Lessons Learned From Buying An RV

Almost three years ago now. That was when we picked up our brand new, 2016 Newmar Dutch Star 4002. We had ordered the coach in October of 2015. It went through the production line sometime in March of 2016 and then Newmar delivered it to the dealer on or about April 25th. The dealer had to do the PDI work on the coach. We had to get our commercial driver’s license. And finally, on June 2, 2016, we came out to pick up our new home.

With three years under our belt, we can make a few observations about what we learned from buying an RV. I’ll give you a few of the harder lessons that we learned through the process. And, if you are in the market for an RV, watch the video at the end of the post. We learned a few of those lessons for the first time ourselves.

Don’t buy new. Unless you really, really want to.

To which I might add, don’t buy new using Canadian dollars, or, if you can, wait until the value of the Canadian dollar improves. A new coach, although a wonderful thing, is not a practical financial decision. Actually, the whole RV lifestyle is not very practical when you are running a new diesel pusher.

A new coach is an asset that will plummet dramatically after the first year. And the second. And the third. After four or five years it might level off a bit. A new coach will have all sorts of issues that might take longer than the ridiculously short warranty period of one year to shakedown. After three years with the coach, we think we have most of the initial shakedown issues resolved.

A far better approach is to find a gently used and well maintained model. Sure, it might be a few years older but you will likely be able to purchase “higher” in the model range by taking advantage of the steep depreciation curve and you might well enjoy a coach that has had most of the initial bugs worked out.

Things won’t work.

It seems counterintuitive when you spend a lot of money on a coach that things in your motorhome either don’t work or stop working soon after you take it off the lot. Something will always be going wrong with a coach. Always. You can count on it. The sooner you come to terms with this truth, the sooner you can relax and enjoy the experience of trying to resolve the things that no longer work.

This is especially true when you buy a new coach.

We are always running into people who are upset with their new purchase. They may have spent upwards of a million dollars or more on their coach only to find that they have numerous issues. In one case, we spoke with a couple that had purchased a brand new motorcoach and they had over 75 items that were either broken or not working. They were livid, visibly stressed out and thoroughly disappointed with their purchase.

There is no J.D. Power equivalent to guide you through the dark side of the RV industry. Certain manufacturers stand out largely due to word of mouth and not due to any formal data gathering methodologies.

“You must choose. But choose wisely, for as the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.” — the Grail Knight, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

We are still very happy with Newmar. It has been a great choice for us.

Not much innovation.

Despite being only three years old, most of the systems in our coach seem to be stuck in a pre-technological age. Part of this seems to be a desire to force upgrades. The newer models offer an incentive to trade. Look! We finally introduced a built-in tire pressure management system! Look! We finally introduced a 360 camera view! Look! We finally introduced collision avoidance! Trade in your obsolete coach and get all of these exciting new features!

Except that there are numerous gaps in how a coach could be improved. Even with the new models.

For example, the electrical systems are not integrated. They are not “smart”. They do not talk to each other. I can’t use a single panel or my smartphone to control things from one location like my motorized shades or my awnings or my door locks or my heating and cooling. Each one of those systems are independently controlled with their own independent remote controls strewn throughout the coach either on a wall or in a cabinet.

Sure, there are some coaches that offer integrated systems. They tend to cost a lot more money.

The cost of a tablet? A few hundred dollars. The cost of opening up the APIs for software control of the electrical systems? Nominal. But the RV industry is very slow to innovate.

The things that you might take for granted in the operation of a car are oddly absent in most coaches. Like setting the cruise control and incrementing the speed up or down a notch. Nope. Can’t do that. Or like setting a memory for the mirrors and seat adjustments. Nope. Can’t do that either. How about integrating things like supplementary braking systems? Nope.

Expensive to operate.

Coaches are not like cars. Repeat that until it hits home. Coaches are not like cars. Servicing a coach is far more expensive than servicing a car. At one level, this is common sense. Larger engines require more oil. Larger frames require more lubrication. Larger machines require more fuel.

And then this remarkable insight: you have a house on wheels. All of the maintenance costs that you would typically associate with a house? Yes. You have to include those costs with a coach. Everything from satellite systems, hot water systems, air conditioning systems, household appliances and plumbing. All of those items require maintenance.

It is relatively easy to research the cost to operate a car. We have an SUV. The cost to operate is, on average, $12,000 per year. That includes costs for fuel, insurance, parking, service, depreciation, tires.

