The following is an article I wrote for an online RV magazine shortly after we started our full-time RVing adventure way back in 2005. It describes what we went through shortly after making the decision to become full-time RVers and focuses mostly on our purchase of a fifth wheel from a complete "newbie" perspective. We hope you enjoy it.
From a 3700 Square Foot Dream Home to a 400 Square Foot Box on Wheels
What Kind Of Box On Wheels?
In early December, 2004, I started intense research about RVing and the full-timing lifestyle. You see, RVing was completely foreign to us. We had never RVed before. In fact, we had never even ridden in an RV before. I figured I had better learn something and learn it fast.
In my initial internet perusing, I had seen references to truck campers, pop-ups, travel trailers, fifth wheels, Class As, Class Bs, Class Cs, bus conversions, and every other type of RV in existence. What does all that mean?! As much as I love the internet, I needed a book. So one cold Saturday morning, my wife Linda and I went to the nearest bookstore. There were books on RVing, but I wanted one for full-timing that would not only decipher this new language, but would also give me more insight into the lifestyle.
There was only one book on full-timing: Living Aboard Your RV by Janet and Gordon Groene. Out of all the books on RVs and RVing, only one in that particular national chain bookstore was dedicated to full-timing. That was my first inclination that full-timing was a relatively small niche in the humongous world of the RV industry.
While standing in the aisle of the bookstore, practically reading enough right there that they should have charged me for at least a couple books, I confirmed the differences in Class A, B, and C motorhomes.
Being completely immersed in the prospects of this new lifestyle we were exploring, I begged Linda to go to Tom Stinnett RV just across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana to just look at RVs. She reluctantly agreed, but hated the thought of wasting the time of the poor salesman that drew the short straw and got stuck with us.
That poor soul turned out to be Lenny. We had ole Lenny cornered in his office, and we explained that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing or what we were looking for. We were seriously considering this concept called full-timing, but we were nowhere near being sure we would go through with our crazy plan.
Lenny was a good guy. He didn’t roll his eyes at us once. Trust me. I was watching closely. Fortunately, we caught Lenny at a time of the year when his prospects for actually selling something were not very high anyway. I imagined his thought process going something like this. “Well it’s a cold Saturday morning in December. Folks are not exactly lined up outside in their winter coats to buy an RV. This couple seems nice and they don’t look like serial killers, so I’ll try to help them out. Got nothin’ to lose, and they might just come back and buy from me later.”
And so Lenny showed us around. We started with a Class B which is basically a van on RV steroids. I had fantasies of just driving this small vehicle all over the country, parking in any campground we wanted, and exploring back roads and wilderness with ease. Poof! That fantasy lasted about as long as it took for Linda to stick her head in the door. “I’m not livin’ in that! Uh uh. No way! Howard, we have to live in whatever we choose for several years.” Okay, okay, I get it. Lenny, let’s see that Class C over there.
Of course Lenny was trying hard to show us rigs in our price range. What was that price range? Up to $60,000. And we had to have new, because I need every warranty we can get. I’m not too handy at fixing things. Linda would tell you that is a big understatement. We had a handyman on retainer for our house that we referred to as the “marriage counselor.” I’m not kidding.
So, on we went to the big Class C on the showroom floor. Much better. But Linda was still not impressed as she was scanning the interior with pursed lips and V-ed eyebrows. “We can’t live in this one either.” On to the Class A motorhome. I was thinking “Our budget is shot.”
We walked into a Class A priced at $20,000 over our planned limit. Linda was still under-whelmed. Not enough storage space or counter space in the kitchen. And the bathroom configuration would not work at all. It’s a good thing the living space was enhanced by slideouts, or our new lifestyle might have ended right there.
Lenny, being the sly dog he was, showed us into one of the largest, most expensive motorhomes he had in the showroom. Linda still hated the kitchen area, and she was not buying in to the motorhome options at all. I was thinking “I guess that’s that. It was a short-lived dream. She wouldn’t buy the best motorhome they had even if we could afford it, so now what?”
Lenny wasn’t finished with us just yet. He read Linda like a book. “Let’s take a look at a couple more things” he said. We went through a bunch of doors until we ended up in another showroom. I was lagging behind as I looked around and saw nothing but trailers. I was already wondering how I was going to learn to drive a big ole motorhome, surely he was not going to suggest we pull a trailer. But suggest he did.
