Thursday, April 14, 2016

Space - - - the Final Frontier - - - for now

For those who have paid attention to my ramblings, or watched my personal Facebook page, you may have noticed that I have hinted at a possible change coming up, without knowing for sure when it would take place. Certain conditions had to be met, both on our part and on the part of the object we were seeking. I am referring to our acquisition of a larger RV.

We almost hated to part company with the Chevy van, especially after all the work we had put into it...a rebuilt transmission and rear air bag suspension last fall, along with adding a special converter to get the tail lights to operate the trailer lights correctly. It drove and handled very well, but we simply did not have the space to store what we needed to have with us.

And although the trailer has performed exactly as I planned, and would be great for a single person, it was just too small for both of us and Angel. We "could" have gotten by with it for a much longer time if we absolutely "had" to, but we knew from the beginning that it was only meant to be a temporary solution to get us out of Arkansas and "to" some other place that would have a better selection of what we were after.

The parameters of our quest

We have been searching for just the right RV, that would serve our purposes for at least five years. There were many considerations...
  1. It had to be affordable.
  2. It had to be clean inside and out, well maintained and be dependable.
  3. It had to be a minimum of 26 feet and a maximum of 32 feet.
  4. It had to have a place that "could" hold Sharon's piano, "IF" we would ever decide to do away with the Haulmark trailer.
  5. We didn't want slides on it. Slides are just one more thing to cause expensive problems.
  6. It had to have a generator, both for keeping Angel cool and because we do a lot of boondocking, and might need it as back up for our solar power.
  7. It had to have larger than normal holding tanks, also because we do a lot of boondocking.
  8. It had to have a trailer towing setup to pull the Haulmark trailer.
  9. It had to have a "real" oven... something we have missed for cooking.
  10. It had to have a "realistic" shower with plenty of foot space and head room... not one in which half of it is over a wheel well, like our old Honey motorhome! 
  11. It had to have a bed that's a bed... not one built into a couch or over the cab!
  12. We actually preferred a gas engine over a diesel, although it was "open for discussion".
  13. We wanted a "southwest" RV that has not seen the road salt that northern units often see. Also, northern units often don't get used for months at a time, whereas southern units see regular use.
  14. We preferred a Class A, because of a couple of things. First, it has the width we need, and secondly, because they just seem to be accepted more in the kind of RV resorts we sometimes use. And as long as the unit looks good, we haven't found age to be a big factor. It's really up to the manager's discretion.
  15. I prefer to avoid RVs that have seams right at the corner of the roof, at the top of the sidewall. I have seen too many of them leak and cause extensive damage unless constantly monitored for caulking issues. I wanted a RV with a roof that is curved at the top, with any seams being below the corner of the roof.
  16. I also prefer the construction of the RV frame to be steel or aluminum, rather than a wood frame. Metal frames are far stronger and less subject to damage than wood frames.
  17. Green is our least favorite color (except on money, of course), and shades of red, pink or mauve are either too gaudy or too feminine. Browns and grays are too dull. But we both like shades of blue, so that was also one of our preferences, although not a deal-breaker.

The end result

Of course, there were other minor considerations, and in reality, some of these things could always be added if everything else was right. We finally found an RV that met nearly all of our requirements.

A 1995 chassis/'96 coach Gulfstream Sun Sport front right.

A 1995 chassis/ '96 coach Gulfstream Sun Sport front left.

We really don't even care about awnings, but most used rigs are going to have them already installed. This one has a patio awning (although it needs new fabric) as well as individual window awnings. We can live with that... we just may not use them.

We weren't even looking in earnest for a different unit, but occasionally would search the web out of curiosity to see what was out there. On the 4th of April, Sharon just happened to be doing a random search, and came across one that sounded like it had possibilities. It was within a few hours driving distance, so we called the dealer and made arrangements to come and look it the next day, as well as take it for a test drive.

A 1995 chassis/'96 coach Gulfstream Sunsport right rear.

In the photo above, you'll notice that someone put a sun protection "parking cover" over the rear tire, which looks very "tacky". Before we left the dealer, he gave us a brand new spare tire cover with elastic all the way around it. That was our first "improvement"!

