how to buy an rv

How to Buy an RV: Learn from our experiences

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive compensation if you make a purchase using the links. All opinions are my own.

We have been full-time travelers since May 2016, but we’ve had an RV as our home since 2011. The RV we live in now is our third, and we plan on buying our fourth soon. We own a motorhome but previously owned a fifth wheel and a travel trailer. So we have a lot of experience, and we know what it’s like to not have anyone to ask for help when you’re trying to decide what to buy. With this post, we hope to give you with some key ideas about how to buy an RV.

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how to buy an rv

How to buy an RV: new or used?

The first instinct is likely to want a brand-new RV. If you’re buying it as your home, you probably want it all new. It will come with a warranty, everything is unused by anyone else, and nothing will break right away. Right?

A new RV has a warranty

Yes, you have a warranty on a new RV. But it probably won’t cover everything as comprehensively as you would hope. Also, realistically, how often have you bought something new and had pushback from the manufacturer about warranty issues? I’ve owned two new homes, both had warranty issues (many of which were on the punchlist for fixing during our walk-through before closing). In one house, on moving day I found clumps of dirt covering my brand-new stove top, and a rag shoved down one of the toilets.

The other house had cracked floor tiles and non-functioning electrical outlets. I hear equivalent stories from people who buy brand-new RVs. These stories are not necessarily just about low-end rigs, either. These stories also happen whether the RV is from a dealer or straight from the manufacturer.

Also, often you can buy an after-market warranty on used RVs 15 years old or newer. I have not done this and can’t speak to its effectiveness, but if a warranty is of concern to you, this is an option.

A new RV has never been used

It depends on what you consider used. In the strictest of definitions, this is nearly never true.

RV manufacturers often have only one manufacturing facility. In the United States, usually they sell to dealerships all over North America, and maybe even beyond. Depending on how far the dealership is from the manufacturer, that RV ships hundreds or even thousands of miles to the dealership.

RVs are too big to put on flatbeds for shipping like cars. So they are driven (if they are motorhomes) or towed (if they are towable). This means the tires, batteries, and engine (if a motorhome) all receive wear and tear during transport to the dealership.

Time is money, so they are probably going as fast as they can to deliver these and then pick up a new shipment. This is not the delivery driver’s RV, so they may also ding it up on the way, and they are probably not treating the engine gently and breaking it in carefully, either. They may not be thinking about brand-new brakes as well, and the need to use them more gently at the beginning.

Also–and I hope that most delivery people have more integrity than this–but there are, of course, bathrooms, beds, TVs, etc. on board. If it’s a long trip, they might use them and you would probably never know.

Nothing will break on a new RV

The fact is, things break when they break. Some are caused by the above-mentioned treatment during delivery, others were already broken when they left the factory. For example, in our travel trailer we removed a bed frame screwed to the floor. Then a pipe started leaking. It turned out the screw went through the pipe and kept it plugged. When we removed it, the leak sprung. Since the bed was installed at the factory, this happened at the factory. By the way, the trailer was already more than 3 years old by the time this screw was taken out. Who knew you could plug a leak with a wood screw!

Appliances and furniture can also appear to be functional enough to pass a factory inspection, but is actually defective and you won’t know until after you’ve already received your RV. If you do find something to be defective, check with the manufacturer for factory recalls.

Use on a new RV at the dealership

Once a new RV comes to the dealership, the sales department will be eager to show it off. Of course, their profit margin is much higher on a brand-new RV than a used one. So they will give tours. People will traipse through and try things out. They may not be gentle, and things may break. Flooring may get stained, fabric may get worn or ripped. A motorhome may go for a test drive. They can still call it new, because it has yet to be purchased. But it’s been used quite a bit.

The plus side of buying a new RV

If you order an RV new (instead of buying a new RV off a dealer’s lot), you can often customize. You can choose options like changes to floor plan, color scheme, materials and finishes, upgrade the exterior paint, and add solar panels. If you’re not handy and/or don’t want to waste your time making changes later yourself, this can be a good option.

You may also be able to pick it up directly from the factory when it’s ready. Then you don’t have to worry about a delivery person mistreating your RV on its first trip out.

The cost of new versus used

As you can see, I don’t see much advantage in buying used. But the biggest disadvantage to me is a loss in value. RVersonline reported in 2005 and 2014 that a new RV will lose approximately 35% of its sale value during the first 3 years, and by its 6th year it is worth about 50% of its original sale price.

Camperreport said in 2016 you will lose 21% of your sale price just driving it off the lot! In their opinion, it never makes financial sense to buy a new RV.

And I agree. While I love the idea of having something brand-new, I don’t think it’s financially practical to buy new. I won’t say I will never do it, but probably not. Besides, there are many RVs out there, only 1-3 years old, that you can buy at a substantial discount and are in like-new condition.

How to buy an RV: dealership or private sale?

Whichever way you go, you’ll want to do a thorough inspection. If you don’t feel comfortable doing one yourself, hire an expert. The RV should be somewhere you have access to water and power so you can test everything. If the seller refuses to do so, or won’t let you do an inspection, I recommend walking away.

