First of all, people suck.
You can disagree. But I highly recommend assuming the worst when you're going to buy a new or used travel trailer from someone.
How is people 'sucking' relevant to buying a used travel trailer (or new)?
Because most RVs are NOTORIOUS for having problems. The workmanship is shoddy, they are made from cheap materials, and they have little to zero warranty.
Sometimes these RV owners (and especially salesmen) just don't know much about the travel trailer.
The seller may NOT be intentionally trying to screw you over. They may just be ignorant. Still, this doesn't help you in any way.
Or they might know about a big issue and aren't telling you about it. Which is not cool and could be illegal. But it happens.
Therefore, when you are looking to buy, you have to be a salesman, RV inspector, and trustworthiness evaluator. (Unless you hire an inspector, of course. Which is a very good idea.) You need to know what to look for when buying a used travel trailer. (Again- new ones can have issues as well!)
DO NOT trust if the dealership says they have looked it over and claim all is well. There have been nightmare stories about brand-new RVs having leaks and subsequent water damage.
You must do your due diligence (Or hire an inspector). This article will teach you what to look for when buying a used travel trailer (or a new one).
BEFORE You Start Looking For A Travel Trailer...
There are some things you need to know BEFORE you even start looking to buy a travel trailer. Otherwise, you could still end up with an RV you hate/don't want/regret.
Step Inside at LEAST 50 Travel Trailers Before You Even Consider Buying.
- You need to step foot into MANY MANY MANY different brands, floor plans, sizes, etc before making a decision. Otherwise, you may 'fall in love' with the first trailer you see having 3 slides and allllll that space. Just look at enough so you are SURE that X one is the one for you. Go to as many RV dealerships as you can. Look at as many different manufacturers as you can.
Slide Or No Slide?
- Slides look and sound like a wonderful concept. Yet ask any RV owner with a slide (or two or three) and you're sure to hear about the headaches they bring (unless they just haven't had their 'incidence' yet). Some owners say never again. Why? They leak. Motors break. They get off-track. They need maintenance. They add a lot of weight to a trailer. It goes on and on. You'll need to decide if a slide is worth the hassle for your needs.
Watch The Travel Trailer Brand Name
- As mentioned above, MOST RVs (because of crappy manufacturers) are junk. You will easily understand this once you have been inside a Forest River compared to an Outdoors RV. Materials, solidity, construction, all of it- there's no comparison when it comes to quality. The better the brand you start with, the less likely you will have ongoing problems. Here is a list of the best RV brands available.
RV Weight And Cargo Capacity
- You will be LEAPS AND BOUNDS ahead of most shoppers if you pay attention to these two details. Do not be so naive as to trust what the salesman tells you 'X trailer' can be pulled with or how much weight you can put inside the RV. Most of them have NO IDEA. I'm not being overly dramatic here. Most literally know SO little about RVs it's shocking. You must do your research on your vehicle and its tow capacity, as well as how much Cargo Carrying Capacity the trailer itself has. Know that the travel trailer should not even get within 80% of your vehicle's tow capacity. It's dangerous, vehicle performance will be diminished, and it will wear down your vehicle.
NEVER Pay Retail Price!
- If you are buying from a dealership, NEVER NEVER NEVER pay the asking price (or even close to it). They are commonly asking about 30% over what the actual worth is. It's all a game. My Crossroads Slingshot's asking price at the dealer was $16,000. I paid $10,000. For real. It was so ridiculous how many times the salesman had to 'go talk to his manager' and try to re-negotiate though from the get-go I told them I would buy it for 10 and no more. Still, the silly game went on for about an hour. I finally got my $10K RV.
What To Look For When Buying A Used Travel Trailer
Now that you have a solid grasp on the bigger details, it's time to learn how to inspect a travel trailer with a fine-toothed comb.
I DO HIGHLY RECOMMEND hiring an independent professional inspector to inspect the travel trailer. Especially if you are new to the RV game. This will likely cost somewhere between $200 and $450. But some of you are penny pinchers, are on a budget, or simply are a DIY'er so you're reading this.
