Deck Out Your RV!
by Dorothy Ainsworth
Just two little words: Let's go! will send any dog into an excited state of anticipation, and SIX little words: Let's go on a road trip! will send me into one. Likewise, anybody who has a family knows that the three most exciting words you can say to a kid are: Let's go camping! If you have an RV, all the better; you can get going at a moment's notice, and when you reach your destination, you can have your comfort and rough it too.
The Long Long Trailer, a classic comedy with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, comes to mind. It romanticizes the carefree adventures of cruising down scenic highways by day and staying at campgrounds at night, but not until it first gives us a reality check with the unforgettable footage of Desi's towing lesson ending in hysteria: Trailer Brakes! Trailer Brakes!
Which brings up the refreshingly liberating fact (in contrast to the helmet and seatbelt laws) that no special driver's license endorsement is required to take off down the road pulling a 4,000 lb. travel trailer behind any old vehicle, as long as all the rear lights are hooked up and a safety chain is attached. The only stipulation in the law is that no passengers are supposed to be in it. Lucy, you're busted!
According to statistics, about 10% of American families own an RV in the form of a travel trailer or a motor home. Calculated on an average of four people per household, that's about eight million! It makes one wonder whether we hard-working time-crunched Americans love RV's almost as much for the freedom they REPRESENT as for their actual use. Most of the time they sit there unemployed until we have a weekend off or a vacation coming. There's nothing wrong with wonderful dreams of fun to be had and memories to be made, but until we can drive off with it, why not use the dang thing while it's parked at home?
Good reasons to buy an RV
The great news is that almost anyone can now afford what used to be a luxury for a few. Buying a previously owned RV is one of the best bargains available, and available is an understatement! Used RV lot salesmen and Craigslist advertisers are practically giving them away. People are either trading up for a newer model, or are broke and need instant cash, or simply don't have the time to use it and want the giant tortoise out of their yard and into yours.
It didn't take much research for me to conclude that supply and demand has created a booming BUYERS' market.
How else can you have a completely self-contained and cozy abode for pennies on the dollar if it isn't a travel trailer? Instead of spending $100 a square foot to build a room with nothing in it, you'll likely pay $100 a RUNNING foot for a room with everything in it. Those running feet are jam-packed with all the comforts of home: a propane range and oven, a refrigerator, a bathroom with a tub and shower, beds that can be made into couches and tables that can be made into beds, and more storage space and cubby holes than you have stuff to stuff in. Some of the more creative models can sleep eight if you don't mind being a sardine for a night.
Having built a few houses from scratch, I know first-hand how much work it is and how much it costs per square foot for living space alone, not to mention installing fixtures and appliances. On top of the initial cost, to remodel or add-on a room can be astronomical, and you have to deal with permits and inspections.
If you need a spare room, why not buy a little house on wheels and avoid all that trouble? Relatives who come to visit, or teenagers who always seem to need their space, will particularly appreciate the guest house, and it will be forever ready to take to the open road whenever you are. (See BWH article: Alternative Lifestyle Issue #82 2003)
Shopping for an RV
Applying that practical concept to my own situation, I started looking regularly on Craigslist for just the right RV to suit my fancy and my budget. One day a new entry popped up featuring a 1983 24-foot Nomad Skyline travel trailer that looked and sounded ideal, so I jumped on it (if you snooze, you lose). It was love at first sight---a deluxe bunkhouse model with built-in bunk beds, hard-wood floors, and an all wood-grain interior. It was loaded with extras and upgraded replacements, including a $2,000 refrigerator that runs on propane OR electricity. The owner said it keeps ice cream frozen solid, and the efficient air conditioner keeps the inhabitants frozen solid. After a scorching hot summer, that alone sold me!
The only thing it needed was an igniter for the water heater ($200 job), and it had wild and crazy '80's upholstery that didn't thrill me, so I negotiated the price down from $3,000 to $2,500, and the owner agreed to deliver it to boot. After having an RV expert thoroughly check it out the next day ($50) and give it a two-thumbs-up, I happily bought it with a promotional low-interest cash advance from my credit card company. (It'll be paid off in a year.)
Preparing the RV pad
I have some acreage so I picked a secluded area with a pastoral view, and called my backhoe/grader guy. He moved a few big rocks and pushed some dirt around to make a road to the spot, then leveled the sloping ground as best he could where the RV would sit. ($200) Then I called the gravel guy and had 10 yds. (dump truck full) laid down on the road and plenty on the pad to cover any mud during the rainy season. ($200)
Note: I always marvel at how much amazing work can be done in a short time by a good fast heavy equipment operator, and what a tremendous bargain it is---when you consider the initial cost of equipment, repairs and maintenance, the logistics of hauling the giant machines to the site on trailers, the gas, the oil, licenses, insurance, and taxes, and---most important to the client---experience and skill. Most excavators are honest and try to be fair, so in my book, they deserve every cent they charge. Amen!
When the RV arrived 2 days later, I was ready. The seller was kind enough to level the beast, block the wheels, and show me how everything worked, including the adjustable awning.
A source for power and water were near by so it would be no problem hooking them up. A septic emptying station is only 4 miles away at a service station and costs a mere $5.00. In a pinch, there's a mobile pumping service available for $50.
Planning the deck
My next plan was to build a deck for the trailer, freestanding of course, so it could be moved in and out as needed. I sketched a plan, measured and re-measured, ran level strings every which way, sprayed fluorescent marking paint where the piers would be placed, then made a materials list.
I had also decided to create a little yard enclosure around the trailer for more privacy and in case any guests had dogs to secure, so while I was at it, I added cedar fencing to the list.
My usual MO is to charge everything at Home Depot or Lowe's, interest free for a year to 18 months (depending on the total), so that's what I did this time too.
Small is beautiful"
Any small, attractive, and green all-in-one living space is the hottest architectural trend in our culture right now. Not that I have ever tried purposely to be in vogue, but on this project, I just happened to be thinking small (the RV) and attractive (deck and fence) and green (low energy consumption), so I guess that makes the RV right in style---but what about that psychedelic upholstery? In any case, I've always liked invitingly livable structures with landscaping around them, so I was determined to dress up the RV as best I could.
Building the deck
The only problem with too many bright ideas is the hard work it takes to implement them. I work alone and I'm not getting any younger as the years whiz by, but considering my new spending-spree investment, I couldn't let a little pain stop me now. So down I went on my hands and knees (mandatory for deck building) and started in setting 20 concrete piers into the hard-packed undisturbed soil beneath the gravel.
When I finally stood up as a homo erectus again, I placed adjustable brackets in the pier holes, and fastened 4x4 upright posts in the brackets. I had marked and precut the posts so all their tops would be level, but the adjustable brackets would allow me to fine-tune their levelosity later. Then I ran 16-foot 2x6 joists along BOTH sides of the 4x4 posts in each row and screwed them on. Flanking BOTH sides was a little overkill, even by my standards, but what the heck---I liked the balanced look.
Thus, the foundation grid consisted of four rows of piers 2-feet apart parallel to the trailer and five rows of piers 4-feet apart perpendicular to the trailer. That meant the 8 ft. x 16 ft. deck would be supported by four PAIRS of joists---making it super-strong and symmetrical.
I tend to overbuild, because who knows, maybe the deck will be the floor of a little building someday, like the storage platform I built years before ending up as a cabin floor. (See BWH article: Small Cabin Issue #134 2012)
The fun and satisfying part of building any deck is fastening the deck boards down with deck screws, and this one was no exception. It took 35 8-foot kiln-dried DF 2x6's to cover the deck. I capped off the end-grain of the front with a 16-foot 2x8, and built some short stairs going down to the yard.
Then I waterproofed the beautiful Douglas fir boards with deck stain, and snapped a few photos of the finished deck's golden hue in the setting sun.
I supported the cedar picket-fence panels with cedar stakes pounded well into the ground every few feet, and screwed the stakes into the horizontal fence members (2x3's), then made two gates for convenient access from opposite sides.
The fence is secure enough for what it's for---as a perimeter to surround a grassy yard (I sowed fall grass seed right away), and to facilitate the climbing tentacles of 35 young honeysuckle vines I planted around it, which will eventually cover it, and attract hummingbirds and butterfies. Two fence panels (left unencumbered) can easily be removed and set aside when the RV is pulled out.
All told, the project cost $4,000---not bad for a comfy accommodation whether its wheels are spinning or not, and to use as a back-up shelter that runs on propane and batteries in an emergency situation.
For now, though, the caravan (as I prefer to call it) sits in its own little Fields of Dreams, waiting for some action. Come summer it will accompany us to the mountain lakes where we'll go camping, city-slicker style. Daughter Cynthia and grandson Zane have already put in their reservations.
Build it and they will come......but I hope they will bring a big truck with a trailer hitch! Old Bessie, my 1971 Ford F-100, won't even LOOK at the RV!