Updated 24 May 2017

Commercially imported RVs are now mostly viable, but tighter compliance checking shows some private imports virtually impossible to remedy. Buyers beware! There are also major traps for those buying private imports second-hand.This article explains why and how.

Around 2005 it was suspected that many (mainly US and Canadian) RV imports did not comply with Australian Design Rules and Standards. These included requirements of weight, width and rear overhang; and electrical and gas compliance. By late 2006, however, it was suspected that issues were not simply of non-compliance. They involved falsified weight dockets, electrical and gas certification. Furthermore, there were threats to sue anyone (including me) reporting it. The (then) Recreational Vehicle Manufacturers Association of Australia, however did. It stated many really did have forged compliance plates and approvals. These were, for instance, (allegedly) used to gain registration.

In 2007 the Australian Federal Government intervened. It publicly warned that some importers make false claims (of weight etc). Furthermore, the purpose was to illegally register overweight fifth-wheelers and motor homes, specifically to claim them as being within the 4.5 tonne Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) limit. This warning, however, was mostly ignored. A second and stronger announcement was consequently made in Nov 2008. This was reported in Parliament: thus enabling it to be widely published. Most rogue traders consequently ceased operation.

Compliance breaches, however, were not widely followed up until 2011-2012. They have been increasingly since. In particular, this occurs when such RVs are presented for registration transfer. This is particularly so if in a different state or territory.

Imported RVs – compliance misunderstandings

Extreme care is also needed if buying second-hand imported RVs. Most of their owners genuinely believe their rigs are fully compliant – in spite of them often being not. This is often because the regulations are widely misunderstood.

Australian law enables genuine private buyers to purchase an RV overseas and import it to Australia for their own use. That RV must be modified such that it is deemed safe electrically. It does not, however, have to be 100% compliant in every respect (not just electrically) whilst owned by the original buyer. It must, however, be made 100% compliant in every respect before it can be legally sold. In some cases this can nevertheless be virtually impossible financially and/or practicably to do. See Imported RV Electrics.

Imported RVs – electrical compliance

Electrical compliance is commonly misunderstood by the original buyer. Most appear to believe in good faith that their RV is electrically 100% compliant. Very few are. A readily spotted give-away in particular – is if it has 110 volt anything. No 110 volt RV or domestic product may be sold in Australia – new or secondhand. This needs taking seriously.

Many original buyers seeking to sell seem generally unaware of their legal obligations. It is illegal to sell any such vehicle unless brought into fully 100% compliance. In some Australian jurisdictions failing to do so is a civil offense. In others, however, it is a criminal offense. A non-compliant unit can be sold to a dealer (who specifically takes on that responsibility). Notwithstanding this, care is required by prospective buyers. One dealer is alleged to have gone into liquidation afterwards to avoid the huge cost of doing so. If the RV cannot be made 100% compliant it must subsequently be destroyed (literally). Furthermore, it cannot even be given away.

Imported RVs – facilitators

There are potential risks if importing via a ‘facilitator’. The facilitator’s role is specifically to ease a transaction. That transaction, however, remains legally between buyer and the vendor. Unless the facilitator has formally agreed otherwise, compliance liability is the buyer’s. This is nevertheless not always made clear. If it can be proven, however that the facilitator claimed the RV was fully compliant, that facilitator may consequently be held legally liable.

Generally, facilitation means just that. It eases buying a complex product overseas but the legal transaction is between the buyer and overseas seller.

Commercial importers

Importers legally resell the products. They thus have a legal obligation to ensure they meet Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and those relating to electricity and gas (and are 100% compliant). If the product is not compliant the buyer has relief via the Trade Practices Act.

Australia’s RV import industry is now believed to be free of deliberately illegal activities. At least one company now designs fifth-wheelers in Australia, and has them manufactured in the USA.

To check for general compliance see Caravan and Motor Home Compliance. It is also advisable to check (or have a licensed electrician) check for compliant electrics. Not all are aware of the current specific electrical requirements for RVs: refer them to Imported RV Electrics.

Imported RVs – other issues

Many of the larger US fifth-wheelers are primarily intended as low cost housing (not towing) They are typically delivered to huge trailer parks by semi-trailers. Afterwards, a light undercarriage enables them to be moved around on site.   

Unlike Australia’s steeply cambered roads, most US roads are flat, smooth and well maintained. Because of this, many US-made fifth-wheelers (intended for towing) have truly basic suspension, and often lack shock absorbers. Some appear to be modified versions of the trailer park versions. Many have tow hitches (known as single oscillatory) that preclude sideways rocking. If used on cambered or rough roads they are unable to rock independently of the tow vehicle. This consequently results in ongoing and structurally damaging forces. This may affect the front of the fifth wheeler, in addition to the hitch mounting and tow vehicle.

hitch - single osc

Typical single oscillatory hitch: there is no provision for sideways rocking. Pic: original source unknown.

