Travel Trailer Inspection: What To Look For When Buying A Used Travel Trailer
By Kelly Beasley
Before you put money down on that dream rig, consider doing a travel trailer inspection to make sure you aren't getting a lemon.
Knowing what to look for when buying a used RV can potentially save you from owning one that becomes a headache down the road.
This is especially the case if you are buying from an RV dealer that has no idea of the rig's history. (Or, for that matter, an unscrupulous owner that wants to dump their problem onto someone else.)
You don't seriously think that the salesperson is going to have a clue about what is wrong with a potential rig, do you? Heck, most are in it only for the commissions and don't even own a recreational vehicle themselves. They are just collecting a paycheck. Sad, but often true.
Consider that most RVs are NOTORIOUS for having problems. The quality is shoddy, made from cheap materials, and has little to zero warranty.
The seller may NOT be intentionally trying to screw you over. They may just be ignorant. Still, this doesn't help when you make a used camper purchase.
Or, they might know about a big issue and aren't telling you about it.
Therefore, when you are looking to buy on your own, you must be a salesman, RV inspector, and trustworthiness evaluator. You must know what to look for when buying a used camper.
DO NOT trust if the dealership says they have looked it over and claim all is well. There are nightmare stories about brand-new RVs having leaks and subsequent water damage.
You must do your due diligence (Or get a professional RV trailer inspection). This article will teach you how to inspect an RV when buying a used camper (or a new one).
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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.
See 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 three pop-outs 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 travel trailer companies as you can.
Slide Or Not?
These might look and sound like a wonderful concept. Yet, ask any RV owner who has a trailer slide-out (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 RVers say never again. Why? How about water intrusion being a problem? And motors break. They also come off of their track. Additionally, they require maintenance. Finally, they add a lot of weight to a trailer. It goes on and on. Therefore, you'll need to decide if the convenience is worth it.
Watch The Travel Trailer Brand Name
As mentioned above, MOST RVs (because of crappy manufacturers) are junk. You will quickly understand this once you have been inside of, say, a Forest River compared to an Outdoors RV (a top RV manufacturer). Materials, solidity, construction, all of it- there's no similarity in quality. The better the brand you start with, the less likely you will have ongoing problems. For your convenience, here is a list of the best-built travel trailers.
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 GUESS. I'm not being overly dramatic here. Most know SO little about RVs it's shocking. You must research your vehicle and its tow capacity, as well as how much Cargo Carrying Capacity the trailer has. Know that the travel trailer should not even get within 80% of your vehicle's tow capacity. Going over 80% is dangerous.
NEVER Pay Retail Price!
If you are buying from a dealership, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER pay the asking price (or even close to it). They usually price at about 30% over what the actual worth is. It's a game. My Crossroads Slingshot's asking price was $16,000. I paid $10,000. It was ridiculous how often the salesman had to 'talk to his manager' and try to 're-negotiate,' though, from the get-go, I told them I would buy it for ten and no more. Still, the silly game went on for about an hour. I finally got my $10,000 RV.
What To Look For When Buying A Used Travel Trailer
Now that you have a solid grasp of the bigger details, it's time to learn how to inspect a travel trailer with a fine-toothed comb.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND hiring an independent professional inspector to inspect the travel trailer. Especially if you are new to the recreational vehicle world. 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.
That's fine. I didn't have a professional inspect mine, and I lucked out. I bought used from a dealer with no inspector. I didn't know what to look for when buying a used RV, it's not a quality brand, yet I have had zero issues with it in over seven years. But luck is just that.
Remember, it's like buying a small house. One with vehicular components and most house systems. Therefore, there's SO MUCH to look for when purchasing 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 also need water in the freshwater reservoir. There should be some propane on board. You're going to use ALL these systems in your testing process.
Let's get started! Here's what to look for when buying a used travel trailer.
Exterior Travel Trailer Inspection Components
The roof is one of the most critical parts of an RV inspection, and it's also the most often overlooked.
Also, bring a ladder if no ladder is connected to the travel trailer.
