Our first RV was a 24 ft. 5th wheel at the tail end of its life. It cost $3,000. We installed a hitch in our Dodge Ram, and without preparation we drug that skunky rig around the state of Washington.
In those few short months of ownership, we banged the stairs on multiple curbs, caught the water heater on fire, discovered a family of rodents living in the ductwork, and learned the kitchen floor was rotten.
In addition to those things, the toilet hose broke and flooded the bathroom, the stilt motor went bad, and it took nothing short of a miracle to save our garage when the rig rolled backward down the driveway. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience and we learned a lot.
There are many good reasons to buy an RV. Our primary reason was to create a home away from home to help our boys with autism feel less anxious about leaving the house.
The goal was to move them from their comfort zones out into the world to open their minds. By giving them a safe, familiar place no matter where we were – a familiar bed, a TV with HDMI, a cubby for their things – we met their needs and gave them a launching pad at the same time. They were resistant at first, but over the years they’ve acclimated to the journeys and even look forward to them.
If you’d like to read our story, click here.
Your reason may be very different than ours. No matter what your inspiration, we would encourage most anyone to make the leap and buy an RV.
Now here’s the curveball: Rather than gush about the sparkling blue sky in your future, we are going to begin with the less glamorous side of RV ownership.
1. Folks are afraid. They sense the issues that might come up. Our intention is to give a name to the fears to help you overcome them.
2. It’s harder than people imagine. Folks stop using their rig because they were not mentally or emotionally prepared for the stress. Our intention is to prepare you.
3. Some folks just want the bad news first. It’s more fun that way.
In the back half of this article we will confirm your hopes and dreams about how amazing life will be when you buy an RV. We truly believe this. Becoming an RV Family has made a difference in the quality of our lives.
However, in the meantime let us speak frankly.
Along the winding paths of RV parks are the notorious devils called trees. Look around the next time you’re camping. You’ll find shards of plastic on the ground and scars on the trees where they’ve been struck over and over by well-meaning fools.
These are the bark-less trees of North America. If you listen closely you can hear the profanity hanging on the air.
When we think of the people who say, “I’d love to own a motorhome, but…” we can’t help but believe this is the deterrent.
Does anyone ever look at a semi-truck and say, “I’d love to drive that around town?” No. That isn’t a reasonable thing to want to do. It sounds impossible.
So in a world replete with tight spaces, why would we choose to drive a monstrosity for fun?
Two summers ago we were in route to the Florida Keys. It was day eight of a fifty-three-day road trip, and Ryan felt inspired to fuel up before heading down the Oversees Highway.
We were southwest of Miami when we exited the freeway onto an highway in search for gas. Nothing came along for ten minutes. Just about the time we were going to give up and turn around, a fueling station came up on the left.
We followed a car into the parking lot. For no good reason the car parked almost in the entrance, where no spot was designated, blocking a clear path to the gas pumps.
“Oh, come on, you lazy animal! What the heck are you doing?!”
The man jumped out of his car and flashed the hostile look of someone who doesn’t give a crap about nothing.
Because of this man’s park job, Ryan could not swing the motorhome wide enough to park properly. Our rig wound up so close to the pumps that Ryan could barely slide out the driver’s door.
After pumping gas, Ryan prepared to maneuver from the parking lot. The curb before us was closer than preferred, and the pumps on the left were close as well.
We would have to subtly drift to our right to clear the curb before us, yet not swing our back end wide enough to crash it into the pumps. Wouldn’t you know, we almost made it.
Ryan looked in his side mirror and everything appeared as usual. Gas wasn’t gushing from the ground, garbage wasn’t strewn about, and no one was screaming. Perhaps we caught our bumper on some protective post?
We paused for a second, contemplating our next move, before hitting the gas like half-witted bandits.
It was one of our dimmer moments as citizens.
Fifty miles down the highway we stopped on Islamorada. It was hot. Real hot. Sweat beaded up immediately. Ryan walked around the back end with a fair amount of dread.
The damage was unfathomable. The back corner of the RV was ripped open from the mangled bumper to the rooftop.
Everything beneath the exterior lamination was exposed and literally flapping in the wind. The brake light was dangling by its wires.
Worst of all, the interior wood was waterlogged. That meant this problem had been brewing for months, maybe years.
