Why not a car and caravan?

Let’s deal with this question first.

If you have a young family then I would suggest buying a caravan to tow behind the family car, even if you have to buy a larger family car to do so. The combination of a car and caravan represents better value for money, a very important consideration when raising a family. This offers the benefit of having the car to drive around in once you’ve set up at a campsite, as well offering the option of hiring rather than buying as and when you need one. No doubt rental fees are pretty high during peak seasons but you’re spared the hassle and expense of storage, insurance, maintenance and depreciation.

If you are retired and fancy spending winter months down in sunny Spain, with no intention of touring around, then again I would suggest a car and caravan for the same reasons. So often we’ve met couples who have gone to the additional expense of buying a motorhome only to drive it down to Spain for six months (October –March is the season). Motorhomes are mechanical beasts, they have engines and need to be used to keep them working at peak efficiency. Having one sat in one spot for six whole months does it no good at all, as well as increasing the risk of the tyres developing flat spots at the bottom.

Now I did just mention ‘with no intention of touring’, so let me explain. There are loads and loads of caravanners out there who regularly tour around and love it. Each to their own. I did have a used, basic, entry-level caravan many years ago, and whilst I loved being on the campsite I hated the towing. Every time you hit a bump, its bomp, bomp, and then the third bomp as the caravan axle hits the same bump, and I was always looking in my mirrors for HGV’s about to overtake me causing the caravan to snake in the disturbed air as the lorry passed, and as for reversing and manoeuvring with it hooked up behind me – a nightmare.

Furthermore a caravan does not have internal water tanks due to the problem of having to have the load balanced whilst in transit. Remember these caravans are made as light as possible, so the last thing you want is for a tank full of water sloshing about in the back. So that means that either the boot of your car or the floor of the caravan is going to be littered with wheeled fresh water and grey (dirty) water containers, the caravan awning and poles, and yes, believe it or not, even a table and chairs. This means that if it’s all in the caravan you can’t use it Enroute for sitting and eating your lunch or an overnight stop somewhere if travelling a long distance to your destination. Another disadvantage is that caravans cannot use the excellent aires, often free and located throughout France in towns and villages which encourage travellers to stop in their community and spend money with them, maybe a bit of shopping or a nice meal in a local restaurant.

Nevertheless lots of people tour with a caravan and good luck to them, but it’s not for me.

I think my advice to anybody considering buying a caravan would be to find out how heavy a caravan they can tow with the car. If it is unable to tow the sort of ‘van your considering then change cars first, then have the towbar fitted. After that I would strongly recommend hiring one for a week or two and within that time attend a manoeuvring and handling course offered by various clubs and motoring organisations. By the end of your hire period you’ll know if caravanning is for you, and most importantly whether or not you’re a ‘natural’ at manoeuvring a caravan hooked up behind you. If you’re not then all it’s cost you in the long term is the price of a towbar, and that’s not so bad, as at least you’ll have the means of towing a small trailer loaded with all your rubbish to your local recycling centre.

From here on in I’m assuming that you’re considering a motorhome, though a lot of what follows may apply equally to caravanners.

What will we use it for?

One of the most important questions.

Without knowing the answer to that one you can’t progress further, because what you intend using it for will have a huge impact on the size, shape and layout of the vehicle you will be looking to buy. Guidance to help choose the right vehicle is given in ‘Types of Vehicles’.

Who will use it?

Another very important question. So many older motorhomers buy a vehicle large enough to accommodate the grandchildren. Often one with a sleeping area above the vehicles cab (a “cabover”). Such vehicles are about as aerodynamic as a house brick causing reduced mpg, and something you’re stuck with for the lifetime of the vehicle. Add to that, in warmer weather, heat rises, and come bed time that’s the hottest part of the interior, making sleeping uncomfortable.

The sad fact is kids don’t really want to taking holidays with their grandparents, they’d rather be doing their own thing, leaving the well intentioned old folk with a vehicle that’s not now ideal for just the two of them.

Now we come to my pet hate – dogs. Beloved members of the family to their owners, and a pain in the arse to most other campers, unless of course the animal is quiet and well behaved. When buying a motorhome then it’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. Ideally you’d buy the motorhome first and then buy a dog to fit it. If on the other hand you already have a dog then you really should be buying a motorhome large enough to comfortably accommodate both the adults and the pet. You wouldn’t believe how often we see a very small motorhome which accommodates two adults and one, even two, large dogs. You wonder how on earth they all fit in to the space available, never mind having floor space available for the adults to walk around on, especially during the night when a visit to the loo is required.

Make no mistake – this is a time to be selfish. Buy what suits YOU. Besides, do you really think the kids and grandkids would want to borrow it for a holiday anyway? They’d be so afraid of damaging it they’d probably never get off the driveway. It not just a degree of skill which helps avoid damaging a vehicle, its experience, and that’s something you can’t give them before they set off. And you just know if they came back with considerable bodywork damage due to a miscalculation of length or width you’d struggle like mad to say “Oh.....don’t worry about it”

How often will it be used?

