Buying An RV: What To Look For When Purchasing A Camper
By Marshall Wendler
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 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!
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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:
What Type Of RV?
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.
Buying a Motorhome:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Additionally, you will be restricted from some campgrounds and from even driving on some roads if you're too long.
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.
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.
If the Cargo Carrying Capacity is only, say, 500 lbs, you may want to move on.
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?
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
Motorhomes are typically the most expensive campers. They can run new anywhere from $80K up into the millions.
Then travel trailers, then tent trailers. You can buy a cheap trailer brand new for under $10K. They go up to $80K+.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Author: Kelly Beasley
As a seasoned and passionate RVing expert, I have dedicated myself to living the full-time RV life for over 5.5 years, immersing myself in the unique quirks and joys of the boondocking lifestyle and gaining a wealth of knowledge and experience along the way. In December 2020, my business partner and I made the transition to part-time RVing, but in January 2023, we hit the road once again, this time in our trusty vans. My mission is to help others embrace the RVing lifestyle with confidence and excitement, armed with the knowledge and resources needed to make the most of their adventures. I believe that the more you know, the more you can truly appreciate and enjoy the freedom and flexibility of the open road. Join me on this journey and let's make some unforgettable memories.