Buyer Beware: The Misadventures of Purchasing a Motorhome on Craigslist

I watched out the kitchen window as rain fell in sheets from a gloomy sky. Daniel and I had recently purchased a 2000 Volkswagen Winnebago Rialta 22HD motorhome – and I was growing increasingly worried that we’d been scammed. We bought the RV from a guy off Craigslist who seemed a little shady. Sure enough, the minute I contacted the Department of Licensing, I knew we had a problem. The paperwork was not adequate to transfer the title. It was going to take some extra effort to register the vehicle, if we could even do it at all. What a nightmare.

But this is not how the story begins.

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Our New Rialta

The Spontaneous Road Trip

Rewind the clock back to the afternoon of Friday, May 15…in which Daniel and I found ourselves on a spontaneous road trip. We were on the hunt for the perfect motorhome. Specifically, we wanted a small-ish RV with reasonable gas mileage that we could live together in comfortably.

After poring over Craigslist ads, we decided to head to the Portland/Vancouver area. There were several affordable small RVs for sale in that area which we wanted to check out. These are popular vehicles and we worried that they’d get snapped up if we didn’t act fast. At that time, RV dealerships had just opened again after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were motivated to beat the crowds that were undoubtedly coming. Daniel and I both brought masks and were prepared to view the vehicles in a socially-distanced manner.

It was a five-hour drive to Vancouver, so we headed down the very same day and spent the night. That way, we’d be well positioned to view vehicles the following day. I already had several appointments booked, starting with a 2000 VW Rialta on the other side of the state line. I’d recently learned about Rialtas and was becoming more than a little obsessed with these compact little motorhomes. They are somewhat rare and so I couldn’t wait to see one in person.

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Another view of the Rialta

Touring the Rialta

The next morning, Daniel and I drove to the Portland suburb of Clackamas to view the Rialta. Upon arrival, we found ourselves at some sort of RV storage lot. Chain link fencing surrounded the property which was filled with motorhomes and other vehicles in various states of repair. The seller was running late so another employee let us in.
The Rialta was, indeed, everything that we had hoped for. Daniel and I eagerly explored the interior, peeking in cupboards and playing with the gadgets and furniture. We found a binder with a detailed maintenance history and all the original vehicle manuals. It appeared to be in immaculate condition. We were thrilled.

But then things started to get a little weird. The engine wouldn’t start when we turned it on. After a few tries, it became apparent that the rig was deader than a doornail. Our host apologized and confided that another employee had a habit of leaving the keys in the ignition. Apparently, they had to move the vehicles around the lot from time to time and sometimes the keys got left behind. This was a little odd but seemed believable. So, we pulled up a nearby truck and tried to jumpstart the Rialta.

After a few fruitless attempts, we discovered our next red flag – the vehicle was completely out of gas. We also noticed that the oil cap was missing. Daniel and I looked at eachother with growing concern. What kind of place was this anyway?

The seller finally arrived 50 minutes after our agreed upon meeting time. He didn’t look at all like I imagined him to be. He was a young guy – probably in his twenties – with a fancy car and an expensive watch. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be into recreational vehicles, but then what did I know? This guy was knowledgeable about the Rialta, however, and walked us through all the systems and motorhome functions.
The seller brought some gas and filled up the tank. This time, the vehicle started right up after we jumped it. He grabbed an oil cap from another vehicle on the lot and soon we were ready to take it for a test drive.

At 21.6 feet long, the Rialta is super easy to drive. Daniel and I took turns driving it on surface streets and freeways for about 20 minutes. The vehicle ran great and everything appeared to be in working order. We were in love.

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Inside the Rialta

The Long Weekend

Despite the red flags, Daniel and I decided to proceed with the sale. We planned to pay in cash… but there was a catch. We came down to Vancouver in such a hurry that we hadn’t thought to bring any money with us. It was Saturday afternoon and all the banks had just closed. Sigh. We would have to wait until Monday when the banks opened again.

To make matters worse, there are no branches of our bank in the Portland/Vancouver area. The nearest branch was in Olympia, so we headed there the following day. Once in Olympia, we found a hotel that was conveniently located right next door to our bank. Bright and early Monday morning, we headed to the bank and finally acquired the necessary funds to bring the Rialta home.

We Seal the Deal

After our visit to the bank, Daniel and I made the two-hour drive back to Clackamas. The seller was waiting for us and showed us to a makeshift office in a converted shed. We handed over the cash, which he proceeded to count carefully, and then he pulled out the title.

