Buying An RV: What To Look For When Purchasing A Camper

Marshall Headshot

By Marshall Wendler

Last Updated: October 5, 2022

It's a daunting venture, buying an RV for the first time. And RV shopping isn't always fun. If you don't buy from a private seller, you'll have to go to a dealership. Imagine...

You: wandering the RV lot in search of your dream RV to buy.

Him: the annoying salesman by your side. Him talking non-stop but saying nothing.

You hear 'blah, blah, blah.'

RV Salesman

Do. NOT. Trust. The. Salesman!

RV dealers think they can convince you that you should buy a camper because of this shiny object or that cool feature. Don't fall for that. Educate yourself (that's why you're here, right?)!

There are so many floor plans, features, and different RV types. How do you know what to look for when buying a camper?

There are some crucial things to consider when buying a new RV. However, knowing what to look for when buying an RV doesn't come naturally.

Here's how to buy an RV successfully!

What To Consider Before You Buy A Motorhome Or Travel Trailer

You must figure out what you do and don't want before you buy a new RV. Have these questions answered before you start looking to buy a new camper:

  • How many people will be RVing with you?
  • Where do you plan to go?
  • Do you want a large or small RV?
  • What features are non-negotiable?
  • Do you want a motorhome or a towable?
  • Where to buy an RV?

What Type Of RV?

When you go to purchase an RV, you'll notice that there are many different types of RVs. There are Class A campers, camping trailers, pop-ups, fifth wheels, teardrops, and more.

Which RV type is best for your needs? That is up to you to decide. Below are some tidbits about each for you to consider when purchasing a camper.

Line of RVs against Mexico border wall

Line of various types of RVs

Buying a Motorhome:

  • No dealing with a camper hitch (unless you tow a vehicle behind).
  • Easier to back up than trailers.
  • Has an engine, so it has a much higher price tag than trailers.
  • You may need a toad to explore once you arrive.

Buying a Travel Trailer:

  • If you want to buy a travel trailer, you must learn to back it up.
  • Must connect and disconnect each trip, kind of a pain.
  • Cheaper than a motorhome.
  • Endless sizes, varieties, and levels of amenities. (Check out luxury trailers.)

Buying a Fifth Wheel:

  • BIG and heavy.
  • Easier to maneuver and tow than travel trailers.
  • More expensive than bumper-pull trailers.
  • Some can be pretty fancy! (Check out luxury fifth wheels.)
  • Sometimes come with a generator installed, whereas travel trailers pretty much never do.
  • Need a heavy-duty truck to pull.

Buying a Toy Hauler:

  • Can carry your 'toys' like motorcycles, a car, ATVs, etc.
  • Not usually as luxurious as regular fifth wheels.
  • Often come with a generator installed.
  • BIG. Needs a heavy-duty truck to pull.

Buying a Teardrop:

  • Some have no kitchen or bathroom. Others have an outside kitchen.
  • They are light, small, and compact, easier to tow and get around.
  • Smaller truck/SUV and maybe car can tow the smallest of these.

Ultimate Guide To RV Types

Confused about the different types of RVs? Read our guide that explains the differences between the various RV styles.

RV Types

What Style Of Camping For You?

Will you be staying out on public land a lot? Or will you mostly dwell in campgrounds?

If you want to be on public lands, watch for RV height and ground clearance. Dirt roads are not always flat and level, and you might go under trees.

The longer your setup, the more apt you are to drag or not even be able to get to X spot. If you're going to be on dirt roads, try for a higher clearance (and shorter) RV.

Kelly's RV in a year round RV park

Do you prefer campgrounds or wild places?

RV Floorplan/Feel

One of the most important features of your camper purchase is the floorplan. TRY it before you buy it, and spend some real time in it.

Like, at least an hour. Hang out in it. Is it comfortable?

Ask the salesman to leave you alone in it.