We’d been planning this trip for six months. Everything was reserved and paid. In an instant, all of it was over.
In Ryan’s estimation, it would take a month to repair the rig and cost around ten thousand dollars to replace the back end.
Would we stay in a hotel while the work was done?
Were we headed back to Texas this very minute?
We decided to slap some tape on it, finish the drive to Blue Water Key, and call our insurance company. The adjuster told us to repair it the best we could until we could find somewhere to have the work done (not in the Keys). He was optimistic we could finish the trip with a doctored repair and have it fixed in Texas.
We bought Gorilla Tape and Gorilla Glue and Ryan spent the sweatiest hour of his life pasting our motorhome back together. The rig had bands of tape like steri-strips running top to bottom, and glue on every piece. It looked horrible, but also like it could hold.
For the next two weeks we lived in constant anxiety that the backend could blow open at any time. I could picture my children sitting on the bed and tumbling backwards out the vacuum-like hole it would create.
It never did, and we grew increasingly confident. While we were supremely embarrassed, the band-aid held for the next 45 days.
We even backed it into a tree in upstate NY to straighten out the bumper, which earned some laughs from our camping neighbors.
Actually, it cost us $500 for the deductible.
It was a true blessing from God. Had we discovered this water-damage issue without having an accident we’d have been responsible for all repair costs.
God bless that man who couldn’t be bothered to park in an actual spot. He turned out to be an angel in disguise. A very convincing disguise it was.
No one wants to be stuck in an alley, or get blown off the mountain by a gust of wind. These fears are the anxiety of self-preservation that keeps us on our toes when we buy an RV. At times we will push past them, and on occasion it will backfire. This is the rhythm of the road.
Make no mistake: If you buy an RV, things will fail to go as planned. There will be oversights and surprises.
When you grip that steering wheel and gaze out the windshield at the open road, it’s not hard to forget you’re driving a massive house on wheels.
Think about that. This isn’t your commuter hatchback, but in a distracted moment you might treat it as such. What could go wrong in this situation?
In a world of endless possibilities, things go wrong endlessly. Cows wander into the road at night. You might not swerve in time, or you might swerve too hard. When you live your life, you take those chances.
My parents haul a massive 5th Wheel behind their Chevy truck. Thanks to some sadistic navigation device they were guided through a wicked obstacle course in NYC that involved Greenwich Village, the Lincoln tunnel, AND the Holland tunnel.
Upon making it to New Jersey — where they thought they were in the clear — they found themselves six inches too tall for a random trestle bridge.
As they sized up their predicament, traffic piled up behind them and horns began to honk. Imagine climbing on the roof of your rig to check the clearance while hundreds of angry commuters swarm like hornets in your wake.
Thankfully a DOT worker came along and took control of the situation. It took an hour to back them up two blocks to go another direction. It also took the helping hands of 10,000 middle fingers along the way. Talk about a bad afternoon. Things like this can happen when you buy an RV.
Driving your Winnebago around the neighboring streets of Wriggly Field in Chicago is a bad idea. This you’ll learn and many more things when you buy an RV.
Over time you’ll get better at avoiding egregious mistakes. Perhaps the wisest among us will avoid heartaches altogether through impeccable planning. My money says we all take the hit in the long run.
At the very minimum, you will log miles – perhaps substantial miles – with elevated blood pressure as you press onward uncertain if what you are doing is a good idea. This is part of the refiner’s fire. Count it all as joy.
Truth be told, if your rig is short enough you can still maneuver ok. At 31’ we can pull some three-point-turnarounds that longer rigs could not. If your house on wheels is pushing upwards of 40’ you’ll probably learn sooner rather than later to stay in wide-open areas, and use your tow car, or a rental car, to get around.
1. Look for a gas station when you’re around a half tank (to avoid desperation). Truck stops are best.
2. Wherever you’re going for the day, get there early and grab a parking spot with a solid exit strategy. If you beat the crowd there will be fewer cars in the way, which makes any turnarounds less dramatic.
3. Park in the furthest reaches of supermarket parking lots. Don’t be afraid to park horizontally across a handful of stalls.
