These Things Break – Do You Really Want to Buy One?

This blog post may turn out to be just another summary of the bad side of RV repairs as reported by so many other writers.  I’ve thought about the topic for the past several months and had started research well before that.  I found myself asking why post it at all? I thought surely everyone has read about the potential for catastrophic RV repairs blamed on poor manufacturing. I suppose the best reason to write this is to make sure my wife has an idea of what can go wrong with our future RV and maybe readers would appreciate sharing this information with their spouse.

It is no secret that RV sales are at a historic high and the forecast for next year is even more units will be built. Record production has the potential (that’s a safe way to describe it) of putting an increased demand on repair shops and manufacturers/dealerships completing warranty service.  Unfortunately, my research has been focused on fifth wheels so you will have to bear with me if you own another class of RV.

Most have surely read how RV manufacturers can be terrible at handling after-sales service. Even if we have not owned a unit for years, it does not take long to drift through the forums and read even owners who have few problems will write “they all have issues.”  If you look back in the recent history of RV manufacturing you will discover many of the existing companies are not that old. Many have closed their doors and many have had their brand names bought out by another. All this causes management change and perhaps a step back in customer service.  A short list of what I’ve seen in the past three years include; NuWa stopped building the Hitchhiker then Peterson (builders of the Excel) produced the Hitchhiker only to shut down operations a short time later. NuWa invented the fifth wheel so what a shame they could not stay in business. Lifestyles Luxury RV was said by many to be a dependable brand but suddenly closed their doors.  Some say because of losing financial backing and others said they were so intent on fixing every warranty problem they could not stay in business. Management came from another defunct company to run Lifestyles. What about the Carriage brands which were also popular by full-timers as late as 2010. Gone – sold the brand names to Crossroads who has stopped building the Carriage and the Cameo is just another among average fifth wheels (in my opinion). I could go on. The point is even todays companies who care about the customer may be gone when RV sales eventually decline. And especially if management does not think long-term, guiding a company in a better position for the future.

Now for the meat of this blog post. I want my wife and others to know there is a chance so many things will be defective in an RV that you might decide to leave the road, be injured or take a financial hit.  Personally, I believe the chances are relatively rare as a percentage of RVs that are on the road today. But then again, they are not all used as full time living quarters.

I have been following full-timer’s RV blogs since October of 2014. So far, I have read or talked personally with four of the 23 RV owners I follow who had significant issues with their unit. The brands include DRV, the original Carriage Carri-lite, Lifestyles and Forrest River Cedar Creek. In one case, the person left the road disgusted after trying other brands.  Another had their RVs frame welded and eventually continued on their journey. Another sat in a motel room for months, even working a part-time job, until the manufacturer built them a new trailer. And finally, another has sent their trailer back to the factory for 70 or more issues to be addressed.  Yes, they “all may have problems.” Yes, these may be just a few unique examples. And yes, they may have eventually been repaired. But, these four examples represent 17% of this small sampling. Each was built by what are considered good companies. But most of all – what if we become one of the percentage with major issues? And is it ever satisfactory that any single purchaser, much less these 17%, should have to worry about it. Especially when manufacturers can get banks to finance these things for 20 years which to me implies they will last that long. Of course, if you buy a vacation travel trailer for a lot less than a $60,000 – $120,000 fifth wheel which is built as a “full time or extended stay” unit, most would not expect to get the same longevity.

Okay you can stop reading if you agree or feel warned there could be major issues with an RV that could cause major inconvenience when you are on the road – Or dare read on-

Please don’t get this blog post confused as only a rant, because it’s not. The chance our RV will breakdown in a major way is really a concern of mine. I’m personally willing to risk it and buy a trailer for the likely chance we will not be hindered with a catastrophic repair. If you want to read about the true nature of these issues then click here. This is the only place you will need to go to learn about what is truly behind the problem with RV manufacturers.  Greg Gerber is the past Editor of RV Daily Report and wrote this series of articles titled “RV Industry Death Spiral.” To me, he is a whistle-blower and I appreciated his candor.  Mr. Gerber may have correctly forecasted 2017 would be the year of lawsuits for the RV industry. If his research is correct, there are more than 2,500 active lawsuits by customers after the time he wrote the articles. He predicts 2019 will be the legal turning point for the RV industry as state and federal officials look to pass consumer-friendly legislation. I’ll leave out the politics of his prediction relative to if or if not government is willing to push forward with legislation.

