CONSIDERING A CUSTOM RV?
CONSIDERING A CUSTOM RV?
Before you buy an RV
Are you one of a half-million people thinking about and who will purchase a new RV this year? Have you asked yourself the question “how can we get a quality, durable RV with a long, useful life?” Do you have concerns about how the RVs of today are being literally thrown-together in Elkhart? Because of the number of questionable products that flood the market today, perhaps you are considering having something custom built.
I’ve been around RVs my whole life. At one time, a fledgling RV industry attracted customers with the premise of excellence; to increase demand – produce quality. Sadly, in today’s high-demand driven market, that is no longer the case. In 2021, over a half million RVs were built in the three counties that surround Elkhart Indiana, the RV capital of the world. Projections for 2022 are even greater.
(Problem) We use our RV seven months out of the year, move every week to the tune of 10-15 thousand miles per year. Since most RVs are designed to move twice a summer, and perhaps only fifteen thousand miles in their lifetime, the RV’s being produced in Elkhart aren’t built strong at all. I wanted an RV that would stand up to our rugged travel plans as we neared retirement. I’d had enough experience with lightweight suspension and undercarriages produced for the mainstream that often require repair once you drag them off the lot.
My ambition was to start with a strong frame. Today, virtually every frame for every RV is produced by one company. Lippert Components has perfected the system for using a minimum of steel in their frames in an effort to compete, bring the cost down per unit and secure the entire market. I didn’t want a light-weight frame made with the minimum of materials. That meant I needed something produced outside the industry.
I found a custom frame-builder who built my frame out of heavy I-beam complete with the geared slide mechanism for the main slide as part of the unit. He even added my design for a hitch strengthening structure beneath the bathroom and bedroom floor that acted like a pair of wheelbarrow handles to remove the flex from the length of the frame. (The mainstream builders count on the “body” of the unit to hold the frame square and eliminate flex.) To eradicate the problematic leaf-spring suspension system, I added trouble-free torque-flex axels with air-bag suspension. When my stout frame was complete, I began my search for a custom RV builder who built quality.
In Middlebury, I discovered Howard Stutzman built beautiful class-A fifth wheel trailers. When I showed him my frame, the drawings of my concept and told him the specifications of my build that specified no chip board to be used anywhere (more about that later), Howard announced that he could build my custom fifth-wheel trailer in six weeks for eighty thousand dollars. Wow, I was elated. I handed him my down payment. I could hardly wait. I was on my way to having a superbly built unit that would surely withstand the perils of the road. Or so I thought.
Six weeks went by. Then six months passed by and very little had occurred with my build. Howard produced stories about why, how and when he would get it done. Then two years passed. Then, I heard through a friend that Howard had declared bankruptcy. The property was abandoned and all the assets were gone.
Alarmed, I contacted Howard who said not to worry because he had set up his son in business. My project was on hold because all of their energy was going into starting up their new enterprise; Diamond Specialty Vehicles. It ends up that my trailer frame was used to haul raw materials away from the old shop. Hey, I figured since my money and my frame were being used to launch this new enterprise, that would make me part owner. But my brief enthusiasm and one-time confidence about being on my way sank into a seething emotional pit of grief and not knowing mixed with depression and a fear of having been duped.
Three years after my trailer was supposed to be complete, Howard’s son Eric called me, “I feel really bad that three years have gone by and very little has happened with your project,” Eric confided over the phone, “and since there are no records of what little had been done that survived the old company, I am going to recognize every cent that you have paid for when I begin building this trailer to your specifications.”
I had a glimmer of hope.
“I want to go over all the aspects of this project in detail with you in person, “Eric continued, “I know you’re in Michigan this time of year. Will you drive down to Middlebury this week so we can go over all the specifications of your project?”
My friend Tom volunteered to drive. We were there two days later. Eric gave us a tour and showed us the projects underway in the busy shop. They were building huge make-up trailers for the movie industry. Then we went into his office and for three and a half hours went over every detail of my project. That was when I again stressed the importance of not using chip-board anywhere in my trailer and reminded Eric of the price Howard had given me three years earlier of eighty thousand dollars.
Before we left that day, I saw my trailer frame was still landlocked in the middle of a mountain of parts behind the new building with a stack of raw materials on top of it. Tom and I visited Howard at his home that afternoon. Howard admitted that all of my money was gone. Howard did announce that he was going to go to the bank and take out a loan for the amount I had provided three years earlier. Then he would provide that sum to get Eric started.
A month later, Howard changed his tune. In spite of Eric confiding that no records for any work existed that survived the bankruptcy, now all of a sudden Howard claimed to have completed twenty thousand dollars’ worth of engineering back at the old shop! Engineering? How much engineering goes into a unit that comes with the frame already built with the slide mechanism already intact?
