Buying An RV: An Expert’s Guide (during every step of the process)

So you’re thinking of buying an RV. You might be here because you want to learn more about the process. Or you’re wanting to know the research you should do before walking into the dealership. Regardless, I’ve written this article to answer those questions.

Having been through the process myself, I figured I could add my own personal insight. In addition, I spent time listening to and reading about other’s experiences to give you some well rounded advice.

An overview of an RV dealership, where people are buying an RV.

Around half a million people bought a motorhome last year, and I can guarantee that most of them weren’t prepared for the process. I don’t want you to be one of those people, I want to help you get the best deal possible!

But enough talk, let’s get down to business below…

Table of Contents

Before Buying an RV

Before you head to the dealership there’s a few things you should plan on doing beforehand. It’s important that you do some planning to make sure that you purchase the right motorhome, at the right price, with the right features, at the right time.

Know Your Budget

I can’t stress this one enough. Know how much you want to spend on an RV, because once you drive off the lot, you’ll be paying it off for at least the next decade. Plus, knowing the numbers helps you separate emotion from the buying process. Emotional decisions often lead to people spending more money than they actually have.

The first piece of information you want to take into account here is monthly payments. Or if you’re buying a used RV in cash, how much you want to dish out up front. But that’s not the only thing you’re paying for.

Going through your budget and deciding what you can afford is an important part of buying an RV.
Sorting through your finances to see what you can afford is an important part of buying an RV.

You’ll pay for the registration of the vehicle, the price of which varies from place to place. Plus, you’ll pay for any special licensing or endorsements that your state requires, such as a CDL.

Then there’s the cost of insurance. And don’t forget that you’ll want roadside assistance in case you’re ever in an emergency.

And finally, don’t forget the cost of using the vehicle. Storage, fuel, campground fees, and general maintenance. They’re all expenses you should be aware of before buying. Make sure you can afford your monthly payments AND the cost to maintain and use your purchase.

Figure Out the General Type of RV You Want

This is another big one that I wish I had known beforehand. You’ll want to consider what you’ll be using your rig for, and that’ll help you decide on what rig you’d like to purchase. For example:

Two RVs at an RV park.
You’ll need to decide if you’re planning on staying in an RV park like this one, or boondocking.
  • Are you going to be renting out your RV when you’re not using it? In that case you might look for a simple, used motorhome with more manual components that are less likely to break. Or are you going to be living in it full-time? In which case you’ll want to find something with lots of space and amenities that will help bring over the comforts of home.
  • Are you planning on taking your rig to an RV park with full hookups everytime? Or are you going to be boondocking in the mountains? If the latter’s the case, you want to make sure that you have large water tanks for showers and solar power for the A/C. The last thing you want is your trip cut short because your motorhome’s batteries ran out of juice.
  • How much space do you need? I don’t have any kids which means my wife and I are more than comfortable in a Class B or small travel trailer. But if you have children, you’ll need something big, like a fifth wheel or Class A rig. And if you’re going to be RVing full time, more space and storage is a necessity.

Make a list of things you want or need. And then be ready to decide what is necessary. I know it can be difficult, and even seem unnecessary, but doing this you’ll be happier with your final choice.

Choose a Class of RV

Now that you’ve decided on things that you need in your rig, you’ll want to research and physically walk through different types of motorhomes. There are 8 main types of vehicles, and each will have its own pros and cons. Here’s a quick rundown of each one:

