“You’re not going to buy an RV and drive it off the lot and have no hassles”
In 2018, Tom and Becky Olesh were living their best lives. They lived permanently aboard the Winnebago motorhome they purchased from a dealer for about $140,000. Crisscrossing the country in a house on wheels was nothing new to the Oleshes; they had spent nearly five years on the road. And for two decades before that, 78-year-old Tom and 61-year-old Becky had owned all kinds of RVs: tag-along travel trailers, towable camper vans, even diesel motorhomes.
Experienced RV owners well acclimated to the lifestyle, the Oleshes knew what they were doing—which made what happened in their brand new Winnebago that much more of a surprise.
“The suspension was really bad,” Tom says. “Whenever we went over 45 miles per hour on a two-lane road, it was a challenge to keep it on the road.”
The trailers and camper vans they used to own tended to bounce up and down as they drove, a symptom of their leaf spring suspension systems, which is why they switched to a motorhome. Tom and Becky anticipated suspension that more closely mirrored that of an automobile: some bouncing, but certainly less than their previous units. Instead, they shelled out $2,500 to outfit their new RV with additional suspension.
Not since the years before the Great Recession has the market for recreational vehicles in the U.S. been quite as hot as it is now. In 2017, for the first time in more than 40 years—and for the first time since the main industry group, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, has kept track—American RV manufacturers moved more than 500,000 units from their factories to the roughly 2,600 RV dealerships across the country.
Since those record-high production numbers, the overall RV market has cooled a bit. More than 482,000 units were sold last year, which is about 20,000 fewer RVs than in 2017, but still well above the fewer than 170,000 RVs being sold at the peak of last decade’s recession. Despite shipments of RVs to dealers dropping about 20 percent so far this year compared to 2018, industry professionals remain optimistic about growth and predict shipments will increase in 2020.
But as the Oleshes found when they bought a new motorhome, dueling forces are shaping the current RV market. A buoyant economy coupled with rising interest in the nomadic lifestyle led to a rebound in the RV industry. The comeback is as much due to millennials as it is to a retiring generation of baby boomers: Of 78.8 million households that hit the great outdoors at least once in 2018, the kids routinely blamed for their poor adulting skills and love of fancy toast made up 41 percent of campers.
At the same time, stories abound—in forums, recall blogs, personal testimonies, industry publications, and talk radio—of disgruntled owners of RVs who purchased a unit only to immediately about-face the vehicle to a dealership to fix a problem.
“I’ve had people tell me they’ve bought a brand-new RV, drove it off the lot in a rainstorm, and it started leaking,” says Steve Lehto, a consumer protection attorney in Michigan who has handled his fair share of lawsuits for owners of allegedly defective RVs. (There are more than 600,000 views of his “Don’t Buy An RV!” YouTube video.)
Some complaints focus on the quality of workmanship that goes into manufacturing a recreational vehicle. Others focus on missing items that would improve the experience. Still others address the design aesthetic of many recreational vehicles—the trademark swoops on a beige background, often described as “boring” or “hideous.”
Kevin Broom, director of media relations at the RVIA, says that the “vast majority” of owners “are very satisfied with their RVs.” In a survey asking current RV owners who recently bought a unit about their experiences, the RVIA found that 88 percent rated their experience as good, very good, or excellent, Broom says.
Still, addressing and solving these consumer complaints presents what Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Airstream, calls an “existential challenge” for the RV industry.
“The fact is that 50 percent of our buyers are first-time RV owners,” says Wheeler, who also serves as co-chairman of the Go RVing Coalition, the national marketing campaign of the RV industry. “Just about every one of those people thinks they’re buying a car, and their expectations are extremely high.”
Once someone shells out lots of cash for their new mobile chariot, they don’t expect to need to head back to the dealer, or even the manufacturer, to fix a problem that prevents them from taking their RV out on the road. Yet this is what new owners of RVs experience.
“The rule, typically, is don’t buy a new RV. If you buy a new RV, you’re going to be sitting in a dealership for two years getting it fixed,” says Greg Gerber, founder and editor of RV Daily Report, an online trade publication he ran for 10 years.
Starting this year, the industry will look to change that. On September 23, a $10 million facility called the RV Technical Institute is set to open in Elkhart County, Indiana, where more than two-thirds of RVs in the U.S., along with the appliances and furniture that outfit them, are made. The institute is a new training center for the nation’s RV technicians. The center’s mission is to not only augment the skills of current technicians—there are about 13,000 RV technicians in the U.S.—but also to train new technicians to work at dealerships across the country.
“They’re houses on wheels and they’re traveling down the road, so things can happen. Things break,” says Phil Ingrassia, president of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association. “But I think the industry recognizes that we need to improve the customer service experience on the technical side so that people can stay on the road.”
Ten years ago, the RV industry was in freefall—another casualty of the housing market crash and subsequent economic implosion. According to Wheeler, industry sales fell about 60 percent. Just 165,700 vehicles were sold in 2009. Then, starting in 2010, the RV manufacturers that survived began their long climb back.