Another important one.

Motorhomes are expensive toys to own. It’s not just the purchase cost but also the annual ongoing costs, some of which will vary depending on its value. But a figure of not less than £1000 pa would be a realistic figure to cover tax, insurance, MOT, vehicle service and habitation check. That figure will be less if you purchase a new vehicle as some of the above will be covered under warranty and it won’t need an MOT for the first three years, however depreciation costs will be considerably more. For older vehicles the annual figure could be greater depending on the vehicles condition and reliability, though the annual depreciation would be far less.

Therefore it is important that you are in a position to make good use of the motorhome that you have purchased. That’s why they tend to be bought by folk who are retired. To have a vehicle in storage, or sat on a driveway and only used for a few weeks a year plus some weekends would be a waste of money. For folk who are unable to use a vehicle often I would certainly recommend renting one. Yes it will cost a few bob, but you’re spared the annual costs of ownership, plus possibly storage fees, and by renting vehicles with different internal layouts you’ll gain personal experience of the advantages or not, of each layout, so come the day you are in a position to buy one you’ll be making an even more informed choice.

Where will you use it?

Worthy of consideration.

We always intended to do our touring in mainland Europe, therefore I kept an eye out for a left hand drive (LHD) vehicle, so on those occasions when I’m driving around here in the UK the steering wheel is on the wrong side, but once I cross The Channel it comes in to its own, and makes driving on strange roads in strange countries less stressful. Better still if you’re planning to use it in Europe and buy a vehicle manufactured there, ie German or French, then I guess it’s going to be easier to get repairs and spares for the rear habitation (living) area whilst travelling.

What’s the budget?

The answer to this question is arrived at by researching what’s on the market coupled with what you can afford. It would be true to say that a man earning £100,000pa isn’t going to have a twenty year old sad looking vehicle on his driveway any more than you’re likely to find a bright and shiny £80k+ motorhome parked outside a small council flat. Basically folk buy what they can afford which means that however much you spend it will represent a considerable investment to you and therefore it’s important to get it right.

What sort of vehicle?

This is the big one. Some say that a motorhomer buys three vehicles before finally getting the right one. I totally disagree. I believe it is possible to get it right first time, but it does mean a great deal of homework. Every hour and every penny spent on research will pay you back many fold.

Before The Chef and I began planning our American trip we knew nothing about motorhomes, and even less about American motorhomes, or RV’s as they’re called out there. RV being a collective term for all Recreational Vehicles including motorhomes, caravans and trailer tents.

Many hours were spent on the internet culminating in a holiday to Florida where we went to the annual motorhome show in Tampa. It was so helpful to get to see inside such vehicles for real and get a feel for what we would get for our money. From there we went to ‘Lazydays’, a very large dealership https://www.lazydays.com/ in town.

By then we had a very clear idea of what we wanted, especially as, at that time, we intended to ship it back to the UK and sell it, and needed to keep an eye on who was our target market come the day we needed to sell.

Towards the end I was keeping a watchful eye on Motorhome Specialists in Alvarado near Fort Worth, Texas. https://www.mhsrv.com/ It was on their website that I spotted a batch of eight new vehicles seven of which had blue interiors, which we didn’t really like, and the eighth had a warm brown autumnal interior. One phone call to them ten minutes later and I’d paid a $1000 deposit on the vehicle. The following day I went to work to book a weeks’ leave and The Chef booked two flights to Dallas/Fort Worth airport.

That’s how confident I was by then, brought about by nothing more than research.

Back here in Blighty https://www.outandaboutlive.co.uk/  is a terrific ‘one stop shop’ for all matters motorhome. It’s a spin-off from the MMM, Motorhome Monthly Magazine. Here you’ll find details of motorhome shows (make sure you go to one or two), motorhomes for sale, campsites, and reviews of numerous vehicles. I still visit it regularly to look at the Motorhomes Forum/Motorhome Matters https://forums.outandaboutlive.co.uk/forums/Motorhomes/Motorhome-Matters/3/ where you can learn so much, and by registering with them, can ask questions of other forum members who between them have enormous experience.

By now you should have a firm idea of what you want to use the vehicle for, how often you’re going to use it, where you’re going to keep it, who and how many will use it, and how much you can afford to spend, and by looking online at vehicles for sale and their interior layouts and a couple of visits to motorhome shows armed with a camera and notepad you should be whittling it down to what will be suitable for you.

Private or dealer?

If you’re buying new then it’s going to be from a dealer who will offer warranties, technical assistance and maybe a few freebies. However be aware that travelling half way across the country to bag a deal may not seem quite such a good idea when it comes time to get the vehicle serviced under warranty or to get repairs carried out. You will be required to return to the dealer from whom you bought it. Therefore if buying new it may be worth the time and effort to find your local dealers and visit them to see if they sell vehicles which fit your criteria.

