So You Want to Buy an RV

Purchasing tips from two “Day Trips” pros

Before we got to the dealer, Patty made me swear I wouldn’t sign any papers. We were just going to look. I wasn’t going to be the problem. Before we got back to Austin she called the dealer and put down a deposit on the next available camper van. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

For years my wife and I resisted the siren call of purchasing an RV. Our resistance was broken down by the contagiousness of the coronavirus and the utility of a camper van that a friend recently purchased.

Oh sure, we had considered purchasing a camper in the past, but the numbers just didn't add up. We could stay at a lot of hotels for the cost of a moderate-sized RV. There were a long list of cons to the pros of owning an RV until the great equalization by the pandemic.

Patty started eyeing RVs in May as the lockdown drove her more and more stir crazy. Her search began heating up when she saw the very cool and expensive Boho Camper Vans on Shark Tank but quickly moved to the more practical Winnebago Travato her girlfriend had purchased.

Patty: Don't put the cart before the horse. We started shopping for RVs years before we talked about how we would use one. While it seemed more likely we'd want to stay in campgrounds with facilities, we could envision places we'd like to visit like Chaco Canyon that would make the ability to primitive camp a real plus. Ultimately, we went with a small Class B motorhome that would provide the greatest flexibility with hookups, solar panels, and generator.

In early June Patty decided she wanted to go kick the tires.

Basically what we were looking for was a toilet, shower, and bed on wheels with heating and air conditioning. Everything else – stove, refrigerator, TV – was optional.

Patty: Purchase your RV from a great dealer. Read the reviews of dealerships online. Try to make your purchase from a local, family-owned dealership with a reputation for customer service.

Stahmann Sales Company in Seguin was the closest dealership with a Travato on the lot. Karl Stahmann, grandson of the founder of the company, interrupted his lunch burrito to show us what he had in stock, which wasn't much. Karl said that RV manufacturers were hit with a double whammy by the coronavirus pandemic. First the factories were idled by lockdowns. Then a lot of people wanted to travel but wanted to avoid public restrooms, hotels, and airports. Hence the run on RVs.

By July, the company was taking orders for next year. Normally, they would have on the lot at least one of each floor plan and color, Karl said.

Patty: Pick the right floorplan. To me, the most important factor that would make a Class B RV worth the investment (around $90K) was to have access to our own bathroom and maybe a coffeemaker. Since gently used RVs are scarce, we looked for what we wanted rather than taking what was available.

The Winnebago Travato tricks out a Dodge Ram 3500 Promaster van to become a cozy cabin on radial tires. (The diesel models use a Mercedes platform.) Picture an Amazon delivery van with the comforts of home.

First released in 2015, the Travato seemed small enough for city driving and big enough to carry our travel necessities. It measures 21 feet long and just under 10 feet tall. It can be hooked up in an RV park or be entirely self-contained in the wilderness.

Besides the prerequisite shower and toilet, it comes with a bed just smaller than queen size. The refrigerator has a freezer, and there's a two-burner propane stove and a microwave oven. Solar panels on the roof charge the batteries and power the basics. The air-conditioning and heat run on a thermostat using the battery or a gas generator.

I’m a little disappointed we didn’t go with the floor plan with the bathroom in the very back of the van. I was intrigued by the thought of throwing open the rear double doors and enjoying the morning air while sitting on the throne. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

It's a three-month wait before our camper van arrives. We've been working on names for the silver beauty – Winnie and Tootsie are early favorites. In the meantime we're scoping out state parks and RV parks to decide where to go first.

Patty: Get tips from old friends and new friends you haven't met yet. Join Facebook groups for the RV you're considering. The groups often provide resources and serve as a great forum for sharing ways to avoid problems, maximize space, and find the best places to camp.

Bon voyage, y'all.

Gerald E. McLeod has covered the world of Texas travel from Amarillo to Zapata and beyond for his “Day Trips” column for more than 25 years. Find his archive online at austinchronicle.com/columns/day-trips.

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