We have a Newmar Dutch Star. The cost to operate? The dealer won’t tell you. The manufacturer won’t tell you. The RV industry won’t tell you.

You will find out once you start operating your coach.

The trucking industry pegs the cost of operating a truck at about $1.70 per mile.

I think that might be cheap compared to operating a motorcoach.

The floor plan is everything. Almost.

If you are going to be spending a lot of time in your coach, think very carefully about the floor plan. We knew that we had to have a floor plan with two bathrooms and a king bed.

What do we wish we knew when we placed our order? That adequate storage is a really big deal. Can you live out of a 40-foot coach? Yes, absolutely. Can you live out of a 35-foot coach? Some people do. Would a 45-foot coach provide more room? It sure would.

Love your floor plan.

And make sure you have enough storage.

Buying a new coach in Canada is not easy.

The dealers are few and far between. The ability to negotiate price is limited. The devalued Canadian currency makes the purchase far more expensive than it should be.

The person selling you that coach has likely never lived the RV lifestyle. They probably do not even own a coach. You may well know more about the model than the person selling it to you. There will be limited help in terms of learning how to use the various systems.

In a way, you will be on your own when you buy your coach. The dealer will not be there to hold your hand as you learn how to operate a pretty complex system.

It really helps to have a technical and a mechanical mindset. Dealers in Canada often struggle with service. Too many coaches, too few service bays. The sooner you learn how to troubleshoot your own problems, the better. Sometimes you need help though. And often the best source of help is within the RV community and sometimes with the original vendor of the system that might be causing you grief. For the really major issues, there is always the factory and the chassis manufacturer.

We love the RV lifestyle and we are having an awesome time in our coach. We have made so many wonderful friends on the road and we so enjoy having our home with us wherever we travel. These are lessons that we have learned along the way. More lessons to learn in the future.

This video offers a light-hearted and insightful perspective on RV sales.

A Tale Of Two Currencies

Watch those fees. When spending money in another country, merchants, banks and credit cards all conspire to take their pound of flesh. Even if it doesn’t look that way.

This is true for anyone travelling to a different country. You may be spending more than you expect. In some cases, a lot more.

I’ll share with you how we deal with just two currencies, the US dollar (USD) and the Canadian dollar (CAD). Keep in mind that it can be much worse when travelling through Europe.

Let’s look at credit cards. I use two. An American Express card and a MasterCard. I pay a steep membership fee for the American Express card. As a retired bank executive, I am provided a MasterCard without any fees.

American Express makes the following statement in their cardholder agreement concerning foreign exchange:

All foreign currency charges have been converted into Canadian dollars on the date we processed the charge. Non-U.S. dollar charges have been converted through U.S. dollars, by converting the charge amount into U.S. dollars and then by converting that U.S. dollar amount into Canadian dollars. U.S. dollar charges have been converted directly into Canadian dollars. Unless a specific rate was required by law, the American Express treasury system has used conversion rates based on interbank rates (selected from customary industry sources) from the business day prior to the processing date, increased by a single conversion commission of 2.5%. Any charges converted by third parties prior to being submitted to us have been at rates selected by them.

Two important notes here. The first, American Express applies a single conversion commission of 2.5%. The second, third parties can select a conversion rate. And that rate will not be the interbank rate. For example, a U.S. tourist may purchase an item at a Canadian retailer and that retailer may well post a conversion rate that is much less favourable than the interbank rate.

Most U.S. retailers will not accept Canadian currency. Canadians will either charge their purchases on their credit card or use American currency that they purchased at a bank or at a currency exchange storefront.

What will I see on my American Express statement when I make a charge in U.S. currency?

Only one entry: an exchange rate conversion. There will not be any breakdown of that conversion showing their commission charge nor their markup on the interbank rate. More on that in a moment.

What about my MasterCard?

Well, as a savvy Canadian Snowbird, I carry a U.S. MasterCard. All transactions are conducted in USD and I settle my balance with USD. The way I do that is by moving CAD from one of my Canadian accounts into a Canadian USD account. I then pay my U.S. MasterCard with funds drawn from my Canadian USD account. Because I am a retired bank executive, I receive a favourable rate to convert from CAD to USD.

Here is the difference taken from two transactions last week.