In our Resource Library I added a checklist of things Ryan and I look for when buying an RV. We are not mechanics, so please don’t rely solely on our advice. But it should give you a head start when you look at an RV you might buy.

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When you buy an RV from a dealership, here are some things you may encounter, whether the RV is new or used:

  • Sales tax on the purchase price
  • Automatic transfer of ownership/registration through the dealership
  • Possibility of in-house financing or a payment plan
  • Repair people on-site to fix any items before the sale
  • Salesperson to do a complete walk-through of all systems
  • Power and water available to test all systems
  • High mark-up, leading to faster depreciation
  • “Sales talk,” also known as excuses for why they are charging you for something or won’t give you a discount
  • If there is a problem after the sale, you may be able to go back to them to fix it at no cost
  • Possible limited warranty or “guarantee” from the dealership on used RVs

When you buy an RV from a private party, here are some things you may encounter:

  • No sales tax
  • You have to register the vehicle yourself
  • Most private sellers will not finance or allow payments–they want cash
  • Seller probably will not want to do any work on the RV before the sale
  • RV may be parked at someone’s house or a storage lot, with no access to power or water to run tests
  • Seller may not understand how everything in RV works
  • Lower mark-up (although some RV owners do not understand how to price their RV properly)
  • Seller may lie to you about things working, repairs done, etc.
  • If there is a problem after the sale, you are on your own
  • Seller is unlikely to guarantee condition of RV–and if they give you incorrect information, you have little recourse
  • It may take a long time to find the right RV–especially when people put up ads to sell their vehicle and don’t respond to potential buyers!

Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Buying from a private party may save you a lot of money, but can also be riskier. This is especially true if you are not familiar with RVs and/or do not have any mechanical inclination. I spent several years working in sticks-and-bricks construction and renovation, and my brother is a contractor. I can tell you that building construction and repair and RV construction and repair are often dissimilar.

Other ways to buy an RV

The regular channels for buying and RV are these:

  • Go to a dealership and buy
  • Buy from a private party through an ad or for-sale sign
  • Buy from a dealership at an RV show
  • Order a new RV directly from the manufacturer

But there are other ways, used less often and sometimes trickier.

Buy through an auction

eBay and other auction holders sell RVs. These RVs are often for repossessed vehicles and sold at a discount. You may or may not be allowed to inspect the RV before you bid, and the sale is always final. You must pay cash, in full, at the end of the auction if you win.

We actually bought the RV we live in now through an eBay auction. It was not the best experience. The seller was a dealership, and they were kind of sleazy. But, we got the RV for half of average retail, and knew we would need to do work on it (we just didn’t know how much work it would need).

We bought our motorhome in 2014 and to this day we still see dealerships selling our year and model for more than twice what we paid. We worked out the kinks and now everything is fully functional, just outdated in decor. But that’s ok with us. It’s a stepping stone and it works for our needs, for now.

Trade with a private party

We haven’t done this before, but the offer is quite common on a lot of ads I see for private sales. I picked a random Craigslist from a search, went to the RVs section and typed “trade” in the search bar. Here are some of the ads that came up:

If you have something the seller wants, it’s possible you can get an RV while putting little or no cash out of pocket.

Buy an RV by taking over payments

Some brokers specialize in selling RVs that still have an outstanding loan. The requirements may include a credit check or just a down payment and transfer fee. Either way, it’s possible to buy an almost new RV at a discount. This is helpful if a credit check isn’t required and you have credit trouble, but can afford the payments. Just be careful that you don’t end up paying on a loan for more than the RV is worth at its current age.

How to buy an RV: take out a loan or pay with cash?

Buy your RV with a loan

We talked to banks before about getting a loan for an RV. We have not used a loan, because we didn’t like the terms and never found the right RV that we needed a loan for. What we did find is that it is sometimes more difficult to get a loan on an RV than it is to get one on a house.

The loan companies are sometimes afraid you will buy the RV and run off with it and stop making payments. How will they find you to collect? If you take off with the collateral (the RV), then it might be very difficult for them to repossess it.

Sometimes it is easier to get a loan if you own a house already, because they consider the house the collateral. However, if you are making mortgage payments, how much of a monthly loan payment will you qualify for?

Loans on RVs also often require a down payment. The more, the better. The preference is often for 20% of the sale price.

If you buy from a dealership and already own an RV, trading in may help offset the price. Just be aware that the trade-in value will often be much less than what you might get if you sold the RV privately.

Buy your RV with cash

Granted, buying an RV for cash is a challenge for many people. Saving up $20,000 or more may take a long time. The time spent to save up for a $50,000 RV may not be worth it. If you can save $10,000 per year, it will take you 5 years to come up with the purchase price. By that time, the year and model of RV you were looking at may only cost $30,000. However, the model of RV, but 5 years newer, may cost $80,000 dollars due to inflation.

Unless you sell a house, have an inheritance or otherwise have access to a large sum of money, it is probably not practical to pay cash for a more expensive RV.

