Some of the most frequent questions we’ve gotten over the years (particularly during our summer 2015 bus renovation) have been around the amount we have invested in our RV, and more particularly – why didn’t we just go buy a newer RV with all the features we wanted, rather than building them in ourselves?
Is it really worth the effort the renovate an older RV?
Of course, the ultimate answer comes down to personal preference and style. Not all decisions are purely about what is most cost effective.
In our case however, we truly believe we’ve made the best decisions for both our desires AND budget.
Earlier this week, we hosted a live video cast on this exact topic, and below is the archive of it if you’d prefer to hear us babble on about it. Below is also a pretty thorough text summary of what we talked about if video isn’t your thing today.
First… A Little History
We started our full timing adventures in super small travel trailers – first a 16′ T@B teardrop, then a 17′ Oliver Travel Trailer fiberglass egg.
After 4 years traveling ultra small, we were ready for a little more space as we slowed down our pace. Not wanting to tow something that would require a large truck as a daily driver, we started our search looking for relatively small modern Class-A motorhomes (in the 26-30′ range).
We set a first year acquisition goal of spending around $60 – $70k cash for our next home – which was roughly equivalent to what we sold our truck and trailer for.
But we quickly found that the quality we desired was just not readily available new (or even slightly used) in our price range.
Moving into a quality motorhome would require us to at least double our budget – and that would still only get us an entry level coach, and would leave us with a generic ‘traditional’ looking RV that we’d want to pimp out anyway.
We honestly didn’t go much further down that path, because in the meantime we had gotten turned on to vintage bus conversions by some fellow nomadic friends (Ben & Karen of Creative Cruiser and Sean & Louise of Our Odyssey).
By going for a bus conversion – we could get a high quality bus chassis (which some very high end motorhome are actually built on), something a LOT more unique, and we discovered that older buses could often be purchased for a song.
We didn’t want a 45′ long monster with tag axels though – but since most buses are built as large as is legal to maximize passenger capacity, that drove us to look to the past when smaller sizes were common.
Buses from the 60s in particular were 35′ long – a perfect size for still getting into many state and national park campgrounds. And vintage buses look super cool and unique too.
We did extensive research on bus conversions starting during the spring of 2011, and we bought an Amtrak Rail Pass to travel the country to look at buses and learn from other ‘busnuts’.
During our search, we quickly fell in love with the history and classic styling of buses from this era.
We found our bus on Craigslist and we purchased Zephyr for $8000. Despite being the cheapest of all the buses we had looked at, she was livable from day one, and would be something we could renovate and modernize as we went.
We knew she should need a bunch of immediate attention to bring her up to date on 15 years of neglected maintenance. But even so, we’d be left with a pretty sizable budget to make her truly our own, and our first year costs were below our target.
Buses, especially vintage buses, are not for everyone. But for us, it has proven to be a rewarding adventure.
What Has It Cost To Renovate So Far?
We’ve done several rounds of updating – sometimes completely on our own, sometimes with the help of friends, sometimes by hiring out contractors in our travels, and sometimes in shops for extended renovations.
All and all, with adding lithium batteries, solar, updating the interior, updating all of the appliances, and even our most recent round of major renovations (all plumbing re-done, new exterior paint, hydronic heating, dual pane windows, new awnings, new generator and bunches of other upgrades) – we’ve spent a total of around $120k.
That doesn’t include general maintenance costs to keep Zephyr on the road over the years – any motorhome is going to have those sorts of expenses. But it does include the major mechanical work we needed to get Zephyr initially road worthy – these expenses we considered part of the acquisition cost (including the engine rebuild of 2013, new tires & wheels and replacing all the air suspension bags).
This cost has been spread out over 4 years. That not only makes it easier on our budget – we can save up for big projects and approach them as we’re ready for them. But it’s also made it easier for our time planning. Other friends approaching big conversion projects have had their coaches in the shop for years trying to do everything at once.
By not tackling everything at once, we’ve been able to carefully consider the upgrades we want after actual time on the road. We’ve gotten to enjoy our coach, life on the road, and learn what upgrades we really desired.
What kind of Motorhome would $120k Buy?
Zephyr used to be a highway bus, hauling 41 passengers and their luggage around the desert southwest from 1961-1985. She’s overbuilt, with proven solid bones, and copious amount of excess cargo capacity. She has solid wood cabinetry, 1.5″ of foam insulation all the way around, huge holding tanks, and a layout that is perfect for us.