When asked to see the results of all the engineering accomplished, Howard could not produce anything. He did instead, provide his son with a fraction of my down payment. This put Eric in a bind. I remembered what Eric had said; “since there are no records of what little had been done that survived the old company, I am going to recognize every cent you paid when I begin building this trailer to your specifications.”
Now father and son had conflicting stories and had to come up with another scheme to build my unit without all the money. Another year would pass.
The next summer I saw that my trailer frame was out from the behind the shop. The stack of raw materials was gone but the protective tarp was still covered with leaves. Emotionally, I was at the bottom of a pit of a despair such as I had never known. I actually had compassion for Eric and his dad, I suggested that we three were all in a pickle. From this rock bottom – that would later characterize yet another turnaround on my spiritual walk with God, I yearned for Howard and Eric to join me with the same faith that transformed three little fishes and two loaves of bread into enough for everybody. From the edge of my emotional abyss, when I tried to voice my encouragement for us to all reach out in faith, Eric flatly responded with a statement, the jist of which was; “Christians are the most troublesome customers I have ever had to deal with.”
The next winter I get a text from Howard mentioning that Eric was going to start my project in April. Later, I got a text that announced they would start in July. I received yet other texts in September and then in November. I stressed having a busy schedule to Howard and how his continuing to postpone my project made it impossible to make any plans to participate. Like any other busy person on the planet, I have to include any demand on my time in advance. Any request on my time – like a trip to the plant – had to be made far in advance.
To add to the complication of planning, Eric threw a wrench in the works. He emailed an estimate for what my project would cost. What!? Eric’s estimate was well over the original price agreed on. I made the decision to purchase from Howard five years prior, due to the price provided at that time. I was being penalized but I did not cause the delay. It was not appropriate for me to be punished because of cost increases or because Howard had elected to not provide his son all the down payment money received from me that he had blown (or invested putting his son in business) I already had the price I liked.
Finally in December, I received a text that they had moved my frame into the shop to begin work on my project.
A few weeks later, during the dead of winter, Eric wanted me to come up to Indiana and see what had been completed. The weather was sub-zero in Indiana, I was busy in Florida. Without any lead time, it was impossible to drop what I was doing and travel to see what had been done. Without the benefit of my participation, Eric pushed my unit out of the shop.
I saw it the following summer. Doors were the wrong size, the slides were made of chip-board, the roofs of the slides were not covered with the requested roofing material (and had potential areas that could leak). My specifications for the sleek garage side door/awnings with latches inside were ignored and I saw hideous awning structures that infected the exterior.
Why all the stress about how RVs are built?
I have concerns about the way RVs are built because of the discoveries made along the way while using RVs from the mainstream. I was using a Tailgater by KZ along my annual route at the time and needed an upgrade.
My sensitivity about light weight frames is due to my experiences along the road that required extensive repair. Where the spring shackles attach to the frame is always the first thing that needs to be strengthened. Then I needed an upgrade from the fifteen-inch tires and wheels to sixteens so I could get tires with a heavier load range. Then, the lightweight frame on this fifth wheel trailer began to bend behind the axels. While the trailer body settled on the bent configuration, body seams began to separate. I fashioned wide seam covering plates to improve the appearance so I could get by.
Another time the structure between the frame and the fifth wheel hitch broke. This meant the hitch was up in the bedroom and the front of the trailer settled down over the truck bed. The answer was to construct a strengthening bracket to transfer the stress from the lightweight frame onto the extra-added frame rails to transfer the load.
The end cap framework for the loading tailgate to align into came loose one day while enroute to the next town. Upon inspection I discovered that the attachment screws designed to secure the frame to the body of the trailer were missing – evidence of the worker not doing his job – the frame had been held onto the trailer body all this time by just the caulk used to seal the outer edges from the weather. In an effort to strengthen what had been neglected by the worker on the assembly line, I had to add welded tabs onto the framework to have a fish-plate to secure the structure to the walls.
Those were just a few of the features of this KZ trailer that left a lot to be desired. But it wasn’t just what happened – or didn’t happen – on the trailer assembly line that made me aware of the state of the industry.