I first became aware of government influence when reading in 2015 Forest River got themselves into a little trouble with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not sending out prompt recall notices for safety issues.  Later Forest River announced positive changes potentially effecting the timeliness of RV repairs and certainly response to recall notices. Now their dealerships are taking issue with the new warranty policy per an RV Daily Report article written May of 2017. Why is this example so important? Because Forest River is among the top producers of RVs and is one of only a few competing against fifth wheel brands, and others, owned by Thor. And just think, Forest River gained that market share during their short 11-year history.  Personally, I view Forest River’s initiative as a good thing in that they are trying to introduce a system to better supply parts to customers in immediate need. RV Business published an article by June of 2017. Called a Parts Initiative in which they wrote; “An all-industry working group led by members of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and RVDA of Canada continues to quietly work on a series of parts delivery issues that could ultimately help improve dealers’ abilities to expedite warranty and other consumer repairs in the field.” Is this the start of RV manufacturers finally taking responsibility for producing sometimes inferior products?

Yet other manufacturers are taking a slightly different approach to better avoid major repair issues in their new units. During my research, I’m finding Grand Design, founded in 2011, is a company where potential customers are looking to provide exceptional customer service. Grand Design recently sold the brand to Winnebago. The founders came from Keystone which is a company claiming to be the #1 builders of recreational vehicles in North America. Keystone is another relatively new company founded in 1996. By 2001 they were owned by Thor. Talk about management changes!  Now back to the Grand Design’s business model, designed to catch flaws before they leave the factory. They built a huge facility where all their products pass through an inspection – after construction.  In their own words;

“Following construction, every Grand Design product goes through an initial quality inspection process. This is usually the final step other manufacturers take before shipping their units. We at Grand Design RV believe that this “industry standard” process falls far short of producing what we would regard as a quality unit. So, at this point in the manufacturing process, we send each unit to our dedicated pre-delivery inspection center where it is meticulously taken through a rigid point-by-point inspection process and final finished.”

I am not qualified to tell any RV manufacture how to run their business. I’ll let my purchasing dollars influence that – to a tiny degree.  But Dr. Deming is qualified!  And I’m not sure Grand Design’s model would be part of the way Deming would suggest the business be run in terms of checking for problems after the fact. How about building quality into the process to start with! In business college, I learned where during World War II Dr. Deming worked in logistics with the US Air Force. Deming would eventually draft what he called the 14 points for management. From what I was taught, Deming took his skills to Japan after the United States drifted into an economy based upon, in rather simple terms, why build it good when you can throw it away and buy another. At the time it might have been easier to get away with poor quality when most of the worlds manufacturing overseas was bombed into oblivion, while ours went untouched. But not for long.

US business management would not listen to Dr. Deming’s ideas. Well, the Japanese listened and with Deming – trashed the US auto market. Legend has it one Japanese executive was in the audience during a day Deming presented his principles. Kaoru Ishikawa listened and later was noted for his own quality management innovations. If you have studied the topic you may have heard of an Ishikawa Diagram which some refer to as a fishbone chart. This is a process of breaking down a problem into its root cause to truly fix the problem.

Dr. Deming believed in erasing anything wasteful. I was taught his motive was not to increase profits, but to rid the world of waste. This included wasteful human effort that could be better spent building something with zero imperfections rather than checking something later to make sure it is built right and if not, build it again. But I get it and I’ll bet Grand Design management gets it better than most. Sometimes things are currently out of one’s control. Perhaps the labor shortage in Elkhart Indiana is having even more of an impact on business. Perhaps Grand Design can’t trust their employees to build it right. Or maybe they have given up during prior attempts.  Who knows for sure.  Maybe they are driven by short term profits because the next recession or major gas price increase will bring an end to them. After a few short years of research, I’ve come to my own opinion of the current RV labor market. And I don’t blame the majority of the employees. If I must blame someone, then I think I’ll blame management because that at least goes with the salary!  I suppose there might be an argument that the consumer could be blamed because they are not willing to pay more for a better built trailer. Personally, I would have to disagree with that, especially since a lot of the parts that are installed into one particular brand of trailer are the same as another brand’s.  More on that later.

Certainly, the way employees are over-worked and paid in a manner that encourages speed over quality could have a little to do with it. Here is a  Reuters article on RV construction labor in Elkhart. Sorry in advance as portions of the article discuss politics. One model is to pay employees by the “piece” where in the employee can go home after producing X number of units with the same pay as if they were there all day. Some manufacturers do not subscribe to this “incentive” and still elect to pay by the hour. Augusta RV and New Horizons come to mind.

I’ll near the conclusion by saying there has to be hope the RV industry will improve either through increased competition, their own initiatives, or hopefully not – through government regulation. Seventeen percent of the 23 full timer’s RV experiences I started off writing about is not going to cut it. Perhaps there will be an awakening in this industry just as there was in the US auto industry brought about through stiff competition by the Japanese. Can you guys remember when one could buy a foreign car at a fraction of the price that lasted a lot longer than a domestic built car? Thank goodness those days are over.