Zephyr is not at all like most modern RVs.
If we wanted to buy a newer modern Class-A motorhome that had a similar quality build that could withstand full-timing for 10+ years, we’d need to be looking at a $250-$500k coach. We probably would not be able to find anything of such high quality lacking slides (a plus in our book), or under 35-40′ long.
And no new coach would come with the amount of solar we consider a bare minimum, or lithium batteries, or desk space suitable for two tech workers.
In other words – even if we bought the highest end new coach out there, we’d still immediately need to invest in substantial upgrades and renovations for the things that we personally consider essential. Or we’d be looking at completely custom build such as Marathon Coach, which start at a million buckaroos (on a 45′ chassis),
And, even after all that, it would still look like just about any other motorhome on the road.
We’ve been in many newer coaches that sell in the $100-$150k range (comparable to what we’ve invested into our coach) – and while there are some nifty options out there, at that price range they all feel like a step down in quality. Thinner walls, less insulations, maxed out cargo capacity, limited holding tank capacity, and lighter weight cabinetry & fixtures that don’t feel fated to hold up for the long haul.
As an example – while living onsite in Elkhart overseeing our latest round of renovations, we had the opportunity to stay in a 2014 Forest River Georgetown XL 377 (click for our video walk-thru from a full timer’s perspective). It’s a 38′ gas powered Class-A motorhome with 3 slides. We looked up comparable sales on RVTrader.com – and this coach is listing used with a similar age & condition for about $110-$140k. While it was great to have the crash space in a swanking feeling mobile condo (and we were super thankful for it!), the Georgetown XL was already showing signs of serious wear & tear after under a year of use.
- We know that the Snowmad’s Trek motorhome they just road tested for 6-months lists new in the low $100s. We had opportunity to stay a couple nights & ride as guests while we were up in Alaska, and while it’s got some nice features – in terms of quality, its definitely more suitable for part time RVing adventures.
- Our friends the Wynns are currently testing out a brand new Fleetwood Bounder on a gas chassis, which retails in the higher $100s. In their most recent post, they said they consider an entry level diesel pusher to be priced $150+.
Of course, many brand new coaches have a high sticker price which generally sell 20-30% lower in actuality. Obviously, if we *wanted* to go the newer Class-A route and stay in the low 100s, we’d seek out getting the most bang for our buck and probably end up with something fairly nice.
But the point is, for what we’ve spent on Zephyr – a modern feature packed vintage classic with solid bones that has already withstood 50+ years on the road (and hopefully many more to come) – we would only be able to afford a ‘recreational’ class gas powered motorhome, or perhaps a discounted entry level diesel pusher.
And neither would be close to what we’d personally desire.
Advantages of New(er)
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with going with a newer coach. There are some definite benefits.
- It’s.. well. New. It’ll have very little, if any, wear and tear on it. You’ll be the first to break it in – to put the first scratches on it. No one else will slept in your bed. Your poop will be the first to hit the holding tank. Some folk just like new.
- It’ll come with a warranty from the manufacturer. This can be both a blessing and a curse. If the company is good about warranty repairs (like our Oliver was) – it’s a blessing. The problems you have during that time period will be covered, and hopefully easy to navigate. However, a manufacturer’s warranty may come with gotchas (like our T@b did) – such as needing to be serviced only at the dealer you bought from, or maybe at widely scattered “authorized service centers”. These locations may not be convenient to where you discovered the problem, or the places you want to go. You may also encounter difficulty getting an appointment that doesn’t require you substantially interrupting your travels.
- Latest and greatest. Hopefully, most newer coaches will come installed with the latest in technology for appliances and systems integration.
Of course, there are plenty of downsides.
Unless you find a bargain on a newer coach (and they are out there – especially as dealers are ready to clear out last year’s inventory), it’s going to cost more than going used. And not just in the purchase price, but also the insurance costs to cover that increased value. And because you’ve paid for a shiny new coach, if you desire customizations you may be more reluctant to do them.
Customizing a new stock RV may actually decrease it’s resale value – unless you find a niche buyer who wants exactly what you did to it.
Does Wisdom Come with Age?
Now, the great thing about these motorhomes that are priced in the higher range ($300k plus), is they tend to be able to withstand the test of time better than their lower end cousins.