The sales listing was mis-leading, but actually in a good way. The unit was listed as having leveling jacks (which this one doesn't), but the more important feature was a generator, and it was not shown in the listing. It actually has a 5500-watt Generac unit already installed! Hurray! The generator runs, but does not stay running, and the dealer said it needs a part that they had to order, so we will return at the end of this month to have that part installed. No problem.

It was also listed as a 29-footer, which if they had paid attention to the model number (M-8276 LT) they would have seen that it was actually a 27-footer (27'-8" to be exact), which was more to our liking anyway. Since this would also serve as a daily driver, we wanted the shortest unit we could find while still retaining all the features we were after, mainly a rear bed that's in its own bedroom.

The Gulfstream interior looking toward the rear to the queen bed.

The other thing was that they had it listed as a 1995 model, which is actually correct according to the legal title, as it has to be what the chassis says, but the rig shows the manufacturing date as October of 1995, and upon doing further research, we discovered that the "LT" was actually released as a 1996 model. Again, a point in our favor! That adds about $3,000 to the NADA value!

Beware of bankers... they have money, but they want yours... a little too much!

Although we would have preferred a unit a few years newer (at least into the 2000's), we also were searching for something affordable for right now. We discovered we were caught up in the bureaucratic struggle of the banks not wanting to loan money to full-time RVer's, a policy that I hope they eventually change by removing their heads from their current location so that they can finally see the light of day!

Even if they have more than enough collateral in a RV, they want you to own real estate and have a physical address, just because of some obscure legislation written by people who are obviously NOT RVers! They also want to send a payment book to that address, so the only way to get away from that is to sign up for automatic withdrawals (known as ACH) from a bank account. They want to "control" you one way or the other!

We actually prefer the ACH part, but since we had sold all of our real estate, we couldn't provide a physical address or proof of real estate ownership! We have since learned that even a vacant lot is considered "real estate ownership", so we may eventually buy a cheap lot with a street address somewhere, just for the sake of future financial dealings! It could be a vacant hillside lot that can't be used for anything else (sometimes called a "membership" lot), but it still counts as real estate ownership! We know how to play bureaucratic games with the best of them! But as a result of this temporary "glitch", we were forced into "self-financing" the rig in order to get it. That's all I will say about it. We now own it outright, and no one is holding the title as collateral! Enough said!

A decent RV for the money

Anyway, even though this unit is a few years older than we would have preferred, it only has 52,000 miles on it, and was driven regularly. Too few miles would indicate that it sat a lot and could have rubber parts drying out... even in the engine and transmission. (It still could have, although with regular use, it would likely be noticed and repaired promptly.) Too many miles would indicate a lot of use and worn components. But as with anything mechanical, you always have to expect the unexpected, as nothing is guaranteed... unless you purchase an extended warranty, and that isn't likely on a rig this old. I just have to trust my own judgment and experience as to whether it is a good one or not, and I believe it is, or we wouldn't have bought it.

I have always considered the Gulfstreams to be a slightly better-built coach than some others, but yet not "top end" products. This coach has ducted air conditioning, with combined A/C and heat wall thermostat, a rare thing in a coach this small and of this age. The furnace itself is a separate propane-fired unit (no electric heat strip on the A/C unit).

Another nice feature is that it has insulated basement doors and heated holding tanks... not that we ever intend to test them, but it's nice to know we have them if we are ever forced to be somewhere cold.

Unfortunately, many of the quality features have been offset with the use of plastic finish on the cabinets and doors, some of which has peeled around the edge of the doors. So far, the face-frames are in good shape. I have sources from which I can always order new cabinet doors in real wood, with any inside or outside profile and in any size I want. So if I choose to, I could put new doors on the entire coach for about $500. For now, I can cosmetically repair them by adding some trim over the edges, and as long as they function like new, that's all we care about.

Another nice feature for such a small coach, is that the front captain's seats are real leather, with adjustable lumbar supports built in. My back thanks them profusely! And both seats also swivel to face the living area! There's two extra swivel/recliners right there!

The captain's cockpit on the Gulfstream coach.
The co-pilot's seat in the Gulfstream coach.

The dinette has been removed and a swivel/rocker/recliner chair has been put in it's place, along with a TV stand next to it. That's much better for watching TV from anywhere in the living area, rather than having to turn sideways to watch the old CRT TV (soon to be removed) that is in the middle of the dashboard! That space will become a storage cabinet! Eventually, the recliner and TV stand might also come out if we decide to put Sharon's piano in that space and do away with the Haulmark trailer.