A class A RV on the road, traveling somewhere through the desert.
A Class A RV on the road.
  • Class A – These are the large, motorized rigs that look like a bus. They’re the pinnacle of comfort and space in the industry, but also the most expensive. Most full-time RVers (even those with families) go with one of these or a fifth wheel. Remember, you’ll be driving this behemoth to the grocery store on your trips unless you’d like to tow a personal vehicle.
  • Class B – These are like large vans, with everything you’d want from home stuffed inside. Yes, even a bathroom. They’re easy to drive and more fuel efficient than most other rigs, but they won’t fit more than 2 people at a time. I’d honestly feel crowded if I went full time in one of these.
  • Class C – These are the main type of RVs that companies like Cruise America rent out. They’re extremely popular due to their unique blend of space, comfort, and maneuverability on the road.
  • Campervans – Ah yes, I’m sure you know about these. They’re all the rage amongst modern day nomads. I like the fact that they’re small enough you can stop them in a regular parking stall and squeeze into tough camping spots. But despite that maneuverability, going without a toilet or shower is not my forté.
  • Travel Trailers – Travel trailers are pulled behind your truck or SUV, and are the standard when it comes to towables. Larger models have plenty of space for the family for a camping trip, and you’ll still have your shower, toilet, and kitchen. I’ve found that you’ll definitely need a truck to pull larger models, and you’ll need to make sure your vehicle can handle the load.
  • Fifth Wheels – These trailers are popular amongst full-time RVers. They contain a lot of space, and are great for families. I like these the most because all your amenities are a little larger. You’re not squeezed into a tiny bathroom and have some counter space in the kitchen. But, they are more expensive than other trailers, and you’ll have to pay to have a special hitch installed in the bed of your truck.
  • Toy Haulers – Now, if you want to hit the road and bring your motorbike or ATV, a toy hauler is for you. They have a space in the back that converts into a makeshift “garage”. But as fun as bringing along those toys is, dealing with mud and the smell of exhaust fumes isn’t  my favorite.
  • Pop-Up Campers – If you want a rig that’s similar to tent camping, but offers you an actual bed to sleep on, and even a bathroom in some models, these guys are for you. I’ve seen models that come out brand new for under $10,000, so they’re also super affordable. But, that being said, they don’t hold up to the elements as well as a hard sided camper and aren’t ideal for cold weather.
A fifth wheel parked in a RV campground with a deck out front.
An older fifth wheel with a porch out front.

Now I know that this list isn’t necessarily exhaustive by any means, but it should help you get a start on figuring out what type of RV you’re looking for. If you want more details, check out my article on the different types of RVs.

PRO-TIP: I would highly suggest renting out an RV or two during this period to make sure that you’re happy with your choice. Outdoorsy and RV Share are both popular rental platforms.

New vs. Used

This is another big question that many potential buyers have. I had it myself. Should you buy new or used.

A new RV can be a great choice for multiple reasons. First and foremost being that there isn’t any wear and tear on the vehicle. No one’s been using it which means you won’t have to worry about major damage or repairs. That being said, you’ll still need to expect to make small fixes. New RVs have to work out some “kinks” for a few years, and you’ll be making small fixes or patches here and there.

New RVs are also a lot easier to finance and insure. Since you’ll be pulling a secured loan, your motorhome will be used as collateral in the case that you don’t make your payments. A newer rig is a lot more valuable and a safer investment for a bank than an old one.

One thing I don’t like about buying an RV brand new, is the huge hit in depreciation you get your first two years. Your motorhome will lose as much as 20% the day you drive it off the lot, and another 20% it’s second year.

Purchasing a brand new RV at a dealership.  There's several Class Cs out front.

A used RV is a lot cheaper than a new one. And, with the internet they’re not hard to find. Used motorhomes can be found on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, in RV forums, and online classifieds. I use RV Trader while researching different rigs, and there’s no shortage of great deals on there.

PRO-TIP: With the RV market being hotter than ever, you’ll need to jump on good deals quickly. You can actually set reminders and alerts on Facebook and RV Trader that will notify you as soon as an RV you might be interested in hits the market.

Another advantage of buying used is the fact that most of the kinks have been worked out. If you buy a relatively new motorhome that’s been well maintained, you’ll be making less fixes than if you had just bought a brand new one. Barring major repairs of course.

