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Life on the road for Carolyn and Dave Orford was a dream turned nightmare. Their “dream” caravan packed up, they set out for “The Big Lap”. Departing Sydney, they chose the coast road heading south, famed for its rugged beauty, endless beaches and quirky towns dotted with “Australia’s best pie” or “Australia’s big earthworm”. They tried the pies. They took photos of the oversized fiberglass eyesores, sorry, attractions. They chose the path well worn by retirees and like many of their peers, suffered the consequences of an industry in crisis.

It was infuriating,” said Dave, “to be calling these bastards (sic) and have the receptionist simply refuse to put our calls through. At one stage, we found ourselves on the side of the road outside of Port Augusta, with no power, a van full of dust and a pop top that wouldn’t pop. I’m 74 years old. This isn’t what I envisaged when I chose this van.”

The ACCC reports that of more than 2000 caravan owners surveyed, a whopping 80% reported problems with their new van.

Their caravan wasn’t as advertised. They were shocked to receive an additional invoice for the van after signing upon an agreed price and paying a hefty deposit. The manufacturer cited increased costs as the reason. With the trip planned, and the delivery date already pushed back twice, they begrudgingly paid the extra in hope to “just get on the road as planned”.

Next came towing issues. The caravan’s estimated weight turned out to be a very rough estimation. The precise weight was significantly higher. Even with “trimmed down to bare bones” packing, the couple were forced to upgrade their tow vehicle to handle the weight of the van.

Then, came the shoddy workmanship. The caravan, imported from China by a boutique retailer, promised a world of quality conveniences and comforts. The solar power system didn’t make it out of the state, let alone across the Nullabor. The dust reduction system did not perform as promised leaving the interior of the van gritty and irritating Carolyn’s asthma. The “easy pop top system” and “fold out outdoor kitchenette” of the showroom, quickly deteriorated into a back breaking job for Dave – who eventually needed the help of neighbouring campers to set up and pull down.

And, they were on their own. A long way from home, and from a town with a mechanic. The caravan supplier was polite and apologetic at first, but as the problems piled up, the supplier told them that they’re on their own.

Talking to the other campers, we found that it wasn’t just us. It’s a hot topic down at the camp kitchens. These (caravan companies) can get away with it because by the time you realise just how terrible your van is, you’re a long way from home and in no position to make demands.” said Carolyn.

Back home in the northern suburbs of Sydney, after their “trip of a lifetime” was cut short by several months, Carolyn and Dave are just one of hundreds of senior couples now navigating a complaint through the ACCC citing Treasury’s guidelines on quality standards and consumer rights to remedy.

The ACCC placed the Australian caravan industry on notice amid a slew of complaints around “bait and switch” pricing, deceptive delivery schedules, shoddy workmanship and lack of support and remedy for customers.

 

“We are very concerned by these reported failures to comply with obligations under the Australian Consumer Law, and the impact that these failures have on consumers who have purchased a caravan which develops a fault.”

“Consumers need to be confident that when they make a significant financial purchase like a caravan, they will be able to get a refund, replacement or a repair if there is a failure,” Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair of the ACC said.

While increases in complaints have been on the rise since 2017, the industry has experienced a flurry of interest reminiscent of solar paneling, water tank installation and roof insulation. Covid border closures triggered a sudden upswing in interest in the caravan and camper market. This lucrative opportunity attracted new players to the market, many of whom may be described as “fly by nighters”.

Colin Young, an engineer by training and the founder and principal of the Caravan Council of Australia (CCA), has been advocating for a tighter grip on the caravan industry for more than a decade.  "There are a lot of shonks in the industry," said Young in Choice Magazine.

"Demand is so high that businesses can dictate the terms, and people appear to be proceeding irrespective of the risks. The purchasing environment is totally skewed towards the seller and manufacturers at the moment. We hope that the heat of the industry dissipates over the next couple of years and we can execute a caravan purchase on more equitable terms.” Said Ms Rickard.

The ACCC specifically mentions “small sellers” as the highest risk for caravan purchasers but large motorhome suppliers have also been cited by consumers. With 65% of ACCC respondents being “first time buyers” the industry poses extra risk for inexperienced consumers.

So, what can you do to protect yourself when buying your first caravan or camper?

  • - Do your due diligence. Research, speak with other owners regarding their experience.

  • - Choose a reputable and established caravan supplier like Jayco, Jawa or Austrack.

  • - Have a lawyer look over the terms and conditions in your contract, this is a big purchase.

  • - Ask the hard questions about fittings and fixtures – including supply, quality, and repair policies.

  • - Read up on industry news from sources like the ACCC, Choice Magazine and the CIAA