That's fine. I didn't have a professional inspect mine, but I lucked out. Bought used from a dealer, no inspector, I didn't know how to inspect, it's not a quality brand, yet I have had zero issues with it in over 5.5 years. But luck is just that.
Remember, it's like you are buying a small house. One that has vehicular components as well as most house systems. There's SO MUCH to look for when buying a travel trailer.
If you're serious about buying a particular RV, ask the seller to have the camper connected to water, power, and sewer. You want some water in the fresh water tank as well. There should be some propane in the tank. You're going to use ALL of these systems in your testing process.
Let's get started! Here's what to look for when buying a used travel trailer.
Outside RV Inspection Components
The Travel Trailer Roof
The roof is one of the most important parts of an RV inspection. Yet it's one of the most often overlooked.
Make sure you bring a ladder if there is no ladder connected to the travel trailer.
- Points where water can enter.
- Damaged/cracked/worn sealant.
- Soft spots (HUGE red flag). Get up and walk on the roof. Crawl if it's not meant to be walked on.
- What is the general condition of it? A dirty roof/mold/old leaves/twigs (indicating it hasn't been checked or maintained in a long time).
- If private sale, ask when last time it was sealed or patched.
- Cracks in skylights, AC cover, or vent fan covers?
- Solar- installed and attached well? Damaged wiring or panels?
- Again- look for cleanliness/mold/stains.
- Check all seams for holes or cracks in the sealant.
- Any delimitation? This is where the wall looks like it is warping- a clear sign of interior water damage.
- Windows- signs of leaking or holes around the sealant?
- Press against the exterior walls everywhere you can. Check for soft areas.
Realize that anyone can hide an old/bad sealing job. They simply replace it or cover it right before selling. This is why it's CRUCIAL to check EVERYWHERE for soft spots.
Tires and Wheels
This is another EXTREMELY important component and another that goes unchecked quite often. The date the tire was manufactured is stamped right on the tire.
Don't simply trust the age the seller tells you. Check for yourself. Ask if the tires were covered when stored or not (Add the 'or not' when you ask. Gives the owner more chance to casually say 'not').
Do this as well as:
- Check the tire brand name. Google it for safety/dependability results.
- Look for cracks in the walls.
- How is the tread life?
- Uneven wear patterns? (VERY important. Could mean a bent axle.)
- Cracks in the wheel?
- Missing lug nuts?
- Check the stem valves. Good condition?
A bent axle will wear your tires down in no time. Kelly knows about bent axles all too well. Visually check for a bent axle (and uneven tire wear will also be a possible indicator).
Know that some axles have a slight curve to them (in the up direction). This is normal. Also, check axles for:
- Excessive rust
- Saggy/worn leaf springs
Underneath The Trailer
This is ALSO overlooked way too often. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) So much can be wrong underneath. Some trailers have a covering underneath, enclosing everything. In this case, you won't see much. You can still check for:
Outside Utility Connections
These are your power, cable, water, and sewer connections. Make sure all are accessible, damage-free, and most of all, they work!
- How well does the power cord connect to the trailer (If it's not permanently connected)?
- Does the water leak at the connection point when connected to an exterior water source?
- When you dump the black or grey tank, are there leaks? (Not counting the sewer hose itself)
- Did sewage or grey tank water come out of the hookup point when you opened the end cap? (Indicating a problem with the closing valve.)
- Does cable work when hooked up? (But I mean, who uses cable anymore? LOL)
Yep, if you are serious about buying, the trailer needs to be connected to a tow vehicle. You should also tow the vehicle.
Make sure there are no obnoxious noises. (Keep in mind many weight distribution hitches make a god awful clanging/popping/grinding noise when you're turning.)
Make sure your tow vehicle handles it well. (You also need a brake controller installed on your tow vehicle for this.)
There are three things you need to test:
Lights, brakes, turn signals, and the emergency disconnect switch.
The lights are self-explanatory. When you connect to a 7-pin connector (the power cord that comes from the trailer and attaches to the vehicle), and you turn on the lights in the vehicle, all of the outside running lights on the trailer should come on.