4. Use googlemaps to scout roads and parking lots ahead of time.
5. Look for signs that indicate motorhomes or trailers are not welcome. If the sign says, “No turnaround,” be advised.
This is an unavoidable fact of life. Cruising down the road jostles everything around.
You will eventually bend the crap out of something when you forget to put it back where it belongs. And the madder you get, the worse you’ll make it.
Your children will break cabinets and drawers. They will putrefy the carpet. Count on it.
It doesn’t take a Swami to predict there will be repair expenses in your future when you buy an RV.
We’ve spent eight thousand dollars over the past 3.5 years in maintenance and repairs. A big part of that was rebuilding the generator, which was problematic when we bought it. New tires were a grand. New stairs that we bent were a grand. Trim repair, toilet repair, plumbing repair, etc., totaled around a grand. Blowing out the converter was a grand. See the pattern?
RV repair shops run around $130/hour, but the service you get sometimes feels like this:
At least Parker is excited to be looting you.
1. Can you afford to make repairs? If you can, then just accept it as part of the deal when you buy an RV.
2. Can you buy an RV cheap enough that the rig is basically disposable? As things break you’ll shrug, and when it becomes untenable you move on.
It is a common belief that when you buy an RV you will save money in the long run. Honestly, it might not. The rig requires a large, initial investment, and it’s a depreciating asset that loses substantial value if you mistreat it.
RV sites can range from $25/night in rustic settings to over $100/night for more desirable locals. We’ve spent as much as $150/night (in Blue Water Key, Florida), and we would do it again if we ever go back.
If you are willing to forgo some creature comforts like power, water, and sewer, there are places where you can park for free. For example, it’s clear the city of Seattle doesn’t care where you park your motorhome (except in front of the mayor’s house).
Other less dangerous options include Walmart parking lots, rest areas, truck stops, and anywhere you can get away with it. *Some Walmarts do not participate in the overnight parking program.
The Bureau of Land Management has a website where you can research other free places to camp out with your RV.
In places like the Oregon Coast, the side of the 101 highway is acceptable for parking. If you have a generator and a full water tank you could spend weeks without paying a dime for lodging (and enjoy incredible views).
Conceivably, one could pop into an RV campground once a week for a good shower, fill the water tank, then hit the road again. There’s an art to it. That said, folks planning on staying in one area for several days or longer typically pay for the RV site.
Our vacations are less expensive because we drive a Winnebago. The total cost of insurance, fuel and RV sites is lower than the cost of flights, hotels, and rental cars. In the rare instance it isn’t, we don’t take the rig.
For example, we priced out an elaborate month-long vacation to the Great Lakes region. It was $7,000 with the motorhome, $9,000 driving our car, and $10,000 with flights. These costs include lower tier lodging and auspicious airline costs.
In our experience, our own rig is infinitely preferential to a Days Inn or some dude’s apartment.
Depending on how much you vacation, you can save thousands a year when you buy an RV. Over time this will pay down the initial purchase investment. If you maintain it well and avoid costly repairs, the investment could save you $ in the long run. It all depends on locations, manner of travel, etc.
Something we haven’t specifically mentioned thus far is the option of owning a small travel trailer. This feels like a good place to say that a lightweight trailer can be hauled by a car or SUV with good fuel efficiency. Because fuel is one of the biggest costs with driving an RV, the smaller trailers have a much higher chance of saving money. Also, the purchase price of a trailer is lower than a motorhome.
In another article we will discuss the pros and cons of each rig you choose. Ultimately it comes down to how you want to travel. If you’re comfortable living in a teardrop trailer or a van, go for it. It is cheaper by far.
An RV is truly a home on the road. That means no one changes your sheets, vacuums your floors, or scrubs the toilet except you. Just like at home, a portion of your day is spent cleaning up the house. Also, when you return home after weeks on the road you must clean your RV inside and out, which takes hours.
If you’re anything like Ryan, living in squalor is unacceptable. Since it takes exactly zero minutes for our children to destroy the motorhome, Ryan often finds himself yelling and pointing. The good news is it takes a brief amount of time to clean the rig. The bad news is Ryan is usually the one doing it.
Can you imagine trying to get this guy to clean the rig?
An RV must be packed with supplies, not just clothing and hygiene products. Things like tools, cleaning products, etc., are essential parts of the packing process.