The former dinette booth converted to a TV stand and rocker/swivel/recliner chair.

We could also use the old dinette space for a free-standing dining table and chairs, but we have our small table on tripod legs that can be used either at the couch and/or in the middle of the floor with our two folding chairs. In other words, we have lots of options, and we like the flexibility.

The two things that would really make this coach complete, are the aforementioned leveling jacks, which can be added later if we decide we really need them... and a rear view camera. The latter may get added in the VERY near future, but the bright side is that I already have two exterior cameras, and can put one on the RV and one on the back of the trailer and switch between the two. I may install the monitor in the center of the dash where the old CRT TV comes out.

The Gulfstream interior looking to the front cockpit area.

There have been a few things added to the coach in previous years also... such as air bags in the front springs (a feature we also had added to our '86 Honey motorhome, which had this same Chevy P30 chassis). It also has a manual satellite dish which was previously connected to Direct TV (a feature we will likely never use), and it has a trailer brake controller already installed. And in the upper cabinet, we also discovered a seven disk CD changer with two cartridges! We haven't tested any of the entertainment electronics yet, but will get to it before we hit the road again. It also has an under cabinet mounted coffee maker, and although we haven't tried it yet, either, it appears to work.

As with most units this old, there are a few things that need repair... the front windshield curtain has a few hanging loops pulled out (an easy fix for Sharon), the jack-knife couch is missing the lower front cover and the heating ducts that were in it are laying loose under the couch (an easy fix for me). There are a few Molly bolt anchors and screws left in the walls where they removed decorations or attachments (also an easy fix when you know how), and the lift-and-store bed in the back has ratchet supports to hold it up, but no spring struts to help lift it... one more thing that will soon be added, as that 2-inch thick bed platform is HEAVY! On the bright side, though... it has HUGE storage space under it!

Another add-on will be to install a Fantastic Fan in place of the plain vent over the bathroom. There is already a Fantastic Fan over the rear bed, but why they didn't also install one over the bathroom is unbelievable! It doesn't even have a small fan in it! Neither did they install an electric receptacle in the bathroom for a shaver, hairdryer, or whatever. All of these things are now on our want/to do list!

The Gulfstream bathroom with en extra cabinet added.
A full height shower with skylight... and no wheel well to climb over!

We will also add a counter extension and sink covers to the kitchen, and maybe even a stove cover, to expand the very sparse counter space.

The Gulfstream kitchen... and lack of counter space.

We will also add many extra outlets, as the ones in here are few and far between, as well as located inconveniently. But other than the leveling jacks and rear camera, everything on our "punch list" so far is minor and inexpensive. When done, we will have a rig as nice and as functional as any newer unit, it will still look good, and still have low mileage on it.

Speaking of which, we are very familiar with the Chevy P30 chassis, as this is what was on our '86 Honey 34-foot Class-A. Other than a minor fan belt problem on the '86 model (the last year that they used V-belts instead of the newer serpentine belts), the motorhome was plenty strong enough even with a 3700-pound tow car behind it, and it performed well on our '89 trip through the Rocky Mountains and up the infamous "Million Dollar Highway", Colorado 550, that runs from Farmington, NM all the way to Montrose, CO.

Just from our driving this rig about three hours back to our resort, through numerous hills and turns, I can tell that it runs equally as strong, steers straight, handles well, and is as as smooth as a truck chassis can be. Yes, it rides a little "hard" (maybe due to the type or brand of tires on it), and not like a 40-footer with air suspension, but we knew it would going into the deal and that part doesn't bother us. Having about 80 pounds air pressure in the front air bags actually helps the ride, as it keeps it from bottoming out on hard dips in the road. It seems like all the P30 chassis have poor/too soft spring suspension in the front, even after several years of chances to improve it.

With the Chevy conversion van now gone, this will now be our daily driver, as we planned. This is why we wanted as short a unit as possible while still getting the features we wanted. We expect it to get 2 - 3 MPG less than the Chevy (which only got about 10.8 MPG), but that's not a big issue. We like having ALL of our facilities with us at all times, and the truth is, we are not ones to be on the go every day. We usually do our shopping enroute, and then stay for at least a few days wherever we may be.