Test the brake lights, hazards, and turn signals. Make sure the brake controller inside the truck works.
Next, you should test the emergency disconnect switch.
How? Well, there's an emergency breakaway cable connected to a pin on every trailer that should be connected to the tow vehicle while towing.
In the event the trailer disconnects from the vehicle and the emergency chains also fail, this cable will pull out the pin and cause your trailer to stop.
To test the emergency disconnect brake:
- Fully connect the vehicle to the trailer/be ready to roll on level ground
- Take foot off the brake and feel it roll (trailer should not stop the vehicle from rolling)
- Stop, get out and pull out the breakaway cable pin (this takes a good amount of force, btw)
- Get in the truck and put it in gear. Take your foot off the brake- the truck should not roll this time. Nor should you be able to go easily or at all using the gas. This means the trailer brakes are engaged.
- Re-insert breakaway pin, the test is over. (If you don't re-insert the pin, it will eventually wear down your battery)
If the trailer still rolled even after pulling the breakaway pin out, there's something wrong with the brakes, OR the breakaway pin controller needs to be replaced. Get the owner to get it fixed before you buy.
Propane tanks must be re-certified if they are over 12 years old. Then they must be re-certified every 5 years after that. Check the tank 'collar' for the year of manufacture. How old are the tanks and have they been re-certified if needed?
You shouldn't smell propane when the valves are open. (If you do, there is likely a leak at the connecting hose. This should be a cheap and easy fix.)
Avoid (or just replace) very rusty tanks, propane tanks painted a dark color, or ones that don't output enough propane for a good flame on your stove (rare).
Keep in mind it could be that the regulator is bad (separate from the tank itself). The good news is propane tanks aren't very expensive.
This shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Just make sure the propane gets to the furnace, stove, and oven. Also make sure they can be locked down securely during travel.
ALL travel trailers should come with a good spare. Check for cracks, check the date, and check for tread life. The tire should be the same size as the ones outfitted on the trailer.
Make sure it is secure to the trailer.
Trailer Hitch, Jack, and Tongue
Here's another important part of the trailer. Aside from manufacturing defects or excessive rust, the tongue should be in good shape unless the travel trailer has been in an accident.
The hitch should be checked. Does the locking device move freely? Is it easy to insert a cotter pin into it to keep it locked? Hopefully, you've already hitched it up and tested the emergency breakaway cable/pin.
If it has an electric jack (or it will have a manual one), be sure to test it:
- Does it go up and down smoothly or does it jerk? (it shouldn't jerk or jump)
- Does it go up and down fully?
- If it has a drop foot, does that work properly?
- If it has a remote, does that work?
- Does it seem to be slow? (Could be a dying battery, not a problem with the jack)
- Ask how old the jack is
if you're looking at a trailer at a dealer- unless they replaced the batteries with brand new ones, just expect that the lead-acid batteries are shot. They aren't maintaining all of the used RV batteries if the batteries are all sitting in the RV units. No way.
There's a chance they have disconnected the battery, keeping it from getting drained. If not, yeah- it will likely be shot if it has been on the lot for even a couple of weeks.
You could negotiate new batteries to be installed, but chances are they are going to put crap in there. May as well do it yourself.
Do yourself a favor. Get lithium batteries if you can afford it. SO much easier!
Find out what kind the RV has. Lead-acid? Sealed (maintenance-free)? How many amp-hours do they have? (If you don't have lithium, you will only be able to use half of the battery's amp-hours) CAN MORE BATTERIES BE INSTALLED IN THE EVENT YOU WANT TO DO A LOT OF BOONDOCKING? Where could they fit?
Check for corrosion build-up (Just a sign they haven't been looked after very well). If it has water, check the levels. If you know how to, test the batteries. See how much life they have left in them.