Realize that anyone can hide an old/bad sealing job. They simply redo it right before selling. This is why it's CRUCIAL to check EVERYWHERE for soft spots.
Tires and Wheels
Here is another critical component and another that goes unchecked quite often—tire age and condition. Yet, the manufacture date is stamped right on the tire.
Don't trust the age the seller tells you. Check it for yourself. Ask if the tires were covered when stored.
Do this as well as:
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 is a possible indicator).
Know that some axles have a slight curve to them which is normal. Also, check axles for:
Underneath The Trailer
Looking under the trailer is ALSO overlooked way too often. So much can be wrong underneath.
Some trailers have a covering underneath, enclosing everything. In such a case, you won't see much. Regardless, you can still check for:
Outside Utility Connections
These are your power, cable, water connections and RV sewer hose adapter. Make sure all are accessible and damage-free. Most of all, make sure they work!
Yep, if you are serious about buying, the trailer needs to be connected to a tow vehicle, and you should tow the trailer.
While towing, make sure there are no obnoxious noises. (Remember that an anti-sway trailer hitch makes an awful clanging/popping/grinding noise when turning.)
Make sure your tow vehicle handles it well. (You also need a brake controller installed on your tow vehicle for this.)
There are four things you need to test:
The lights are self-explanatory. When you connect the 7-pin connector to your vehicle and turn on the vehicle lights, all the running lights on the trailer should come on.
First, 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.
An emergency breakaway cable connected to a pin on every trailer should be connected to the tow vehicle while towing.
If the trailer disconnects from the vehicle and the emergency chains fail, this cable will pull out the pin and cause your trailer to stop.
To test the emergency disconnect brake:
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 fix it before you buy.
Propane tanks must be re-certified once they are over 10 years old. Then they must be re-certified every five to ten years after that (depending on the method used to previously re-certify them).
Check the 'collar' for the year of manufacture. How old are the propane tanks, and have they been re-certified if needed?
You shouldn't smell it 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)if they are very rusty, those painted a dark color, or ones that don't output enough gas for a good flame on your stove (rare).
Keep in mind maybe the regulator is bad.
This shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Ensure the gas 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 the tread. The tire should be the same size as the ones outfitted on the trailer.
Trailer Hitch, Jack, and Tongue
Here's another critical 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 to keep it locked? Hopefully, you've already hitched it up and tested the emergency breakaway cable/pin.
If you're looking at a trailer at a dealer, unless they recently installed brand new ones, expect to replace the lead-acid battery.
They aren't maintaining all of the used RV batteries sitting in the RV units. No way.
There's a chance they disconnected or flipped off the master power switch, keeping it from getting drained. If they did not, yeah- it will likely be shot if it has been on the lot for even a week.
You could negotiate new ones, but chances are they will put crap in there. May as well do it yourself.
Do yourself a favor. Get lithium if you can afford it. They are 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 its amp-hours)
CAN MORE BATTERIES BE INSTALLED IN THE EVENT YOU WANT TO DO A LOT OF BOONDOCKING? Where would they go?
Check for corrosion (just a sign they haven't been looked after very well). If it has water, check the levels. If you know how to, test them. See how much life is left.
Assuming they ARE good, test EVERY component that should run on 12v power without being connected to shore power (an external power source).
To Test Using The Battery:
Give these a once-over as well. Check:
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 look for when buying a used RV, including many interior systems.
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 gas 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
RV electrical systems can vary from simple to moderately complex, depending on the rig size (and price) at which you are looking. No matter the complexity, certain things should be tested.
Again- you need to test some of these with and without using an external power supply.
You must test using external (120v) power, using the RV cord.
Test these things while connected to 120-volt power:
This should tell you that most large appliances will not run unless you are connected to shore power. Just an FYI.
These things use 12-volt 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!
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.
If wired into the system, you can use some of your 120-volt items if the inverter is on without having to connect to external power.