In fact, he had Linda in one of those trailers that sit on top of a pick-up truck bed before I could catch up. I asked “Is this what they call a fifth wheel?” Lenny nodded. Linda’s face softened. I could tell she was thinking that this trailer looked more like a home. Lenny picked up on her interest and showed us a couple more models. Linda said “Now here is some kitchen counter space I can live with. And look at the interior storage space and cabinets. And the bathroom set-up is better.” Hmmm. Really? A trailer – it never crossed my mind that we would pull a trailer.
I was getting used to the concept. And the price was $20,000 less than we had planned to spend. However, Lenny reminded me that we would need a large truck to pull any of the fifth wheels we were looking at. Oh yeah, that’s right. “And how much will it cost for one of those trucks?” I asked. “Really? As much as the trailer or more?” Poof! There went the $60,000 budget fantasy. We thanked Lenny for his time and the education.
Buying A Box On Wheels
In one visit to the biggest local RV dealer around, we determined that our home on wheels would be a fifth wheel. Back at the house, I got back on the internet and searched the RV forums. The forums are full of motorhome vs. fifth wheel discussions for full-timing. I found statistics that said 80% of full-timers own motorhomes and fifth wheels. Of that 80% it was split right down the middle between motorhomes and fifth wheels – that didn’t help other than to tell us we were not crazy for choosing a fifth wheel.
There are trade-offs either way. It boiled down to personal preference. And seeing no glaring reason to not buy a fifth wheel, the next thing would be to decide which fifth wheel. We needed to see a bunch of them together. So I was back on the internet looking for RV shows.
“Hey Honey, here is one in Cleveland, Ohio the first week of January” I said jokingly. Who wants to drive five hours to Cleveland in January? Apparently we did as Linda said “Let’s go!” I was shocked, but also glad she was that enthusiastic.
We decided to drive to Cleveland, stay overnight, and go to the show Saturday and Sunday so we could take our time. During our five hour drive, we made a pact. “We are just doing research, not buying. No matter what, we are not buying anything. We don’t know what we are doing, and this is just part of the process of learning.”
We got to the January 2005 Cleveland RV Show as the doors were opening on Saturday morning. For kicks, we checked out a few of the motorhomes just to see if a wider selection would change our minds about the fifth wheel. Nope. After the first hour, we never stepped inside another motorhome.
We started going into every fifth wheel we could find. Before long, we eliminated the least expensive ones since they were not built for full-timing and we eliminated the ones that did not have adequate counter space in the kitchen. We got to the point where we could step into the door way, take a peek, and know right away whether we wanted to go inside or not. It was surprising how many rigs we could avoid with that process.
We ended up finishing our tour of the show in about three hours and had only four potential fifth wheels that we liked. Two of them were in the $35,000 to $45,000 range. One was $60,000 and the other one was $80,000. We went back and forth comparing these fifth wheels and trying to determine the differences in prices. We just stood inside them or sat down and observed. We pretended what it would be like living in each one. We listened to what other people had to say about them. We asked questions of the people going through trying to find experienced RVers and RVers that were full-timers or working toward full-timing.
We really liked the layouts of lower priced models, but the quality of the cabinetry and the solid feel of construction were not present like in the two higher priced models. We learned that those differences were more a matter of weight than anything. Heavier materials mean more weight which requires a bigger, more expensive truck to tow the rig.
For us, the weight didn’t matter. We had to buy a new truck anyway, so we could get one to handle the weight of any RV we wanted. Since we would be living in the fifth wheel for twenty years or so (we hoped), we decided that we would be better off with the more solid, heavier construction. Now we were down to two rigs.
We were having a lot of trouble determining the reasons for the $20,000 difference in price between the two models. We actually liked the $60,000 rig better, so we continued to go back and forth, observing and asking questions. After a couple of hours, we decided that the $80,000 rig was not worth $20,000 more and we went back to the $60,000 unit.
We talked with the designer of the Keystone Cambridge for an hour, and we sat inside for another two hours pretending to live there, talking to others, and observing. It was in these two hours that we started realizing how nice and helpful RVers are. Expressing concern about towing about such a huge trailer, the ladies with fifth wheels assured us that it was easy and we would learn quickly. We asked experienced folks what we should look for, and they gave us a list. We asked those touring what they thought of particular features, and they gave us honest opinions.
