With the camping season coming to an end, fall and winter are the best seasons to find deals on an RV or motorhome, experts say. Whether you’re shopping for a light-weight, popup trailer for the family or an RV motorhome with luxurious amenities, buying a second- or third-hand unit can free you from camping with a tent and keep your love of the great outdoors affordable.
Buying a new RV or travel trailer will cost you a lot more than buying used. A top of the line 28-foot Airstream Land Yacht (you know, the sleek stainless steel metal kind) can start at $146,000 and a Motorhome RV can run up to $1 million. New units may also depreciate very quickly.
For most Americans, especially those who only go on a handful of camping trips a year, shopping for an affordable “used” unit might be the best option.
So how do you find a good, used camper trailer or RV?
Here are some tips from the experts.
Research reviews and options
Read online reviews on the different kinds of camper trailers and RVs. There are many RV and camper/travel trailer blogs that rate newer and older units and you’ll quickly get a sense of the differences between manufacturers. You’ll learn what people with broken in campers have to say about them, sometimes with brutal honesty.
Classifieds listing sites like Craigslist, RVT.com, RV.net, rvtraderonline.com, GoRVing.com, and others can educate you on what’s a fair price for all of the different makes, models and manufacturing years. While buying from a private owner is generally less expensive than a dealer - that’s not always the case - especially if the owner purchased the unit new and still has an outstanding loan on it.
AARP recommends checking with local RV clubs along with visiting RV and trailer. These RV shows let you compare units side by side, get a feel for options, and peruse the layout first hand. If you want to buy used, remember that older models may differ from the newer ones displayed at these shows.
>> Related story: What’s the difference between insuring RVs, motorhomes and trailer campers?
Determine your wants and needs
Camping can be as rustic or as comfortable as you like and with so many makes and models, your unit can reflect your personality and lifestyle.
The first question to figure out is whether you want to by an RV/motorhome or a pull-it-yourself camper trailer.
An RV motorhome allows you to jump in, turn the key and cruise to your next adventure with more ease and comfort. Motorized RVs are easier to maneuver than a pulling a camper trailer and setting up at a campsite is much easier.
The biggest drawback is cost since an RV is basically a truck with a house on it. More mechanics means more maintenance and higher repair costs. You should also consider whether you want to tow a second vehicle behind your RV as it will make it easier to explore the area once you’re set up at a campground or RV park. Conversely, a camper trailer tends to be less expensive to maintain, especially if it’s been stored away for several months during the offseason.
There are many options to choose from. Consider the following:
- Will you want to tow a car or be able to bring a motorcycle or bicycles when you travel?
- How many people should your camper or RV accommodate?
- Do you want additional options such as electrically operated drop down bunks or self-leveling jacks?
- What kind of kitchen accommodations do you need, including a larger refrigerator and storage?
- Should the unit have its own generator system so you can light things up anywhere you go?
- Do you want or need an entertainment center?
If you’re shopping for a used unit, prioritize your “want” list as you probably won’t be able to cherry-pick options like you could when buying a new RV or camper.
How will you pay for it?
This is where new vs. used RVs and campers differ greatly. A loan for a new RV or camper is usually based on the amount you need to finance and the age of the unit. A new RV or camper can be financed for 20 years (usually if more than $100,000), but loans between $10,000 and $25,000 may only qualify for 10-12 years maximum.
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Check with your bank and credit unions to understand their rates and how loans work. If you buy from a dealer, their rates and loan terms may vary.
Whether you pay for the unit with cash or get a loan, there are other expenses to consider, including:
You’ll need RV insurance year round, but in some cases, you can reduce coverage when it’s mothballed 2-3 seasons of the year. On the flip side, if you plan to travel the roadways full time, expect that you’ll need to shop for specialty insurance. You’ll also need additional coverage, to fully cover your contents. When shopping for insurance, also consider additional options such as towing coverage, trip coverage, etc.
The cost of filling up your motorized RV or even pulling a heavy trailer can add up. RV-Roadtrips.com estimates diesel motorhomes get less than 10 mpg while a smaller class RV will average 15 mpg.
Repair and maintenance
Any trucker will tell you that the general rule of thumb is the bigger the vehicle - the bigger the repair bill. Oil changes, tires, and other servicing costs add up quickly so be prepared to shell out more.
Parking and camping costs
Parks and campgrounds for RVs can also pinch the wallet, sometimes more than an economy hotel. If you go to an RV resort, you could pay close to $75 or $100 per night. Some parks will charge extra per person, and tack on additional charges including premium cable television hookups.
What will you do with your RV or camper trailer offseason? If you have a large yard, you’re all set. If not, you may have to store it at a special location and incur some monthly or seasonal charges to do so.
Kick the tires
Once you’ve found an RV or camper trailer, you’ll want to inspect it closely. It’s a lot like buying a car, but more to worry about. Here’s what to look for:
If you’re buying an RV motorhome, do a VIN history check to see if it’s been in an accident. DMV.org currently offers that service for about $25 but compare services on other sites. Hopefully, the seller will be honest with you so ask him or her if the unit has been in an accident or damaged. Also look for signs that major components have been replaced or paint that may not match the rest of the body.
Wear and tear
Look for cracked tires, brake line wear, fluid leaks, condition of the hitching mount, spare tire wear and check the roof for damage and leaks, according to WikiHow. Examine the engine and see if it’s clean. Consider bringing the unit to a qualified garage to have a mechanic go over it. Buying an RV motorhome, or camper is an investment and may be worth the extra check. Consider asking the owner to borrow a garden hose and water down the unit, and then check for leaks.
Test drive it
Give it a good road test and listen for problems, check the brakes and steering. Get a sense for whether you’d enjoy driving it for extended periods. Does it have enough get up? Also, check the engine after you drive it and look for leaks beneath the vehicle.
By now you should know whether the asking price is a fair one or not. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Generally, the best time to buy an RV or camper is in the fall or early winter when demand is much lower and a seller doesn’t want to pay winter storage fees and prep it for spring and summer. Either way, try to chew down the seller a bit to save some additional costs.
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Additional sources used in this story:
Frequently asked RV financing questions
RV Budget: Costs and expenses worth considering