Every RV with an inverter is 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, inverter size/strength varies. 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 to find out what is powered by the inverter in the RV you are eyeballing. 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 LP gas (a 'two-way' refrigerator). 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 gas), you will need an ample battery bank with solar (or a generator) to recharge the battery.
You must test the RV toilet. Understand that 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 water reservoir' for emptying later.
To test, flush it using only the water pump first, and then city water. You may be surprised at the difference/weakness of the flow from the water pump vs. city water (exterior pressure source).
Make sure the bowl flush flap seals. After you flush, a tiny amount of water should remain in the bowl and not drip out.
This is important because that little puddle of water keeps sewer odors from permeating your RV.
Speaking of which, are you smelling sewage (and is any sewage in the tank)? You shouldn't be. But sometimes, the odors are unavoidable in sweltering climates, especially if the owner isn't using any RV septic treatment.
So, I genuinely believe you are not overly cautious in testing the waste tanks. The owner or salesman may think so. Who cares? Protect yourself.
Let some water run through it for a while. Do the same with the sinks.
Then, open the valves to dump. First, the black. Close it when done. Then open the grey. Make sure both flow! You don't want to start with an RV with your RV blackwater tank clogged.
Also, ensure no leaking happens under any part of the RV itself.
By the way, don't worry about the RV holding tank monitor not showing correct fluid levels. They NEVER work right because the sensor probes get buildup, causing them to misread. Even if they read correctly now, they eventually won't.
Knowing this about the sensors is RVing 101—basic stuff. Sensors are worthless. (Unless you are fortunate enough to have SeeLevel™ style sensors outside the tank.)
So, this is not a deal-breaker if the trailer says the black tank is full, but the owner says it's empty. (You will eventually learn how long your black or grey tanks will last before you have to dump them.)
Hot Water Tank
This usually has an option to run off LP gas (as well as 120-volt electric). Make sure the gas 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 also good to test it on electricity 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 water heater, the longer it takes for hot water to get there. Same as 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 free of debris.
When lit, the flame should be blue, not yellow. Check for soot buildup near the pilot light or the outside vent. This is not good and should be cleaned.
It can indicate a problem (incomplete combustion, which means the burner needs adjustment).
Other Things To Check When Buying A Used RV
This is an essential one. Check ALL around the floor for soft spots. Use your foot, and use something else like a ruler or stick. If you feel soft anywhere, it is a water damage indicator (Which also means there could be hidden mold).
This is not ALWAYS the case. For instance, the floor in the middle of my RV is soft. But it's not rotted. I know this because there's no wood in the floor.
It's a dense foam (sandwiched between two sheets of aluminum) that has been squished down from dance parties. (Yes, dance parties!)
I was 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 much renovation work. If you aren't, walk away. Better yet, run.
Sometimes 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 in 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.
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, and water always runs down. Look for watermarks, delamination, and sagging.
A couple of concerns here. First, check UNDER the mattress. There could be mold if there is no airflow product 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 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. That's an easy fix. A camper replacement mattress is affordable, and there are many great options.
Boy, oh boy. These are very controversial. You will have to decide if a slide is worth it.
They are testy beasts. I have never had one. Marshall has, and he says never again.
You need to test it. More than once. Motor it in and out maybe five 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. You must keep the tracks lubricated.
Don't forget to check for soft spots and water damage on slides. 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 theirs wouldn't come in.
RVs cost a lot of money. Expensive as they are, you'd think they would be well-built. But most are not. Even so, the maintenance required to keep water out is a huge issue. Water damage is the number one RV killer. Caulk is constantly deteriorating, inviting new water in.
You must protect yourself with these questions to ask when buying a used travel trailer. Otherwise, you might purchase 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 recommend hiring a professional RV inspector. But if you were going to do that, you probably wouldn't be reading what to look for in a used travel trailer, LOL.
Follow these instructions before buying a used travel trailer, and you will have done everything possible to find hidden problems in any rig you inspect. Bring an RV buying checklist and a flashlight.
Happy camper inspections!
Author: Kelly Beasley
I dedicated myself to living the full-time RV life for over 6.5 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.