“The industry’s been on a nice 6 to 8 percent year-over-year growth,” Wheeler says.
But dating the industry’s resurgence to the start of the decade isn’t just the lead anecdote of a comeback tale. Its growth also happens to mark a continued decline in manufacturing quality, according to several sources Curbed spoke with for this article.
The Oleshes say that quality since the recession “has gone down the drain.” Quality, in this case, spans a range of concerns. Becky and Tom recall their 2018 motorhome missing a black tank flush, a relatively inexpensive part that helps in cleaning out the onboard tank that holds wastewater from the toilet. They bring up the walkthroughs of units they’ve done over the last several years at the Hershey RV show, which is routinely billed as America’s largest showcase of recreational vehicles.
“The one thing we find is there’s always broken doors or latches in the cabinets, and this is in brand-new units,” says Becky.
Gerber, who has been writing about RVing since 2000, packed up his life in 2014 and spent four years full-time in his own RV, interviewing fellow owners across the country to catalog what he calls the “RV industry death spiral.”
“That’s what really woke me up to the problem that consumers have getting RVs,” he says. “There’s been a noticeable decline in the quality of RVs coming out since the Great Recession, and I don’t know, really, what’s causing that.”
His best guess, as an outsider looking in, comes down to the sheer quantity of recreational vehicles currently being built. With demand so high and most manufacturers concentrated in Elkhart—a town of 50,000 where it’s estimated more than 80 percent of all RVs worldwide are built—a labor force already stretched thin is being asked to pump out even more RVs. Who’s to say something wouldn’t slip through the cracks every now and then?
“Of course, when you’re making and assembling these vehicles, things go wrong,” says Divya Brown, president of TAXA Outdoors, a small RV manufacturer based in Texas.
Unlike cars, which are built along robotic assembly lines, RVs are largely built by hand along manual assembly lines. They are, at their most fundamental level, houses on wheels, and one motorhome’s floorplan might be entirely different from the next. Not to mention that a teardrop camping trailer, for example, is not a class B paneled van trailer, and therefore will be constructed differently. Because of the number of RV types, there’s greater room for variation, and error, in the manufacturing process.
“People who go in expecting that an RV is going to operate like a car are going to get a lot different experience than those who go into it thinking they’re buying a home,” says Dean Casad, director of customer experience for the motorhome business at Winnebago. “The maintenance and expectations are much more home-like than they are vehicle-like.”
This is a common refrain among manufacturers: Just as your home requires repairs and maintenance from time to time, so, too, will your RV.
Longtime RV owners are used to this conundrum. They’re usually able to troubleshoot problems, make fixes, and accept their mobile lifestyle with clear eyes about its shortcomings.
“You’re not going to buy an RV and drive it off the lot and have no hassles,” says Julie Bennett, who, along with her husband, Marc, lives full-time aboard a refurbished 20-year-old motorhome and is a well-known and experienced owner among the RV community. “It’s kind of maddeningly inconsistent. But we love the lifestyle, we love RVing, so we put up with the frustrations.”
Manufacturers do run their own quality-control operations to inspect every trailer, camper, and motorhome that leaves the factory, although it’s hard to say how many units rolling off an RV assembly line are being thoroughly checked. When the Bennetts conducted their own tour of 14 North American manufacturers in 2017, they found that only about four out of every 10 RVs are checked for quality.
“Ultimately, you take a house and put it on a chassis and drive it around—it’s extremely challenging to make a product that doesn’t need to be tweaked,” says Wheeler, who notes that Airstream runs 28 separate inspections as RVs move down the assembly line.
Yet this explanation doesn’t completely address something like the suspension problem the Oleshes experienced. It’s not hard to find RV owners online—even on manufacturer forums—discussing their frustrations with spot-welds, lower-grade aluminum paneling, faulty wiring, and slideout motors held in place by one screw. Sondra Rochelle, known online by the moniker Axle Addict, writes that “manufacturers these days are using low-quality products that cannot stand the test of time and the rigors involved in driving.” Think plywood and plastic instead of aluminum and steel.
“Much of the industry is wed to the supply chain that’s in Indiana. Because of that, they use the materials they always use: plastic, wood, things with the ability to absorb moisture. It leads to more opportunities for quality issues to arise,” says Brown of of TAXA Outdoors. “That’s why you’re seeing increases in consumer complaints.”
Across the industry, there are safety standards to which manufacturers must conform, especially as they relate to plumbing and electrical work, heating and air conditioning, and protecting against fire hazards. But a set of minimum standards regarding materials or in-RV instruments doesn’t exist. In a sense, such standards can’t exist: The relative quality of one RV manufacturer’s units compared to another is a competitive advantage (or disadvantage) in the marketplace.
“Ultimately they’re making nice shiny boxes. But what’s behind the walls of the boxes? That’s where they’re squeezing the money,” says Dean Wiltshire, founder of Colorado Teardrops, a small manufacturer that makes camping trailers.
