The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

July 9, 2010

FEMA trailer auction draws objections from RV dealers

JOPLIN, Mo. — Hundreds of people could turn out this morning for the second day of a FEMA trailer sale that the dealers of local recreational vehicles tried to stop, but could not.

The message from the dealers is: Buyer beware.

“The question is whether these are truly travel trailers or emergency living units that were built for Hurricane Katrina,’’ said Sheri Wheelen, with Wheelen RV, in Joplin, and president of the Missouri Recreational Vehicle Dealers’ Association.

“If they are emergency-living units, they were not intended for recreational vehicle use,” she said. “We have done everything we could to stop this sale. But what can you do? The government is unloading these trailers.’’

Wheelen said the company contacted local, county and state officials, including the Missouri Department of Revenue, to make sure that the auctioneer is licensed and had the necessary permits to sell the trailers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ted Farnen, spokesman for the Department of Revenue, in a telephone interview on Friday, said Barbara Bonnette, with Bonnette Auction Co., of Alexandria, La., was issued an auction license because “she qualified as a licensed auction dealer.’’

The dealers association mounted a telephone campaign in which dealers were encouraged to call the department and ask that the auction company be investigated for allegedly selling some of the units before the auction. Farnen said the department had received eight calls about the issue.

Wheelen said: “We are concerned that they are advertising this as a travel-trailer auction, when most of the units are not travel trailers. If they have a residential refrigerator and a household stool with no holding tanks for wastewater, freshwater or gray water, they are not travel trailers.’’

Wheelen said she also is concerned about “unsafe pulling’’ by buyers who might not have experience in pulling trailers.

Shoppers

Chelsea Tudor and her family were shopping the sale for an upgrade from the 1981 camper they currently travel with on weekends. They were hoping to find something for about $2,500.

“We have the capacity to fix something up, but we don’t want something demolished,” she said.

Tudor said her family is sensitive to smells and any trailer that smelled of smoke, mold or mildew was out, as was a trailer with a “squishy floor.”

Floor damage was also something about which Tracy Everhart, of Kent Rylee Auto Solutions in Rogers Ark., was sensitive. The dealership is looking to purchase trailers that it would then fix up and sell. Everhart said the dealership is willing to fix cosmetic issues, such as missing trim or interior fixtures, but won’t go as far as replacing a water-damaged floor, something he said is frequently an issue in travel trailers.

Everhart said he was expecting to spend about $30,000 in total, though of the first 100 units he looked at, he said only 10 met his standards for floor plan and condition.

“Just like everybody else, I’m looking for the best of what’s out here,” he said. “If the value is there, we’ll buy it.”

Everhart also said the issue surrounding FEMA trailers and formaldehyde was on his mind, though he noted even new trailers can have a strong chemical smell.

“You open up a new trailer out on a hot lot, it’s like mace hitting you in the face,” he said. “But it just needs to be aired out.”

Sale to resume

Bonnette said the auction, which began at 6 p.m. Friday with the sale of 100 or so units, will resume this morning on property located east of the Flying J truck stop at Route FF, or 32nd Street Road, and Highway 71. In all, about 320 to 350 former FEMA units will be sold.

“All of them will be sold,” Bonnette said. “We have about 50 different brands. Ninety percent of them are new.

“They are designed for RV use. They are not being sold as permanent housing. They are not mobile homes. If they buy a trailer, they will go home with a trailer and a title, and it is not a salvage title.’’

All of the units are being sold “as is’’ without warranty of any kind. Bonnette specifically tells the bidders in writing that the “travel trailers are for recreational use only and should not be used for permanent housing.’’ They also tell the buyers, before they hook up to a propane tank, that they should take the unit to the “nearest RV dealer and have a pressure test done on the lines to check for any gas leaks.’’

Disclosure

Enforced by the presence of a representative from the Missouri attorney general’s office, a statement, which includes “we do not know the level of formaldehyde,” must be read before the sale of each individual trailer.  

“We’ve sold thousands of trailers and this is the first time we’ve had to do this (read the statement),” Bonnette said over the loudspeaker at the start of Friday night’s auction. An auctioneer then told the crowd that some, but not all, of the trailers, had been tested for formaldehyde.

Bonnette said she understands the concerns expressed by local recreational-vehicle dealers because “they see us as competitors, but the average guy out there can’t afford to buy a recreational vehicle off of a dealer’s lot. For them, this is an excellent opportunity for a good buy.

“This is FEMA surplus in which the government is trying to get some of the taxpayers’ money back that was spent on these trailers.’’

A unit, she said, could fetch $2,500 to $10,000, depending on its condition. A new unit with similar features might cost $22,000. The purchasers will pay the sales tax on the units wherever they live.

Other auctions

The trailer auctions, Bonnette said, have been taking place across the South, primarily in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, as FEMA tries to sell more than 120,000 units. A sale was recently held in Illinois.

Trailer lengths range from 27 to 32 feet. Some have slide-out rooms. Many have exterior or interior damage, or both, from sitting outside or from use.

Chris Lemoine, a co-owner with Bonnette, said buyers will be traveling to the sale from across the Midwest. He said he expects 1,500 registered bidders. Some of them will be RV dealers who will purchase the units to resell elsewhere, he said. Most of the units, which were manufactured between 2005 and 2007, will be used for recreational purposes, he said.

FEMA sold the units in four big lots, he said. Those lots, in turn, were divided and sold to the auction companies for resale.

Local official

Tony Moehr, director of the Jasper County Health Department, said he was not aware of any environmental health issue involving the trailers that would hinder their sale.

“We have been checking on this, and we are not aware of any state standard that would preclude their sale,’’ he said.

Formaldehyde exposure is a concern because the units contain compressed wood and carpet, and other materials that emit the gas, he said. Mobile homes, he said, have similar problems.

“If you stay in a camp trailer for a few hours over a weekend, it’s not the same exposure as living in one 24 hours a day,” Moehr said. “It’s a whole different exposure.’’

Scott Marrs, with the Missouri Recreational Vehicle Dealers’ Association, said he supports free enterprise, but “when the government dumps 120,000 units on the market to be auctioned in sales across the country, that’s not free enterprise. That’s government dumping.’’

“Business for RV dealers was gradually coming back,” he said. “Now, Southwest Missouri is being flooded with 400 of these trailers. You are pulling the rug out from underneath the dealers by selling these sub-par units for pennies on the dollar. And, it will diminish the value of the recreational vehicles that are out there.

“This is really unfair to the RV industry and to the dealers in that area. All I can say is: Buyer beware.’’

Alexandra Nicolas contributed to this report.

 

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