Here I noticed something a little odd. The previous owner (Walt) was still listed as the owner of the Rialta. Walt and his wife had co-owned the vehicle and then released their interest in it. The guy we bought it from had never registered the vehicle into his name, although his name was listed on the back of the title as the purchaser.

I didn’t know enough about how titles worked to understand if this was going to be a problem. So, we decided to proceed and hoped for the best. The seller provided a bill of sale and promised that he’d be available to assist if there were any issues with transferring the title. And that was it.

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Filling up with gas on the way home

Our Problems Begin

As we drove off with the Rialta, I began to worry that we’d made a big mistake. Something felt off about the whole situation. First off, the paperwork seemed a little fishy. How were we supposed to buy the vehicle when our names weren’t on the title? Additionally, I wondered about the garage door opener which was still inside. Why was that still in there? We also belatedly noticed that the black water (sewage) tank was half full. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it wasn’t especially pleasant either.

The next day, I called the Washington State Department of Licensing. I explained the situation and learned that we were, indeed, missing a key piece of paperwork. We needed to provide the bill of sale from Walt (the original owner) to the guy we bought it from (who is known as an “interim owner”). This demonstrates the chain of ownership and proves nothing underhanded was going on. I had a sinking feeling that this paperwork would be hard, if not impossible, to come by.

“What if we can’t locate the original bill of sale?” I asked.

The licensing agent explained that there were other options, but they would require some extra legwork on our part as well as reaching out to the original owner.

Unsurprisingly, the seller was not able to produce the original bill of sale. He promised to send the document. It never arrived. When we pushed him about it, things got nasty.
At this point, we began to worry that the Rialta was stolen. This idea was very worrying.

It was time for a new plan.

Walt to the Rescue

Daniel and I decided to contact the original owner, Walt, for assistance. Thanks to the detailed maintenance records, we had all of his contact information onhand.
I had a good feeling about Walt. He had poured a lot of love into the Rialta and it showed. The vehicle was in excellent condition, which we confirmed at a local VW servicing center. This seemed like a good sign.

Soon I was on the phone with Walt, a lovely 89-year-old retiree from a small town in Oregon. He was happy to work with us and provided a detailed history of the Rialta’s vehicle maintenance. Walt also regaled me with stories about his stint as a little league umpire and his wedding at the Rock of Gibraltar. We talked on the phone for an hour and I enjoyed every minute.

I also learned, with relief, that the Rialta was not stolen. But there was more to the story. Walt’s interaction with the interim buyer was much worse than ours. The guy who bought the motorhome shorted Walt by over $1400, which Walt didn’t discover until arriving at the bank. The interim buyer also drove off with the Rialta before the transaction was fully finalized – along with some of Walt’s possessions.

Walt inquired about his electric skillet and coffee pot and other possessions. Did we have them now? Sadly, the vehicle was stripped clean except for a garage door opener. I asked Walt if he wanted it back, but it wasn’t necessary. He had changed the locks after his encounter with the guy who bought the vehicle. Walt wasn’t taking any chances on getting his home broken into next.

I explained our situation to Walt. We could proceed if he signed some additional paperwork releasing his rights to the vehicle. Walt was happy to assist and promised to send them right away.

A Happy Ending

A few days later, a letter arrived with all the necessary documents. True to his word, Walt had come through for us in a big way. Daniel and I headed to the nearest Department of Licensing with a pile of paperwork. We emerged a short while later with a new registration, a set of Washington State license plates, and giant smiles. The ordeal was finally over!

And that, my dear friends, is the story behind how we acquired our beloved Rialta motorhome. Looking back at the situation now, it occurs to me that we were incredibly lucky – things could have been so much worse. Thank goodness for Walt and his willingness to help a complete stranger when he didn’t have to.
May this be a lesson to you – be careful when buying a vehicle from a Craigslist ad!

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Daniel and I are so relieved to finally officially own this vehicle!

3 thoughts

  1. This seems quite common in the world of used car sales. It took me 3 months to get the title transferred for the Audi I bought a year ago from a private party. The problem was that neither of us new what was really required 🙂 I then decided to never buy from a private party again. Well, yours wasn’t really a private party, but it doesn’t seem that he was a licensed dealer either. Licensed dealers will sumbit all the paperwork for you to the DOL.

  2. That’s a great story, one you’ll be able to recount for years to come, it will get funnier with time!

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