braking system on the vehicle pulling the trailer and have the trailer brakes slow the trailer at a (similar) rate to the pulling vehicle.  Why?

Because if not, the trailer would be pushing the pulling vehicle as it tried to stop.  Worst case, it would keep going during an emergency stop (Newton’s Second Law – A fully loaded travel trailer in motion without brakes will keep going even when you’ve decided that stopping might be in your best interest.)

What concerned me were the mountain passes in gold country.  They’re steep.  And, while going up would certainly be slow, I wanted going down to be at something less than the speed of sound and not resemble CW McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass.

For these brakes to work, however, an electric controller has to be installed.  While I am pretty sure I could install one okay, I’m not going to settle for pretty sure when it comes to preserving my pretty face, unless I want them to pick my remains up off the highway with a stick and a spoon.  I farmed it out.  But halfway to the mountains, it wasn’t working – showing a code that it had short circuited.

Well, when we stopped to buy a new fuse because Pugsley had plugged a Cray2200 supercomputer into the power outlet.  While stopped, I looked a bit closer, traced the wires from the battery back, and found one of the crimped connections that the mechanic had installed had worked its way loose.  Ten seconds later?  Electric brakes back in business.

We got the camper to gold country, and then, well, camped.  In a never-before-happened event, the family decided to extend the vacation for an additional day.

Here is my personal review of the camper:

Sunday Night:  Omigosh.  We’re here after 70 hours of driving today.  And now?  We have to set it up.  In the dark.  Without waking other campers. Three occupants. Only I will pee in camper restroom, and only when no one around.  Camper cold, windows left open by Pugsley.  Found the next day.  Closed windows.

Monday Night:  Everyone now fine with peeing in the camper – bathroom walk way too long at 40˚F.  Camper way too hot.  Four of us.  I open the windows.

Tuesday Night:  Four of us.  Firefly.  The Mrs. closes the windows, causing me to have a dream that I live in Houston again.  Aaaaargh!

Wednesday Night:  Four of us.  Lots more Firefly.  Slept great all nights.  Too many stupid little dogs with stupid hot dog breath.

JayneNVera

Thursday Night:  Going to stay in it overnight at some nameless city, but we had the “great rush home” which was unanimously approved by the Family Subcommittee on Travel Hours.  Sometimes it’s better to sleep in your “other” own bed.  Plus I get to wake the neighbors by trying to back the trailer into my driveway at 3AM.

Once I bought the trailer, I now notice that there are trailers . . . everywhere.  There are trailers parked out in front of houses where the trailer would CLEARLY be a better place to live than the home it’s in front of.  I’m not sure I understand how you can afford a $20,000 or $30,000 RV when you clearly make less than $50,000; but then again, I don’t understand fashion.

I read that since they look like a home that interest a trailer loan is tax deductible?  DO NOT use me as a source, unless you’d like to spend a long time in prison for “Using Internet Blogs As Tax Advice.”

My big financial advice on campers – don’t buy one if you can’t do or pay for:

  • Maintenance: It’s like owning an additional home.  There are electrical systems, plumbing, and structural systems.  The first night I got it, it attracted ants from five counties away.
  • Tow Vehicle: No, your Prius™ (LINK) won’t pull one.  If you don’t have a good tow vehicle and need one, can you afford the trailer?
  • Gasoline: You will have to use more gasoline than you ever have, since Elon Musk hasn’t invented an electric trailer puller.  He will, I have no doubt, but it’ll be on Mars.

Economics?  Cheapest vacation we’ve taken in years (except for the whole “buying the trailer” thing).  Didn’t buy restaurant food except twice.  Didn’t spend much on attractions.  And we saw things like this:

This is a video I took.  Felt like Francis Ford Coppola shooting Apocaforest Now.  That’s our trailer at the end.

I did the economics, and it will likely pay out in four or so years, which is better than most investments do.  I may bore you with them at a future time.  But you’re not Vulcans® so you might not like math jokes.

We are planning on using it for many vacations where we’d normally use hotels, so you’ll hear more about it soon.

Dorothy said there’s nowhere like home.  And it’s not home, but it’s like home.  So, I guess there is somewhere like home, and it’s on wheels.  The Boy and Pugsley and The Mrs. rated it the best vacation except for one where we went to Alaska on spring break (yes, we really did this, and maybe I’ll post about it sometime).

So, verdict?  It was wonderful.  It was economical.  It was peaceful (LINK).  I learned about gold panning (LINK).

The Mrs. and They Boy are painting it right now to resemble a Shuttlecraft® from Original™ Star Trek©.  Will keep you posted.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.