It's a daunting venture, buying an RV for the first time (or even second or third time).
Wandering the recreational vehicle lot (or classifieds) in search of your dream RV.
The annoying salesman by your side. He's talking non-stop.
All you hear is 'blah, blah, blah.'
RV dealers think they can convince you that you should buy a camper with this shiny object and that cool feature. (Which are NEVER what you NEED.)
So many floor plans, so many features, so many different RV types, used RV or new RV, how do you CHOOSE?
There are a few very important things to consider when buying a new RV. However, knowing what to look for when buying an RV doesn't come naturally.
So let's make sure YOU know what to look for when shop. We're going to help you to make the right buying choices and get the RV that's best for you!
Here's how to buy an RV with success!
One of the most important features to figure out is the floorpan. TRY it before you buy it. 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.
(They will. If they don't, walk. They shouldn't be in there with you in the age of COVID-19 anyway, right?)
Here Are A Few Things To Do And To 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 a dinner with a lot of ingredients. Is there adequate counter space? Are there enough burners to make your meal and are they big enough to accommodate two large pots if needed?
- Oven: Is the oven large enough to accommodate what you need to cook?
- Sink: Is the sink deep/big enough to wash those big pots after?
- Table: Is the booth relatively comfortable for your entire family to all fit and eat? Is it large enough to play board games if that's your thing?
- Lounge Comfort: Where will you watch TV or simply 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 for everyone's toiletries?
- Toilet: Do you fit in the toilet area and ON the toilet? (Seriously)
- Closet/Drawers: Adequate for everyone's clothing and towels? Where will shoes go?
- Kitchen Storage: Is there enough pantry room for your food needs? What about the refrigerator?
- Windows: Does it feel like a cave or can you see out? Do you care? Do the windows open wide or just a tiny (annoying) 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? You may want to bring games. An outdoor mat. Chairs. Bikes. A side table. Tools. Kayaks. An extra propane tank. Etc.
- Physically Demanding Factors: Will hooking up (if it's a pull-behind trailer) be too much for your body or can you handle it?
- Insulation: What weather conditions will you likely camp in? Is the insulation good enough for that purpose? Will the tanks and water lines freeze if you want to go skiing?
- 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?
This is one hardly ANYONE thinks about when purchasing an RV!
What is cargo capacity?
It's the limited weight you are allowed to add into the RV itself. ANYTHING you add.
EVERY RV has a cargo capacity limit. This means you cannot stuff it with however much STUFF you want to bring. The higher the cargo capacity, the more stuff you can stuff.
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.)
Groceries are also heavy. It all adds up.
Therefore, if you get an RV with a small cargo capacity, you may have an overloaded, dangerous RV.
Overloading is very dangerous. It is also against the law. It may negate your insurance if you are in an accident.
If you get one with 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 commonly has a little yellow sticker on the door or frame area.
If it's only, say, 500 lbs you may want to move on.
Do you need to access the interior when the RV slide-outs are closed? Imagine you're on a long trip. You want to stop to make sandwiches.
Is the fridge accessible without putting out the slides? Can everyone get to the table? Is the bathroom accessible? Or are the slide(s) blocking you?
Make sure you can get to what you need to if it comes with slides. (Most slides block the interior, rendering it unusable when in.)
Also, are you sure you want a slide at all? They are NOTORIOUS for having problems. Many people who get them later vow to never again buy an RV with slides.
However, when they do work they are great for adding space inside an RV.
RV Size And Length
One thing is for sure. The longer/bigger it is, the harder it will be 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.
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 of motorhomes and short trailer setups such as a teardrop can do these roads.
Some gas stations and grocery stores will be impossible to get into with a larger and longer setup.
You won't be able to fit under certain bridges if your RV is too tall.
What Type Of RV?
Which RV type is best for your needs? That is up to you to decide. Here are some tidbits about each for you to consider when buying a camper:
Buying a Motorhome:
Buying a Travel Trailer:
- Have to learn to back it up.
- Must connect and disconnect each trip, kind of a pain.
- Cheaper than motorhomes.
- Endless sizes and varieties.
Buying a Fifth Wheel:
- BIG. Heavy. Not nimble.
- Easier to maneuver and tow than travel trailers.
- More expensive than travel trailers.
- Sometimes come with a generator installed whereas travel trailers pretty much never do.
- Need 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. Need 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.
RV Tank Sizes + Batteries
If you are planning on ever camping without being connected to utilities, you should consider the tank sizes (Salesmen will almost NEVER talk about this. Or batteries).
The bigger your 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.
You are never going to be off-grid? The (likely 12-volt, lead-acid) battery that comes with the rig will probably be just fine. If you plan to be off-grid for a day or more, you may need to get more batteries (amp-hours).
Or you may need an RV ready generator if your RV doesn't have one.
An RV solar system is a great idea if you are going to be camping away from campgrounds a lot, as this allows you to charge your batteries silently.
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.
The longer your setup, the more apt you are to drag or to 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.
Sure, you will be able to access MOST dirt roads with any RV, up to a point. The more adventurous you want to be, the more important this factor is.
How Many People Will Be Camping?
If you have a family of four plus two dogs, a tiny Casita Travel Trailer will probably be a mistake. Consider who is using it and how.
Where will the dogs sleep? The kids- where will they sleep?
Do you want to have to make the dinette booth into a bed every night and then back to booth in the morning? Or would you rather have the kids have a dedicated sleeping area?
Do you want your sleeping space to be separate from the kids so you can have some adult time? These are all important things to consider when looking for that perfect RV.