Now that being said, buying a used RV isn’t a cakewalk. You’ll have trouble insuring a rig over 10 years old. And don’t even think about financing it. At the 10 year mark RVs take a 20% hit in depreciation, and because of this, most banks and credit unions won’t take the risk.

Used RVs at an RV show.

Some institutions even consider a used motorhome with 60,000 miles as “high mileage”, even if it’s only a few years old. And in this case you’re going to get some pushback.

Used rigs also require a more thorough inspection,  especially if you don’t know who you’re buying it from.. I’ve heard of (though never met)  people out there that buy RVs with significant damage and hide it with shoddy repairs. You want to notice this and avoid purchasing that rig

My personal suggestion when it comes to new vs. used rigs, is that you should look for a motorhome that’s 3 years old. You’ll be able to buy it cheaper, and it still should be in great condition. On top of that, it’s already taken its major hit in depreciation over the first 2 years, meaning you’ll be able to retain more of its current value over time.

Select a Few Models You’re Interested In

Now that you’ve done some research on which general class of RV you’d like to buy, it’s time to narrow your search down.

I like to browse Facebook groups and forums for people’s opinions on certain brands. You can even make a post yourself, most RVers are eager to help. This is a great way to narrow down your selection. It also gives you a heads up about the pitfalls of certain makes and models before you learn from experience.

Once you do this, it’s going to be a lot easier to select that final rig.

Look at Different Floor Plans

Once you’ve decided on a few models, focus on floorplans. Things like awnings and towing setups can always be added on, so you’ll want to focus on things more related to the layout of the rig. Features like a walk around queen, space for a washer and dryer, sleeping capacity, and the size of the kitchen or bathroom.

The inside of a Class A RV.
The inside of Fifth Wheels and Class A RVs are large, luxurious, and extremely comfortable.

I’ve found that most manufacturers will actually put their available floorplans on their website. This makes it easy to quickly browse and decide whether that specific layout fits your taste.

I also suggest visiting RV shows. I’m not looking to buy when I’m there, but it allows me to walk through a lot of motorhomes in a day or so, and get a feel for each one.  A lot of times a layout feels different when you’re physically there. Maybe the bathroom’s smaller than I expected, or there’s more room in the bedroom than I thought. Either way, it’s a hands-on approach that gives you more personal insight.

Know the Price

This is another thing you should know before even walking into a dealership or talking with a private seller. Know the price.

The last thing that you want is to be sold a bad deal. I like to use online marketplaces like RV Trader to research pricing. You can quickly browse dealerships across the country for an overview of the price of a specific model.

Another great resource if you’re buying used is NADA. This website gives you the current market value of everything from travel trailers to Class A rigs. I like to think of it as the Kelley Blue Books of the RV world.

Here’s a pro-tip. If you’re planning on buying used, you’re competing with a hot market right now. I’ve heard of motorhomes selling within a few hours! I recommend setting up notifications on sites like RV Trader and Facebook Marketplace so you can jump on and check out these deals fast. If you want a few days to think about it, try offering the seller a small, refundable deposit to show you’re serious.

Consider Financing Before Going to the Dealership

This is a big one for a couple of different reasons.

Applying for a loan before purchasing a motorhome.

First, it gives you a heads up if you have any problems with your credit or loan. You’ll be able to see the amount the lender is willing to give. If you’re buying used, you’ll figure out if they’ll even give you a loan.

I wish I had done this before shopping for a campervan years ago. Since it was my first auto loan the dealership had a difficult time finding a lender. And with so many applications it ended up damaging my credit temporarily. I ended up with a pretty good rate, but it was a stressful experience nonetheless.

The second reason to consider financing beforehand is the fact that you’ll walk into the dealership with some leverage. You’ll let them know that financing is already taken care of and see if they’re willing to give you a better rate. On top of that, with financing in hand, they can’t persuade you to purchase more than your wallet can handle.

To find financing before heading to the dealership, I’d suggest looking at online lenders or visiting your local credit union.