I’m not ready to say the issue is profit driven although it might be. A reader posted this link to See Dealer Profit (thank you Ryan). If what the website is reporting is accurate, RV manufacturers sell to dealerships between about 35% to 50% less than manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). That would mean an RV manufacturer producing an RV with an MSRP of $100,000 is building it, with included cost and profit, for maybe $50,000.  Some may say “these things go through an earthquake everyday” when they are pulled down the road as if to make excuse for repairs even in a new unit.  Well, is that not what they are supposed to be built for? To me $50,000 is a lot of money and is more than most earn in a year.

Why can’t we ask that at least when an RV manufacturer installs another’s part such as a slide motor, water tank or refrigerator as well as their own plumbing and electrical runs or whatever, can’t they do it right the first time. And why would you pay an employee for doing it wrong to start with? And why would you pay a vendor for furnishing defective parts? That makes no sense, especially if it might be at the root of the problem.  And if they cover themselves with short one-year warranties and only build something to last that long well then shame on them. Because that RV might be financed through a bank by an unsuspecting family. And if the management and owners of these companies don’t care beyond a year then there might be a good seat in hell for that attitude.

I’m still buying one!  I’m taking my best shot at finding a good one and crossing my fingers from there on.  Maybe that sums it up as to why they are still selling so many. Maybe my second full-time RV will be a Toyota RV. I hope not.

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14 thoughts on “These Things Break – Do You Really Want to Buy One?

  1. I seriously think you need to combine these posts into a book. I guarantee it will be a hit among everyone interested.
    Good stuff Brother…
    Never a dull moment and plenty of useful and entertaining information.
    Your fan and Sister….
    Mary

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      • Oh, pretty sure you got some of it right. Mine and others have experienced this increase in RV building by seeing RV campground pricing going up drastically over the last several years. More RV’s but basically the same number of parks. I assume we will see an increase in parks soon as the price point is approached. Yes, there will be breakdowns and yes the quality of the end-product in the RV manufacturing process is not what it should be. But until people quit buying them they are likely not going to change their practices…

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      • Hello John,

        Sorry to hear the prices are going up. Wonder once the kids are back in school if that might make them reconsider? From here, as I read about where others are staying and then check their websites, it does seem the prices are going up. Thought that was my imagination. PS – I followed your floor updates in your motorhome. Good job with that.

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  2. Good read Mark. I’m so thankful we’ve not had to deal with any major issues in the 3.5+ years we’ve owned our rig. Yes we’ve had things that needed repair but none that have kept us from using it. This is when I’m thankful for our dealer who has always treated us right as compared to many folks I read about who buy from large companies who seem more interested in the sale, than follow up with any warranty work or repairs. We’ve never taken our rig for work at the factory but know several who have and most have been very happy with the work. I’m sure there are rigs that slip through the cracks and other than requiring a very thorough pdi before purchasing/ taking possession, we all take a chance. Even with used ones purchased from an individual you are trusting someone that all is good and just have to pray they are truthful. But as they say they take a beating on the road and eventually most of us will be faced with some problem(s). I guess we are like you… its a chance we are willing to take…… but I do believe rv manufacturers should take responsibility for those folks who truly end up with a lemon.

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    • I’ve started to pay attention to what each dealer offers in terms of service. We had been thinking we would use a local dealer for times we are back in the area, thinking if we buy local then there is a better chance of getting service. Not sure on that yet, but it makes sense. The other day I read about Pete’s RV http://www.petesrv.com/ which is an example of one of the large discount dealers. On the forums everyone seems to like the price they paid and the sales people. They advertise they have a service center and honor warranty work. One branch is in Indiana. Do you have any comments on if it might be safe to consider them, knowing we would have to travel to Indiana or one of their other dealerships? I was thinking if we had a large issue we could go by the factory while there if needed. Of course there is the warranty period fixes and after to both be considered. I’d hate to be the one stuck in line waiting months. Otherwise, I wonder during the warranty period if one can talk a manufacturer into letting you use a mobile tech if the local dealer will not cooperate because you did not buy the trailer there?

      On a good note, in just the past two weeks I found two used trailers I would have been interesting in looking at if we were ready to buy. I’m hoping to see more as some of those that purchased a year or two ago are now wanting to get out of their loans. Also a friend has a 2016 that we might look at. He keeps everything top notch, it’s one of the brands we are considering and he wants to unload it in the next year. His wife drives the truck and her eyes are not doing well. They did a lot of upgrades and they use it only for vacation a few times a year. It’s not the perfect trailer but might be a safe bet if we do buy used. Then the dealership thing is a non issue. I keep reminding myself we don’t want to turn around and trade a trailer in after only a couple years. But if we did, having bought one used might soften the blow on depreciation.

