Do Miles Matter?

If you were looking at two used cars that were identical except for the number of miles, which of the two would you choose? If you answered the one with the least miles, you are not alone. Cars have a finite lifespan, and one easy way to determine how “used” it is, is to check how many miles it has on the odometer. All else being equal, a low mileage vehicle will command a higher price than one with a lot of miles. But what about when shopping for a diesel motorhome? Does the same rule apply? Is less use always better?

To answer that question, I’m going to present two actual motorhomes that I looked at, one of which I purchased. Both motorhomes were basically identical. They were the same model, had the same options, and were only one year apart. At twenty years old, they were identical enough that the price was the same when they were new, and you would expect the price to be the same today. The only real difference on them today was the mileage.

One unit was barely used. The previous owner had died several years earlier, and the coach sat in storage for the last ten years. During the ten years prior, the previous owner drove an average of 5000 miles per year, so the coach had 50,000 miles on it.

The other unit has seen a lot more miles. The previous owner drove an average of 12,500 miles per year and used it every year for twenty years. A quick bit of math shows that coach has 250,000 miles on it. Although the mileage was higher, both coaches were garaged when not in use and were in pristine condition.

First, the depreciation on motorhomes is breathtaking. Both of these units cost $770,000 new. These are high-quality machines that are built on a chassis that is intended to last two million miles before a major overhaul is needed. That means that if we only look at miles, one coach still had 97.5% of its available miles to use, and the other “only” had 87.5% of its available miles left to use. However, despite still having 97.5 and 87.5% of their useful life left, they were selling for less than 10% of what they cost when they were new. The current market price for both of them is roughly $70,000.

So which of the two is the better buy? In this example, if you chose the low mileage coach, you would be making a mistake. To put that into perspective, let’s translate miles into time. One coach was used for 5000 miles per year when it was in use. That is actually slightly more miles than what most people put on a motorhome annually, but let’s stick with that number for this illustration.

If the coach’s engine is completely worn out at two million miles, then you could drive the low mileage unit for 390 more years before it was worn out, and the high mileage unit could only be driven for another 350 years before it was ready for the scrap pile. Do you plan to keep your motorhome for over 350 years? If so, you would definitely want to go with the lower mileage unit. If however, you only plan on using the machine for ten to twenty years, (which is longer than most people use a motorhome) you can see that mileage is simply not a factor on either coach. In fact, you should be more concerned about not enough miles than too many. Let’s look under the hood a bit to see why.

Motorhome #1 1997 Bluebird Wanderlodge. 50,000 miles, 42’ long, stored indoors, looks like new.

Motorhome #2 1996 Bluebird Wanderlodge, 250,000 miles 42’ long, stored indoors, looks like new.

Which one was a better value? It is often said that a motorhome needs three things to run well—clean air, clean fuel, and lots of pavement. Sitting unused is hard on everything. The tires dry rot, the batteries get old, the fuel tank will be full of fungi, and numerous little tubes and fittings will dry out from lack of use. If a motorhome has been sitting for ten years unused, plan on spending some money replacing parts.

The one with high miles was in drive ready condition. The owner was meticulous and kept records of all maintenance and repairs. Any time something wore out, the part was replaced with a high-quality replacement. The tires were in great shape, the batteries were in great shape, and the fuel system was clean and operable. It needed nothing but a new driver. Now let’s look at the one that sat for ten years.

On the ’97, it also looked great. It had been sitting in storage out of the sun and the paint was perfect. But, the tires were dry rotted, the batteries were long since dead, an inverter quit working, and the fuel sat unused for ten years. Just to drain 300 gallons of diesel and drop the tank to clean it is a major undertaking.

Add in the cost of 8 new tires, 9 new batteries, an inverter, the cost to clean the fuel system, fix that air conditioning, and change all the fluids and it’s not unreasonable to budget $20,000 to bring it up to par. Then what? After all that, you’d have a coach that will outlast your grandkids, but so would the one that was used every year.

Of all the things to look at on a high-end diesel pusher, too many miles will never be the problem, but too few miles? That you have to look out for.