PRO-TIP: Typically you’ll pay off your rig over the space of 10-15 years. However, there is an option here for a 20 year term. While the lower monthly payments are enticing, I wouldn’t recommend going for a loan of this length. In the end, you’ll end up owing more than the RV is actually worth

Time Your Purchase

Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to a few models you’re interested in, you know the price, and you’ve got financing in hand. The only thing left to do is time your purchase!

Why? Because dealerships often offer a better deal at the end of a quarter in order to meet quotas.

I think the best time to head over is at the very end of December. Think about it this way, swimsuits are often on sale during the winter. Why, because it’s the off-season. RVs are a lot like swimsuits in this sense, and you’ll get the best deal during the offseason.

Buying an RV during the winter is a great time to get a deal.

During the Buying Process

Alright, you’re here. You’re at the dealership or private seller’s residence and you’re ready to buy. You know which model of RV you want, you like the floorplan, you know the price, and you’ve even come with financing in hand. But now what?

The buying process is your opportunity to negotiate the best deal you can. Now I get it, not everyone haggles, and I’m not a fan of it myself. But there’s a few easy tricks I’ve learned that you should know.

Never Settle For the MSRP

If you’ve done your homework, you’ll already know that there’s tons of dealers out there that are not selling their motorhomes at MSRP. So you shouldn’t need to buy it at this price either.

An RV salesman showing a specific model of Class A.

The previous rule of thumb was to shoot for buying an RV at 40% of the MSRP. But with today’s hot market, I’d recommend shooting closer to 25%-32%. And if doing your research has revealed a higher or lower price for a certain rig, shoot for that benchmark.

Salesmen like to ask you what your budget is. Don’t answer this question, instead show the model you’re interested in and ask what the best they can do is. If that price matches your research, great, take the deal! If not, ask them if they can meet you at that price. If they won’t but you still want to buy, ask them to throw in some extra accessories you’d like included.

Decide Whether You’d Like Additional Warranties

This is totally up to you! Additional warranties help you cover repairs on things like blown-out tires, a failing transmission, or a faulty water system.

The manufacturer typically provides you with a warranty on workmanship for up to a year, and on the structure for up to three years. An extended warranty lengthens this amount of time, with many dealers offering an extension that’s good for the life of the vehicle.

Dealerships offer these after you’ve agreed upon the price of the motorhome. Oftentimes they’ll package these into a few different options with set payments and deductibles. When it comes time for a repair you’ll only pay the deductible out of pocket and the warranty will take care of the rest.

Checking an RV vent.

While extended coverage from your dealership does sound great, they do come with a few stipulations. Oftentimes you’ll be required to inspect your RV once a year, which can cost $300 and up.

In addition, repairs can take a long time. I’ve heard a mix of thoughts on why this is. First is problems with backordered parts and pieces. The other being that since it’s warranty work, the dealership won’t prioritize it since they get paid more for other repairs. If you’re RVing full-time, this can throw a serious wrench in your plans and you’ll have to find a new place to stay while you wait.

But don’t despair! You can actually buy extended warranties and coverage plans for your RV from third party companies. I’ve heard great things about America’s RV Warranty and Good Sam.

Inspect Your Rig

Before finally signing papers, insist on inspecting your rig! You’ll want to make sure that there aren’t any unnoticed problems. Document everything with photos and videos.

New RVs typically sit in the manufacturer and dealer’s lot for months. Make sure that the batteries work and check the age on the tires as well. The last thing you want to do is be replacing one of these two months after you take ownership.

A man personally inspecting his RV and its air conditioner.
You’ll want to inspect things like the air conditioner to make sure it works.

If you’re buying an RV used, you’ll want to be looking for signs of wear and tear. When dealing with a private seller, ask them to show you the features of RV to make sure they work. You’ll want to be as thorough as possible here. Here’s a list of things to look for.