I transferred CAD to my USD account to pay my U.S. MasterCard. My conversion cost: 1.3335 and no handling charges.

On the same day, I had a small USD charge hit my American Express account. My conversion cost: 1.37091. Removing the 2.5% conversion commission, I paid 1.34591 or an additional 1.2% on the foreign exchange over my transfer of CAD to USD. A total premium of 3.7% for this specific example.

Even for those cards that waive the single conversion commission, usually between 2-3%, you may still be paying more than you might expect for the currency conversion. Or, if you happen to have a currency which is trading at a premium, you may not be getting the best value from your currency.

For us, it really pays to watch how we spend our CAD when in the United States.

Here are a few examples based on the interbank rate as I write this post.

$1,000 USD would cost me $1,335.14 CAD if I could get the interbank exchange rate. To get the interbank exchange rate, I would need to buy a minimum of $5 million USD. The interbank exchange rate changes moment to moment.

$1,000 USD would cost me $1,363,50 CAD if I purchased USD from a retailer like a Canadian bank. The retail rate can vary but in effect it is a spread added to the interbank rate to account for market movement between when a client transaction is completed and when a set of of small amounts can be aggregated and traded on the interbank market. Like the interbank exchange rate, this quote changes moment to moment.

$1,000 USD will cost me $1,370.40 CAD if I were to charge it on my American Express. Yikes. That is another $35 CAD added to the interbank exchange rate.

Foreign exchange costs can really add up. And, to make things even more challenging, the rate that you pay may not be the rate in effect of the date of the transaction.

In our case, if we pay the U.S. MasterCard at the end of the month, the cost of the currency is the rate on the day that we moved the money from our CAD account to our USD account. That rate could be better, or worse, than the rate of the purchase date.

Look at how much movement occurred in the past 30 days:

Aside from peering into my crystal ball to find the date for the best price of CAD, there is absolutely no way for us to optimize our foreign exchange costs based on market prices. Too much volatility in currency.

All we can do is understand our opportunities to manage the conversion costs. Based on our living expenses for six months in the United States, currency conversion fees can really add up.

Before retirement, we spent at most a few weeks at a time in the United States. The delta in currency fees back then wasn’t all that material.

As Canadian Snowbirds, well, it is expensive enough taking such a hit on the value of our loonie in the first place. To wind up paying an extra 3 to 5 percent on needless currency exchange fees over a six-month stay is unwise.

Retirement Cards

We love to stay in touch with the people that we meet on the road. What do we use? Retirement cards and our website.

We had run out of our first set of retirement cards. We had ordered them from MOO in July of 2018.

We are now on our second run of retirement cards. They came in yesterday.

This was release one:

And our newest release:

We decided that we should include a picture of ourselves on the card. And, perhaps in a future release, a picture of ourselves with Tabby, our golden retriever.

The first card featured a photo of our coach at Petoskey Motorcoach Resort which is now operating as Petoskey RV Resort.

The new card features a photo of our coach at Myakka River Motorcoach Resort. We do miss that place! The photo of us is the same one that we use on our website. This was a photo taken at a family wedding in Venice, Florida in 2015.

The people we hope to stay connected with will usually receive a card from us and, if appropriate, we send them an invitation to join the mailing list on our website. That requires an email address. And, sadly, the folks that agree to joining our mailing list receive a daily email from yours truly.

Except on weekends. Thank heavens for small mercies.

We get our retirement cards from MOO. Great service and quality.

Our website runs WordPress self-hosted at Siteground. They run over 2 million domains and they do an awesome job for us.

A few ways that have allowed us to stay in touch with our friends and family as we travel.

Replacing the Winegard Trav’ler SK-1000 Dish

The time had come. Or rather, this box had come. And what was inside this rather imposing box?

A replacement motor turret for our Winegard Trav’ler SK-1000 Satellite Dish. I needed one other critical piece of equipment however. And that was the Xtend + Climb 785P ladder. It arrived just in time for me to replace our satellite TV system yesterday.

The first problem was how to get the motor turret up to the roof. I had two people help me remove the unit back in Florida.

We don’t know many people yet at Desert Shores and that left us with two choices: hire someone to reinstall the unit or do it ourselves.

Being a self-reliant type of guy, the DIY route won. With help from Lorraine of course.

I needed to get the unit up the ladder and I needed someone at the top of the coach to help me swing it over the roofline. Lorraine was willing to climb up to the roof and give me a hand.