Here Are A Few Things To Do And Consider When Shopping:

  • Bed: Lay in the bed (WITH your partner if applicable.) The mattress may suck (and probably does!), but they are easy to replace. (Where to buy RV mattresses?)
  • Dinners: Imagine making dinner with a lot of ingredients. Is there adequate counter space? Are there enough burners? Are they big enough to accommodate two large pots if needed?
  • Oven: Is it large enough?
  • Stove: Can it accommodate the number of pots/skillets you'll need to use?
  • Sink: Is it deep/big enough to wash those big pots?
  • Table: Is the booth comfortable for your entire family to all fit and eat? Could you play board games on it?
  • Lounge Comfort: Where will you watch TV or lounge and talk? Is it comfortable/can it accommodate everyone?
  • Bathroom: Does everyone fit in the shower and under the shower head? Is there counter space? Is there enough storage?
  • Toilet: Do you fit ON the toilet? (Seriously.)
  • Closet/Drawers: Are there enough?
  • Kitchen Storage: Is there enough pantry room? What about the refrigerator? Is there enough storage space in the basement?
  • Windows: Does the interior feel like a cave, or can you see out? Do you care? Do the windows open wide or just a tiny smidge?
  • Animals: Where will the dogs sleep? Will you be tripping on them all day? Cats? Where will the litter box fit?
  • Exterior storage: Is there enough storage for what you want to bring along? How much storage will your tow vehicle have if you get a trailer?
  • Physically Demanding Factors: Will hooking up (if it's a tow-behind trailer) be too much for your body?
  • Insulation: In what weather conditions will you likely camp? Is the insulation good enough for that purpose? Will the tanks and water lines freeze while winter camping?
  • Campsites: Will it fit into most campsites? Or are you limiting your range of choices and freedom to easily find full hookups (RV parks) since the RV is so large?
  • Couches: These are notoriously NOT so comfy. Do you like the sofa or dinettes? Can you use pillows to make it more comfortable if not?
  • Bunk Beds: Will you need these for your kids? How fast might they outgrow them?

RV Size And Length

One thing is for sure. The longer/bigger it is, the harder it is to maneuver.

The advantage of larger is that you have more room for children, amenities, and luxury items.

Travel Trailer vs Fifth Wheel Height

Travel Trailer next to a Fifth Wheel. Massive difference.

Additionally, you will be restricted from some campgrounds and from even driving on some roads if you're too long.

Certain roads have length restrictions, such as the Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana, and Independence Pass in Colorado.

Only the smallest motorhome class and short trailer setups such as a teardrop trailer can do these roads.

Some gas stations and grocery stores will be impossible to get into with a larger and longer setup. Short motorhomes make in-town maneuvering easier.

You won't be able to fit under certain bridges if your RV is too tall.

CARGO CAPACITY!

This is one hardly ANYONE thinks about or knows about when purchasing an RV!

What is cargo capacity?

It's the limited weight you are allowed to add to the RV itself. ANYTHING you add.

EVERY RV has a cargo capacity limit. It means you cannot stuff it with however much STUFF you want to bring. There's a weight limit you must maintain to stay safe while driving.

This includes the weight of adding water to your holding tank and propane to your propane tanks. (They are heavy. And a gallon of water weighs 8.3 lbs. Do the math on the size of the freshwater tank of the RV you want.)

Therefore, if you get an RV with a small cargo capacity, you may have an overloaded, dangerous RV.

Overloading is against the law. It may negate your insurance if you are in an accident.

If you get one with a small cargo capacity, you might not be able to bring everything you want to bring.

HOW DO YOU FIND OUT THE CARGO CAPACITY? It's Easy!

Every recreational vehicle has a little yellow sticker on the door or door frame area.

Cargo Carrying Capacity yellow sticker

Kelly's cargo capacity sticker on her door. Plenty of cargo allowed for a 24' travel trailer!

If the Cargo Carrying Capacity is only, say, 500 lbs, you may want to move on.

Slide Considerations

RV slide out

Slide in the out position

One of the best features of the RVing lifestyle is being able to stop and use your toilet or make lunch while you're on your way. 

Do you want the ability to access the interior when the RV slide-outs are closed?

Can you access the bathroom and kitchen with the slide in?

Marshall slide closed

Side in the "in" position. Bed area and kitchen are barely accessible. Bathroom is.

Read about RV Slide Pros and Cons to learn more about slide-outs.

RV Tank Sizes + Batteries

If you are planning on ever camping without being connected to utilities, you should consider the tank sizes. (Salesmen seldom talk about this. Or batteries.)

The bigger your holding tanks are (fresh water, grey water, and black water), the longer you can stay out. The smaller they are, well, that's going to limit your stay time.

Kelly's RV holding tank

Black tank under an RV

Will you always camp in a campground? Then tank sizes and batteries are very low on the priority list. 

But if you plan to be off-grid for a day or more, you may need to get more batteries (amp-hours) and large enough tank capacity.

Or you may need an RV-ready generator if your recreational vehicle doesn't have one.

Storing Your RV

If you're like most, once your RV buying is complete, you're only going to use it a few times a year. Then where will you store it when it's not in use? Can you fit it in your garage?

