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Retro RV: How to Save Money Buying a Used Motorhome and Upgrading It Your Way

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life and he shares his experiences along with valuable tips for RV owners.

My used Winnebago Motorhome project

My used Winnebago Motorhome project

We Went Retro and We Saved!

I know, it sounds weird to suggest that someone avoid purchasing a new motorhome, but let me explain.

A few years ago, my wife and I were both going through a number of health problems and even though we had a really nice motorhome, it was actually just sitting in storage and depreciating.

We were making some pretty large payments on our RV at that time, and we just couldn't see any realistic health solutions available to us.

We had some physical limitations that looked to be permanent, we were in our mid-sixties, and we were not very confident that we would ever be able to travel like we had in the past. So we decided to get rid of our big rig.

But luckily, over the next two years, we were able to get our health issues under control, and so we were really missing our traveling lifestyle.

We wanted to get back on the road again.

Oh, I don’t mean running coast-to-coast like had in the past, but we did feel confident that we could at least take a lot of short trips around the Southeast part of the US and start have some camping fun again.

Of course, we realized my days driving for up to ten hours at a time on interstate highways were over.

My Doctors did say that I could safely drive for five, maybe six hours a day without endangering my health with considering my collection of health problems, including blood clots, erratic blood sugar, major arthritic pains and other such maladies that can attack people like myself when they overdo it.

This level of restrictions would make our travel runs longer for us to get to our final destinations, but to be honest, my wife was actually happy about this new restriction on me, considering her bad back and her need to move around a lot to relieve her pains.

The Search for Another Motorhome

We soon realized that if we planned well, we could easily do this type of RV traveling, and after a little research, we saw we could save a lot of money and do this type of travel in another motorhome, possibly an older one.

Our research showed that there were many "slightly used" older motorhomes on the market that suited our comfort needs for short trips of only two-three weeks at a time, trips that would satisfy our legion of doctors because they could see us regularly to keep us as healthy as possible

So, after a lot of conversation and web searches for older motorhomes, we had a checklist of what we really needed (and could afford) in order for us to get back on the road.

Our Retro-Motorhome Criteria

The key criteria for us in our search were;

  1. We wanted a Class-A Motorhome that was from 32-36 feet long, manufactured by a quality company. Because of pricing, we wanted one between ten and fifteen years old.
  2. We needed an RV with at least two slides, one in the Living area and one in the Bedroom. We knew from past experience that we needed enough space to get around while we worked on our projects on our PCs and also when we relaxed at night.
  3. We wanted a Gas and not a Diesel engine. Besides the lower cost for fuel, we are going to be short hop people, driving most often on Interstate highways but also on state roads to get to the campgrounds and parks that we wanted to access for our book research..
  4. We needed 2 TVs, mostly because we have different tastes in entertainment and in the evenings. Like most couples we got along better when we both got what we wanted.
  5. We needed a decent kitchen area because we both love to cook and you can't eat out every day nor can you survive on fast food or take-out. When on the road, we eat the same foods as we do when we are at home.
  6. We are both active on the web with our blogs and websites as well as the books we write so we both need a decent computer workplace and decent access to the web.
  7. And, of course, we had our own list of luxury amenities that we like, such as; a ducted AC/heat system, an ice maker, digital HD TV's, adequate storage for clothes, a roomy bath/toilet, and such. And of course, we needed a reasonable amount of outside storage for our grill, rugs, folding chairs, tables, and those other things that make spending an afternoon outside enjoyable.

After several weeks of initial research, we were really excited because we realized there were a lot of really good used motorhomes out there on the market, that were actually in great shape and were priced surprisingly low relative to a new RV that was comparable.

Accepting the realities of yesterday's RV standards

Of course, we we knew we had to accept the reality that an older Motorhome would not be as luxurious as our previously owned 43-foot Monaco Camelot.

  • What we could afford probably would not have a beautiful full-body paint job.
  • It would not have the room that four large slides provided to the occupants.
  • It would not have an Air ride, nor would it ride as quietly as a Diesel Pusher.
  • And the electronics and other accessories would be simpler and utilize older technologies, even if it would still be just as functional.

But, honestly, a lot of what we were seeing on the market looked pretty good to us for our new traveling needs.

