How to Buy an RV & What to Consider: Truth from Our Experience

Traveling in your very own RV is a dream for many people.  Having the freedom to drive the open road, stopping off here and there to explore, is the ultimate way to experience the country.  But before you jump into buying an RV, there are some things you should first consider – especially if you have never owned or driven an RV before!  From our experience growing up with RVs and buying our own RV, here is our top advice for people wanting to know how to buy and RV and what they should consider before taking the leap into RV travel & lifestyle!

** This post was published in 2018 and updated in 2021 **

Understand the Different Types of RVs

class b rv set up at a campground with bikes and gear find out how to buy

Growing up with a big family who all owned RVs, I’m quite knowledgeable when it comes down to the different types of RV options that are out there.  Plus, my parents have owned a number of RVs over the years and have shared with me some great insight into what people should consider.  The key is to really know what your needs are, and why type of vehicle will suit your needs – because everyone is different!

  • Camper Vans
  • Truck Campers
  • Travel Trailers
  • Fifth Wheels
  • Toyhaulers
  • Motorhomes

There’s a lot compare / contrast between these, so we created a whole blog post about the different types of RVs, campers and trailers!

Features of RV’s to Consider

There are so many different features out there to RVs, that it can actually be a little overwhelming!  The key is just taking the time to go out and do some RV shopping (which is quite fun actually) so you can get a feel for different layouts and features that you like best.

In the end, you need to find the right balance between all your needs vs. your wants & also your budget.  But another consideration is the convenience — the real reason you are buying your RV.  Is it just for a weekend getaway in the mountains, or are you wanting to actually live in your RV for an extended period of time?

photo of a class A rv bus style with slide outs parked at camp site - find out how to buy one
RV slide outs really increase the living space inside your vehicle!

These differing needs will help you decide on the different features of an RV that you want most.  Again, there are a LOT of features to RV’s – so instead of taking up this whole post to explain ALL the details, we actually wrote a whole post on RV features here.

But if you don’t have time to read the whole RV features post, here is a super quick list of some of the main features you should consider when looking to buy an RV:

  • Beds: Number & Types
  • Seating:  Types, Arrangement, Size
  • Kitchens, Appliances & Storage
  • Bathroom
  • Entertainment Systems (Inside & Out)
  • Slide-Outs
  • Electricity / Re-charging capabilities
  • Propane
  • Running water / tank
  • Waste holding tanks / cassettes
  • Hot water heater
  • Air-conditioning
  • Retractable awning
  • Automatic leveling system or manually level with blocks
  • Back-up camera & monitor
  • Fireplace
  • Clothes washers and dryer
  • Dishwasher
  • Basement storage
  • Window coverings
  • Flooring options

** If you want to read more details about these different features & the pros / cons to consider, read our post “Features of an RV:  What Do You Really Need”.

Balance What Works for Your Needs & Budget!

The key thing to keep in mind is balancing size, budget, and necessity for your lifestyle.  Obviously, the larger and more luxurious the RV, then the more expensive it will be!  Even if you have the money to afford that big fancy RV, remember that depending on your travel lifestyle, bigger RVs are not always better.

Large RVs are gas-guzzlers (ours gets about 7-8 miles per gallon), and big RVs are more difficult to maneuver – especially in urban areas or tight mountain roads.  It takes a lot more work to drive the big ones and you have to think of everything, even how you can get in and out of a gas station!

Plus, if you prefer to camp more in the wilderness and get off the main roads, then you will probably want a smaller more versatile RV because a lot of the bigger RVs can’t get into those tight places and in the backcountry. Even most State Parks and National Parks have size restrictions. For example, we could barely fit our RV into the Redwoods campgrounds – any larger and we would not have been able to camp under those majestic trees!

I can’t tell you how often we research great camping spots only to realize they have a maximum allowable size.  So you would be real bummed if your RV was too big to go where you want to take it!

older small rv parked overlooking the ocean find out if you should buy one

We have a 30 foot RV, and luckily it can actually fit a lot of places.  But still, we’ve run into issues booking places where they only have a 24 foot max.  Simply speaking, the super large bus-type class A RVs can’t go many places except for RV parks.  That’s disappointing for someone who would rather be closest to nature!  And that just adds to the cost…because RV parks are significantly more expensive than camping in the woods.

Shopping for an RV

When you find the right RV, you will know it.  But you have to get out and look at a lot of them before you really get a feel for what will work for you and your family.  We love going to RV lots, like Camping World, and just browsing around. Even after buying this RV we have now, we still go looking at RVs just for fun.  My parent’s say “you are always looking for your next RV.”  They should know, they’ve upgraded like 6 times now!

Even if you aren’t ready to buy and RV yet, still you should definitely start looking.  Get in there, test it out.  Look in the cabinets, lay in the beds, sit in the seats.  Imagine what it would be like to stay in there.  After a while you will start to get a feel for what layouts you prefer.

Lastly, while doing out browsing, think about how your family spends their time and how you will all use the space.  Then of course, and consider the different features that are a must or just nice-to-have.  And of course, look at the prices and get an idea of what your budget will be.

Once you are ready to buy and RV, you may choose to purchase from a big lot or you can buy privately from another owner (definitely a more economical way to go).  There are also some good websites too, like RV Trader (similar to Auto Trader), but you may find RVs that are quite a distance away from where you live.

How Much Does it Cost to Buy an RV?

If you haven’t already checked into prices and don’t have any idea what RVs cost…well you might be in for a surprise. RVs are not cheap, in the slightest. In fact, it can be mind-boggling how much some RVs cost!

Keep in mind there is a huge difference between the type of RV you buy and the price. For example, if you get a tow-behind travel trailer, then those are actually much more affordable. You can get budget-friendly tent pop-up trailers for just a few thousand dollars, and even some bigger and quite nice travel trailers for $10,000+ depending on how fancy and how new it is. 

However, that means that you also need to have a car / truck that is capable of towing it. And you might also need to invest in equipment to tow it safely as well. And if you realize that you need to buy another car to tow it, well then that just increased your costs even more!

Driveable Motorhomes Are the Most Expensive

But when you come to the drivable motorhomes, that’s when the price goes up exponentially! Drivable RVs or “motorhomes” are like buying both a car and your RV together in one machine – so they are more expensive.

It’s true you could spend around $10,000 for one of motorhomes, but likely it will be quite old and probably not in very good condition. If you are a handy person and don’t mind having an older RV that needs work, you could probably get something for less than $20,000. But if you want something newer with modern amenities then you will likely need to spend at least $40,000 – $50,000 minimum! And that’s still if you find a motorhome that’s a few years older. 

New RVs can range anywhere from $70,000 – $200,000+! Seriously, a lot of those fancy ones you see cost more than a basic house! It’s nuts, but true. 

During your time RV shopping, you should start to get an idea of the price ranges.  As always, it’s finding a balance between the RV you want, and how much you have to spend.  But the thing to keep in mind is that an RV is NOT like a car. 

We named our new RV “Eva” — which came from a texting typo…and we just decided to keep it!

Budgeting & Paying for an RV – Not the Same as an Automobile

First of all, banks will not finance you the same for an RV as they do for a car.  In fact, it is more difficult to get financing because they consider RV’s a luxury item.  So your rates and the amount you need to put down on the RV could be surprising if you were using auto-payment calculators online.

We found this out first hand when buying our RV.  Josh and I have pretty non-standard jobs, and while we could easily buy a car anywhere, we discovered that it wasn’t so easy to actually buy our RV.  We ended up having to track down a lot of paperwork to prove our income (due to our unique situation) and we had to finance it a different way than what most people do.

In the end, it worked out fine for us (and probably better than what we were initially going to do).  But still, it was a surprise because we assumed it would be just like buying a car! But no – it was a lot more work to get a loan to buy an RV. Banks think of it almost like a mortgage!

Where to Buy an RV? Private Seller vs. Dealer?

As with many things, you will be able to get a much better price if you buy an RV from a private seller. However, the problem is that depending on the price and value it could be a bigger pain. For example, if the RV you are buying is $40,000 and you need to get a loan to pay for your RV, then you might have a more difficult time doing it on your own versus going direct through a dealership. 

The same is true if the people selling it to you have a loan out on the RV too. For example, if they have a loan then they don’t have the title – the bank does. So that can really complicate the transaction if you are also paying with a loan and the people selling it have a loan. 

For us, this really can complicate the situation. If it was a cheaper RV, say $10,000 or even $15,000 then and the sellers have it paid off then it might be different if we were just paying cash. But when you are dealing with loans it’s totally different. 

Because we spent more than that on our first RV (and other RVs we have bought since), we always found it easier to go directly through a dealership. Yes – I know we paid more. But the hassle just would have been too much for us. 

It’s Not Just the Cost of the RV, Can You Afford to USE It?!?

Lastly, you need to think about the entire cost of actually using the RV!

RV’s are not cheap to buy, maintain, park, or drive.

What’s the good in buying one if you can’t afford to take it out of the driveway?!?  Factor in how many trips you may go on, and what the cost of gas may be (keeping in mind larger vehicles may get worse gas mileage).

Also, think about the type of travel you will do and where you will want to stay.  If you like to stay in more rural areas, camping in the wilderness or on forest service land, then the cost is quite affordable.  But if you want full hook-ups and amenities at RV parks, then you could expect to pay anywhere from $30 per night to $100+ per night!  Lastly, get some estimates on insurance for the RV because it’s different than auto insurance rates.  Overall, we found that insurance was fairly affordable compared to our car (because it’s driven less).

Then there are the maintenance and storage fees…which I’ll talk about next.

Other Considerations for Buying an RV

There are actually a number of other considerations to buying and owning an RV. Here are some other things that you might not have thought of that we have realized through our own experience. 

Parking an RV When Not Using It

One of the other key considerations before you buy and RV should be where where will store it.   If you have a lot of parking around your home, that’s great!  But unfortunately, some HOA’s don’t even allow RVs to be parked on property!  Crazy, I know.

For us, we actually live in the city and there just isn’t room to park the RV at our house (there’s barely room to park our car!).  So we had to rent a spot in a storage facility to park our RV.  We were lucky to find the last available 30 foot spot at a facility which is only a few minutes away from our house, and it’s actually affordable compared to some places we researched.  But still, another monthly expense that we had to factor into the cost.

Owning an RV is Work

Even though traveling in an RV is a lot of fun, you should also be the type of person who is ready for work…because an RV is work!  You will need to learn about how everything works, and how to maintain it.  From preparing it for the winter (if you live in a cold climate), to knowing how to trouble shoot if the fridge stops working, to understanding how to hook up your sewer connection!

You gotta be a bit handy if you want an RV, and you need to be able to research and learn how to do things yourself.  While there’s some things you can pay for, such as winterization each year, you will have to know how to hook up your sewer & fill it with water!

Josh hooks up our RV to the water, electric and sewer…and Hana supervises!

RV Maintenance – It’s Not Cheap

Lastly, be prepared to spend some cash to maintain the RV.  Even though my parent’s have had RVs for years and love them, they told me RVs are basically a money pit.  And, they were right.  You will have all these ongoing maintenance expenses and special (and expensive) RV accessories you need to buy PLUS the cost to actually use the darn thing! While our RV has been great, it always seems there are little things we have to work on or replace.  After both our first trip in our RV and our first winterization, we were already finding all sorts of things that needed to be fixed.

While the RV will be worth something when you sell it, you won’t get out what you put in.  So again, be sure you have the finances to support surprising RV costs…because they will come up!

RVs Are Depreciating Assets…a Lot! Be Careful With Loans

While many cars depreciate in value, RVs depreciate to an extreme! This is especially true if you buy a brand new RV. It’s actually astonishing how much a new RV costs and how much it’s worth just even one year later. In fact, a lot of people who finance an RV end up being upside down on the loan when they sell it or trade it in just because of how fast they depreciate.

For that reason, you really should think about how much you want to pay and how you actually pay for it. A lot of RV loans are spread across 12 years. That may seem great, but you may not be paying much toward the principal and getting nowhere fast.

A lot of people recommend paying cash for an RV because of this reason. And I don’t disagree with that. However, if you are buying an expensive one then cash flow could be a concern – which is why we ended up financing ours. 

Buying a New RV is Not Always Better

Unfortunately, RVs are not manufactured with the best of quality. Especially now with the demand so high they are really pumping them out as fast as they can! Unlike new cars (which can still have issues) we are amazed at the stories we constantly hear from people who bought brand new RVs and had so many things not work or break right away. I mean…a LOT!!! 

And what’s even worse is that when they take them back in to get worked on, it can be months (yes months) before they can even do the work. In fact, I just recently heard a story of someone who bought a new travel trailer and have been paying for it for nearly one year now…and they were only able to take it out once. It’s been in the shop getting warranty work and waiting on parts for over 8 months now! Needless to say, they were beyond upset and wanted to sell it and buy a used one. 

From our experience, it’s better to buy a used RV that has had some of the kinks worked out of it already. 

Buying vs. Renting an RV

If you aren’t sure that you are ready to purchase an RV just yet, then renting an RV is a great way to test the waters!  Or even if you know you’ll love it but figure you’ll only take a few trips a year, then renting might be an economical and less stressful way to go.

There are many websites where you can book RV rentals.  Outdoorsy is one option that we really like.  They are kinda like an Airbnb or RVs – where individuals rent them out.  What we like about them is that you have a lot more options to choose from, and they have insurance for you.  Plus you aren’t driving around with a giant billboard painted on the outside of the vehicle!

And if you have never used an RV before, don’t worry – you will get a tutorial on how everything works before you take it out on the road.  While it is expensive to rent an RV versus driving and getting a hotel, it’s the RV experience that many people are looking for.  Plus, it’s just more fun sometimes!  But overall it’s much less expensive than buying an RV outright.

** We have actually rented through Outdoorsy recently when we were going on a weekend trip and wanted to try out a campervan to see how we liked it. Outdoorsy was really easy to use and we had a great experience!!!

back of our campervan rental with dog and josh looking out at ocean
We had a fun weekend renting this campervan on Florida’s east coast through Outdoorsy!

Should I Buy an RV? It Really Depends!

I hope this has helped you think about some of the considerations when it comes to buying an RV. When it comes to making the right decision for you about buying an RV, then it really depends on your own personal reasons why. We can’t tell you exactly if it’s right for you or not.

It really depends on how you plan to use it and how often you plan to use it. To be honest, if you don’t plan to use your RV very often then it might not be worth the cost. Also, if cash is tight for you then an RV might not be a good idea because they are incredibly costly to buy and maintain. 

Some people say RVs are not worth the money. In the end, you have to really want the experience of traveling in an RV and be ok with losing money on it…because you will. But if the experience is worth it to you and you have the money, then I wouldn’t worry about it!

For us, we knew that we were going to use an RV quite a lot! And we knew that we wanted a class C motorhome that was around 30 feet in length.  While we love the space, I admit there are times we do wish it was a little smaller.  But we definitely drool over some of the big beautiful ones too!

Our layout is quite unique from many of the ones we’ve seen (and we’ve seen a lot of RVs).  This layout suits our needs perfectly…which is why we bought it so quickly.  We’ve taken our RV all over the country and while it’s been a great experience overall, you do have to be prepared for unexpected repairs (which can be quite costly) and sometimes frustrations.  But still, we wouldn’t trade it in because it fits us and our lifestyle perfectly!

In fact, I’m writing this post as I sit on our patio under the awning of our RV, look out at Big Bear Lake here in California.  It’s a beautiful day, and I love being able to take our “home” with us wherever we want to travel.   

What Are Your Reasons for Buying an RV?

Everyone might have different reasons for buying an RV. For us, we knew we wanted to be able to travel more freely and be able to stay longer and explore more since we can work remote. We also wanted to have a dog-friendly option without having to worry about finding hotels that would accept our dog and having her feel comfortable staying in an RV rather than a hotel if we left her for a couple hours to go out to dinner, etc. 

It’s possible your reasons might be similar to ours. Or maybe you have your own. Regardless, once you understand your reasons then that will help you determine what type of RV is best suited for the way you want to travel. Plus of course…your budget. 

 


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