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.
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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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.