Buying your first motorhome
We are often approached by potential members looking for advice on what to buy so here a few tips to get you started and hopefully avoid a purchase that doesn’t meet your requirements.
How do you plan to use it?
The first step is to establish what you want to do with your recreational vehicle and where you are thinking of staying as this leads to a number of questions that will influence your purchase. Failing to do your homework at the outset can lead to expensive and frustrating mistakes. If you prefer to stay mostly in serviced motor camps for the facilities, safety and family recreational reasons, then your needs will be easier to meet. However if you plan to freedom camp or spend any length of time in the extensive NZMCA parks throughout the country, this will require whatever you buy to have much more flexibility.
The standard caravan or ex-rental motorhomes are not designed to be away from facilities for very long – a day or two maximum. By facilities we mean 240v power connections, water, toilets, showers and maybe even access to stoves and a fridge. If you plan to freedom camp or stay at POP’s (park over properties) or NZMCA Parks for any length of time, your vehicle will not only need to be Certified Self Contained, but you will also need to research carefully the following capacities of whatever you plan to buy:
1/ Fresh Water: It is not uncommon for a couple to use in excess of 50 litres of water per day, more if you are both showering regularly.
2/ Grey Water: The more fresh water capacity you have the more grey water (sink & shower waste) storage is necessary. ‘Roll away’ (temporary) tanks to increase capacity can be very heavy to handle when full, and bulky to store when not in use.
3/ Black Water: Cassette toilet containers are very convenient, but do not hold very much toilet waste and some find the emptying procedure distasteful.
4/ Batteries: If you are away from plug-in power, ‘house’ storage battery will not last very long running water pumps, TV, lights, frig’s and particularly heating. One will not be enough and finding space to add extras is not always easy. Ways to recharge these such as solar panels or a generator should also be considered.
5/ Refrigerator Space: Small under bench fridge/freezers have limited capacity for many perishable food items let alone some cool beverages for days end.
6/ LPG Gas Storage: Often used for cooking, refrigeration and heating and not always available if freedom camping away from towns so make sure the supply is adequate.
7/ Locker Space: Kiwi’s love to travel with lots of recreational items such as barbeques, fishing gear, swimming aids, outdoor furniture, bikes etc so be sure you have enough space to accommodate these items otherwise it means loading and unloading daily from the motorhome or tow vehicle.
Lack of capacity severely limits where and how long you can stay at a destination. To have to re-pack and move to dump or replenish every few days, particularly if you have found an idyllic spot, can be frustrating. Adding extra tanks, batteries, LPG bottles, solar panels and lockers into something not originally designed for it can not only be an engineering challenge, but also expensive. It may also move the vehicle into another weight category requiring a COF (Certificate of Fitness), brake and suspension upgrades or even a heavy traffic driving license so it is worth doing some research into capacities before you buy.
Sleeping Arrangements: Surprisingly high on the priority list but a very important consideration. Luton-type extensions over the cab of motorhomes do not suit everyone – particularly as you get older. Access can be difficult; they can be hot and claustrophobic for some and the bed hard to make.
Having to climb over your partner and dangle your legs in space trying to locate the ladder at night to heed the call of nature is not everyone’s cup of tea either. Equally having to dismantle and remake a bed which doubles as a seating/dining area during the day quickly becomes an irritation.
Check the comfort and also the size of the bed (including length) meets your needs as having a good night’s sleep is important. Insulation is also a consideration particularly if you plan to travel over winter. Poorly insulated caravans motorhomes and 5th wheelers can be damp, hard to heat or unpleasantly cold to sleep in.
Make sure that the vehicle is large enough for your needs particularly if you are of a larger stature. Things like head room, enough entertainment seating, bathroom and toilet size and space for hanging and storing of clothing and food are very important. If the shower and toilet are combined it may mean having to mop down the entire bathroom and sink area after showering. Don’t underestimate the value of adequate bench space for food preparation and the awning size and convenience of use.
Larger vehicles can mean compromises need to be made. They may not be so easy to manoeuvre into smaller camping grounds or narrow tracks if you plan to fish in the wilderness, but basically the larger the vehicle the more room you have at your disposal.
Think through where you plan to park or store the vehicle when not in use as some local authorities have bylaws limiting where larger vehicles can park.
Motorhome, Caravan or 5th Wheel?
If possible hire a vehicle and plan a trip away before you purchase, to not only see if this recreational activity really is for you, but also to establish your preferences and dislikes. It is also very valuable to visit one of the motorhome and caravan expos (such as the Covi Show) armed with a checklist of must-haves and things you are not prepared to compromise on to help with your decision.
Motorhomes, caravans and 5th wheel vehicles all have their advantages and disadvantages and your choice will be easier if you work your way through the steps above rather than what looks appealing or meets the dollars you have in mind to spend. Talk to owners and other NZMCA members and ask their advice. They have a wealth of experience are very approachable and enthusiastic to share their knowledge.
Don’t underestimate the challenges of New Zealand’s roading network and climate. Many of the recreational vehicles available in our market originate from USA, UK or Europe where their roads are much more considerate. Ours tend to be twistier, narrower, more undulating with higher cambers and rougher- particularly if you venture off-seal, and that can have a major impact on durability over time.
Common examples are chassis and spring cracking, leaks, joinery self-destructing, rattles and major rust issues most of which can mean expensive repairs. Motorhomes meant for a relatively short lifespan in the rental industry may not be as durable longer term and the price paid should reflect that. Regular maintenance is essential particularly if they are stored outside and used infrequently.
text by Pete Jenkins
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