Does your HOA allow having your RV parked on your property? If not, can you afford the storage rent?

Is storage close enough that you can check on it now and then to ensure all is OK? You need to check for leaks and mice and occasionally take it for a drive if it's a motorhome. (Learn how to keep mice out of RVs.)

Quality Of The RV Brand

This is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT decisions you will make when buying an RV.

Many camper manufacturers are KNOWN for putting out crap products. Just two manufacturers now own and produce about 85% of RVs. Forest River and Thor. (Neither of which we are thrilled about.)

Outdoors RV logo

Outdoors RV is an example of a high-quality RV manufacturer

They make RVs cheap, so they make more money. They aren't trying to impress the customer with product longevity/durability.

When you purchase a camper or motorhome, the better brand you get, the less likely you are to have a lemon.

Previous Water Damage

Water is the #1 killer of RVs. That said, even a brand-new RV can have damage.

Look for signs of mold, discoloration, soft spots on the floor (especially check along walls), and delaminating walls.

If you're not sure what to look for, pay an RV inspector to come and inspect. Even with the best maintenance, a leak can go undetected and need repair. The inspector will likely see things you do not.

Water damage inside cabinet

Previous water damage inside a cabinet

Tire Age And Inspection

When buying an RV trailer or motorhome, know that the tires are THE MOST IMPORTANT replaceable part. 

And they are not cheap. Especially if you buy a motorhome, there might be 6+ tires, each costing about $350 with tax.

You may be able to use it as a bargaining chip if they are old or worn.

Trailer tires usually start to get iffy with potential issues after five years. They should be replaced if older than six years.

RV tire

How To Find The Tire Age

There are a series of numbers to the right of "DOT" on your tires.

The last of the series will be four numbers. The first two numbers are the week of manufacture. The last two are the year.

Boom.

For example- "2118" would mean that they were made in 2018 in the 21st week of that year.

Try EVERYTHING In The RV Before Buying

Once you're serious about a particular camper, DO NOT buy it without trying all the things.

Remember that a thorough walk-through will require the seller (even a dealer) to connect the RV to power, propane, and water.

If the seller balks at connecting to power and water for testing, DO NOT BUY.

Make sure EVERYTHING WORKS and looks OK. 

The salesman might think you're a pain, but who cares? This is not an inexpensive purchase nor an easy decision!

  • Turn on the vent fans. Use the microwave. Put water in the holding tank and make sure the RV water tank pump works. Check for leaks.
  • Turn on the water heater. Wait for it to get hot and ensure it comes hot in all sinks and the shower. Flush the toilet using the RV's water pump and also using the 'city water' connection
  • Start the generator.
  • Drive it more than around the block.
  • Open the awning. Open all windows. Plug something into all outlets when plugged into shore power and make sure they all work.
  • Put the slides in and out. Make sure there's no racket or issue.
  • Look for water leaks everywhere, especially around the water pump and exterior seams.
  • Put down the levelers. Turn on the inverter if it has one. Bring the tongue jack up and down.
  • Make sure there is propane in the tank. Then turn on the gas oven. Turn on the propane furnace.
  • Ask them to turn on the fridge at least 8 hours before you come to inspect (if it has an absorption refrigerator). Make sure the fridge and freezer get to temp.
  • Use the air conditioning. Try all the lights. Plug something into the USB ports to check that they work.
  • Turn on the TV, stereo, and any other electronics that come with the RV.
  • Check the battery (when the rig is not plugged in to shore power). It may be dead/worthless. Mine was when I bought it. Not a big deal. Unless you have a battery tester, you can't check. They are pretty inexpensive to replace. Anyway, large dealerships don't and really can't keep them appropriately charged on every RV on the lot unless the RV has a battery disconnect switch.
  • If applicable, unplug the RV from shore power and run the inverter. Make sure all electronics work using the inverter and battery.
  • Look under the RV. Check the underbelly- is it torn or in good shape? Is there excessive rust or corrosion on the frame?

Read our article on how to do a travel trailer inspection to learn more.

Should You Rent An RV Before You Buy?

Renting is an excellent option. We suggest getting an idea of what you THINK your RV purchase will look like, then rent an RV similar to it to see how it goes. You'll learn a lot about RVing and whether you like your pick (or not). This step really helps how to choose a camper.

RV Cost

Oof. NEVER, and we mean NEVER, pay the retail price of an RV at a dealer! The MSRP or the lot price is often overpriced by at least 30%.