You will find yourself lugging many things in your RV that you wouldn’t consider packing otherwise: Silverware, pots and pans, boardgames, your dog, sporting goods, firearms, firewood, lanterns, inflatable water toys, camping chairs, and the list goes on.
These things will often be packed and unpacked between trips, which takes time.
It takes practice to be an organized packer. Moreover, it takes forgetting things to help you remember the next time. We’ve developed a thorough packing list over the past few years, and it makes a big difference. There is a gorilla rack in our garage when all the RV supplies reside between trips.
Laundry has always been a challenge for us on the road. For openers, we do not have a washer or dryer in the motorhome, as most RV’s don’t come equipped with this feature. The longer the motorhome, the better the chance that there’s room for the machines. Someday we’ll upgrade to this level of luxury, we tell ourselves.
Our children make laundry especially challenging because they dirty clothing at twice the rate.
Storing the dirty laundry isn’t straightforward either. We pack five of us into the rig, and every cabinet and cubby are designated for something. The shower has become the dirty clothes hamper (as well as the clean towel hamper).
1. Get a bigger rig.
2. Let the kids go feral.
3. Sacrifice the shower.
Each has their downside. We went with the shower.
On average, we do laundry every four days. Most campgrounds have laundry facilities, but many do not. If that is the case, a laundry mat can be found in most every town.
The good part of a laundry mat is you can bang out five loads of laundry in an hour.
If the campground does have laundry facilities, in many cases they have only a few machines. Some nasty looks have been observed in the laundry room (on Monica’s face), when people monopolize the washers. Everyone is graciously contending over clean clothes.
Lastly, when you buy an RV there can be issues with the beds. To all you perfect planners out there with your two perfect children (who don’t wet the bed) and the bunkbeds that keep everything neat and tidy, congratulations. You’re so great! For the rest of us, bedtime can be a circus.
I know what you’re thinking, “But bedtime is already a circus at home!” Yeah. You thought it was a circus.
For the first three years, all the kiddos refused to sleep on the upper bed for fear of falling to their death. Therefore, the dining room table was converted to a bed every night and back to a table the following morning. After awhile it became apparent that the table wouldn’t last if we kept it up.
The next step was to inflate an air mattress each night, which makes getting around the rig a nightmare. Every morning the mattress was deflated and rolled up. Inflate the mattress, deflate the mattress, clean the mattress. Stuff the urine-soaked blankets under the sofa. Wash the urine-soaked blankets when they become unbearable. Repeat.
Get the picture? It’s sad, and we’re sorry.
In the past year it has improved. Bedwetting has slowed and no one fears the upper bed any longer. Still, blankets and pillows and stuffed animals take up more space than they’re seemingly worth. The messiness of it all is an eyesore. Bunkbeds would be nice.
If you’ve made it this far and are still interested in buying an RV, stay where you are, we’re calling you a psychiatrist. You have endured over 3,000 words about the reality of RV ownership.
All of it needed to be said, but now that it’s over, let’s talk about all the amazing things you’ll experience on the road in your new rig.
You now own a house on wheels. You can travel wherever and whenever you want, cook wherever and whenever you want, and sleep wherever and whenever you want (but not really – well, sort-of – you’ll figure it out).
Rolling our breezy machine down the highway is probably the closest we’ve felt to complete and total freedom. We can chase the sun or blow with the wind. We can rent out the house and lap the nation like gypsies. Mom can make sandwiches while dad floors the gas and the kids play games.
Ask anyone who has ever driven around the country and they’ll tell you how magnificent the world looks from the behind the wheel. There is enough beauty and intrigue between the destinations to make the destinations somewhat irrelevant.
What better way to learn the world around you than mapping it out and driving around it? Once you’ve been around, you can talk to people from anywhere about the places they know and love. Every stranger knows things you’ll want to know. You’ll become a human atlas. Every picture that pops up on the internet will be familiar. The world becomes your own when you buy an RV.
No longer are you reliant upon airline schedules. No sitting around waiting to board, waiting for the metal detector, waiting for your baggage, unless you want to do those things. In fact, you’ll have no baggage whatsoever (total lie). We all have baggage and it goes everywhere.
