Buying a Truck to Tow Our Fifth Wheel (And The Lessons We Learned as Newbies)!

Wow, okay, so we have a big ol’ 11,500ish lbs. gross weight 5th wheel rig now! But…our city living Honda Civic probably isn’t going to be enough vehicle to tow our new home (yes, that was at least one thing I figured to be true before we started this whole process). So we just need a truck, right? Wrong…sort of.  We need the right truck. What does that mean though? All those trucks you see on the commercials hauling some sled with tons of boulders up the side of a mountain won’t pull our wheeled rig on a paved road? It might, but this is where it’s critically important to do your homework.

Photo by kendall hoopes from Pexels
(Hey honey, is this a half-ton or a three-quarter ton dually? Photo: Kendall Hoopes; Pexels.com)

 

When Ash and I started looking into trucks, we weren’t sold on the idea of a 5th wheel and were leaning towards an ultra light trailer, something in the area of 4,200 lbs. We went out and test drove a handful of pre-owned 1/2 ton trucks (basically the entry level of the larger payload pickups – your Ford F-150s and Chevy Silverado 1500s for example). Even in Massachusetts there are a ton of half tons on the pre-owned market, and this isn’t exactly truck country.  We liked these trucks; we felt comfortable in them and many seemed to have all the comforts, bells and whistles of a modern sedan built into them. I almost made the really boneheaded mistake of making an offer on one of these without having a more solid plan for the R/V. This brings up:

 

Lesson Number One: Figure out your R/V situation BEFORE you go truck shopping (a.k.a Your wife is ALWAYS right)!

If we had ended up in a F-150 with ample enough towing for an ultra light tow trailer but not much else, we would have been locked into an ultra light tow trailer as our home. This seems intuitive, but depending on who you ask you might get a different answer (especially the trailer and truck dealers who will insist you have their product first then figure out the other). If you read our post on buying our trailer (you can right here), you’ll know that one of the biggest and most difficult decisions for us early on was deciding whether we wanted a motor home, a travel trailer, or a 5th wheel. While we entered this whole process with the idea that 5th wheels were out of the question, that’s exactly what we ended up with based on the units we saw and further research on the topic, but had we snatched up an enticing 1/2 ton truck that would never have been an option moving forward. That brings us to:

Lesson Number Two: Know the limitations of the trucks you’re looking at!

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What’s the tow capacity on this thing? Photo: Benjamin Zanatta

As a complete newb to trucks and trailers I had no idea what to look for when it came to towing capacity of a vehicle. When we found our 5th wheel it gave us a point of reference for a basement level tow capacity on our new to us truck. But how do I know what a truck can tow? The R/V dealership and friends and co-workers were quick to offer advice on a truck, i.e. “Oh, you need to get a dually” [Note: This is a term we didn’t understand at first either, but basically it means the truck has a dual rear wheel base; in other words two side-by-side tires on either side of the truck in the rear.] or “You definitely need a full ton truck for a 5th wheel.” to even “An [insert F-150/Silverado 1500/ or ‘any Ram’] will handle that no problem.” I think this is based on peoples’ misunderstanding that even though a truck may have the same make, model, and year, depending on a whole smorgasbord of options from engines to axle ratios may completely change a truck’s tow capacity. So how did we figure this out? Towing guides. Each truck manufacturer puts out annual guides on that year’s trucks in terms of their tow capacities and in many cases they will offer maximums for payload (basically the weight you’re putting directly in the truck), standard towing (travel trailers, boats, etc.), and 5th wheel/goose neck trailers (BINGO for us). The bad news about these guides is they’re not necessarily 100% accurate, but the good news is the reason they’re not necessarily 100% accurate is because the manufacturer’s apparently err on the side of caution and undersell the maximum capacities to avoid lawsuits for pushing the envelope. It wasn’t long before switching between individual manufacturers’ annual guides was leaving us wanting to tear out hair out as we searched online for trucks; then we found a very handy reference from TrailerLife.com that compiles each year’s makes, models, and option packages for the big players. This allowed us to save countless hours driving out to dealerships to test drive and look over trucks that would simply not work for our trailer. And on to:

Lesson Number Three: Save time and often money by shopping online!

Technology has been advancing at lightning speed now more than ever and is affecting so many different aspects of life, including buying a vehicle. The market moves so fast these days with dealers having more exposure and competition than ever. Gone are the days where you’d look through a flyer and if you’re lucky see a big “STARTING AT $$$” icon with you largely going in blind to a dealership as to what you’re expected to pay. Sites like Cars.com, TrueCar, CarGurus and Edmunds all allow you to apply an entire galaxy of filters to their search engines that allowed us to quickly narrow our searches by price (I’m sure this is important to everyone, but being unemployed now this was especially key), make, model, year, mileage (for pre-owned – unemployed yadda yadda yadda) , fuel type (we had decided that diesel seemed to be the way to go for us based on miles to the gallon, tow capacity, and longevity), cab size (Jackson needs space too so only extended or super cabs for us!), miles to the dealership from your home, and on and on and on.  While it didn’t tell us “Here’s your truck!” it was as close as one can reasonably expect and truly made the experience much easier than expected. Which segue-ways into:

Lesson Number Four: Don’t rely solely on what you see online!