  • Axles: Make sure that they bend slightly upward when the motorhome is empty. If they’re straight, that’s a sign that the previous owner may have overloaded it in the past.
  • Frame: Make sure that it looks straight and check for rust.
  • Water Damage: This is a big one! You want to check for watermarks across the ceiling, in the cupboards, around the trim and windows, etc. Apply pressure to the walls and floor to check for mushiness. Inspect the exterior for delamination, broken seals, and warped panels.
  • Roof: You’ll want to climb up and check the roof for any cracks, broken skylights or vents, and failing seals.
  • Awning: Check that the switch or button for the awning works and that it fully extends. Also, make sure it folds back into the RV without any hang-ups.
  • Electrical: Make sure that all the switches, plugs, appliances, lights, and breakers function.
  • Appliances: You need to ensure that the A/C, heater, water heater, stove, fridge, and any other appliances are functioning correctly.

When buying used, I also suggest hiring a private RV inspector to look at the motorhome. In addition to helping you understand the condition it’s in, they can also check hang ups with the title and see if the warranty has expired. I’ve found inspectors using NRVIA or RV Inspection Connection.

A personal testimonial about an RV inspection.
A personal experience I read about using a professional RV inspector.

Typically you’re looking at around $450-$600, although this varies depending on the inspector and where you’re located. Now I get it, $600 might seem excessive, but an inspection can end up saving you from major repairs or give you a heads up on big fixes coming your way. If he/she does find something wrong, you can also use this to negotiate price with the seller.

Sign Papers

Alright! Now that all the preliminary negotiating and inspections are done, it’s time to sign papers. Make sure that you aren’t rushed and have time to thoroughly read through everything. The last thing you want to do is sign something and realize you made a major mistake later on.

I recommend grabbing a babysitter to take care of your kids and setting aside plenty of time to take care of this.

Signing to purchase an RV at a dealership.

After Purchasing a Motorhome

Congratulations! You officially own your new home on wheels! Whether you’re going full-time or are planning on using your new rig for summer trips, I know how exciting this moment is. However, there’s a few last things you should make sure of before you take off on your first trip:

Make Sure the Dealership Finished Their Punch List

Final RV inspection checklist before it goes out the door.
During the dealership’s punch list they’ll make small repairs and make sure the RV is ready to go.

When you buy an RV, dealerships perform a final inspection and make any last repairs before sending your rig out the door. This is typically referred to as their “punch list”. You want to make sure that they finish this up, and perform one more inspection before taking off.

Occasionally they’ll be waiting on a part and will invite you to take off and come back when they receive it. I don’t recommend doing this. You’ll end up waiting for months before anything actually gets done and it ends up being more of a hassle than anything.

Take Delivery

After the dealership has finished up their punch list, it’s time to pick it up. Some dealers have delivery sites that you’ll drive to, others will have you come to the lot.

This is when you’ll get a run through of how to use your motorhome. They’ll cover things like how to turn on the generator, use the water system, put out the awning, and hook up your tow vehicle. I’d recommend videoing the instructions or taking notes since you’ll be flooded with information. Most of which I promptly forgot after my walkthrough.

I’d recommend seeing if the dealership will let you spend the night in your purchased RV on their lot. This gives you time to move your things over, take a shower, cook a meal, and try things out. If you forget how to do something or notice any last minute issues, it also gives you the chance to get those resolved the next morning..

Buy Your Accessories

The last thing you need to do before you leave for your first trip is pick up a few essentials. You want to go buy things like leveling pads, a GPS, a cell phone booster, and a basic set of tools. You’ll want to prepare, but don’t worry, you’ll miss a thing or two. It took me months before I felt like I had everything that I needed.

Go Hit the Road!

That’s it! After buying some accessories you’re ready for your first trip. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!Buying an RV isn’t hard, but hopefully I was able to give you some new insight into the process.

Hitting the road for the first roadtrip.

If you’re still shopping around and don’t want to spend a fortune, I’d recommend checking out my list of 16 cheap RVs!