I moved everything else up to the roof first: tools, the dish and parabolic arm, bolts and other assorted items.

I lifted the roughly 40 pound motor turret with one arm and climbed up the ladder, gently hoisting it over the top to Lorraine where she placed it on some pads.

Winegard provided no documentation on how to replace the unit. I used the original documentation that outlined the process to remove the dish and I worked through that process in reverse.

And that was fine until I got to the part that required assembly of the parabolic arm and dish.

The arm on top of the turret was in the stowed position, face down. Obviously not possible to reconnect the parabolic arm and dish. What to do?

Nothing in the limited documentation. Nothing on the web.

We called Winegard technical support for some help.

They suggested that I go down to the interface box in our coach and reconnect the power. Then initiate the process to connect the antenna. And, once the pivot arm had opened up, press “Power” and “Select” on the interface box. That will stop the process and allow the parabolic arm and dish to be reassembled to the unit.

It worked. I am a profoundly happy RV geek.

To finish the reassembly work was straightforward. A few bolts and a bit of elbow grease.

I went back down into the coach to test the new system and everything seemed to work fine although we are not able to lock on to the Dish satellites at 110, 119 and 129 degrees. Those satellites are only visible on the other side of the country and not here in California. I might be able to lock on to the satellite at 61.5 degrees using the manual tuning mode but I haven’t tried it yet. By the time we got everything done, it was getting late in the day. It was time to stow the antenna and tidy up.

Updated: I initialized the Winegard interface this morning and it did find and lock on to the Dish Satellites at 110, 119 and 129 degrees. We now have our satellite service fully restored.

If you ever have to do this replacement, make sure that you take pictures of the disassembly work.

This one in particular.

We marked the housing (“1”, “2”, “3”) and the cable ends when the dish was removed. Good thing I took pictures. Winegard replaced the unit so there were no markings on the new housing. But, with this photo, I could quickly reconnect the satellite cables without any issue. Best to mark all of your cables so that when the time comes to reconnect them, it is very clear which one goes where.

Here is a short video showing the replacement.

Keeping The Machine Clean

Keeping the coach clean is a big job. I see many RV owners that outsource the cleaning of their coach to a mobile detailing service. For a few hundred dollars, a couple of people will spray down the coach, scrub off the dust and dirt, rinse everything off and finish the job after an hour or so.

I prefer to detail our coach myself. I find it very rewarding when the coach looks its best. Yes, it can take a lot of time and effort. And yes, it can be frustrating because, once detailed, it doesn’t take much to start all over again from square one. Like our recent drive from Florida to California.

2,500 miles in all sorts of road conditions will definitely get the coach dirty.

I do not like a dirty coach.

Once we arrived to our site at Desert Shores Motorcoach Resort, I spent about six hours over two days washing the coach. Not detailing it mind you. Just getting it back to being clean.

Yesterday, I began the process of detailing the coach. I like to start with the tires and the wheels. Done well, detailed tires and wheels can really set off the beauty of a coach and it is not hard to do.

First, the equipment and the product.

I am a big fan of McKee’s 37 products and there are two that I use that do an amazing job on tires and wheels: McKee’s 37 Tire Gel and McKee’s 37 Fast Metal Polish. Highly recommended. You can learn more about McKee’s 37 products for RVs here.

Other helpful products include a degreaser, tire gel applicator pad, rubber gloves, microfibre towels and a hose and bucket.

The process is straightforward.

I clean my wheels and tires using a good quality automotive soap. I then work on one tire at a time. I start by degreasing the tire. The degreaser gets rid of the browning and other contaminants on the surface of the tire. I spray a liberal amount of degreaser on the tire, agitate the surface aggressively and rinse thoroughly. I then dry the tire and the wheel and I am now ready for the polish and tire dressing.

Using McKee’s 37 Fast Metal Polish, I apply a small amount of product to the rough side of a microfibre cloth and firmly rub the product against the surface of the metal. I continue applying the product until the entire wheel has been polished. I then use a second cloth to buff out the polish.

The tire requires less effort. I apply a generous amount of McKee’s 37 Tire Gel to the applicator and stroke the product firmly and I ensure an even amount of product goes on the surface. Depending on how much gloss I am wanting on the tire, I may apply a second coat.

And that is all there is to it. A beautiful set of wheels. Here is a video I made that walks you through the process.