After any motorhome is over 10 or so years old, they lose a good bit of their value (the first big hit being off course the moment they drive of the lot).
The reasons are simple – they’re harder to get financing on, they’re harder to get extended warranties on and folks who can afford coaches of this caliber tend to want new and shiny. And, while their chassis & engines components may have many miles left in them – they are likely in need of some interior refreshing, new paint and appliance replacement soon.
There’s just simply less market for older coaches, and less buyers with cash in hand to take them over.
As a result, motorhomes that once sold for over a $300k (which would be over a 1/2 mill PLUS in today’s economy), can be bought in the 20-30 year range for a tenth the price.
We have friends who have high end mid-80s Newells and Wanderlodges that they bought in the $30-50k range that look absolutely stunningly beautiful and have served them well for years.
Shopping for older high end gems can be a great way to go if you want a solid foundation to customize a mobile home to your exact desires.
Other brands we consider worthwhile researching further are Newmar, Prevost (they build the chassis – several companies made conversions on them), Country Coach, Monaco and Foretravel. That list certainly isn’t complete, and nor is there a guarantee that if you buy one of these brands that you’ve got a safe bet.
And of course, there’s going for a true bus conversion (one that was formally a passenger coach) like we did built on GMs, MCIs, Flxible, Eagles and Prevosts. If that’s your desire, get involved with communities like Bus Conversion Magazine (subscribe to their excellent magazine!) and Bus Nut to research further.
There’s also an entire community around converting old school buses, which is an option as well.
But there are risks and challenges of course.
- There are campgrounds that have strict 10 year rules, and some even specifically restrict bus or school bus conversions. Some exempt the rule for well maintained units. We’ve personally never been turned away, ours tends to be seen as a classic, not old (and with all our renovations, we can argue we’re a new RV at this point.) But we also tend to prefer public camping options, where such rules don’t apply.
- Getting insurance, warranties and even work done on older coaches can be a bit tougher too.
- Finding a full timer’s full coverage insurance policy on a converted bus was a challenge, but our agent (Gina Shaver of Epic-Ins) was able to find us a suitable option. We’ll be getting an appraisal done on the bus with all the upgrades, and be pushing for an ‘agreed value’ policy to cover our expenditures.
- And you will need to be diligent about preventative maintenance – high end coaches tend to be built on diesel engines, which are pretty tough beasts. But they need maintenance that is costlier than maintaining a gas engine. Keep in mind, especially former service coaches – were designed to kept in service by an income generating business. Not an individual.
- If you go with an old 2-stroke diesel engine like ours is, the number of mechanics able and willing to work on them is dwindling by the day. We’ve soaked up every opportunity we can to learn more about maintaining our engine on our own.
With any RV purchase, you also shouldn’t look at any money you put into them as an investment into the value of the coach.
- Buying new, you’ll almost always experience depreciation as soon as you drive off the lot.
- If you buy a coach a few years old, more than likely you’ll have much less depreciation until it reaches about 10 years old.
- Buying really old, you’ll likely be able to resell at close to what you paid upfront.
But any money you put into the coach in upgrade/mainenance is unlikely to increase the resale value of the coach by much. At the end of the day, unless you’ve really put together a restored gem – a 30 year old motorhome is a 30 year and 1 day old motorhome.
And that motorhome is only going to be worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
For us, we feel we’ve put into our coach what we we’re willing to afford for the quality of life the upgrades will give us for years to come as Zephyr serves as our mobile home base.
Many of the updates we’ve done (engine rebuild, repainting, appliance replacements) are more on par to putting a new roof on a house. A new roof doesn’t necessarily increase the value of the home by much, but rather protects the value of the home and maybe makes your home a bit more attractive to a buyer than the house down the street.
Do we hope that we’ll be able to sell for more than the original $8000 purchase price? Of course… we do believe we have added a decent amount of real value to Zephyr from the day we found her. But will we ever get even close to $120k back should we ever sell? Nope.
But we weren’t building to sell. We were building to support our desired lifestyle. We don’t see life without RVing in our foreseeable future.
If you decide to go older high end coach, just go in eyes wide open. Anticipate needed immediate repairs and updates, and ongoing maintenance. Don’t budget just the purchase price of the coach, be prepared with an ample cushion.