As we searched, we narrowed the available motorhomes to those within 500 miles of our home in Florida down to just over fifty motorhomes before we even contacted anyone for more specific information about any of them.

We then sat down with the data we collected on these fifty-plus units and went through another, much more harsh, set of criteria for each unit, We paid a lot more attention to how each one looked in the provided pictures, as well as its overall external, internal and mechanical condition.

By this point in our search our main criteria was simply just how much was it going to cost us to bring each used motorhome that remained on our list up to our standards of quality, reliability and of course, functionality.

By this time, after weeks of investigating what was out there and what they were selling for around the country, we had established more requirements for our “new old-motorhome,”.

We decided we wanted a motorhome that was no more than 15 years old, even though we had a seriously fixed spending limit on what we would purchase.

The real reason we had this age limit was because of the technology that would be available built into motorhome models this age or newer.

Motorhome manufacturers, like automobile manufacturers and those of any product that is redesigned and introduced annually, will utilize pretty much the same technologies in their accessories and appliances.

We knew that the years 2000 and 2001 were a pivotal period for some very progressive and useful designs, functions and options in motorhomes, so we would not even waste our time looking at motorhomes much older than that.

RV Fiberglass Restoration System

Buy Used for 10-20% as Much as the Same RV Model New

Our research showed us that if we were diligent, we could purchase a motorhome that met our needs for a price of between $18K and $30K.

With our limited budget, and our desire to pay cash for whatever we would buy, and thus not have any kind of outstanding loan, this ended up being our realistic pricing range.

So, as I mentioned, we were looking for a quality RV for as little as 10-20 percent of the cost of hs same motorhome model when NEW.

And finally, we set a spending limit of $3K to $5K for how much to spend to upgrade our RETRO motorhome.

We figured if the RV was a good one, and in good condition, this was a reasonable expectation of what we should spend to upgrade the usual things that either wear out or become outdated in a motorhome.

Reasonable Expectations for Upgrades

Many things will go out of date on motorhomes over time: the electronics in the RV, HD-TVs, antennas, internet and web access, the GPS system, BlueRay DVD player, quality audio system, to name a few.

Also a motorhome of this potential age (10 to 15 years old), even if well maintained, would probably need certain maintenance upgrades performed on it.

Here is a list of the upgrades, repairs, or replacements that seemed nec3essary in the varous used motorhomes we were looking at:

  1. New upholstery: a new sofa-bed, a new lounge chair, a new bed mattress, or a new driver's seat.
  2. An upgrade to a convection microwave.
  3. Carpet replacement.
  4. A decent stereo with external inputs.
  5. New window shades.
  6. A resealed roof.
  7. A good “up to 5000-lb.” tow hitch.
  8. Good tires less than five years old, and the list goes on.

Of course, most of the motorhomes would only require two or three of the major things I have listed, but still, every Camper we looked at needed replacement and required a certain amount of "up front" money.

These new limits thinned our list of prospective purchases down to 18. That means just a dozen and a half prospects for us to move on to for the next step of actually calling owners/dealers for answers to our questions before we actually got into real negotiations.

Our Final Motorhome Selection and Negotiation

Our short-list included motorhomes located in Florida, of course, but also in Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and even New Jersey.

After I started calling about these finalists, two were quickly eliminated because they were “Hurricane” motorhomes that looked good in the pictures, but had “Scrap” titles.

You see, it seems that there are some dealers who are buying motorhomes that have been damaged by water during hurricanes and tornados and floods and are then scrapped by insurance companies. Bu some dealers clean these units up and list them in other markets, especially Florida.

Six other motorhomes were eliminated because five were with dealers and one was with an individual seller all of whom would not budge from their pricing which was far above the NADA listed value.

Of the remaining dozen, two only had four pictures in their listing and the seller did not want to send any more pictures. Each of them suggested that I “drop by” and check the camper out personally, which would be my next step anyway but each of them was more than two states away, so I set them aside.

Four others were close enough to our home (less than 100-miles) that we made quick trips and inspected them. One turned out to be a maybe, and the other three were nothing like their pictures.

So, now we were down to just six prospects after our intensive several weeks of research.

As I put all of my paperwork away one evening, looking forward to a nice glass of red wine to relax with after all of the work I had done, I looked down and I saw a listing for what seemed a good prospect, and it was less than twenty miles away from my home.

