Before you kickstart your RV lifestyle, ask yourself these questions.
By Trent Jonas
Investing in a recreational vehicle (RV) is a big decision. Whether you're buying an older model that's used but still reliable or a shiny new Class A rig, there are several questions and considerations you should ruminate on before pulling the trigger. From financing options to your planned level of usage, here are eight things to think about before you put a deposit down on your RV.
The term “recreational vehicle” encompasses a lot of territory, ranging from toppers you slide into the bed of a pickup and pop-up camper trailers to Greyhound-bus-sized, Class A motorhomes—and everything in between. So, the first thing to think about before purchasing an RV is just what kind of RV you’re looking for and whether it suits your needs. If you’re not certain, attend an RV show or visit a large dealership with a variety of RVs. Once you have an idea of the type of RV you’re looking for, consider renting one for a few days from a place like CruiseAmerica or RVshare. Doing so affords you the opportunity to better determine what type of RV will best fit your needs.
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When thinking of purchasing an RV, you need to consider how you will use it. Are you imagining a few weekend camping trips at a nearby state park each summer, or are you planning to sell the house and hit the road? Do you want to stay in RV parks or communities, or is your plan to find a secluded site of a service road in a national forest? How you plan to use your RV will make a big difference in deciding what type of RV best suits your plans.
Another thing to consider before buying an RV is whether you’re prepared to do so. If you’re buying a larger, heavier motorhome, do you need to have a special license to drive it in the area(s) in which you want to use it? Do you have the experience necessary to safely operate—including backing and parking—a larger vehicle? If you’re looking at a trailer or tow-behind RV, is your tow vehicle prepared (i.e., does it have a tow package?) and rated to haul the weight of the RV you’re considering? Do you have the experience necessary to safely attach, detach, and tow a trailer the length and weight of the one you’re considering? These are the types of things you’ll need to take into account when deciding whether you’re prepared for RV ownership and what you’ll need to do in order to become prepared.
Class A through C motorhomes are self-propelled, with their own fuel needs and engines. Driving and maintaining these types of RVs can be considerably more expensive than driving and maintaining a passenger vehicle. And no matter what type of RV you have, even if it’s “just” a truck camper, there will always be some kind of seasonal maintenance to be done. Are you able to maintain your RV yourself, if not, how much can you afford to spend on annual maintenance and repairs? Do you have a place to store your RV? If not, how much can you afford to spend on annual storage fees? Getting your head around how much you can afford to maintain and store an RV can help you decide what kind of RV to purchase.
Because of the way that RVs tend to lose value, obtaining financing for your purchase is not as easy getting a loan to buy a car. Part of the reason for this is that there simply are not as many lenders out there who finance RV purchases are there are auto lenders. You should be prepared to put more money down on an RV purchase—think at least 10 percent—and pay a higher interest rate (because there’s less RV lending money out there) than you would for a home mortgage or auto loan.
Whether you choose to buy a brand-new RV or a used “classic” will probably come down to a combination of budget and personal preference. Clearly, you will likely save some money if you purchase a used RV, but then you have to be prepared to do an extremely thorough inspection to locate and uncover any existing or potential problems likely to cost you more time and money down the line. A new RV is less likely to have as many problems as a used rig, but you also have the problem, in most cases, of near-immediate depreciation in value. Some makes, Airstream and Scamp, for example, tend to hold their value better than others, so you may do a little better by purchasing a new model for only slightly more than you’d pay for an RV with years-worth of other people’s wear and tear on it.
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Once you’ve decided on the type of RV that you want, it’s time to start researching. Get a handle on how much you should be paying for it by looking at other models for sale—through both dealers and individuals—and checking the value range from a resource like NADA Guides or RV Trader. If the price isn’t where you think it should be, new or used, be prepared to negotiate. You’ll likely have to pay some mark-up, but you don’t need to put the seller’s kids through college.
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One thing to know about RV manufacturing is that the components are designed to be as light as possible in order to reduce weight. This means that they are not always made from the most solid of materials. So, whether you’re buying a new or used RV, you need to a do a thorough inspection before you hand over your hard-earned money. New or used, signs of interior moisture are the biggest red flags to look for when buying an RV. Check the interior with a moisture meter. Anything above 20 percent means there is a problem that needs attention. Look for signs of water damage or mold. Look for damage to floors. Bounce up and down in the kitchen, bathroom, or anywhere near water to check for soft spots. Inspect the exterior for damage, especially around window and door frames and vents. Always check the tires to make sure they are currently serviceable. Use the VIN number to get the vehicle’s history to see if it’s ever been involved in an accident. Finally, always try and buy from a reputable RV dealer, as they will often have the ability to fix any problems—or agree to do so—before you sign on the dotted line.