Material quality, in other words, has fallen, and Wiltshire cites a variety of contributing factors: the pressure put on the overall industry to churn out units in response to high demand several years back; a lack of employees in Indiana, where America’s RV industry is concentrated; and the U.S. tariffs placed on some construction materials imported from China. Brown recently told the Wall Street Journal that the tariffs have led to 22 percent and 9 percent increases in the cost of their steel and aluminum, respectively.
Some of the choices around construction materials have been dictated by newer consumers, who are more interested in lightweight, less expensive units. For manufacturers, this creates a bit of a predicament. Aluminum, for instance, is a lightweight material, but it’s expensive. To make not only the chassis but also the entire frame of an RV out of aluminum means some other material will have to be cheaper to prevent the purchase price from ballooning. As Gerber has written, the way manufacturers accomplish this is by “using cheaper, lighter building materials and installing cheaper components, too.”
Broom, from the RVIA, agrees that tradeoffs are inevitable, but says that doesn’t mean general quality of a unit must be sacrificed—or even that it has been.
“You can use lighter-weight composites and lamination on the floors and on the walls, and you end up with a lighter-weight, stronger RV,” he says. “I RVed with my grandparents back in the 1970s, and the RVs of today are a lot better than they were back then.”
Some industry veterans say complaints about quality will persist, despite the best efforts made by the RV industry.
“RVing is great, but there are going to be obstacles,” says Alan Warren, host of the radio program The RV Show USA. “To expect that you can have this dream and then go back to work on Monday morning and then do it again next weekend without any maintenance is a lie. It’s fantasy.”
Even the Bennetts say they can’t think of a manufacturer in the industry that doesn’t have its share of problems. Because of that, it’s equally important for consumers to educate themselves about the challenges of maintenance before purchasing a recreational vehicle, they say, especially given that so many new buyers are first-time RV owners. Anyone interested in getting into the RV lifestyle should be willing and able to participate in all its elements. That means the sudden maintenance that pops up will be as important as the stories you share around the campfire.
“Misery loves company, and a lot of people do go into this uneducated, and they don’t really manage their expectations,” says Julie Bennett.
Unsurprisingly, major manufacturers in the industry push back on questions about the sturdiness of their units or insinuations that they skimp on parts.
“We’re willing to pay more to get a better, more durable product, whether it’s a refrigerator or a sheet of aluminum,” Wheeler says.
They all seem to agree, however, that the industry can do a better job at helping frustrated owners maintain their RVs or, when problems inevitably arise, fix them.
“It feels like the service capacity in the industry hasn’t kept up with the amount of RVs that have been pumped out,” says Winnebago’s Casad. “I would say that some of the quality concerns that owners have may not be an actual decrease in quality as much as it might be a tougher time they have with getting problems fixed.”
In other words, the pace at which the manufacturers are producing recreational vehicles has outstripped dealers’ ability to service them in an appropriate and timely fashion.
Only in rare circumstances do RV owners bring their units back to the manufacturer. In the U.S., at least, that means most of the service work falls upon technicians, either independent ones or the people employed at any one of about 2,600 RV dealerships. If there is one area of consensus among manufacturers, dealers, and consumers, it’s over the real shortage of technicians in the RV industry.
“We’re selling between 420,000 to half a million units the last few years, and so the need for technicians—and well-trained technicians—is acute, that’s for sure,” says the RVDA’s Ingrassia.
That need is why the RV Industry Association is opening the RV Technical Institute. The plan is to begin by beefing up America’s existing pool of around 13,000 RV techs by training newcomers and veterans in-house. Next: Open up hubs elsewhere in the U.S. to train and hire even more technicians, the thinking being that having more technicians will reduce the time a broken or incomplete RV spends at a dealership getting repaired.
As lawyer Steve Lehto says, it’s not uncommon for someone to discover a problem with their unit, bring it back to the dealer, and be told to leave it there for several weeks while it’s fixed.
The gap between identifying a problem and having it fixed is known in the industry as “repair event cycle time,” and shortening that gap as much as possible is what many manufacturers are focused on. Last spring, for example, Winnebago reached out to all the dealers it works with and offered them a new system for analyzing their parts usage over the last year.
“Going into this season, they could identify what they need in order to have it on their shelves,” says Casad. “Having a part on stock at a dealer is the difference between a repair taking a couple hours or taking three days.”
Indeed, the idyllic notion of hopscotching across America becomes a lot less romantic when dealing with something like a busted slideout motor.
Tom and Becky Olesh already knew that, yet they still had to re-learn that lesson the hard way. Late last year they bought a house in Florida. Now they split their time between the Sunshine State and their new motorhome. It’s a 2008 Monaco Diplomat, a unit they purchased this spring for $97,000—but not before offloading the RV that required extra suspension.
Even so, the Oleshes found two problems aboard their Diplomat that they’ll need to address. A faulty washer-dryer combination unit doesn’t dry the clothes they’ve washed, and the on-board microwave, a model from 2008, seems to have a mind of its own.
“We found that the motor, after so many years, only runs about 59 seconds,” Becky says. “But 90 percent of the time, it works fine.”
All Rights Reserved for Zack Rosebrugh