Lemon caravans and the law


Angry owners of dodgy caravans are experiencing difficulties getting their consumer rights met. CHOICE, Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group, reveals that with the uplift of caravan ownership they have also seen a spike in complaints about lemon caravans on the road. Choice writer, Kate Browne, investigates.

Australians love hitting the road to travel, and it’s not unusual to see a parade of caravans and RVs (recreational vehicles) travelling all over our wide brown land.

Caravan use in Australia has been on the increase over the last 10 years and while our enthusiasm for caravanning is changing, so are caravans themselves. These days you can buy a blinged up luxury home on wheels for north of $100,000.

But as the industry grows, it appears so has the number of problems owners are experiencing with the vans they buy. A number of unhappy caravan owners who’ve experienced major faults and problems with new vans have contacted CHOICE, and to add insult to injury, many have struggled to get resolutions on these problems in terms of repairs, replacements or refunds.

A road to nowhere

When Colin O’Neil decided to buy a new caravan he never imagined it would lead to financial disaster, poor health and a three-year ongoing battle to seek compensation.

O’Neil says he purchased the $80k van in 2014 after seeing the model at a caravan and RV show. He’d recently retired and he and his wife wanted to upgrade to a new van for their holiday to WA. They were keen on a van they saw with an en suite and washing machine and were promised to have the van they liked manufactured and delivered in time.

Caravan being towed after a gas explosion
A caravan being towed after a gas explosion

O’Neil says the first red flag was when they went to pick up the van and were told there was no washing machine and that it would be fitted at a later date. The couple took the van anyway and headed off on their first journey.

Within days they noticed that the floor was wet and quickly discovered the van was letting in water as it was poorly sealed.

Before they could think about the leaks, O’Neil says the electrics “packed it in” while they were travelling in South Australia. He phoned what he had been told was a 24/7 support line for roadside assistance but says the number didn’t exist.

After calling the manufacturer directly he was then told he’d have to take the van to Alice Springs for repairs. When neither repairer there was suited to caravan repairs he was then told to take the van to Geraldton in WA. It was there O’Neil says the repairer told him that his “new van” was more likely to be over a year old with fittings inside that were older again.

Back in Sydney O’Neil contacted Fair Trading NSW for advice and said that every attempt to speak to the manufacturers was thwarted. Eventually he took his case to an NCAT (NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) hearing where the manufacturer agreed to repair the van in a few weeks and provide O’Neil with a loan van.

O’Neil says the repairs took months not weeks and the loan van never materialised. When he finally got his van back he says the electrics and the brakes started to play up again and leaking continued to plague the van. The door to the van was also faulty and O’Neil said he had to avoid turning left too hard when driving as the brakes would lock up.

O’Neil then took the (still faulty) caravan to Darwin to live in while he took a job for a few months. Not long after he arrived he had a massive heart attack and was airlifted back to Sydney. His family then had to organise to bring the van back to Sydney.

Three years since O’Neil bought his ‘new’ van he says it is now sitting in his front garden, completely unusable and he is still out of pocket. He says despite all his efforts and the tribunal finding, he’s still received no compensation or any offer of a refund or replacement. He says his only option is to take the matter back to NCAT but is unsure if he can afford the time and money. (He says his first NCAT hearing cost him over a thousand dollars and weeks of his time.)

O’Neil says he’s just lost heart battling for justice. “All we wanted was a holiday. I wanted to retire and enjoy my time – instead I’m left in debt and stressed and with three years of wasted time fighting for my rights, yet the company that did this to me is still trading.”

“This is why so many people like me with dodgy vans just give up – it takes so much time, they get the runaround and they end up selling the van and trying to get back some of their money and then that problem van ends up getting sold to someone else. The fact is my van never worked properly from the beginning – it still looks good on the exterior but the reality is that it’s a deathtrap.

Fighting back

Tracy Leigh set up her Facebook group Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus after she says she experienced serious problems within hours of buying a brand new $72k van in 2015 and is still chasing a resolution. Her page now has more than 16,300 members and continues to grow as more unhappy owners seek advice on what to do with their lemon vans.

Leigh says she’s been overwhelmed by the stories she’s heard about severely defective camper trailers, caravans and RVs. And according to her, price makes no difference when it comes to quality. “You can pay over $100k and still get a lemon,” she says.

Caravan being towed after suspension failure
A two-year-old caravan being towed after suspension failure

And where do the problems stem from? She describes the industry as being a shambles.

“It is not regulated, it’s self-certifying and self-accredited. There have also been allegations of organised crime involvement, standover tactics and death threats. The industry acts as if they are a law unto themselves, which they are because no government agencies are taking much notice and those that do, take months and sometimes years to investigate.”

And despite the best efforts of many unhappy owners looking to remedy their situation via the Australian Consumer Law, Leigh says she has seen little success.

“To the best of my knowledge, not one RV company has been prosecuted for any breaches of any laws, in spite of substantial evidence being supplied to the ACCC, consumer affairs and other regulators such as for electricity, gas and vehicle standards.”

A growing industry, but at what cost?

Former caravan repairer Barry Davidson agrees with Leigh that the multibillion-dollar industry needs a complete overhaul. Davidson, who describes himself as an industry veteran, has built and sold caravans and also ran one of Australia’s biggest repair companies in Queensland for over 20 years.

He says the industry has gone from a couple of well established and well regarded manufacturers 20 years ago to hundreds of small companies jumping on the caravan manufacturing bandwagon today. He says as caravanning continues to grow in popularity, combined with a lack of regulation, “any idiot with a glue gun and a screw gun can set up shop and call themselves a caravan manufacturer”.

And thanks to the deluge of new manufacturers entering the market, competition for sales is tough so there are plenty of corners cut in the manufacturing process in order to compete on price. In fact Davidson was so alarmed by some of the dodgy work he’d seen at his repair business he created the ‘Rogues Gallery’ on a popular online caravan forum which is a horror show of water damage, broken chassis, severely overweight vans, dangerous electrics and more, all on relatively new vans.

Dodgy vans on the road

Colin Young, a retired engineer and manager of the Caravan Council ofAustralia, says he’s haunted by the thought of how many unsafe vans are on the road. He says he’s aware of a number of serious incidents in the recent past and says that for every major accident involving a caravan there are probably another 100 more that involve jackknifing and near misses due to poorly constructed and overweight vans being driven by inexperienced drivers.

“So many of these vehicles are unsafe and are not fit to be on the roads, yet they are. If these were cars there would be uproar.”

So just how is it that so many lemons make it onto the road?

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Alana Lowes
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