      Sorry for such a long reply –

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  3. My guess is that Grand Design was using the post-build inspection as nothing more than a marketing tool. Once the unit is built, how much can be seen? The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that RVs are built on inferior frames. When fulltimers bounce them down the road for a number of years, things start breaking. The reality is, most folks aren’t fulltimers. RVs are built for folks who go out a few times a summer, then park their rigs in a storage facility for the winter. If a manufacturer had to put a solid (and expensive) frame under every unit, those weekend warriors couldn’t afford to own one. My wish is that a few of the manufacturers start offering the option of a fulltime frame, which would be made of a much higher grade of steel. I can live with broken cabinet hinges, slide rooms that go out of alignment, etc….but that frame is the glue that holds it all together.

    It will be interesting to see where this all goes, Mark. Great post!

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    • I’m with you that Grand Design may be using their PDI as a marketing tool. Seems like they all check their rigs. I was thinking the same thing – how the heck would they see a plumbing connection was not glued or a wire was loose or whatever. I hope Grand Design succeeds and puts some pressure on everyone else.

      I assume this is Jim writing the comment, but if not – Hi to Diana as well.

      I poached (contacted) a reader from your blog who is in St. Louis following the Louis and Clark trail. Fred and Bonny https://www.rvillage.com/profile/10635 are coming to Kansas City this week. We hope to meet up.

      Someday perhaps we will collide with you guys as well, maybe when we are both in Michigan.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. WOW.. what a great article!! Well written and in my eyes pretty spot on to what we are seeing and hearing in the industry also. We are still not sure what we will end up buying in a couple years to hit the road full time. Like you… we Will take the plunge and hope the industry and vendors that supply many of the parts become accountable an discontinue making defective parts. Penny

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    • Thanks for commenting Penny. I’ve got one of about every spread sheet I can come up with trying to pick a trailer. Not sure the process will pay off or not. It’s been fun researching.

      Our plan is to buy our trailer up to a year before we hit the road full time. I’ve got a ton of vacation saved up so we can put it through the tests. That might eat up our one year warranty before we leave full time. I’m still considering if an extended warranty is a good thing or not. I usually would not buy a warranty. For sure, if we buy used then I’m getting the warranty.

      Stop back and let us know where you guys are at in the process. I’ll try and hit the Facebook link that came with your profile and see what’s up. Unfortunately I’m not an experience Facebook user.

      Mark

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  5. So Mark,given what I’ve read about your desired specs and $80K budget for a full-time rig (criteria that – except for floor plan – parallels mine), would you share the top 3 models you’ve researched that currently meet your criteria?

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    • Cynthia, I’ll tell you where I’m at on my top three models – so far. I do actually have specific floor plans in mind so I’ll add that. I started the year 38 specific trailers I wanted to look when the 2018 models started coming out. I’m now down to 24 that I’m looking at and have only had a chance to evaluate 15 of those. The budget includes furnishing the trailer, taxes and such. So the real expensive ones would have to be used. One warning is that I have not gotten through the all the 24 trailers so my choices could change.

      At the higher end scale, the Augusta Ambition would be my current choice but you will not find any used on the market. Now for the new ones in my budget:

      Tied for first is the Heartland Big Country 3155RLK and the Bighorn 3270RS. At number three is the Bighorn 3160 Elite.

      I’ve not evaluated the Cedar Creek this year so far. Nor the Grand Design, Pinnacle, Heartland Landmark, DRV nor Northwood Arctic Fox.

      A special twist in my search this year is that I’ve come up with a little formula where after all the ratings are done, based on what we want from a trailer, then I compare that to the MSRP. For example, if a trailer rates say a 200 on my scale then I divide that into the MSRP to find out “the value” in it. In other words if a trailer has a higher score and a lower MSRP than others it would have a higher value. Hope that makes sense.

      I am not letting any predisposed tendency steer me in these scores. Such as brand loyalty or I just love the interior. I’m not going to plop in scores in the spread sheet until any one unit wins.

      I was very surprised that the relatively shorter trailers were winning out. I was most surprised when the Big Country scored so high on our charts of wants.

      Long answer but I felt the need to qualify the remarks. Karen and I have toured each one of these we have scored.

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  6. It is good you are going into this with your eyes wide open. Especially when buying new – most people believe that means no issues, and while you hope the issues that do happen are small, it can be very upsetting when some problems are large. Compared to others we know personally, it’s almost been like we’ve had none at, so we’ve been lucky.
    If only they built RV’s like cars – could you imagine?!!

    Liked by 1 person

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