Storing Your RV
If you're like most, you're only going to be using your RV a few times a year. Where will you store it when 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?
Is storage close enough that you can go check on it every now and then to make sure all is ok? You need to check for leaks, mice, and occasionally drive if it's a motorhome.
Do you want to cover it with an RV cover when not in use? (We generally don't care for RV covers, but do as you will.)
Can you access your unit at any time or are there limited hours? Limited hours could stop your last minute 'hey let's get away for the weekend' trip.
Oof. NEVER, and we mean NEVER pay the asking price of an RV at a dealer! The prices are often overpriced by up to 50% and more!
That said, obviously you can buy used RVs cheaper than brand new ones. Buying from an owner is beneficial in that 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.)
If you buy from a dealer, you can finance your new Class A, Class B, or travel trailer with a loan instead of using cash. Then you'll be making payments. Make sure you aren't overextending yourself just to get an RV.
In our new COVID world, at the moment (September 2020), market values are quite inflated. Rigs are flying off the lots as new owners snap them up.
Motorhomes are typically the most expensive campers. They can run new anywhere from $40K up into the millions.
Next expensive are camper toy haulers and fifth wheels. They average about $35K, and can rapidly approach $100K.
Then travel trailers, then pop-ups. You can buy a cheap (not what we recommend) trailer brand new for under $10K. They can go up to $50K+.
Remember, it's a depreciating property, not an investment. Only buy if you have excess monies to spend monthly, or if you have a sum that you can lose and not worry about it.
Don't break your budget because you fall in love!
This 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.
Quality of The RV Brand
This is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT decisions you will make when buying an RV.
RV Manufacturers are KNOWN for putting out crap products. Just two manufacturers now own and product about 85% of RVs produced. 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. Just look at the build on most RVs. Very cheap, shoddy work.
And think about their business model. They are publicly traded companies. They must make a profit.
Mostly, they realize that most people buy an RV and only use it once or twice a year.
This means it will take consumers a while to find kinks and things that don't work right. By the time they find X problem, 'oops', it's probably conveniently out of warranty.
Manufacturers COUNT on this as part of their business models. Therefore, your best insurance is to buy from one of the best RV manufacturers , be it new or used.
The better brand you start off with, the less likely you are going to get a lemon. Though even the best brands sometimes do produce lemons. There are no guarantees.
Previous Water Damage
Water is the #1 killer of RVs. EVEN a brand-new RV can have damage.
Look for signs of mold, discoloration, soft spots in the floor (especially check along walls) and delaminating walls.
Moldy smell is a pretty sure sign there has been a water leak. It doesn't mean that there's currently a leak. Even so, previous water leakage can be a serious problem.
If you're not sure what to look for, pay an RV inspector come and look at it. Even with the best maintenance, a leak can go undetected and need repair. The inspector will likely see things you do not.
BONUS: Check it out when it's raining hard. OR take a hose to it. But the hose method might take a good while and give you a false negative.
Tire Age And Inspection
Tires are THE MOST IMPORTANT part of your RV.
This one is easy and 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 5 years. They should be replaced if older than 7 years.
Look for cracking, lightening (meaning they are drying out), pitting and splintering. These signs mean the tires are or have lost their elasticity. This puts them at risk of not interacting properly with the pavement.
How To Find The Tire Age
The seller can't lie to you about the tires' age. Why? Because the week and year the tire was made is stamped right on the wall of the tires.
To the right of "DOT" on your tires there will be a series of numbers.
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 RV, DO NOT buy it without trying all the things.
Here are some things you may not think about to test during the process.
Keep in mind that a thorough walk-through will require that the seller (even a dealer) connect the RV to power and water.
If the seller balks at connecting to power and water for testing, DO NOT BUY.
- Turn on the vent fans. Use the microwave. Put water in the holding tank and make sure the water pump works.
- Turn on the hot water heater. Wait for it to get hot and make sure it comes hot in all sinks and shower. Flush the toilet using the RV's water pump and also using the 'city water' connection. (Don't 'go' in it. They frown on that, lol!)
- Start the generator if it has one.
- Drive it more than around the block if it's a motorhome.
- Put out 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.
- Put down the levelers. Turn on the inverter if it has one. Bring the 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 plug in about 8 hours before you come inspect. Make sure the fridge and freezer get to temp.
- Turn on the AC. 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? It may be dead/worthless. Mine was when I bought it. Not really a big deal. Unless you have a battery tester, you can't really check. They are pretty inexpensive to replace. Anyway, large dealerships don't and really can't keep them charged properly if they are on each and every RV on the lot.
- 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?
Make sure IT ALL WORKS and looks ok.
The salesman will think you're a pain, but who cares? This is not an inexpensive purchase nor an easy decision!
DO EVERYTHING you can think of. Make the dealership answer your questions. Once you've bought it, too late.
It's up to you to figure out which RV will work best for you. NO RV will have every single thing you want. You will have to compromise.
It's about weighing pros and cons.
Decide what benefits are must-haves, know your usage, what comforts you want, and your RVing dream will turn into a reality.
Now you're armed with key factors of deciding what is most important to look for for your situation. Often people don't think about things like counter space or tank sizes.
They just buy because the inside was pretty. Then they regret not thinking about how much water they could bring on a trip or how long the RV septic system tanks will last, and end up selling that RV for another.
Now you don't have to make these mistakes. You can simply buy and get on with your adventure!
If you have a funny or helpful story about buying an RV, let us know what happened to you in the comments! Chances are you may help someone else out before buying. Or, you may give us a good fun laugh. We don't mind. LOL.
Author: Kelly Beasley
He-llllo. 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, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona.