Buying Well Used
Taking a chance on a well used motorhome…
By Richard Robertson
In a perfect world we would all be able to afford shiny new RVs to take us away on dream holidays. And then there's reality. You might be surprised to know that new motorhomes sales in Australia usually only total somewhere between 1000 and 1500 vehicles annually. So you don't have to be Einstein to quickly realise the second-hand market is alive and well, and for most of us it’s where the action is.
Depending on your view point, buying a used RV is either a sign your life hasn't quite worked out as you'd hoped or that you're a canny buyer looking to capitalise on the original owner’s depreciation misfortunes. The good news for buyers of new motorhomes and campervans is that unlike cars they don't quickly depreciate. This helps offset the considerable initial cost and it's not uncommon for a vehicle one or two years old to resell close to its purchase price. In fact in recent times I've heard of vehicles selling for more than their initial cost, but that's in this Covid-infected market where new vehicle delivery times are often out to 12 months or more.
While most of us think of buying a used RV that's been privately owned, there is another avenue to investigate if you're looking for a later model vehicle at a more affordable price – an ex-rental. Now before you throw your hands up in the air and mutter something about never buying a vehicle that's been used and abused, consider the profile of the average renter: These people are on holidays and the last thing they’re usually in is a hurry. They also have considerable insurance excesses and bonds at stake and are quite circumspect about how they drive the vehicle. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and so the trade-off is in kilometres travelled and overall wear and tear.
Taking the Plunge
I'm writing from personal experience because in 2015 we took the plunge on an ex-rental 2010 Ford Transit Euro Tourer van-conversion motorhome from Apollo. Priced around $45,000, from memory it had about 248,000 km on the clock. It was in what I’d call 'honest' condition and came with a potted service history that showed it had certainly done laps of Australia. A new equivalent at the time was probably around $120,000 and so the usage trade-off seemed a reasonable deal.
The Transit is well equipped with dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, cab air-conditioning, power steering, electric windows and mirrors, cruise control and a decent sound system. Powered by a gutsy 2.4-litre turbo diesel driving through a 6-speed manual gearbox (there was no auto-option with Transit at the time), it drove well from the outset and continues to do so; now having covered some 315,000 mechanically trouble-free kilometres.
The Apollo interior conversion is basic but liveable, but the thing to remember with rental motorhomes is they are built to withstand the casual indifference of customers over many kilometres. That means whilst they mightn’t look flash inside, they are sturdily built. The fit-out includes a compact wet bathroom with cassette toilet and shower, three-burner LPG cooktop, rangehood, single sink with flick-mixer tap, microwave, 80-litre under-bench compressor fridge, air-conditioning with heater, an LPG-only hot water system and a single, 100 amp-hour house battery. It also came with 80-litre fresh and grey water tanks.
What it didn’t come with was LED interior lighting, an awning (apparently renters struggle with them), swivelling cab seats or a mains water connector. We also found that despite the best efforts of the pre-delivery cleaner we needed to give it a thorough detailing plus a good going-over to tighten door hinges and the like.
I’m not much of a DIY person and readily admit my wife is the best handyman I could've married. However, over the years “we” have undertaken what I now realise are quite a few upgrades to make our van better suited to our travelling style, which is predominantly free camping.
We added solar (1x100 W and 1x50 W panels), a better fridge of the same size, solar screens for all the windows, made new curtains, fitted insect screens to the side and rear doors, added a bluetooth hands-free sound system, replaced the halogen lighting with LEDs, added a light-bar to supplement the very ordinary headlights. We also replaced the windscreen when it cracked and took care of its rusting surrounds, had the roof reconditioned and added a proper Heki hatch in place of the flimsy opaque original; fitted a Webasto diesel heater, installed USB charging pints, added a tyre pressure monitoring system and replaced the ageing Suburban LPG-only hot water system with a new, Australian-made Swift LPG/electric unit.
The combination of solar power, highly efficient window screens and the diesel heater have made our Transit a true year-round travel machine and although the above list sounds like a lot, spread over the years of ownership it’s really only the sorts of things most owners do. In today’s market I’d still ask around $40,000 and consider that pretty good value.
All rental companies have a regular supply of vehicles coming ‘off-fleet’, although it might have dried-up somewhat due to Covid. Britz, Maui, Kea, Let’s Go, Cruisin’, etc, each have their own way of selling-off vehicles and if you are seriously looking you'll need to do a fair amount of online research.
Looking at Apollo’s website shows it has switched from direct sales from its Brisbane head office to a mix of direct and dealer sales across many locations. On average, Apollo sells ex-rentals after 250,000 km, which is around 5 years old. I know that sounds like a lot of kilometres, but remember these are commercial vehicles built to cover very long distances in their working lives. Also remember most mileage will be country driving as few renters choose to holiday in cities!
Because rental customers now demanded automatics, Ford’s Transit is no longer in the mix. In fact it seems the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter largely rules the rental roost, given that VW axed automatic Crafters some years back and the Fiat Ducato is a relative rental newcomer. Sprinters are a quality engineered vehicle and if you can find a specialist mechanic – social media is a great place to start – ownership needn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Our Transit came with a 12-month warranty, which seemed like a great selling point but really wasn’t worth much. It was one of those rightfully-maligned aftermarket insurance policies that had onerous servicing requirements and limited coverage. After carefully reading the policy it became apparent it was basically worthless. Fortunately, the Transit has proven totally reliable and only required routine servicing.
Looking at the Apollo website I couldn’t find a van-conversion like ours, However, prices for a ‘proper’ four-berth motorhome seem to start in the $85-$90,000 range for a 2015/16 C-Class on an automatic Sprinter. That’s around 50-60 percent of new cost, yet you’re still getting modern vehicle safety technology and – importantly – driving pleasure.
While not for everyone, an ex-rental can provide an affordable entrée into motorhome ownership. As in all things it pays to shop around, but do due-diligence and you might find there’s more to an ex-rental than first meets the eye. Ours is proof that buying well-used doesn’t necessarily mean buying abused…