Assuming the batteries ARE good, test EVERY component out that should run on batteries without being connected to shore power (an external power source). This includes:
- USB ports
- Roof vent fans (they look like a skylight with a fan)
- Stereo system
- All indoor lights as well as basement lights, if any
- Water pump
- Awning, if electric
- Awning LED lights, if applicable
- Power to the fridge (inside light, indicator lights)
- Start up the furnace, water heater, and refrigerator
- Carbon monoxide detector
Give these a once-over as well. Check:
- Any visible water damage?
- Soft spots in the floor?
- Smells? Mold?
- Do the doors work and lock?
- Find out if any of the storage is heated. If so, check to make sure they get warm when the furnace is on.
What To Look For On The Inside Of A Travel Trailer Before Buying
Remember, you're inspecting a house with wheels. There's a lot to check out. This is why it is VITAL that any RV you are serious about needs to be connected to power, water, and sewer.
The propane tanks should have propane in them. And the RV should have some water in the fresh water holding tank.
You need to check out all of these systems:
Water System, Sinks, and Shower
- Look under every sink. Check for leaks with the water running. Check for water damage and soft spots.
- Run the water with the city water on/connected (This means a water hose is connected to the RV and provides the water pressure)
- Also, run the water with ONLY the water pump. (This means you must disconnect, or turn off, the hose and use the water pump). Make sure they both provide adequate supply and no leaks happen. If the water is coming out harshly/spitting, it's either because there is air in the lines, or the tank is almost empty, causing the air in the lines. It's not usually an indicator of a problem.
- Get your eyes on the water pump. This SHOULD be possible as it must be somewhere where it can be replaced should the pump die. Look for leaks, a soft floor, and any mineral buildup indicating past leaks. Is it securely adhered to the floor or wall?
RV electrical systems can vary from the simple to fairly complex, generally depending on the size (and price) of the rig you are looking at. No matter the complexity, there are certain things that should be tested.
Again- you need to test some of these with and without an external power supply connected.
Must test using external (120v) power, using the RV power cord.
Test these things while connected to 120-volt power
- Microwave fill a glass with water and make SURE the microwave heats it
- Air conditioning make sure it gets COLD. No weird noises.They are usually hella-loud.
- 120-volt outlets (just like in your house) Make sure they all work using something you can plug in
- Water heater on electric setting
- Refrigerator (RV fridges normally have a 120-volt setting, while residential fridges require 120-volts)
This should tell you that most appliances you bring into the RV will not run unless you are connected to shore power (Or have an adequate inverter). Just an FYI.
These things use battery power. Therefore if the battery(ies) are dead, these things cannot be tested. Get the owner or dealer to put in a working battery so you can test!
- Tongue jack (if electric)
- Awning (if electric)
- Water pump
- TV MOST TVs in an RV will run off of 12-volt (battery) power. Some will be from a 120-volt power source.
- USB ports (if any)
- Fridge (while in propane mode, it needs a 12-volt power supply to work)
- Hot water heater (on propane setting)
- Interior lights
If The RV Has An Inverter
Some travel trailers come with factory installed inverters. Inverters change the 12-volt battery power into 120-volt electricity. This way you can use some of your 120-volt items without having to connect to external power.
Every RV with an inverter is going to be set up differently. Some will provide 'inverted' power to a single 120-volt outlet (should be marked as such), while others will provide 120-power to pretty much everything.
Also, the size of the inverter will vary. Some will only be capable of producing 300 watts of 120-volt power, while other monster systems can produce 3,000+ watts.
It may take some digging around if the RV you are eyeballing has an inverter to find out what it supplies power to. This way you know what to test (make sure to test when you are not plugged into shore power, so that you are only using battery power).
The salesman may be clueless. A private party should know which outlets provide 'inverted' power.
Some RV fridges run using electricity and/or on propane (a 'two-way' fridge). Others run only on electricity (they call those 'residential' fridges).
Find out which one the travel trailer has. If you plan to boondock much at all, if it's a residential fridge (meaning it eats up electricity instead of propane), you will need an ample battery bank with solar (or a generator) to recharge the batteries.