Many pre-2010 imported fifth-wheelers have these hitches. So did some locally built fifth-wheelers. Particular care is needed if considering buying one for any but non-mobile use. Have a certified engineer check for cracking and/or metal fatigue. In particular, this is needed around the frontal hitch area. This is also necessary for associated tow vehicles. Stresses tended to tear hitch receivers off their mountings.

Take the above very seriously. One insurer alone (Ken Tame & Associates) reported over 300 associated claims. That was a high percentage of  imported (and a few locally made) fifth wheelers then in Australia.

Imported RVs – safety regulations

All electrical and gas appliances (and their installation) must fully comply with Australian Standards. These are, for the electrics: AS/NZS 3001:2008 as Amended in 2012. For gas: the latest version of AS/NZS 5601 (part 2). A licensed electrician and a licensed gas fitter must inspect and certify every imported RV.

Forgery and falsified certifying are known to have been involved with some imports Even those already certified may thus have to be re-certified when seeking re-registration. This may not be possible.

Clause 44.8 of the Australian Design Rules relates to motor homes, conventional and fifth wheel caravans. Item 44.8.1 notes that many fifth wheelers and motor homes imported into Australia have only a door on the right-hand side. It requires only outward opening, or sliding doors. At least one must be on the left-hand side. Or at the rear.

ADR 44.8.2 relates to gas fired furnaces. Many imports have gas fired furnaces for internal heating. These do not and cannot have Australian Gas Compliance Certificates. It is illegal to use them in Australia. The relevant standard is now AS/NZS 5601.2.2010 as Amended. (The Truma gas fired heating furnace, available in Australia from Dometic, complies).

44.8.3 Fire Extinguisher. Motorhomes and ‘Caravans’ shall (i.e. must) be provided with a fire extinguisher(s) selected and located in accordance with the Australian Standard.

Imported RVs – general

Commercial imports must comply with, or be modified to comply with, all Australian ADRs that were in force at the time the vehicle was manufactured. Some ADRs are the same as the US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. Others are different and, moreover,  generally more stringent. It can be very costly to modify non-complying vehicles to comply. All must be so-certified an accredited automotive engineer.

RVs older than 15 years old are subject to the ‘personal imports’ scheme. This requires proof that the owner has owned and used the vehicle overseas for a continuous 12-months. Such vehicles need not to comply with all ADRs. They must however be modified to comply with some regulatory requirements. Obtain written quotes from Australian conversion companies before proceeding.

At the time of updating this Article (May 2017, re-registration of such RVs varies slightly from state to state. It is progressively becoming uniform.

Imported RVs – opinions differ

A few claim to have imported RVs painlessly. While this may be true, they have only obtained an electrical Connection Certificate that enables the original buyer (only) to us that RV. That Certificate rarely implies full compliance). Full compliance, however is obligatory for imported RVs to legally be resold.

Some have imported only one RV import, but nevertheless assume their experience is the norm. Some simply speculate. Others however have bought non-compliant private imports. Some (I am aware of) have, despite all efforts, been non-registerable for years. One cost over US$200,000.

Spotting non-compliant imported RVs

Non-compliance can be spotted in seconds. If, for instance, the RV has any 110 volt appliances it cannot be 100% compliant. It is illegal to sell any 110 volt domestic appliance in Australia. Some may have a Certificate of Electrical Compliance in spite of retained 110 volt wiring. In particular, they may lack the obligatory double pole socket outlets. That, however, cannot be seen. It requires an electrician to check. If any of that is evident, who knows what else is non-compliant?

Over-width is another common problem. This is often a problem with full length awnings.

If it’s intended to keep an RV for all its usable life, importing privately may make sense.  For most, however, it makes more sense to buy via a long established importer. Or stay with locally-made products.

My apologies to owners of older non-compliant vehicles, but as a technical writer I have an ethical obligation to tell things as they are.

Imported RVs – further information

See also also Imported RV Electrics, Fifth Wheel Caravans Safer, and Caravan and Motor Home Compliance.

The legal requirements are also covered extensively in the author’s all-new Caravan & Motorhome Book. That of the electrical requirements are in Caravan & Motorhome Electrics.  My other books are the Camper Trailer Book, Solar That Really Works (for cabins, caravans and motor homes) and Solar Success (for home and property systems). For information about the author please Click on Bio.

Official Contacts

Victoria – Vicroads
Ph: 13 11 71

Australian Capital Territory – Rego.Act – the ACT Road Transport Authority
Ph: 13 22 81

Queensland – QLD Transport Ph: 13 23 80

Tasmania – Transport Tasmania Ph: 1300 851 225

South Australia – Transport SA
13 10 84

Western Australia – Department of Planning and Infrastructure Tel: 13 11 56

New South Wales – Roads and Traffic Authority Tel: 1300 137 302

Imported Vehicles Queries
Ph: 1800 815 272
Mail: Vehicle Safety Standards, GPO Box 1553, Canberra ACT 2601 Web: dotars.gov.au

Caravan Council of Australia – caravancouncil.com.au

Australian Govt Guide to Imports