FEMA Trailers: Blessing or Bane?

With FEMA as the seller, the shoe is on the other foot as far as the Recreation Vehicle Dealer Association (RVDA) is concerned. The association has begun lobbying FEMA and other federal agencies to put the brakes on. Said RVDA’s president, Michael Molino, “A public auction of so many vehicles could devastate the market for travel trailers.” While the dealers are seeing storm clouds, cagey buyers are zooming in on the silver lining. But is the big garage sale a blessing or a bane for used RV buyers?

How Much Is That Katrina Special?
Just how many travel trailers will be put up at surplus auction remains to be seen. Reports say FEMA bought 31,105 trailers from RV dealers—the kind you and I would buy to slip off in for a little camping. Additionally, FEMA bought a little more than 77,000 “plain Janes.” These aren’t “self-contained” travel trailers. These have no holding tanks, and were equipped not with propane/electric refrigerators, but with standard household refrigerators. These trailers are little more than a 30-foot box on wheels with a couple of windows thrown in to keep down the level of claustrophobia. It’s expected that buyers for these units would have “mobile office” applications in mind as opposed to recreational purposes.

How many of the 31,000 self-contained units will be auctioned off is another huge question. The government’s plans are to sell only units that would require more than $1,500 worth of repairs. You might think that would limit sales to “lived in” units, but you could be surprised. Evidently some unused units in storage lots have been scavenged for items like batteries and propane tanks. Since the thieves weren’t particularly careful, chopping off gas piping and electrical cables could run up a bill in a hurry.

So what might you expect to pay for a “Katrina Special”? A quick survey of the General Services Administration (GSA) Web site in mid-March provided some interesting listings:

Out in Maryland, the GSA had a 30-foot Keystone Outback, 2006 model. Equipped with an awning and slideout, the GSA acknowledges the buyer would need to do a little work: replace a missing battery, fix “slight water damage to cabinet beneath refrigerator,” and handle some loose ceiling panels in the rear “bunkhouse” bedroom. With a little over a day left in the auction, there were 11 bidders, and the top bid was $8,210.

Down in Arkansas, perhaps an even better deal: a 2006 Dutchman travel trailer, 33 feet in length. An awning, slideout, four skylights, and monitoring system made up the listed options. What’s missing? “None.” Damage? “No obvious exterior damage.” Other damage? “None.” Hello? Is this one of those units that FEMA says it wouldn’t sell if it had less than $1,500 in damage? With a week left to go in bidding, eight folks were in the running with a top bid of $8,200.

Want a “plain Jane”? The Web site offered a 33-foot Fleetwood Pioneer, with standard porcelain toilet, a scuffed dinette table, no holding tanks or battery, and “moderate carpet wear.” Eleven bidders had pushed the price to $3,010 with a day left to bid. You’d need to swing out to Maryland for this unit.

Industry Group Worried
With prices like these, folks may be tempted to travel some distance to get in on the bidding wars. This obviously worries the RVDA, whose president, Molino, sent a letter to FEMA Director David Paulison, to express his organization’s concerns. Writing in early March, Molino laid it all out for FEMA: “In 2006, the industry retailed a total of 154,693 new travel trailers. The release of 46,000 trailers would be the equivalent of 30 percent of 2006 for all U.S. RV dealers. As you can imagine, a public auction of so many vehicles could devastate the market for travel trailers.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. Not everyone in the RV industry views the matter in such a dire light. Industry giant Fleetwood Enterprises says that the surplus sales won’t have much of a nationwide impact. Fleetwood Chairman Elden Smith told an industry news magazine, “There may be some small impact . . . in the regions they are being auctioned off.”

Putting an altruistic spin on the matter, RVDA’s Molino told FEMA that there are “significant public safety implications” to auctioning these vehicles directly to the public. He wrote:

“These vehicles appear simple but are really rather complicated with electrical, plumbing, and propane gas systems that power sophisticated heating and cooling units, fire safety equipment, and gas leak detectors. There are a myriad of potential problems consumers face unless the vehicles are thoroughly checked out, serviced, repaired, and reconditioned where necessary by qualified technicians.” To forestall such potential problems, Molino’s group pleaded with FEMA to require sales in lots of five or 10 units, in which case it would be more likely that dealers would buy them and resell them to the public.

Read the Fine Print
So where does all this leave the interested “consumer,” gnawing on the idea of putting in a bid? First, the government requirements: You’ve got to be at least 18 years old, hold a major credit card, and not be in debt to the government for prior purchases. A host of other fine print accompanies the registration-to-bid process, which should be read and understood. Successful bidders have specific time limits as to when payment must be made, and when purchased property must be removed from the sale area.

And the nitty-gritty regarding buying government surplus trailers? It’s like buying a used RV from anybody else: Look closely at what you’re buying and don’t take anything for granted. As far as those “significant public safety implications” are concerned: If you buy a used RV from a private party—or from Uncle Sam—you’re on your own as to its condition. If you have concerns about the safety of any RV equipment, by all means take that new rig to a reputable RV technician for a thorough check out. With these GSA sales you won’t be able to do this prior to purchase, so bid carefully! It should go without saying that bidding sight unseen is a far bigger risk than many should be willing to take. But for those who decide to take the chance and are able to do a little fixing up, it could be one of the bargains of the decade.

To check out the latest sales of GSA surplus, visit the GSA website at http://gsaauctions.gov. When you reach the site, click on the link to “Trailers and Tractors” then select a state to visit available equipment. Be prepared, the auction site is popular and can take a long time to load.

Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups and Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.

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