Almost every truck you see online looks pristine from the pictures you see. Amazingly [:insert eye-roll here:], every single pre-owned vehicle we saw online was in “excellent” or “like new!” or “did they drive this thing?” condition. Go out to the lot for a test drive – period. (Do you need the actual ‘.’ if you say ‘period’? Like ‘how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop’ and other great mysteries, the world may never know…) Make sure it drives, everything works, and you feel comfortable in it. Test things you don’t necessarily need for your test drive like the radio, the headlights, the wipers, the windows, the seat adjusters, the heat and A/C; open the hitch; put it in reverse; etc. Which brings us to:

Lesson Number Five (and a half): Don’t be afraid to get dirty on your test drive and/or ask for a pre-purchase inspection if buying pre-owned!

Paul, at his most flattering angle, checking out the belly of a beast.

Every truck we drove ran fine and generally seemed in good condition. A few had issues up front just testing out stuff in the cab and the dealers’ answers for those were always exactly the same “Oh we just got this in we will take care of that” but only one actually told us of the issue before we found it (the dealership we ended up buying from) and did take care of the problem. Something we weren’t initially aware of but soon enough learned to look for was to actually take the truck out, park it somewhere, and crawl under it. Living in New England, one thing they never show in the pictures is the underside of the vehicle and there’s often good reason: rust. Heavy duty trucks are steel frame and places like the northeast where there is snow, ice, and road salt can do serious damage to the bellies of these beasts. We researched surface versus structural rust to get a better idea of what to look for (basically, give the rust a firm tap – if you’re punching holes through the frame that’s bad but if it’s just surface you might get a couple flakes and nothing more) and started bringing our flashlights with us for the test drives and looking. Some of the trucks we were assured were in tip top shape had shock absorber springs that looked holier than the Pope. I asked a mechanic friend about this and his response was, “try not to buy in the northeast”; I asked how far south we’d need to go and he only half jokingly replied “Mexico”. He was also the person we can thank for suggesting that if the truck looked otherwise good to us to see about a pre-purchase inspection. He sagely advised that a reputable dealer with nothing to hide will gladly have a PPI done if you’re willing to pay for it (he told us to expect around $115 for one, ours cost $90), whereas a dealer who is looking to hide something will refuse and you should walk at that point. We got the PPI done on our truck (still kind of feels funny to write ‘our truck’) and they determined much of the rust was non-problematic, but that the connections waaaaaaay up under the bed were severely corroded from rust. Where we were going to have a pretty hefty payload with the hitched up 5th wheel applying all that weight to the bed this wasn’t really acceptable to us, but we really thought this was the best match for us otherwise. As such we wanted to find a way to make it work and that leads us to:

Lesson Number Six: Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate!

No matter what a dealer tells you about a price being set to be competitive, or being firm, or being a steal there is almost always room to work. Come in low, albeit within reason, and expect a counter offer to be at least closer to what you’d want to buy the vehicle for. There were a handful of dealerships who advised us multiple times during our sit downs with the agents that they don’t negotiate, who then offered to “work something out” with us when it was clear we were walking. In our case even after getting the price down and being told that was bottom line we were able to get an additional $200 off. That may seem like nothing (again, unemployed) but that’s still cash money you can be using for your R/V adventure. Furthermore, when the PPI revealed the rust issue, I independently got quotes on replacing the crossbars and presented these to the dealer. The dealer then also got a quote from a shop we independently vetted through online reviews and we ultimately settled on the dealer paying for roughly 55% of the cost of the repairs and handling the drop off of the vehicle as we live around an hour drive from both the dealer and the service center. Ultimately, when all was said and done we saved at least a couple grand between the repairs and lowering the asking price which we would be out of had we not asked. Again, that’s just more funding for our adventure and that brings us to our final lesson:

Lesson Number Seven: HAVE FUN – THIS IS ALL PART OF THE JOURNEY!!!!!!!

Paul getting ready to drive our new truck off the lot!

That was where I intended to end this post then I realized I didn’t tell you what we ended up buying! Whoops! We opted for a 2009 Ford F-250 (3/4 ton for those following along) extended cab with a 6.4L V8 TurboDiesel engine. According to the guides it should tow up to 15,000 gross weight 5th wheel and as bonus peace of mind it came with a 5th wheel hitch installed that the (only) previous owner used to travel between New England and Florida. We’re undecided between Blue Bertha and Blue Beast, what do you think?

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