I groaned, expecting more disappointment, but I called them anyway and, guess what? He told me he couldn’t drop the price on the unit I had called about. Then he threw in the big BUT!

He said;

“But, I do have a consignment unit that I think you would love and the owner is willing to consider offers.”

After less than ten minutes of questions, I was very interested and we had set up a meeting for the next morning. After I had hung up, I explained to my wife that with this dealer being only twenty miles away we had to check the motorhome out.

So, the next morning, we pulled into the dealership bright and early and the salesman walked us out to this dirty 2001 Winnebago Adventurer sitting on the back row of the lot.

A quick walk around the outside showed that the body was in great shape, with no signs of any damage at all, and it had a new set of tires.

The thing that looked bad, and I happen to know turns a lot of RV hunters away was the stripes. They were decals and in the past the owner's had let too many people use a pressure washer on the rig.

You see, if the person operating the pressure washer lets that high pressure washer stream get too close to the decals on a camper, the edges will eventually start to lift and then try to peel away from the fiberglass body.

I just shook my head, and made the salesman open all of the basement doors and there were three obviously good things under the Rig.

  1. All of the doors and their latches worked perfectly.
  2. All of the compartments were extremely clean.
  3. Everything mechanical and electrical in the compartments looked good and was functional.

When I had finished outside, I looked around and my wife and the salesman had gone inside, so I followed them. And, I was hooked right there.

There were no odors, the carpet was new, and everything had obviously been taken care of by the owner. The upholstery was in good shape, the woodwork was real wood and had a good finish.

I could go on with my list, but to summarize, although some of the electronics was dated, the RV looked like it might be 3-4 years old, rather than over my 15-year limit.

Looking over at my wife, I could see her obvious interest in this Rig after all of the others we had seen.

My wife and I took a break from the salesman and walked around their lot discussing everything about this RV, especially the price.

After a few minutes we made our mind up and we walked back and started grilling the salesman, jumping the conversation between the Rig itself, and what the owner wanted for it.

Finally, after a half an hour of dickering we agreed that I should make and offer, if I was serious.

So, having already looked the unit up on NADA from what he had told me the day before, I dropped a relatively low number on a piece of paper, along with a list of provisional demands.

These were demands for a specific list of inspections, servicing, and repairs, if necessary.

In the end, after even more negotiating, I actually got my price and only had to add a few hundred bucks for some of the more costly service and maintenance parts costs.

It took them a week to get everything I had required done on the motorhome, and I drove it home with no problems.

A closeup of the damaged decals on my used Winnebago

A closeup of the damaged decals on my used Winnebago

Our first RETRO Used Motorhome was a Winnebago

We now owned a nice new (to us) used (2001) Winnebago motorhome and everything in it and on it worked.

Any money I needed to spend, in the future, other than for regular service, would be for any upgrades I wanted to add. And finally, the price was so low that I paid cash so there were no monthly payments.

Here is what we ended up purchasing;

It was a 2001 Winnebago Adventurer 35U, on a Ford chassis and V10 Vortec engine with 4-speed Ford transmission, It also had these options;

  • two slide-outs,
  • basement AC/furnace,
  • Onan 5500 generator, rear camera,
  • 2-TVs, new microwave,
  • Queen bed with new mattress,
  • all new tires,
  • Dashboard desk for the navigator seat,
  • flip-up desk for lounge seat area,
  • Corian countertops,
  • stainless steel double sink,
  • push-to-reset DC “fuses”,
  • fridge/freezer with ice-maker,
  • roomy bathroom and shower,
  • lots of storage inside and out,

and with the slides out, lots of room for a couple to move around and live comfortable, plus a single original owner and most of his service records.

Well, we hit the road within a couple of weeks and we used that great RiG for three years without a mishap of any kind.

But, we did trade up after three years. We found a deal on a 2006 Bounder that we liked better and we bought it for a good price.

So yes, we are still buying used RETRO motorhomes and we are still traveling around the US (or parts of it), even at our age. Sure, when we pull into a campground we don't turn heads with our glitzy paint job or shiny chrome trim, but like I tell people, OURS IS PAID FOR!

2001 Winnebago RV Oxidation removal and wax

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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