The downside is that most RVs do depreciate–and quickly. With the exception of certain brands, there are few you can buy, then sell later for more money. Even if you buy an RV that needs a complete remodel, you are unlikely to sell it for what you put into it in improvements.

The most we’ve paid in cash for an RV is $22,000, and the least is $10,000. There are many, many RVs out there for under $10,000, but they probably need a lot of work to fit our needs. Now that we’ve done some remodeling, we might be willing to go that route because it’s no longer so scary.

Whether you buy with cash or a loan, I have a recommendation. Do not use up all your money on the purchase. Keep some on reserve for unexpected repairs, and continue to keep this money set aside. Unexpected expenses like a leaky roof or a broken refrigerator happen at random times. Just like owning a sticks-and-bricks house.

How to buy an RV: name-brand or generic?

There are some big names in the RV world that many people recognize, even if they know nothing about RVs. Here are some you may know:

  • Airstream
  • Fleetwood
  • Winnebago

Here are some other names of RV manufacturers you may not recognize:

  • Leisure Travel Vans
  • Beaver
  • Born Free
  • Casita
  • Evergreen

I am not saying one category has higher quality RVs than the other. Nor am I saying the “lesser-known” manufacturers have been around for fewer years, or have less experienced design and manufacturing teams.

But there is something you need to know when buying an RV that has to do with its monetary value. A big-name manufacturer may be a better bet for two reasons.

Validated purchase value

If a manufacturer has been around for a long time and has many similar units on the market, it’s easy to find a sales price. This not only helps you decide if the seller is asking a fair price, but also helps a bank determine whether they will give you a loan because they can look at the sales history from your manufacturer for your make and model.

A smaller manufacturer or one that went out of business after only a few years may be harder to price. There just isn’t enough to compare to. It’s kind of like appraising a house in a location where there aren’t any other houses for hundreds of miles. How do you decide how much it’s worth?

Potentially better resale value

Our second RV was a fifth wheel from a brand called Potomac. They were in business for only 2.5 years before they closed their doors. They made a quality RV with lots of upgraded features, but they probably spent more money building the RVs than they did making them. Here’s what the NADA guides have to say about this brand:

how to buy an rv

You see that note? “Due to limited resale market, we are unable to determine used values.”

Imagine the time we had selling that one. When we looked at trade-in or consignment, the salespeople jumped all over that. The dealership we bought it from wanted to offer us $500 for it–a 36-foot fifth wheel with 4 slide-outs and premium finishes. This dealership also had the same RV on one of their other lots for nearly the same price we paid!

We eventually sold to a private party for much more than $500, but at a big loss. It was somewhat ok with us, because it served us well for 3 years as a solid home. It was just not practical to travel with, and we’d already paid cash for our latest RV, so we just wanted to move on.

It didn’t kill us financially. But it would have been better to not take such a big hit. Learn from our mistakes!

Meanwhile, we now live in a Fleetwood Bounder, and a million of them are out there. Even now the resale value is more than we paid for it.

How to buy an RV: if it’s used, how used should it be?

Our RV is a 1999, so it’s no spring chicken. But for it to hold up for this long, there was some quality to its construction.

The Bounder was never a top-of-line motorhome. Still, in 1999 the list price was nearly $90,000.

how to buy an rv

One of my favorite things about our motorhome is the cabinet construction. The doors and drawers are solid wood. Sure, they’re oak, and the finish isn’t to my taste, but they are sturdy. We recently went to the Quartzsite RV Show and saw some new/slightly used RVs for $100,000 or more and the cabinets were garbage. They were already falling apart, with the doors falling to pieces, the fake-wood peeling off, and the hinges breaking.

It was easy to tell my motorhome got some use from its previous owner(s). It had under 50,000 miles on the engine but was probably lived in or vacationed in a lot. But I can tell none of the doors, drawers or cabinet frames have ever been replaced or patched.

Some final thoughts about how to buy an RV

If you are buying a motorhome, you don’t want the miles too low. It indicates the RV has done more sitting around than anything else. Too much sitting is not good for the engine or the tires, and means maintenance may also be skipped. With a towable it’s sometimes harder to tell how much sitting around it did. On the other hand, an RV with high mileage on a gas engine runs the risk that it will need replacing soon. These engines may be truck-sized, but they don’t seem to run as long as they would in a truck (likely due to the extra weight they have to carry).

Also, as an aside, don’t expect a gas engine to perform with the strength and power that it would on a truck. Our motorhome is about the same size as a Chevy Suburban’s. But a Suburban weighs less than half what our Bounder does.

Motorhomes with diesel engines are more expensive, new or used. The used ones are harder to find, too (probably because they’re still running fine and nobody is selling theirs). But they may also be more expensive to repair.

But if you don’t mind some old-school decor, you can probably find an oldie but goodie for a decent price and fix it up for cheaper than buying new. Even if you buy new(er), the decor may still not be to your taste and it still may need fixing up to meet your needs. It seems that RV manufacturers are only recently catching up with the idea that many younger buyers like modern, sleek interiors. Not all of us like our decor to look like a flower shop exploded inside our RV!





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