The stress of flight days is gone, replaced with childlike excitement to bounce out of bed. You can leave at 03:00 and get a jump on the day because you’re running on your own schedule now. What are you truly going to miss about airplanes? Getting sick? The tiny bathrooms? They do have the mile-high club…
But you now have “shhh, quiet” club. You’ll see.
Who wants to wait for a tiny sack of pretzels when you can gobble an entire 8 oz. bag and wash it down with a Slim Jim? Want another? Holler at the kid. They love to fetch stuff when they think you’re taking them to the rollercoasters (but you’re really going to an art museum).
Hotels are gross. Thankfully they are a thing of the past once you buy an RV. Now sleeping on a disgusting mattress is nobody’s fault but your own. No one is snoring on the other side of the wall. The air conditioner doesn’t smell like a cigarette butt. RV people seldom get drunk and yell at each other (although we’ve seen them apparently drop acid and run around with flashlights looking paranoid).
When you buy an RV, you can bring all the comforts of home. Your favorite books. A CPU. The Vitamix. The Nintendo. Eleven pairs of shoes. A refrigerator full of food. A machine gun. Umpteen pillows. You can decorate the rig all pretty if you like. You can display your souvenir magnets on the oven door. The thing is yours!
Dog food is easy to store under the sink. You have a hook for the leash by the door. Having your kids kick the water dish over is super easy. You don’t even have to remind them.
Now, getting your panicked chihuahua out from under the driver’s seat where she’s hunkered down and shivering due to the motion of the road, that might not be easy. But it’s doable!
She’ll be alright. She’s a tough girl.
When you leave for the day, your precious pet can lounge around the air-conditioned rig, then cuddle the evening away while you watch your favorite blue-ray on your flat screen TV.
RV parks are the perfect place for children to explore the world. Kids run in packs like dogs. They treat each other well because hierarchies haven’t been established.
Besides, RV kids are a different breed. They’re away from their friends back home and are used to shifting social situations. Our boys with autism find playmates much more easily in RV parks than they ever have at home.
RV people are a friendly lot in general (except in the laundry room). Just kidding. They’re nice there, too. Sometimes they even fold your laundry for you (and secretly hate you for it). Maybe that’s just us (its not). The scabby underbelly of the RV park is the laundry room.
People love to talk about where they’re going and where they’ve been. Everyone is interested in travel so you’re amongst like-minded folks. Your next-door neighbor typically greets you as you’re backing your rig into the picnic table. Before you know it, you’re sharing a Coke Zero and they’re spilling all their trade secrets and marital problems.
RV Parks can be quite beautiful and are more desirable than your average hotel. If you shop around for the good ones, you’ll have lots of outdoor activities to entertain yourselves: disc golf, horseshoes, dog parks, ziplines, pool tables, beaches, fishing, etc.
We would take the RV park and our motorhome over any reasonably priced hotel. A few positive RV experiences will virtually spoil hotels altogether.
When you buy an RV it means you are committed to the road. It means you like traveling so much that you put a ring on it. When a vacation on wheels sits nearby, you feel inspired just knowing it’s there, ready for adventure. There is nothing hypothetical about it – you can run your hand right down the side of it. It’s yours. You own it. There is joy in RV ownership that stirs the soul to get out there and figure things out.
The road ahead is eternal when you drive in a circle, picking up what you missed the last time around. The big ideas don’t always show up when you think they will. Often, they arrive when I’m mindlessly hurtling through space and time and cornfields, or when we’re exhausted around the picnic table listening to music that we want the kids to appreciate.
The children sense the importance of it all. Over the last few years, they’ve made it known they are happiest on the road. No one wants to get off the train, not even the fifteen-year-old who loves Snoop Dogg more than his little sister. In fact, they want a bigger train! Parker wants a Snoop Train, whatever that is. He’s not getting it. He’ll get a Led Zeppelin Train and he’ll like it.
We wish the best to anyone who dares to take the chance and buy an RV. It has made a huge difference for our family. The possibilities are endless when you can pull over and sleep, or cook, or use the broken toilet.
Wait a minute… Who broke the toilet? That’s the second friggin’ time!
Come on, guys. We have to pay to fix this stuff. (hangs head) Whatever. We can’t let it ruin the trip. Toilets come and go.
We can still flush it… kind of. Good enough for the Hoffmann’s.
There is much to see and do. Y’all ready?
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