Before they kicked us out of the show and out of the Cambridge, we left knowing what we wanted for our new home: a middle entrance, a mid-area kitchen with rear living room, solid quality cabinetry and drawers, lots of kitchen counter space, kitchen storage space, a toilet closet separate from the shower and lavatory, a desk area, and as much underneath storage as we could get.
Basically, we loved everything about the Cambridge, but had researched just enough to be wary of the heavy weight and the fact this was the first model year of this fifth wheel. Actually, this was the first-ever RV show for the Cambridge and there were only about 15 of them on the road at the time. But none of that mattered, because we didn’t go to the show to buy anything – we had a pact.
Linda and I went to dinner and discussed our plan for Sunday since we had seen everything at the show. Then I said “We liked that Cambridge so much, maybe we should buy one.” With a look of disbelief, Linda said “Are you serious?” I was. We discussed it for two hours, going through our usual “worst case scenario” method of decision making. The price made it enticing. It was a high-end fifth wheel loaded with options at a mid-level price. I’m usually pretty good about financial stuff, and I had a hunch that it was a really good deal and that we could sell it for a profit if something happened causing us to drop the full-timing dream. We decided to go back to the show on Sunday, spend two or three more hours looking at the rig, and order one IF the salesperson was not pushy. If the salesperson turned us off, we would walk – simple.
Sunday morning, we were back at the show. We did exactly what we planned, and no one pushed us to do anything. We were ready. We tapped the salesman on the shoulder and told him it was time to write a deal. “I can’t believe we are doing this!” kept running through both of our heads.
It was not exactly the purchasing method I would recommend as there were many, many, many fifth wheel models that we had not seen and we really were not sure what to look for beyond the interior. But, we have learned that things fall into place when we are open to them. Once we signed the paperwork, we felt it was one of those times when the opportunity was right. Sure, we had second thoughts, but it was not buyers’ remorse. It was more concern about what other people would think. “What? Are you crazy?” “You bought at an RV show? Are you crazy” “You have no idea what to look for in an RV. Are you crazy?” “Are you really doing this? Are you crazy?” Those types of comments create doubt, and I believe we just wanted to let things flow without having to deal with the pessimists.
On the way home, it hit us. I guess the purchase of an RV made our full-timing plan official. In order to finalize the purchase when the unit arrives in April and have no debt when we go on the road, we will need to sell the house. Uh oh. We live about thirty seconds from the office. If we put up a “For Sale” sign, all our employees will know immediately and it will quickly leak to my superiors. Guess we better give our notices at work. This one semi-impulsive act of ordering an RV requires us to get up off our duff and really get serious. Now it is all very real!
Our First Box On Wheels Experience
Once we bought our RV, we got moving on choosing the right truck to pull it. We had to have something large enough and we needed to have it before April so we had a way to get the rig from Akron, Ohio to Louisville. With help from a commercial truck guy at our local Ford dealership, we decided, based on the weight of the rig and towing capacities of the various truck models, that an F-450 was the way to go. Why Ford? I don’t have a really good answer other than Linda’s dad was a foreman at Ford in Louisville and the Ford trucks are manufactured in Louisville.
After picking up the truck with every single towing upgrade we could get and dual fuel tanks, it was time to pick up our rig in Akron. It was the end of April 2005. We drove to Sirpilla RV and prepared for our walk-through. As we stepped into the bay, Linda and I glanced at each other with a “What have we done?” look. It was huge – it filled the bay and looked a lot bigger than the last time we saw one in the wide open exposition center. “We have to tow that thing and we have never towed anything before in our lives? Someone is going to give us lessons, right?”
We completed the walk-through. It was a good thing Linda was taking detailed notes, because I retained about a fourth of what we were told. We identified a few “punch list” items and went back out to the lobby to wait for the few items to be fixed and for our hitch to be installed. It turned out that they were not prepared for the F-450 and they had to take the truck to a local welder for a special installation. It was the end of the day before everything was finished. It had been our plan to take the rig to a nearby campground and test it out, before driving the five hours back to Louisville. But it was dark by now and we wanted nothing to do with driving and parking for the first time in the dark.