On a sunny afternoon several years ago while getting ready to leave a friend’s home in Georgia, we saw smoke. Luckily, I was able to put out the fire that started at the back of the refrigerator that began to burn through an interior wall by stretching a garden hose over to the unit, going inside and putting out the fire. That particular model of Dometic refrigerator was notorious for catching fire. Dometic did pay for the repairs to the interior and for the replacement refrigerator but not for the extensive damage that occurred from the water I poured inside. That was when I discovered that chipboard, the cheap material used throughout the industry for most of the interior of RVs, becomes a limp sponge when saturated with water. That is the main reason I made the decision to not want any chipboard in my custom-built trailer. This unfortunate event occurred during the time I was waiting for Howard to get my custom-built trailer completed.
Because I was being told that my replacement custom build would be complete any time now – for five years in a row– rather than replace the tired KZ RV, I kept putting Band-Aids on the problems that occurred in an effort to keep it roadworthy for yet another season.
With the replacement trailer half-built and completely paid for, Eric had no plan for getting it complete. The side walls were now coming loose on the KZ, I could see daylight where the walls met the floor. Friend Steve helped me add strengthening scabs to secure the sides to the floor as I prepared to embark on yet another summer season. Then it was time to go.
The day before Memorial Day weekend began, we were three hours away from home on our way to South Carolina to see my brother when disaster hit. While driving, a passing motorist waved at me, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw smoke. I pulled over to the side of the road and attempted to put the fire out. The flames were too high, while emptying the fire extinguisher into the cabin, molten plastic from the ceiling dripped onto the backs of my hands, arms and shoulders. I quickly unhooked the tow vehicle and pushed it to safety. Then unhooked the latch of the hitch and yanked the truck off the front of the trailer. Then, we watched in horror was everything we owned went up in flames.
The aftermath of our disaster continues to plummet downhill into quandary of epic proportions – the subject of another heart wrenching story about what we found out about the selfish behavior of the first responders. Incompetence continues to reign in more areas than just the RV industry. But that is another story.
Maybe a lawyer would help
Per recommendation of another friend in Plant City, I was referred to a consumer lawyer in Fishers, Indiana named Corey Meridew to attempt to light a fire under Eric and Howard’s backsides. Rather than investigate the wrong-doing of moving assets during bankruptcy, or demanding that the materials specified for my build be respected and requesting all the deviations from the blueprint be replaced, this incompetent lawyer could only suggest solutions for the standoff with the Stutzman’s that included me providing additional money.
In spite of Howard’s initial announcement six years ago “I can build your unit in six weeks for eighty thousand dollars,” and three years later Eric confiding, ““I feel really bad that three years have gone by and very little has happened with your project,” over the phone, “and since there are no records of what had been done that survived the old company, I am going to recognize every cent that you have paid for when I begin building this trailer to your specifications,” the incompetent Corey Meridew found no reason to suspect that any wrongdoing was taking place.
That nimrod also found no connection with the demise of the tired RV I had been forced to keep repairing due to their negligence and the resulting disaster that occurred, and their inability to do what they announced they would do. His reason? There was no iron-clad document with an exact completion date established. Just a friendly handshake.
The incompetent Lawyer Corey Meridew could only deflect all of my requests to uncover obvious wrongdoing, elevate the culprit’s awareness of misconduct, bring the matter into proper alignment to initiate justice. He could only bargain with Eric for the completion of my unit to my specifications by having me supply additional money. What is a lawyer for?
After several months of receiving only incompetent regard and treatment, inappropriate behavior and spending several thousand dollars for his ineffective jockeying, Corey Meridew confided to me that perhaps he was not the right lawyer for the job. I was shocked. That is the kind of information to provide the customer at the beginning of our transaction – before I spent all that money.
In exchange for my money, the lawyer Corey Meridew of Fishers, Indiana actually fortified the Stutzman’s position of inactivity. Howard and Eric Stutzman now know they don’t have to do anything. I was learning a hard lesson; lawyers only look after themselves. Lawyers only want to involve themselves with transactions that produce income for them, lawyers only produce self-centered results regardless of their introductory premise of actually being able to help the victim.
Eric now sits at the helm of Diamond Specialty Vehicles confident that there is nothing I can do. In spite of being paid the full amount initially agreed upon with his father six years ago, Eric is free to do nothing about my build. Good thing too, because every builder in Elkhart is balls to the wall building RVs as fast as they can. Eric is busy and will succeed at the hands of the steady stream of victims who come through his door.
I am learning an expensive lesson in ethics, and the complete lack of integrity that exists in the RV industry today. It reminds me of what took place in the automobile industry in the seventies, when the manufactures intentionally created premature obsolescence and produced cars with a limited lifespan, designed to rust away and fall apart. All that did was create an opening for foreign competition to gain a foothold in this country. Perhaps something similar is on the horizon for Elkhart that will shoot them in the foot.
