Buying an RV

graphic of several dollar signs

Remember, when buying an RV, you must be the one in control of the situation—not the RV salesman! Once you have decided on an RV that will be acceptable to you and your wallet, then you can begin your search in finding just the right vehicle for you. If you have lots of extra cash, find an RV dealer that carries the brand of RV that you desire, and plan on writing a hefty check.

If you are buying a brand new motorhome, don’t fall prey to paying the full sticker price. You should start your negotiations at about 25 % less than the sticker price! (The dealer is still making money, but not as much as he would like.)

However, for most "newbies" to the RV world, buying a used RV is much more cost effective, since you can often buy a three-to-five year-old coach for about half of what it cost the first owner—and, as an added benefit, most of the bugs have hopefully been ironed out by the previous owner. There are many sites on the Internet that list used RVs for sale; there are RV For Sale magazines and want ads; and there are usually some good bargains near senior citizen communities—where some RVers realize that, sadly, their time on the open road needs to come to an end. Even many reputable RV dealers have some excellent used RVs at much better prices than new ones.

And, yes, there is a NADA book for determining the price of a used RV. You can usually find one at your local bank or credit union, but be aware that many RV dealers will not show you that little book—so do your homework ahead of time. You need to be aware that most of the accessories on your potential coach need to be added to the base price of the vehicle in the NADA book—such as air conditioners, awnings, microwave, TVs, etc.—in order to arrive at the correct price. However, don't expect the same courtesy from a dealer when you go to trade in a used RV—likely you will get only the base wholesale value of the RV.

If you buy a used RV from a private party, a good place to start your negotiating price is half-way between high and low book (retail and wholesale), assuming of course, that the RV is in good shape and doesn’t have any noticeable defects. With this strategy, you get a better deal than at a dealer, and the seller gets more for his/her RV than if it was used as a trade-in—and both parties come out ahead. If you are buying a used RV from a dealer, the same advice applies (start negotiating in the middle of the price range), but be aware that most dealers will want to start out at full retail—something that you want to avoid.

And be very wary (i.e., walk away from) any motorhome than looks like the sides are delaminating (look lumpy or bubbly) or such damage has been fixed—usually meaning that the motorhome has (or had) water leaks from the outside. This problem is especially common on older motorhomes.

If you are planning on buying a particular used RV, you are well advised to have an independent RV mechanic/technician look over your intended selection. Remember that when buying a used RV, you are buying much more than a motor vehicle.

You should be confident that everything works (unless you are a good fix-it person with the appropriate knowledge and skills).

If your future choice of an RV has a rubber roof, have a qualified technician check it out to be sure that it is in good shape.

You need to be sure that the refrigerator works (on both electric and propane), and that the furnace works as well.

Then there is the water heater to check (some of them work on both electric and propane, whereas others work only on propane).

One of the most important things to check is that the fresh water system is in good repair and has no leaks.

You should be sure that the black and gray water tanks and piping are also in good repair, with no leaks and the tanks are not plugged up with goop. (A plugged up black water tank is a yukky and expensive mess to repair!)

For those RVs that have a built-in generator, you need to be certain that it has been maintained and is working properly.

If the RV has hydraulic levelers, be sure that they all work and that the seals are not leaking. (Some RVs have only three levelers— two in the back and one in the front, whereas most newer RVs have four levelers—two in the front and two in the rear.)

If your potential used RV has roof air conditioners and is more than about six years old, it is a good idea to check that the air conditioner covers are not badly cracked. After about five or six years, the continual bombardment of the sun deteriorates the plastic, which first cracks around the mounting bolts, and the covers will eventually break and fly off the roof as you are driving down the road—a dangerous situation for those driving beside or behind you.

If you are buying an older gas motorhome, please be aware that the engine is near the end of its useful life if the odometer has more than 80,000 miles on it. However, if you are mechanically inclined, you can buy a new or rebuilt engine at a fairly reasonable price. It is the labor charge for installation that often costs more than the engine.

For most of these checks, you would be well advised to have a certified RV technician check them out for you—the cost will be money well spent and save you many hours of grief and future check-writing fatigue.

Make sure that you take any prospective RV (new or used) on a test drive that is a lot more extensive than just a short trip around the block. While you are driving, be sure that all the automotive systems work, such as the heater and air conditioner. Make especially sure that the motorhome can stop without you needing to put both feet on the brake pedal, and that it stops in a straight line and doesn’t pull to one side or the other. Try to find a long, steep grade to climb, and be sure that the engine doesn’t overheat beyond safe levels, and that when coming back down the hill, you get sufficient engine braking (if the coach has a gas engine) and not a cloud of white smoke behind you. You would also be well advised to have a competent auto mechanic check out the condition of the engine, transmission, and brake systems of the RV. Though these checks by professionals will cost you a bit, think of it as very cheap insurance that may stop you from buying someone else’s expensive problem. Be safe, rather than sorry.

Remember—take your time, know what you want (and can afford), and then take even more time in finding just the right RV for you. You might find several RVs that meet your criteria, but you will “just know” when the right one comes along— if you have done your homework and not fallen in love with the first one that you saw or drove. Remember, when you finally succumb to the lure of an RV, you just may well be spending more for the RV than you did on your first home!

When buying an RV, either new or used, the old Latin phrase “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” is of utmost importance. If you are uninformed and ill-prepared, you are going to be taken advantage of by a salesperson anxious to make a quick buck. Remember, only you know what is best for you—and only after you have done your homework.

graphic of a stack of money

Back to Main Page

back to main page button