When buying a used vehicle buying from either has advantages. Buying from a dealer will give you a warranty, etc as well as access to finance should you need it. But even with the ‘discounts’ you’re still paying top dollar. Buying from a private individual will get you better value for money because the seller has probably already been to a dealer to sell or part exchange their vehicle, but were offered far less for it than they know it to be worth, but hey ho, dealers have to make a living and cover their overheads, and they ultimately come out of your pocket.

If you have the funds you need to buy your vehicle do consider buying privately. Needless to say certain precautions should be taken. Always see the vehicle at the sellers house. Never pay cash, always pay through the banking system and then you have some traceability if things go wrong. Viewing a vehicle in a layby and paying cash there and then is asking for trouble. Besides whatever you decide to buy you’re going to need to arrange insurance etc so there isn’t any need to hurry.

Should I rent?

I would recommend renting rather than buying for anybody who is still working and unable to make full use of their own vehicle. It won’t be cheap but does save you the ongoing expenditure of ownership whilst providing the benefit of trying different vehicles with different internal layouts.

Maybe you should also consider renting a motorhome once you have decided on your type and interior layout of vehicle (many private owners rent their vehicles out through agents to recoup some of their expenditure during periods they don’t want to use it) before buying. You could save yourself a lot of money if you’ve got it a bit wrong.

I would also recommend taking a look at http://www.themotorhomexperts.com based in Deal, Kent. Through them you can book one way rentals from Chicago to locations across America.

Basically you become a delivery driver for Cruise America delivering one of their new vehicles from the factory to a rental location where it is required. These deliveries start about January or February and the ‘season’ can last until about May.

This is a great way of experiencing the motorhome or RV lifestyle in good sized vehicles on wide roads built to take the size of vehicle you’ll be travelling in. If you’re interested make contact with them and express an interest in about October or November.

If you want some idea of the American RV lifestyle visit the ‘America (West)’ and ‘America (East)’ trips on our blog, the first we ever made.

We are considering doing this ourselves in 2021 so that we can visit some locations we never got to see during those visits as well as revisit some of our favourites. We will return back to Chicago using Amtrak railways stopping off along the way.

What else?

Vehicle weight.

The secret is to stay under a Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) of 3500kg if you can. Such a vehicle can be driven by somebody who has only the standard car licence. Any heavier and you have to have category C1 on your licence. Folk of a certain age have it already under grandfather rights, but those who passed their driving tests after 1st January 1997 don't have it. Those with category C1 can drive vehicles from 3500kg to 7500kg. Buy a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of more than 3500kg and you don't have category C1, then it's going to cost you something like £1000 to take the tuition and test to get it.

Just important is that once you reach the age of 70 you have to reapply for your license, and if you want to keep that C1 then it's going to cost you about £100 + VAT to have a medical, fail it and you've got a real problem. I wonder how many campers drove round in a large vehicle until they were 70 then failed the medical, leaving them having to sell the vehicle and downsize.

Add to that you'll often see road restrictions applying to vehicle over 3500kg over on the continent.

Cargo capacity

This is the difference between the unladen weight of the vehicle when empty, (manufacturers will often quote a figure with fuel and water onboard) and the GVW. This is a very important figure to know.

So for example our motorhome has a GVW of 3500kg, and its unladen weight is 2800kg, take one from the other and we have a cargo carrying capacity of 700kg. That's what we can load onboard before being overloaded, and that's EVERYTHING, pasengers, food, clothing toothbrush, satnav, you name it, and it comes off that cargo capacity. Look for that figure before deciding whether or not to buy a certain vehicle. If the seller doesn't know it then insist on it being taken to a public weighbridge with full tanks of water and fuel and to give you that figure. It will be the most realistic of all the weights as it you acurately know how much capacity there is for passengers and items. If you find the capacity is a little short of your needs you could trade off some of the water capicity, so for example each litre of water weighs one kilo. If the tank holds 100ltrs and it is weighed full, and you need to squeeze another 50 kilos of carrying capacity then you could run with only half a tank of water, but in all honesty it's all getting a bit marginal by that stage, but its an option.

Before we ventured out on our first trip I took the vehicle down to a local weighbridge fully loaded for the trip and was pleased to find that we were within the 3500kg - but not by much. Incidently our vehicle's figure of 700kg is pretty generous by today's standards. Very often a manufacturer will build a model that's an impressive size (size equals weight) on a 3500kg chassis  with the consequence of it having a very poor cargo capacity figure.

There was recently a thread on the www.outandaboutlive.co.uk forum about an individual who had lots of money to spend but no experience of motorhoming, and despite the advice he was being given decided he wanted every gizmo known to man added to his new vehicle before taking delivery. The end result was a vehicle so heavy he would have been overweight just by climbing it to it, never mind his wife and all their belongings and food etc. That's how stupid some people can be. That's why, although it may seem obvious, it needs to be said.

Finally whatever you end up buying do consider spending your first couple of nights parked on your driveway or a local campsite so that you can familiarise yourselves with all of the vehicles systems. Better to make mistakes close to home than many miles away.