We will see plenty of country in our travels, can move on when we choose to, and have plenty to do here at "home", between our digitizing, running our online businesses, blogging, walking trails, biking, and other home-bound pursuits. There are plenty of places to park in beautiful, scenic areas that we don't have to drive to them... we can live "in" them... usually for at least a couple weeks at a time. We don't like cities, and prefer the quiet of the rural areas. If they have a great view or along a lake somewhere, that's icing on the cake. We are not typically "explorers". Unless there is something in particular we want to see or do, we are content to stay "home".

With the larger holding tanks we can stay longer without having to dump or take on water, and even if we have several cloudy days to hinder solar charging, we now have a generator. For now, the solar panels will remain on the trailer. If we plug the trailer up to the motorhome, the solar will back-feed to ALL the secondary batteries, both in the trailer and in the coach.

If we ever do away with the trailer, we have space to bring the piano in here, and we will remove the solar setup from the trailer and install it on the RV. The only things that we can't bring "into" the RV are our matched pair of 18-speed mountain bikes. But when we sell the trailer we will buy one of those totally enclosed and secure bicycle storage pods that mount to the rear hitch. That will keep them safe and out of the weather. I envision that time to come, but it may be a year or more down the road.

For now, we are relocating all of our digitizing stuff and extra storage items to the trailer and will use that as our "studio". If we get through with all our digitizing, and remove our musical instruments from it, the trailer will once again be a very comfortable living space for the next owner, although he will have to buy his own solar setup. The other components (fridge, microwave, A/C, roof rack, etc.) will go with the trailer.

The near future

We will be wandering our way eastward until the end of June, at which point we will want to exit the heat and humidity of the Midwest ASAP, and head back west toward the mountains, with cooler and drier air. There are friends we want to visit in northern Arizona, as well as seeing Sharon off on a flight to Fairbanks, Alaska, to join her sister on a south-bound week's cruise (plus side-trips before, during and after) to Vancouver. I will be staying behind to sit with Angel. While Sharon is gone, another blogger friend and I will be scouting out boondocking places in the mountains for a couple of weeks.

Hopefully, we will have a good balance of exploration time as well as down time to get some of the projects done to both the Gulfstream coach and the Haulmark trailer, and get some digitizing done. And I know my friend also has his own projects as well.

Sharon and I were hoping to get the western storage unit emptied out, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen this spring. We need to get more of the digitizing stuff gone that's in the trailer now, in order to make room to absorb what's in storage by next fall or winter. Once we can get that storage unit emptied out, and dispose of what we need to, only then will we be able to get the eastern storage unit emptied out. Everything has to happen one step at a time.

I encourage readers to leave their thoughts in the comments, as always. And thank you to those who use my links to access Amazon for their online shopping.


Gary Wood said...

Congratulations on the new rig John. Looks like a beauty. Safe Travels

John Abert said...

Thank you Gary! We hope to get at least five years out of it!

Brad said...

That's an amazing, luxurious machine! It's prettier and has nicer features than many folks' homes. I'm sure you'll get a great deal of enjoyment from it's usage. What type of engine does it have? I'm sure you'll get a lot of reliability out of that Chevy chassis and drivetrain. It looks like you and Sharon are adapting very well and making fine tuning adjustments to keep the journey fun!

John Abert said...

Hi Brad! Thanks for commenting! Nearly all of the Chevy P30 chassis have the 454 c.i. (7.4 liter) engine, which has been around a long time and does an amazing job. Since they have gone to serpentine belts and fuel injection, they are even more dependable. This Gulfstream already feels like home, and we haven't even started hanging wall decorations yet! We're liking it very much.

Ed Helvey - Location Independent Traveler said...

Congrats, John, as I've said before in emails.

Looks like life on the road is coming together for the three of you. I couldn't be happier. You sure had some challenges and stress getting out of Arkansas and thru the first six months of your new lifestyle. But, good things come to those who expect them and have patience.

Looking forward to crossing paths, soon.

John Abert said...

Hi Ed! Thanks for commenting! Yes, we hope the major stress is in the past now. Although we have remained in the same area far longer than we originally planned, it has been a great winter. The weather has been beautiful. We have been able to get many things accomplished and have become better prepared in both thoughts and possessions for moving on from here. Our adventure in this new lifestyle has only just begun!