- Have the owner or dealer turn on the fridge about 6 hours before you get there. Bring your thermometer, put it in the fridge first. Do some inspecting. Read, then put in the freezer to check later.
- If it's a two-way fridge, make sure the propane is working/the outside burner is on when it's cooling. (It won't ALWAYS be on. Only when it's 'working'. If it's really hot out, it will be on more than not.)
- Make sure the 'check' light isn't on (located on the fridge itself).
Eew. Did I jump from the fridge to toilets? Sorry!
Test the RV toilet. There are different types of RV toilets. But most travel trailers have a gravity water-flushing toilet, just like ones in homes. It empties into a 'black tank' for emptying later.
To test, flush it using only the water pump and then using city water. You may be surprised at the difference/weakness of the flow from the water pump.
Make sure the flush flap seals. After you flush, there should be a very small amount of water left in the toilet. This should not leak out. This is important because that little puddle of water is what keeps sewer smells from permeating up from the black tank.
Speaking of which, are you smelling sewage? You shouldn't be. Unless it's a steaming hot day... sometimes the odors are unavoidable in very hot climates if the owner isn't using any tank treatments.
So I truly believe you are not being overly cautious in doing this. The owner or salesman may think so. Who cares? Protect yourself.
Let some water run into the toilet for a while. Do the same with the sinks.
You are filling up the black tank (sewage) and the grey tank (sink and shower water). Then open the valves to dump. First the black. Then the grey. Make sure both flow! You don't want to start off with an RV with a clogged black tank.
Also be sure there is no leaking happening under any part of the RV itself.
By the way, don't worry about the tank 'sensors'. They NEVER work right. Even if they do now, they eventually won't.
This is RVing 101. Basic stuff. Tank sensors are worthless. (Unless you are fortunate enough to have SeeLevel™ style sensors that are on the outside of the tank and typically read in percentages rather than having LED lights.)
So if the trailer says the black tank is full but the owner says it's empty, this should not be a deal breaker. (You will eventually learn how long your black or grey tanks will last before you have to dump.)
Hot Water Tank
This usually has an option to run off of propane (as well as 120-volt electric). Make sure the propane valves are set to 'open' when testing.
Turn on the hot water tank using propane when you first get there. In about 20 minutes, you should have hot water. It's good to test it on electricity as well, while plugged into shore power.
Keep in mind it takes a bit (usually) for the hot water to get to the shower or sinks. Give it time. The farther the water outlet you are testing is from the hot water heater, the longer it takes for hot water to get there. Like most houses.
Check the tank outside. There will be a door to it on the outside of the RV. Look for spider webs, animal nests, etc. The area should be clean.
When lit, the flame should be blue, not yellow. Check for lots of soot buildup near the pilot light or the outside vent. This is not good and should be cleaned. It can be an indicator of a problem (incomplete combustion, which means the burner needs adjustment).
Other Things To Check
This is a VERY important one. Check ALL around the floor for soft spots. Use your foot, use something else like a ruler or stick. If you feel soft anywhere, it is likely rot from water damage.
This is not ALWAYS the case. For instance, my floor in the middle of my RV is soft. It's not rot. There's no wood there. It's a dense foam (sandwiched between two sheets of aluminum) that has been packed down from dance parties. (Yes, dance parties, LOL!)
I was very relieved to find out there was no wood and I didn't have a big problem. But in MOST RVs, soft areas mean you should be prepared to do a lot of renovation work. If you aren't, walk away.
Some water damage is visible. So give the floor a long hard look. Don't forget to look (and poke) at areas under beds, booths, etc.
The walls also may show water damage. Look inside of cabinets, above shelves, behind curtains, etc. Look for signs of delamination (where the wall coating has come unstuck from the backing). That's another surefire sign of water damage. There could also be mold.
Are the walls solid? Thin? Will you be able to hang anything from them? These things are good to know. (Command strips are commonly used in RVs.)
Again- water damage is your primary concern. If there is ceiling damage, there is also likely wall and floor damage. Water always runs down. Look for water marks, delamination, and sagging.
