Buying a Chinook

With retirement approaching in a few months, I started perusing Craigslist RV ads. One of my long-term retirement goals was to travel the country with an RV, something our parents had enjoyed in their early retirement years. In the back of my mind, however, I realized that a large majority of RVs spend almost all of their existence parked in a driveway or storage. Being frugally minded, I felt some guilt over spending a huge amount of money for a toy that would not be used often. My other RV concern was about size. I had some fear in driving a large vehicle, and I was concerned that the larger the vehicle, the less likely it was to get used. Basically, I was looking for a cheap RV that was relatively easy to drive and could park in a normal parking space. I also seem trailer-impaired, in that my limited experience backing up with a trailer seemed very difficult and not something I wanted to deal with. This pretty much ruled out a camping trailer or towing a car behind the RV (TOAD) for local excursions. I didn’t want a pickup and camper because I wanted access to the camper from the driving compartment. We had camper shells in my youth, and they were much improved over tent camping but not much.

After weeks of scanning Craigslist ads, it seemed that what I was looking for was something around 21 feet long, either a Class B (van) or small Class C (cutaway chassis with camper cabin attached). There were very few Class C’s under 22 feet. Most common were RoadTrek Class B’s and more recent Sprinter Vans (very expensive). Another seemingly attractive choice was Rialta (Volkswagon-based). Then I saw a 21 foot Chinook Premier. It was like Goldilocks, not to big, not too small, not too expensive (it was early 2000’s model), and it was loaded with luxury. The ad lasted for weeks, and I kept returning to see if it was still for sale. At the same time, I started researching the Chinook history and found out they went out of business in 2005, so there were no new current models. I also found out they were the Cadillac brand of RVs, costing close to $100,000 at the turn of the century (2000’s) when that was a lot of money at the time. (Bigger Chinooks cost even more). I also found out the Premier, luxurious as it was, was the “low-end” model, and the similar sized Concourse was even more luxurious.

I started focusing my search to Chinook Concourses, which now seemed no more expensive than the Premiers. I searched ads all over the country and found out they were rarely available, with prices ranging from the high $20,000s to as high as the $40,000s. (All of them were at least 10 years old by late 2014 during my search. Most ranged from the mid-90’s to early 2000’s, which was probably the “Golden Era” for Chinook.) I decided I wanted a something no older than 2000, and priced below $30,000. I found out there were three floor plans made: an unacceptable (to me and my wife) and most-rare twin-bed, a dinette plan, and a club lounge (with two barrel chairs, and a fold-up table).

Jackknife Sofa
Jackknife Sofa
Club Lounge
Club Lounge

The main bed is a folding jack-knife sofa (except for the twins), and the dinette had a sleeping advantage in that the seats joined with the sofa bed to make a huge king-sized “mattress”. However, the club lounge was more open and seemed a lot roomier and comfortable for daytime use. Eventually, I settled on the club layout, hoping that the Jack-knife sofa was big enough and comfortable enough for me and my cuddly wife to sleep on.
(Spoiler, for us the jack-knife sofa bed has been wonderful, big enough and comfortable, so I was very happy with the club layout we wound up with.)

One day, an ad appeared, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, a beautiful 1999 Concourse for $5000! I am embarrassed now by my naiveté (as in INTERNET FRAUD unawareness), but I was excited. It felt like an opportunity to save $20,000! I contacted the seller with questions, how many miles, safe-to-drive, etc. he responded with a long story, even better than I hoped. I will post his response here as a lesson to any Internet car shopper:

“I’m glad that you are interested in buying my 1999 Chinook Concourse. The RV has been extremely well maintained with a full service history, and has not been involved in any accidents. It only has 75000 miles on it and the title is clear. I bought it when I was serving at Hill Air Force Base, Utah but I was promoted and transferred to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage Alaska for a 2 year period, so I do not want to let it rot in my backyard and therefore need a fast and reliable buyer. The RV is already at our Department of Logistics at Hill Air Force Base, Utah crated and ready to go. The shipping will be free for you because I will transport it using the internal transport system we have here at the Department of Logistics! The DoL will deliver the RV to the nearest Air Force Base from your area and from there I will use a tow-truck to have it delivered to your door. The whole shipping process will take 3-4 days. The financial part will be managed by eBay, which means you will have a 5 day inspection period before committing to buy the RV. In this way, both you and I are 100% covered during the steps of this transaction. I would really like to get at least $5000 so if you are interested in making this purchase in a timely manner email me your: full name and shipping address, so I can inform eBay that I have a buyer! I will forward your details to them and then you will receive the invoice.”

I was so excited, it seemed (and was) way too good to be true. He offered more pictures, so I asked him to send them. They looked fantastic… and familiar? The license plate was from Pennsylvania (not Utah), and I realized they were the same pictures I had seen from an ad from a dealer in Pennsylvania. I was crushed and embarrassed at the same time. I pointed out the pictures were from another Chinook and asked “what’s going on?”, (knowing what was going on by that time.) I never heard any more from the “seller”, but I did get a couple of phishing emails requesting bank and ID information a day or two later. At least I knew enough not to provide any confidential personal information, but it was amazing how much trouble one would go through to get a bank account number or other opportunity for fraud, not to mention $5,000.

Although embarrassing, I am appreciative of the life lesson, and hope this story might help someone else. Normally, I am pretty cautious and I didn’t let this get out of hand, but I am amazed at how gullible I could be when tempted by something I really wanted (by that time).

So I intensified my search, now armed with what I knew to be fair prices for Chinooks. By now, my wife was on-board, and she spotted a nice Concourse up for bid on EBay for about $25000. I came close to making an offer, but deferred at the end, partly because it was a dinette model, and I was leaning toward a club lounge layout. It was now October 2014, and I later learned is prime buying season, after reluctant sellers have made their “one last trip” in the fall. Surprisingly, there are some really wonderful units out there, if you are willing to be patient and diligent in your search. In spite of their age, one unit have shown up with less than 20,000 miles, and a few still have less than 100,000. I had decided I wanted one with less than 80,000, but fewer was desirable. Prices in the few ads seemed to be in the low to mid $30,000’s, but occasionally one would sell in the $20,000’s like the one on EBay, but none seemed quite right, until…

A 2001 Concourse with 56,000 miles showed up in the RV Trader ads, marked down from $29,999 to $27,999. It was a dealer, Smiley RV, in Milton-Freewater Oregon. It looked a little worn on the inside, but looked like a fair deal. I sent a message to the seller, asking for more information (does everything work? is it safe to drive?). I didn’t get a reply, but it was still there a couple of days later, so I sent a second message, going for broke: would you take $25,000 cash for the Chinook? No immediate reply, but a couple of days later, I received this reply:

“Hi Clay,
Your offer is great and is acceptable …”

Holy Cow! This could be it! I sent back a reply, saying I was excited and sent him a copy of our bank loan guarantee and said I would have to arrange travel and financing and asked for details I needed for my loan application. He replied with a Purchase Agreement, and I had to do a whirlwind of activity to arrange for pick up. I finished up the loan paperwork and arranged to have the loan check sent to him directly as a down payment. I made reservations for free one-way airplane tickets from Santa Barbara to Pasco Washington using miles to pay, and got a hotel and car rental reservation in Pasco. Pasco is about an hour drive from Milton-Freewater, but the nearest United destination. I told Tim I would be there to pick it up the following Thursday morning, and we would drive it back to Santa Barbara. He wasn’t too happy it was so soon, because he needed more time to prepare it, but he was agreeable, assuming he got his check and we brought a cashier’s check for the balance.

Pre-buyer’s second thoughts. Now that we were committed, I started to worry that this might be a mistake, buying a 14-year-old vehicle sight unseen over the Internet for $25,000. I took to Google Maps to make sure Smiley RV existed in the place it was supposed to be. A good sign when a Google street-view of RV lot showed the same sign that appeared in one of the Chinook pictures. Then doubts crept in about the Chinook itself. Some of the pictures on-line were a little washed out…was the upholstery stained, or was it just the lighting? Then my wife has to ask, What if it smells like cigarettes? Then I made the mistake of checking into Google reviews of Smiley’s, and found an entry not just criticizing Smiley’s but completely trashing the very Chinook I was about to buy. It turned out another less-serious Chinook shopper saw the Chinook advertised and decided to stop by to see while on a trip in the area. He called ahead but his no one got his message, so he arrived without notice. He already had “an attitude” and was highly critical of the Chinook, to quote:

“…I suspected arrogance and I was right.
When I saw the “motor home” ( Chinook ) it was total crap. The most dirty interior I’ve ever seen, it even stunk. The back bumper was crunched ( notice it’s left out of the picture on the website) . The paint and clear coat are peeling. I could go on and on.”

I didn’t share this nasty bit of information with my wife, as she was already a little skeptical. And so it was we headed for Oregon with a mixture of excitement and terror in our heads about our new RV adventure. As it turned out, we couldn’t have had a better experience with Smiley’s people. They had gone over the unit extensively to prepare it for sale. They put in new batteries, a new kitchen faucet, filled the propane tank and tested all the appliances, and had professionally cleaned the carpets and upholstery. There was some peeling clear coat, and some minor dings, but these are common conditions for RV’s of that age, and just cosmetic and fixable. We got a very informative demonstration of all the unit features, which are extensive and fantastic.

We finished the paperwork, and took to the road in our new (to us) Concourse and our first RV experience. We managed the 1200 mile drive back to Santa Barbara without incident, learning more and more about the Chinook as we drove. Basically it is a fantastic vehicle, both a fully equipped tiny home and a powerful reliable truck, with the Ford E350 chassis and 6.8L V-10, which is totally unstressed on a rig that size.

We were completely impressed with the comfort and driveability, even though (as we found out later) the shocks were shot and the tires old. The price was fair to both the buyer and seller, as it was discounted, but also pretty worn and in need of refurbishment and upgrades, which I can discuss in future blogs. But the Chinook is an extremely high quality RV, and luxurious and well designed for all types of camping. The finished oak cabinetry is exactly right for our tastes and gives us the feeling of a mansion on wheels or the feeling of a luxury yacht.

We named her Harmony anticipating the many pleasant and exciting adventures we will have together.

2 thoughts on “Buying a Chinook”

  1. I am simply writing to say I enjoyed reading about your experience looking for and finding a Chinook Concourse, an RV I have also been dreaming about for many of the same reasons. Thank you for taking the time to post your story. I hope you and your wife are enjoying your RV and your retirement. Take care. Gerry

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