Writing this tale is my way to warn you about the potential perils, traps and pitfalls of the RV life if you think that you can out-smart the system and get a durable product. There is a reason that it is called a system. And there is a reason that the RV industry is doing what they are doing as fast as they can while they can get away with it.
By all means get familiar with what quality looks like, do not accept anything that is not going to last, and get your RV dealer to provide an iron-clad product guarantee in writing before you sign on the bottom line. By arming yourself with something that has credence in court, you ensure that you may just get to enjoy the RV lifestyle and not fall prey to the greedy, apathetic and unethical wolves who thrive in the RV business today.
I would not want what happened to me to happen to anybody else.
Dave Letterfly Knoderer
Before you buy an RV
Perhaps you, like many, are intrigued with the thought of hitting the road, seeking adventure and living the life you enjoy. As a teenager, I found this idea irresistible. Thanks to following an inner urge, I became immersed in the philosophy, technique and approach to traveling efficiently, learned the grassroots manner of functionally interacting with my ever-changing surroundings and proactively created a sustainable operation that evolved during my years on the road as I became
The Guru of living an interesting life
Today, as an expert on combining career with the RV lifestyle, I have spent almost five decades working as an artist, entertainer and performing horseman while traveling across thirty-two states and half of Canada. Twenty of those years were invested serving the RV industry becoming America’s most prolific motorhome airbrush mural artist.
Now an insatiable public speaker, blogger and the author of Hit the road and thrive –all about living the dream, the value of having regard for others and how to conduct a successful business while living an interesting life on the road in an RV. This, my third book, reveals the“Seven secrets to living the dream” soon to also be an online course.
In addition to providing functional discipline for working and living an itinerate lifestyle, the book expands on the areas of an artist’s expertise including the production of hand painted artwork on site, importance of visual branding, establishing value in the mind of the consumer, word of mouth, signs that work, and even using social media to your advantage, Etc. As the title implies, the aspects of achieving success on the road are organized into seven secrets, the first of which is “where.”
Today, Letterfly enjoys a seven-month route of Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealerships where old school pinstriping, hand-painted pictorials and hand lettered inscriptions are produced for an ever-increasing list of satisfied clients.
All of this may leave you with questions – matters that have already been answered in my first book;
Speedy hurled through havoc
What is this mysterious pull? How does one explain the proclivity to abandon everything to head out on the highway? Yet, a more vital concern is where will it take you? Using the road as a metaphor, the author reveals reflections, discoveries and notions of an interesting life that took off like a rocket when he followed that inner urging and hit the road.
Withdrawn from a strict, perfectionistic father, an intensely creative teenager launched himself into the strange, spangled and exciting world of the traveling big top circus. Developing the mindset of an unstoppable entertainer, he found harmony with horses, expression as a sign painter and learned rare skills from an itinerate culture that would benefit him his entire life.
Hitting bottom as an alcoholic brought everything to a screeching halt. Dazed, he allowed fate to introduce a new purpose for his life; a practical relationship with God, recovery from the hurts of the past and developing a remarkable connection with his father.
This on the road memoire reveals the surprise twists and turns of an interesting life that ultimately led to love. As the future without the circus unfolded, the author evolved into the premier producer of airbrushed murals, gold leaf monograms and delicate hand painted inscriptions on motorhomes using the skills learned on the show-business trail.
Inevitably, the entertainer’s mindset ruled. Today Letterfly is a renowned motorcycle pinstripe artist, speaker and spiritual seeker in the modern world of gigabytes, impulsive distractions and emerging societal insanity. Read on to find inspiration you can use to overcome the obstacles of life that really are the gifts that bring about our greatest transformation.
Here’s what people are saying;
“Sometimes you get the gift of experiencing a true American story. I recommend this book to lovers of passionate write-ups and moral-inducing books. Also, young readers who have a passion for something, but face challenges can learn one or two lessons from the book. This is such a gift. When’s the movie?”
” I recommend this book to lovers of passionate write-ups and moral-inducing books. Also, young readers who have a passion for something, but face challenges can learn one or two lessons from the book.”
“I absolutely LOVE this book! It’s a Magical Mystery Tour, winding through the life of this extremely talented author’s lifelong journey. Definitely, a must read! Letterfly never ceases to astound me!”
“What a great book!! I couldn’t put it down. Very well written. It is so captivating it feels like I am traveling right along with him. Can’t wait for his next book.” Speedy Hurled Through Havoc
Enjoy his blog at; LetterflyWrites.com
Subscribe to receive his e-mail newsletter; Tales of a Traveling Airbrush where you will read previews of developing stories to ultimately be included in several upcoming books including;
Confessions of a Kinker
The Galloping Snapper
The Road Home
One Man Show