A couple of concerns here. First, check UNDER the mattress. There could be mold if there is no airflow product in between the mattress and what's under it. Often it's solid wood underneath.
Second- test for comfort. If you don't plan to change out the mattress (we highly recommend doing so!), especially if it's from the factory, you may not be comfortable sleeping on it.
It also could be old and gross. Yet that's an easy fix.
Boy oh boy. These are very controversial. Again- you will have to decide if a slide is worth it for you.
They are testy beasts. Personally I have never had one. Marshall has, and he says never again.
You need to test the slide. More than once. Motor it in and out maybe 5 times. Look for smooth operation. There should be no alarming noise coming from the motor. Check the seals- do you see light/gaps in between them? (not ideal.)
They are not very energy efficient. Expect drafts and/or for your ideal temps to escape through the sides of the slide. You must keep the tracks lubricated.
Don't forget to check for soft spots and water damage on slides as well. Inspect the slide awning if it has one. Look at the top- are there leaves/dirt/mold?
Your slide will have problems at some point. People have been unable to move (until repaired) because their slide wouldn't come in. Be ready if you decide to get one.
Where To Find and Buy Travel Trailers
Your local RV dealer is a great way to start. Look at every trailer on the lot if possible. Look for consignment dealers. Easier to do this than to look at one at a time sold by private parties.
Once you have dialed in what you are looking for as far as floor plan, style, and manufacturer, you may have to look elsewhere to find what you're looking for. There are quite a few places online advertising travel trailers for sale:
- RV Trader: First and probably the best place is RvTrader.com. You can filter for just about anything you want.
- Craigslist: Be careful with this one. Plenty of scams abound. NEVER send anyone money through an app! It should be a CASH deal or money wired. Never send without seeing the RV first.
- Facebook Marketplace: This one also gets a little seedy at times, too. For a while in 2020, there were RASHES of non-stop, unavoidable vehicles and RVs listed for sale at WAY too low prices. Obvious red flag. Now that Facebook FINALLY removed them, you might find something that is an actual for sale listing.
- Facebook RV Sale Groups: Do a search. You may find a group listing RVs for sale in your area or state.
- Fiberglass Trailers: You can find fiberglass trailers for sale here. They usually go fast.
- RVT: All kinds of RVs for sale.
- Autotrader: RVs for sale here, too.
There are other sites, but these should keep you busy for a while.
NEVER Do This When Negotiating Buying An RV!
There is one thing in the world of mastering negotiation that is IMPERATIVE you do (don't do?) to get the best deal.
And it is this:
NEVER be the first one to throw out a price.
Even if it already has a price- there's likely room for negotiation. This will work better with a private seller, but the same rule applies to working with a salesmen (Though they don't have much say regarding the sales price). So, for instance, you would ask something like
"So what's your best price?"
They may reply "What sounds good to you?". They are trying to get a feel for what YOU want to pay. Don't do it! Simply respond with something like, "I don't know. I wanted to see what you were comfortable with".
More times than not, they will go lower than what you were going to offer. Even if they do, keep negotiating before you seal the deal.
Once I used this tactic while negotiating for driveway parking in Florida RIGHT across from the beach. I said, "so what were you thinking?" He threw out "2".
I wasn't even sure what he meant. I didn't reply right away, we talked a bit more then I said, "Hundred?". Because I wasn't sure he didn't mean thousand.
HE SAID HUNDRED!!! This was for A MONTH! That spot could have easily gone for $900/month!!!
It works, give it a go!
RVs cost a lot of money. Expensive as they are, you'd think they would be well-built. Most are not. Even so, the maintenance they require to keep water out is a huge issue. Water damage is the number one RV killer.
You must protect yourself when looking to buy so you don't buy yourself a pile of constant headaches and misery.
You have to know what to look for when buying a travel trailer, where to look and what the common issues are before you inspect.
I do recommend hiring a professional RV inspector. But if you were going to do that you probably wouldn't be reading this.
Follow the instructions here before you buy a used travel trailer, and you will have done everything you can to find hidden problems in any travel trailer you inspect.
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.