So Sirpilla hooked us up to water and electric and we spent the night in their parking lot. We hadn’t thought of that, but now we highly recommend that all RV purchasers spend a night or two on the dealer lot and check out all the systems. It turned out we had a shower leak. So we spent another day at the dealership while they worked on the shower. Again it was late in the day, and Linda begged them. “Please don’t make us go out on the road! We’re not ready!” They hooked us up again.
The next morning they were ready for us to be on our way, so I made arrangements with a KOA a few miles away – there are not too many campgrounds open around Cleveland in January. “You have campsites available? Great. Now I am pulling a forty foot fifth wheel for the first time, so I need a pull-though site with lots and lots of room to get in and out. You’ll take care of us. Great.”
We got lessons on hitching and unhitching, but we got no instructions or guidance on pulling our new monster. They pointed us in the direction of an empty movie theater parking lot and told us we could go practice. I gave them my sarcastic “Thanks.”
We both drove the rig around the parking lot making all kinds of turns and practicing going between tight islands and such. Then we located a dumpster pad that looked like a concrete campsite pad. We practiced backing into this spot for over an hour and had no luck at all. It seemed we would never get the hang of backing up, and at that moment we again had those “What have we done?” thoughts. I was thinking we could only go to campgrounds with huge pull-through sites the rest of our lives.
The first time we pulled out onto a public road was a frightening experience. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Our hearts were pounding and I was sweating even though it was only 30 degrees outside. We hoped that work and school would be called off and all the stores would close so there would be no traffic. Alas, it didn’t happen and we had to drive with everyone else alongside the tractor trailers through construction and merging traffic. We tested our brakes a lot to get a feel for our stopping range at different speeds. Eventually, we made it to our campground.
The young lady I had spoken to on the phone was laughing. “You guys sure didn’t start small, did you?” she said. Fortunately for us, there were a couple of veteran RVers in the office when we arrived that offered to help us get set up. We eagerly accepted.
We pulled into our site and one experienced gentleman helped us with our hook-ups. Uh oh. Our little ten foot sewer hose given to us in our “new customer” package by the dealer was not long enough. Sure we could get by without it, but I wanted to experience everything and test all our systems. I drove to the closest dealership, bought a 20 foot sewer hose, and made the clerk feel sorry for me. He helped me with clamps and connectors, and gave me some tips.
We had come with limited clothes since we had planned to pick up the RV, camp one night, and return home. Now we had already been at the dealer lot two nights, and we were going back to get slideout awnings installed after three days at the campground. It was cold and it snowed about three inches – keep in mind it was the end of April. So we were stuck inside and the campground was almost empty. At least we got to test out our furnace. The furnace worked fine, but we had another surprise. Our shower still leaked. We will have to get that fixed for sure before we go back to Louisville.
Linda became bored quickly and I was thinking we were in big trouble if she was bored after three days. But then the weather cleared, we were able to get outside, and other campers showed up. “I see people!” she exclaimed. By the time we were ready to go back to the dealership, we had acclimated to RVing pretty well. Now it was time for Linda to pull the rig in traffic.
We got everything packed away and started out. About 75 feet out of our campsite, she almost clipped a tree. “Watch that tree!” I shouted “What tree?” she shot back. She looked in her mirror and saw that the back corner of the rig was about six inches from hitting a tree that she “passed” long ago. That near “incident” was probably a good thing as it made her more cautious. She white-knuckled it to the dealer and we were both relieved that we made it safely.
We spent another night at the dealership as they installed our slideout awnings and tried to fix the shower. They told us we were ready to go, and we went to test the shower. Linda was sure they had not identified the problem, and, as usual, she was right. The three service guys including the manager, stood there dumbfounded as she showed them it was still leaking. They agreed they needed to try again. But that meant we would have to leave the rig with them. We had to drive home without our new baby. It was like going to pick up a puppy only to be told it was not yet ready and to come back next week after you had already loved on it and bonded.
We moped home knowing we had to drive back in a few days. By this time, our house had sold and we only had two weeks until the closing. We couldn’t have any more delays as we wanted at least three or four days to load up the rig.
We arrived back in Akron to the assurances everything was in order. We checked things out and were satisfied. It was time to get on the road for an extended period of time and few hundred miles. Also, we had to pull it into a station and fill up with diesel for the first time. Plus, I wanted to weigh the rig.
As we approached the interstate, I pulled into a truck stop. We had to go to the tractor trailer pumps and had no idea what we were doing. The semis were flying around and I was a nervous wreck. I swiped my debit card and it asked for a truck number. Huh? I don’t have a truck number. Trucks were waiting and I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I went inside and the clerk very patiently explained how it all worked – from filling up to getting weighed. Whew! I was so glad when that experience was over! But, I’ll know next time.
We made it to Louisville before dark after some tense moments in Cincinnati with all the speeding traffic and curvy interstate connections. Now all I had to do was back into our driveway. Yeah, that’s all I had to do. After our disastrous practice attempts our first day out, my confidence was not exactly at peak levels and our drive was at a tough angle. But after just a few tries and having to let traffic go around us occasionally, we managed to get the Cambridge in place where we could leave it for a few days. Another obstacle had been overcome!
How Do You Get 3,700 Square Feet Of Stuff Into A 400 Square Foot Box On Wheels?
As huge as our RV seemed, the 400 square fee inside was no match for what we wanted to put in it. I had read somewhere that both spouses should have veto power over things the other one wants to put in the RV. Veto power helps prioritize based on space and weight. The weight factor cannot be overlooked.
We were one of the lucky ones. We were able to sell our house completely furnished and decorated. We didn’t have to sell or auction furniture or decorative items. We only had to deal with the contents of our closets, cabinets, and drawers – still no easy task.
We started five piles: 1) Take, 2) Store, 3) Yard Sale, 4) Give Away, & 5) Trash. Going through all of our stuff was a very emotional experience for Linda. She says “It’s like we died, but we had to get rid of all of our stuff.” She cried often as she realized things that held memories would be gone forever. Sure we could store the most important items in the homes of relatives, but even then, it was possible we would never see them again. In all our research, we had found very little about the deep feelings of this part of the preparation to become full-time RVers. Linda wondered if what she was feeling was normal. I guessed that it was, but that didn’t make her feel any better.
As the days passed and we began loading the rig from the Take pile, it became apparent that a lot of clothing and various other items were not going to fit. Linda sat in the driveway one evening sobbing at the thought of having to leave things behind or get rid of them completely. We shifted items from the Take pile to the Store pile to the Yard Sale pile. There was only so much room and only so much weight capacity in the trailer. Tough decisions had to be made.
We finally had the house empty of our personal belongings and the RV was full. We bid farewell to our dream house one day before we closed the sale. Now we had a few blessings in disguise along the way. First, our house sold quickly and we sold it furnished. Second, the timing of picking up our rig and having to be out of the house could not have been better. Third, I gave six months notice and my company wanted me to stay on for the full term allowing me to continue to earn money and giving us the opportunity to really live in the rig for three months. Fourth, my parents had room for us on their farm, and it would give us a chance to spend a few good months together before we left the area.
In five months, our lives had changed dramatically. We no longer had our big, beautiful house and we were living in a trailer. The four bedrooms, the four baths, the large office, the big screen TV, the hot tub, the walk-in closets, the dishwasher, the washer & dryer, and the regular plumbing were gone. The country club membership was gone. Our most prized possessions were either gone or in storage. I was driving a pick-up truck instead of my Infiniti. Linda was washing dishes by hand and laundry required going somewhere else.
But we were completely debt free! And we still had a bedroom (including our first ever king-size bed), a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, and an office. Sure they were all encompassed within two tiny rooms, but we had everything we needed. With our satellite, we still had TV and internet access. And we had the prospect of freedom and adventure.
In the three months of living in the RV before going on the road, we knew the full-timing lifestyle was for us. All the second thoughts were completely gone. All the emotions of downsizing and getting rid of stuff were gone. We were ready to be done with our regular jobs. We had a new chapter in our lives to look forward to, and we were ready to get started composing. Yes, we went from a 3700 square foot dream home to a 400 square foot box on wheels, but only our physical living space was reduced. We now live in a bigger, brighter, more exciting world where our relationship and our souls can grow without limit.
You ask how we can live in such a confined space? If you are not participating in the RV lifestyle, I must ask you the same question.