Livonia mom of five gets old RVs, trailers road-ready

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When it comes to hitting the road in their RV this summer, the Lemps of Livonia, a busy family of seven, have a philosophy: always be road-ready.

That means their 29-foot 1994 Class C Horizon, which mom Sarah has redone and updated from top to bottom, is always clean, stocked up with basic supplies and ready to go (minus some clothes and swimsuits for the next trip). 

"Our goal is to keep it always ready," said Sarah.

That would be a challenge for most, but the Lemps are seasoned pros -- especially Sarah. The veteran DIY-er and blogger -- her blog is -- has turned flipping RVs into one of her passions. And she's learned a lot along the way.

When it comes to each project, Sarah, who has flipped five RVs so far and is gearing up to tackle her sixth, says she has two mottos she keeps in mind throughout the makeover process.

"Done is better than perfect and it can't get any worse than it already is," says Lemp, 35. "My goal is how can I quickly, on a budget, make this cute and usable for our family?" 

But using paint, upholstery and simple changes -- all at a good deal; she's a mom of five after all -- it's amazing the magic Lemp can work. After fixing up each one, she and her husband, Jason, often use them first for the trips for their family and then sell them later for a profit. 

A chalkboard-painted cupboard door in the RV lists some of the places they've gone -- Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee -- and some few places they'd still like to hit.

"We use it at least once a month," said Lemp. "Even if we have one night free, we try to take it somewhere local."

'We can do this!'

Lemp's dad was a DIY-er, teaching himself to fix cars by reading manuals and whatever else needed to be fixed around the house. 

But when she got her first RV in 2014, a 1956 "Canned Ham"-style trailer made by the Federal Trailer Company in Detroit, she admits she didn't really have a game plan. She nicknamed it "Gidget."

"I just saw a lot of cute pictures and it was really my dream at that point," said Lemp. "We had three kids so I thought, sure, we can all squeeze in. We bought it for a little over $1,700. At that point, I thought 'Hey! We can do this.'"

Pops of pink, green plants, hidden storage and cozy touches mark the main sleeping area.  
DIY blogger Sarah Lemp shows off the 1994 Horizon 29-foot "class C" RV that she renovated, her 5th such project, at her home in Livonia, Michigan on June 12, 2019.  Lemp specializes in flipping RVs like this one, which her 7-person family took on a trip to Disney World  recently.

Her plan worked. Four RVs later, Lemp is much more experienced when it comes to her makeovers. She says step No. 1 is to make sure it's water tight. If water is getting in, that's a problem. The next step is to remove the fabric.

"The first step I do is tear out anything fabric," said Lemp. "There's a smell. There's always smell. The first thing I do is tear out any fabric -- the couches, the cushion, window treatment and the curtain."

After that, Lemp is a firm believer in the power of white paint. She covers whatever she can in white paint, which serves two purposes: It gives everything a fresh look. It also seals out any lingering smells. She also paints the exterior (which she thinks her neighbors appreciate). 

“White is what brightens it up, freshens it up,” said Lemp. “It’s an instant change.”

 In the family's current RV, which they bought for just over $3,000 at the end of last summer, Lemp transformed it with less than $2,000. 

That means she's very strategic about where she buys her materials or even what she updates (new tires can be one of the biggest expenses). The new jackknife sofa in the RV, for example, is from a local RV dealer. The kitchen backsplash is made from peel and stick tiles from Amazon. She also added a rolled vinyl flooring from Home Depot.

"Some sofas are in good shape and you can just reupholster them," said Lemp. "This one was so smelly and disgusting I didn't want to. So I always check Facebook Marketplace for jackknife sofas."

Nearly every nook and cranny in the RV is maximized for space and function. IKEA bins are used in the back bedroom for shoes. And instead of suitcases or bags, which would take up too much pass, each of her kids -- who range in age from 12 to 2 -- get a bin for clothes.

"I like that they can pull their bin out, take it inside and fill it," she said. "The key is to pack light and to have spots to pack everything away because it can very quickly get cluttered."

Two mounted TVs inside the RV are perfect for the kids. And one can be taken outside where movies can be shown.

Lemp's husband, Jason, 38, a pastor at Faith Bible Church in Livonia, loves traveling in the RV.

"It's so convenient," he said. "We just enjoy traveling with your own bed."

'Adventure Awaits'

Lemp's next project, her sixth, is sitting in her backyard -- a 1970s camper trailer with two flat tires, orange and green retro racing stripes on the outside and interior upholstery so old that it now has a distinct smell. She's undaunted by its condition. 

Her husband found it on Facebook Marketplace and within a day they bought it. They paid $500. 

"If they're priced right and it's a fixer upper, they will go very fast," she said.

For anyone else who'd like to do their own RV makeover but aren't sure where to start, Lemp say it's amazing what you can learn online.

"I just Google everything, YouTube," she says. "I watch a lot of videos."

The best thing anyone can do is dig in, she says. The decal on the outside their current RV, nicknamed "Toolie," gives the best reason why: "Adventure Awaits."

RV flipping tips

  • The power of paint. It’s amazing what white paint can do to freshen up both the interior and exterior of an RV or trailer. To seal out smells and give each RV a fresh look, Lemp uses a lot of white paint. 
  • If all else fails, try vodka -- to sanitize cushions. For upholstery that can’t be removed, Lemp has soaked some cushions in vodka and then let them sit in the sun.  “I’ve read its the best disinfectant and it doesn’t leave a scent,” she said.
  • Move fast. Don’t wait. Lemp says an RV or trailer priced to sell on a forum like Facebook Marketplace will go quickly. Her next makeover project was purchased in less than a day. 
  • Get creative. To make the walls in their back bedroom of the RV look like shiplap, Lemp drew black lines with a Sharpie. 
  • Look for surplus supplies. Check out camping supplies stores or RV dealers to find unique furniture pieces such as jack-knife sofas or compact microwaves.

Twitter: @mfeighan