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New RV shopping tips from a former RV salesperson

How do you shop for a new RV? What are some of the most important things to consider when buying a new RV? 

As many of you know, I used to work at a dealership where I handled sales and managed the warranty department. I tried to help people make a good decision when buying a new RV. I’m hoping this article helps you make a great decision if you’re RV shopping. 

Here are the things I think will help you if you’re out shopping for a new RV. 

Know what you don’t know about RV shopping

The first thing I would do is make checklists. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or this is your first RV, checklists will help you prioritize the things that are important to you. 

The things I would include on any checklists are the types of places you want to visit and the style of camping you’ll be doing. Do you intend, as many campers do, to only take short jaunts just a few miles away? A recent KOA survey reported that many campers stay within 75 miles of their home base and only spend a few days away. 

If you’re going to be doing short jaunts a few miles away, particularly if you’re staying in developed RV parks, then your need for large holding tanks and powerful solar systems is absolutely minimized. 

If boondocking or longer journeys are your style or something you’ll do with any regularity, this may necessitate larger holding tanks, different suspensions, and other more elaborate systems. 

Further, when are you going to be camping? If you primarily camp in fair weather, then heated and enclosed underbellies, outstanding insulation and other climate-managing factors might be a total waste of money. 

Likewise, if you’re always in developed campgrounds, don’t bother with worrying about solar. 

Your camping crew

You should also know who will regularly go with you. If you have youngsters who regularly camp with you, perhaps a bunkhouse is a good choice. But tweens, teens and even young adults often don’t want to go camping with Mom and Dad. 

I tried to talk a lot of people out of bunk models who wouldn’t use the bunk feature. 

Teens and even some young adults might even appreciate a night or two in a tent, but it’s good to know who will be regularly camping with you so you can buy accordingly. Grandparents who buy bunk models and then forgo comfortable theater seating that they would often use so they have bunks for grands, who might never even go with them, is not an uncommon situation. 

Also, consider what you want to take with you. My wife and I absolutely always take our Lectric eBikes with us. Do you like quilting, geocaching, blacksmithing, mountain biking, or any other sort of hobby or even work style? Make a list of the things you’d love to have along for the ride—there most likely will be an RV that accommodates you. 

And don’t think that you need a certain type of RV just because of the name. A toy hauler might be a great solution for someone who wants a remote office. A couples’ camper might be perfect for families because the kids stay outside in a tent, which they might love. A bunkhouse might be the ideal couples’ camper because you can use the space in the bunk area for crafts or hobbies or work or even pets. 

Your camping style

Some folks like to be indoors. Some outdoors. Know your style when RV shopping. Are you fond of cooking when you’re away from home? Or is this something you want to get away from? 

Pantries, cooking systems, refrigeration and kitchen design vary widely. If you do enjoy cooking, pretend you’re preparing the kind of meal you’ll likely prepare on the road. If you’re at an RV show, the plate in the microwave can substitute for your own plates and you can see if they’ll fit into a cabinet. 

Make sure there’s room for all the things you hope to bring. 

Those who love to tailgate (I love Jimmy Buffett concerts) should make sure that the rig you’re getting works in whatever type of camping environment you’re hoping to use it in. 

But even if you like to cook outdoors, you may not need an outdoor kitchen. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who brings a barbecue or griddle. Or, perhaps having a full kitchen outdoors is a priority. 

What to look for when RV shopping

I often write about my own preferences for certain design aspects of an RV. Those include high-quality suspensions, laminated walls with Azdel, tire pressure monitors, and so much more. But if I only used the RV very infrequently or locally, I might prioritize these things differently. 

Still, build quality is important. 

Know that all RVs are built by hand in factories where the goal is to build them as quickly as possible. There are no exceptions. Nope. None. 

Your RV will never be built as well as your car or truck, which are built in highly automated factories. 

Seeing staples in the walls, or having trim pieces come loose, or having to check seals and roofs every three months, or having insert molding fall out is just something that’s part of RVing. In fact, publisher Chuck Woodbury wrote an article about RV quality. 

Further, whatever brand of RV you buy, know that most of the components come from an increasingly smaller number of suppliers. You’re going to almost certainly have a Coleman air conditioner, Suburban furnace, or a Lippert chassis (unless it’s motorized). The furnishings come from a very small number of companies, as do many of the plumbing components. 

The engine, transmission and body of your Honda are truly unique from a Hyundai, for example. However, that Airstream is effectively a really nice wrapper around many of the same parts as in countless other RVs. 

Yes, there are several grades of parts, but there aren’t a lot of suppliers building major components for RVs. 

There are only a few major RV companies

Also know that there are only a few major RV companies, such as Thor, Forest River and Winnebago. With so very many brands under their umbrella, Thor and Forest River encourage their sub-brands to compete with one another. So there are absolutely quality differences even if the parent company might be the same. 

Don’t let someone mislead you into believing that all Thor or all Forest River products are the same. They’re not. Consider this—the same time that GM was building Cadillac Fleetwood limousines, there were other GM workers building Vegas. Same GM. Very, very different results. 

Further, the factories that build the RVs themselves can have very different environments based on the management. Some factories truly are horrible places to work with high turnover, and others seem to keep people even through generations. 

Being handy and learning how to work on the systems in your RV and fix the little annoying things that seem to go wrong will make a giant difference in your overall experience. 


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RV shopping for the dealer first

Before you get hung up on any particular brand, you might see who sells RVs within 100 miles of your home base, as the caliber of a dealership absolutely will affect your overall experience. 

Remember that since all these wobbly boxes use many similar components, how the dealer treats you after you’ve left the lot could very well be the difference between being a truly happy camper or a grumpy Gus. 

Further, RV dealers aren’t franchises like car dealers are, so they have no contractual obligation to work on your RV. If you shop a locally owned dealer and then drive 500 miles to get the RV for a few hundred dollars less, that might also be how far you’re going to drive to get any repairs done. 

And, believe me, there will be warranty claims. 

A shortage of technicians

Further, there is a legitimate gigantic shortage of RV technicians, so scheduling service may be an exercise in frustration. If you know of someone who is handy at all and looking for a job, working in the RV industry in repairs is a great place to direct them.

I have often recommended looking at RVs by first looking under RVs. I would also shop a dealership by first looking at their service department. Check their reviews, and talk to others that you see with a sticker from that dealership on their RV and see how their experience was. 

Further, just because your RV is made in a certain style doesn’t mean it was made well in that style. For example, laminated trailers may all be a sandwich construction. However, you can use simple pinch rollers to squeeze the glued-together walls together or a vacuum process. You can use Luan as a component of the lamination or Azdel. Walls can vary in thickness, and there are even various grades of fiberglass. 

Heck, there are even varying degrees of quality of the glues used.

But how you take care of all of these pieces and components might be the biggest factor in how long they last and how well they perform for you. 

My vintage trailer was built with methods that are at the low end of the scale, yet it’s lasted 50 years. It still continues to work well, though it is in need of some TLC as Walter White (“Breaking Bad”) might be a more likely owner than I am. 

Motorhome or towable? 

Should you buy a motorized rig or a towable? That could be a series of articles but, very briefly, remember that a motorized RV may have to be serviced by specific mechanics. For example, many local Ford dealers may not have the ability to work on RVs based on Ford chassis. Therefore, you may find yourself going to a larger commercial dealership. 

Diesel pushers have a limited number of places where they can be serviced, and those places usually work on buses and big trucks. 

Further, motorized RVs may be expensive to insure and register. This would be a bummer if you only use it infrequently. 

But drivable RVs have the advantage of the fact that they’re just there, ready to go. Turn the key, hit the road. 

If you know how to properly configure your tow vehicle and choose accordingly, a towable RV such as a travel trailer, fifth wheel or even a small pop-up can be a wise choice. They’re much less expensive plus almost anybody can work on a pickup, if that’s what you’re towing with. 

Lots of folks get fooled by vehicle manufacturers stating how much their vehicles can tow. However, in this article, I share some tips for matching your trailer with your tow vehicle. Essentially, the weight of what your tow vehicle is carrying is almost more important than the gross weight of what you’re towing. 

Here are even more towing resources, if this is the route you’re going.



Upgrades and options

Some dealers have all sorts of upgrades, options and malarkey they try to sell you. 

For example, should you buy an extended warranty? Here’s an answer. 

But should you buy things like fabric protection, finish protection, undercoating or almost any other product like that? I would say no. 

As for financing and gap insurance, do your own research before you move forward. Many local credit unions offer great loan packages but so do some dealers. In fact, some dealers actually work with local credit unions which can result in great financing. But not always. 

Shopping for an RV: In summary

This may sound like a doom-and-gloom article but it isn’t meant to be. In fact, I think RVing is the best way to vacation, period. But I also want you to be realistic in your expectations. RVs are hand-built, and not to the standards of your automobile. The more you know about them and are able to repair the little things that come up, the better off you’ll be. 

Further, the more accurately you can pinpoint how you’ll use the RV to how you ultimately do so, the more you’ll enjoy it. I like to suggest buying your third RV first—and know that the cheapest option may not be the best. But it also might be, depending on your circumstances and camping style. 

##RVT1054

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Ted Hopkins
11 days ago

Awhile back you said that when shopping for a new rig, you should be able to get a price 25 to 35 percent less than sticker. What about shopping for a used unit at a dealer. I know I want a TT, but I can’t afford new.

Mary
29 days ago

Great article Tony, especially for new to rv buyers. I would love to see an article about how to negotiate the best deal, and get the best price. What salesman tactics to be aware of and what to avoid. I have thought 25% off list is reasonable but should it be 30% or more? (although since the pandemic that has changed). We are long term rvers and have bought our last 3 fifth wheels new. The buying/negotiating is very scary. Of course the dealers have to make money to stay in business but I don’t want to feel “taken to the cleaners” either.

Katherine
29 days ago

Great article. As a full timer for 20 years, it is hard to come by this kind of detailed good advice.

Cordo
1 month ago

My wife and I are new RVers looking pretty much at trailers. Tony mentioned maybe using the bunk area of a potential choice for a craft room. My wife is a crafter. We are just the two of us using the trailer (our son might use it, but he would be on a camping or hunting trip), so we don’t need the bunks, but a craft area or maybe a closet would be a great idea. I am sorry Tony didn’t mention how we could get a bunkhouse model without the actual bunkhouse. Anyone have a source for such info?

LisaB
1 month ago

It’s interesting that you talk about the poor build quality and the plastic parts but don’t think extended service agreements are worth it. I’d like to hear the reasoning there.

Yep
1 month ago
Reply to  LisaB

Most extended warranty companies are 3rd party. They typically will only cover mechanical failures, ie; slide outs, step motors, awning motors… etc. Manufacturers will usually only have 1 or 2 year warranties. If it’s not taken care of in that time frame, unfortunately you kind of up the creek.

Greg Gimlick
1 month ago

Good job, as always Tony. I sold Prowler and Coachmen products back in 1984, but some things remain the same in terms of how to find the right RV for you and you hit them. The one thing I hated when I was selling was our sales manager’s “creative financing” which was always bad for the customer and often the bank too. Maybe that’s why he eventually got sent down the road.

Gabe
1 month ago

Follow

David F.
1 month ago

My wife is taking the lead as we begin to search for our next RV. I will be sending her this article, even though we will probably not be buying new. Lots of good info.

captain gort
1 month ago

Excellent article!!! 3 RVs in….this has been my experience.

Crowman
1 month ago

This is a very good article all meat and no filler.

Jo Pa
1 month ago

What about the RV Salesmen who will bleed every last dollar from you? Could be Tony was an honest salesman who offered a RV for a fair price hence, that’s why he’s no longer a RV salesman. I’m always leery of anyone selling on commission as every dollar saved by the buyer is a dollar lost to the seller.

Nancy
1 month ago

I think the most important thing about buying a rv is the floor plan. Buy the one with the floor plan you like. Not one you like 50% of the time. Yes there are other things that are important. But if you don’t like feel or style of your rv you’re not going to like it.

Jim Prideaux
1 month ago
Reply to  Nancy

True, if you are not happy inside thinking about your gel coat filon exterior will not make you happy.

JPB
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Prideaux

Not really as funny as you think.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  JPB

But it is an accurate observation. Maybe Jim wasn’t intending to be funny. Just sayin’. Have a good afternoon, JPB. 🙂 –Diane

MevetS
1 month ago

“Hand built” is just another term for “Lack of Quality”, no Quality is the defacto standard with most of the RV Industry. Typically, they might strive for some basic level of workmanship.

If you can’t take the time to clean up trash behind the walls or in compartments, then you have no pride in what you are making. Same holds true for poor electrical and plumbing connections.

Cars were not always built by robots. But when the Quality kick took hold in the US, it was after seeing product built in Japan being made to higher standards. US consumers started demanding more of the US manufacturers. Some were dragged into focusing on Quality, kicking and screaming. They saw their sales negatively impacted. Tools, like robots, had little to do with it. They facilitate repeatability. Of course, repeatability can also be negative. Repeatability, and interchangeability, have given us recalls of a great number of cars. Think of Takata air bags. And other similar recalls.

JPB
1 month ago
Reply to  MevetS

Sorry, you can’t lump everything “handmade” into your “lack of quality” category. I hand built Viking Yachts, quality control is what is missing. And yes, pride in your craftsmanship.

Last edited 1 month ago by JPB
Tony from TN
25 days ago
Reply to  MevetS

Our 2015 Heartland Prowler 5th wheel came with leaking plumbing, air conditioner ducts that weren’t hooked up, and wiring that had never been connected.

Putting sheets on the bed almost sent me to the emergency room for stitches after I ripped the back of my hand open on the staples sticking over a half inch out of the wall at the top end of the mattress.

We bought an extended warranty but never used it because the dealership wanted to keep the rig for weeks at a time for simple repairs. They said it would take about 4 to 5 weeks to get the water pump replaced under warranty and there would be a $100 deductible. I left the failed pump with them then bought the exact new pump from Amazon for $70.00. So I just taught myself how to do my own repairs.

When 3 of the tires separated said the tires were only covered if they blew out while the rig was in motion (The tire manufacture sent me 4 new tires when I contacted them)

So for us the extended warranty was a waste of money.

Robert
16 days ago
Reply to  MevetS

Sounds like building aircraft.

Bob M
1 month ago

Good article.

Jesse Crouse
1 month ago

We bought our 3rd RV the 3rd time and wore it out and bought our LAST RV the 4th time- HOPEFULLY!!!!!!!!!

Joseph
1 month ago
Reply to  Jesse Crouse

We love the RV life, glad to see your enjoying live. One question, because of your extensive experience, what RV have you decided on with this last purchase?

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