That said, used RVs are cheaper than brand new ones. Buying from an owner is beneficial because they may have already worked out any 'kinks.'

They can also tell you of any quirks/upgrades the used RV may have had.

The price point you can afford may determine what type of RV you get. (Motorhomes cost more money than trailers.)

Stack of 100 dollar bills

Motorhomes are typically the most expensive campers. They can run new anywhere from $80K up into the millions.

The next most costly are camper toy haulers and fifth wheel campers. The average starting price is about $35K and can rapidly approach $100K or more.

Then travel trailers, then tent trailers. You can buy a cheap trailer brand new for under $10K. They go up to $80K+.

  • Want to know what you should be paying for a used RV? Learn about the NADA RV guide and how to use it.

RV Insurance

Insurance is a cost some people don't think about before they buy. When shopping, call around for options.

Find out who insures RVs, new or used, and who does not. RV insurance is usually pretty affordable.

If you are considering living full-time in your RV, you may need a full-timer policy, which will be more expensive than a policy intended for weekend use.

Warranties

One of the things to know before buying a camper or motorhome is if you buy new, it is covered by the manufacturer's warranty for a time. 

It won't cover EVERYTHING, but it usually covers the big stuff.

When buying used but still relatively new, there's a chance the warranty may still cover the vehicle. You can look at extended warranty options, if you can find a reputable provider.

Line of RVs Utah

Financing Options

If you don't have the cash to pay for a camper, you'll have to finance it.

You can get a loan through the RV dealership or a personal loan through your bank. You can't buy a recreational vehicle with an auto loan, but your bank may provide RV loans.

When buying a camping trailer or motorhome, be sure to check rates with both dealers and banks to get the best deal. Also, be prepared to put down 10-20% of the purchase price upfront.

Conclusion

Before you say to yourself, "I want to buy an RV," figure out which RV type will work best for you. NO RV will have every single thing you want. You must compromise.

It's about weighing the pros and cons when buying RVs.

Part of the process on how to buy a camper is deciding what benefits are must-haves, knowing your usage, and choosing what comforts you want.

Now you're armed with great RV buying tips and know the critical factors for deciding what is most important to look for in your situation. 

For crying out loud, don't buy one just because the inside is pretty! You know better than that when it comes to buying a camper trailer.

Now you don't have to make these mistakes, even if you're a first-time RV buyer. You can simply make a purchase and get on with your adventure!

  • There is lots more on Camp Addict about what to know before buying a camper, so poke around and read all the goodness!
Kelly Headshot

Hello! I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, we both converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking. I learned a lot about the RV life and lifestyle during those years. Now we share what we know with you here at Camp Addict.

After that many years of wonderful full-time travel, it was time for something new. These days, I'm often found working from my new Az home, and sometimes plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!).

  • I understand I should NEVER pay the asking price at a rv dealer for a class B/Campervan or C. What do I say or ask to get the dealer’s price down to the lowest but still a fair price for both of us.

    • Hi Anette,

      Great question! You can use comparable prices of similar SOLD vehicles as ammunition. There is also an NADA book for RVs you can look up and hope that the RV you’re looking at is listed.

      https://www.nadaguides.com/RVs

      That said, they may be willing to take a loss to get an RV off of the lot, you NEVER KNOW. So, I say just try to get them as low as you possibly can. I walked in and decided (without doing any research) that I was willing to pay $10K for the trailer I now own. They had it at $16K.

      I stuck to it, and eventually got them to relent. I bought it for $10K. Took a few hours, but so what? Maybe that was over the NADA, I didn’t know about that when I was looking. Maybe I overpaid. I don’t think so, but you can see HOW MUCH they came down.

      Fair price boils down to whatever the both of you agree is fair. But don’t expect them to hand you your dream price right away. They will make you fight for it. Be sure to look very interested if you ARE interested, then show it, maybe do some negotiating, but when you don’t get your price, LEAVE the lot.

      Wait for them to call you back. Or come back a couple of days later.

      Good luck!

  • Excellent advice and site that I just found this morning. I’m hoping to buy a small teardrop, Tab, LittleGuy or a Basecamp maybe next year. There’s a lot of useful info on your site that I will sift through in the coming months.
    Thank you!????

    • Thank you, Valerie! We are so happy you found us! Our post about eight small travel trailers Under 4000 lbs might interest you, then. We talked to real owners and they told us the good and the bad. A couple you’re interested in are in there. Thank you for letting us know you have enjoyed the site! It means everything to us. πŸ˜€

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