RV Consumer: Warranties and Dealers
Whether it's wrestling with a phone agent over banking, cell service, or your cable bill, or negotiating the often bumpy roads of RV service -- to be a better RV consumer it helps to understand a few of the guiding principles on how the industry operates.
Let's start with a common one, warranty repair. Motorhomes, and to a similar degree towables, are an assembly of components. There's the chassis, the physical structure, and then all the other pieces and parts like ovens, TVs and water pumps. Of course there's the overall warranty of the unit, but within your coach or trailer there are many other warranties. While the chassis may be covered for three years, the coach itself may be covered for only one, but there may be longer warranties that cover different components.
Tedious as it may sound, when you take delivery of your new RV, spend an evening surveying all the technical documentation and various component's operating manuals. Some owners make a spreadsheet with columns that list the different components, model number, serial number, web site, toll-free service number, and warranty length. They print the list out and keep it with all their documents. It's very good to keep track of this. Here's why:
We got our new Navion 20 months ago and on our third trip our Onan generator decided not to "gen." We were in the desert southwest and the nearest dealer was at least 400 miles away. I fussed with it as best I could and somehow it started up again. While it was acting up I got my iPhone out and shot some video of trying to start it.
That video came in pretty handy when I had a tech at Rocky Mountain Cummins look at our generator when we got home. Of course, in the service bay, we couldn't get it to fail, but my video showed that I wasn't making the problem up. That definitely boosted my credibility and he did give me a couple of ideas to look for if it ever happened again. Months and miles went by without a problem, but then, in Little America, Wyoming it refused to start and also blew two fuses. Yea! Caught in the act. The worst problems are intermittent ones, so I was actually grateful that I could return back to RMC with a dead geni.
While my Winnebago coach warranty had expired, the Cummins Onan warranty is three years and 2,000 hours. It was determined that I needed a new electronic control board and that $500 expense was fully covered.
This experience also reflects my thinking that, especially for warranty work, I generally look for an authorized dealer for that particular component -- not necessarily my RV dealer who I purchased the rig from. Of course, dealers are usually warranty authorized for many components in your RV and, in that case, it can make sense to arrange repair through them.
Major manufacturers in the industry, like Winnebago, are pretty darn fair about honoring warranty claims. Just like the automotive industry, RV manufacturers build warranty service costs into their pricing models. When you bring your coach or towable into a dealer for warranty repair, they will order necessary repair parts and then bill the manufacturer back for their labor time based on a pre-agreed pricing schedule. Service is generally the most profitable aspect for a dealership and billing for warranty repair is an important component of their profitability. Therein exists a natural tension between dealers and manufacturers in determining the accuracy of the warranty claim. The vast majority of warranty claims are accepted by manufacturers. However, manufacturers do look at claim patterns from their dealers and sometimes see problems of over-billing. Perhaps that critical component you were told that needed to be replaced was really a mis-diagnosis by the service technician.
I've heard numerous stories over the years where the manufacturer gets "thrown under the bus" by techs who are either undertrained or mis-informed. The problem is, you've made a big effort to get your rig to the dealer and now you're standing there, being asked to agree on somebody's point of view who you probably have only just met for the first time. It's like sitting in the emergency room with a broken arm -- just fix it -- you're not likely to ask for a second opinion.
Sometimes, especially when you're out of warranty, it's helpful to do a little pre-research before you take your rig in for repair. You may consider calling the manufacturer's support phone, keyword search the Internet, and browse through RV forums. At the very least, when you're standing there in the service department, you'll be better educated and be able to ask better questions.
Then, there's the interesting and annoying difference between RV and automotive service. In most cases you can take your under warranty car to any authorized dealer for service and you'll get scheduled into the appointment queue just as quickly as if you bought your car from that dealer.
Many RV dealerships, on the other hand, give priority to owners who have purchased from them. They do this for several internal reasons. First, good RV technicians can be hard to find as they need to know all sorts of different systems. Second, RV repair work (in most parts of the country) is seasonal with peak customer volume happening during the warmer months. This makes balancing the overhead of year-round staffing tricky. Third, there is a huge variation in age, engineering, assembly, and technical documentation of motorhomes that often make repairs more complicated to diagnose and fix. Managing all of these variables internally is a continual challenge for RV dealers and one of the simplest ways is by limiting their capacity.
When a dealer tells you that they must give priority to their existing customers, they're simply trying to manage a highly variable workforce and repair load to make sure the customers who have bought from them are being properly taken care of. Now this shouldn't necessarily stop you from buying a new or used motorhome from a dealer out of your area, but you should be aware that some (though not all) dealers may put you at the back of the service line. Another option is an independent repair business. Some offer come-to-you convenience with on-site repair.
When you're traveling in a motorhome and have a mechanical emergency (either with the chassis or coach), most dealers will work to accommodate working you into the repair queue as quickly as possible. But, to manage your expectations, that may mean a day or a week. And, depending on the repair, you may find yourself spending a few days in a motel. In some cases, check your insurance as most RV policies have coverage for disablement expenses.
In the past few years there has been increasing consolidation of RV component suppliers and one upside of that is that there's more availability of components and consistency in the way components are installed and serviced.
Just like how miserable it is to be sick away from home, you want to avoid trouble and keep your RV healthy on the highway. The best insurance you have against facing a repair issue while traveling is to plan on a pre-trip systems check. As a general practice, if you haven't been using your motorhome for a while, fire up and test all systems a week before you plan to leave. That way, if you see a mechanical problem, you've got at least a little more lead time to get it scheduled for repair before you get on the highway.
The more you come to understand repair options, warranties, and dealer service policies, the better off you'll be in making effective choices both in terms of time and money.