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5 Things to Know Before Buying an RV

Buying an RV is about committing to a lifestyle. After all, this isn't just a mode of transportation. It's also a home, vacation lodging, and possibly your retirement plan. That's why it's essential to consider all the options and factors involved in this decision before leaping in.

1. What/Where/Why?

The place to start this process is with your goal for buying the RV and the function it will serve, says Alyssa Padgett, who, with her husband Heath, has co-authored several books about RV living. "Why do you want an RV, and what will you use it for? The term ‘recreation vehicle' covers everything from a motor home to a pop-up trailer to a van, so as you're figuring out which one you will need, it's important to first decide where you will take your vehicle, and how often you will use it."

If you envision using your new RV to take occasional camping trips or seasonal cross-country road trips, you might want something smaller, like a class C or B vehicle, or a van, she says. But if you're looking to jump into a full-time RV lifestyle, trading in your bricks and mortar house for life on the road, then you might want to shop for a 40-foot travel trailer or fifth wheel rig that's built for everyday use and will feature more amenities and comforts.

family in luxury RV
Photo credit: Armosa Studios

Here are some questions to help you determine what RV is right for you.

The amount of vehicle you're comfortable handling:

  • What kind of car do you drive now?
  • What do you feel comfortable driving?
  • Do you plan to tow your RV (and do you have the right kind of truck to do so) or have your RV tow your existing car?
  • Do you have room in your budget to buy an additional vehicle for transporting your RV if needed?

The key family members involved:

  • Who will be using the vehicle?
  • Is it just you and a life partner?
  • Or will children and/or a larger extended family join you on your travels?

Naturally, these answers may dictate the size and type of RV you choose.

Destination(s):

  • Where do you want to go?

With the growing popularity of RVs, many RV campgrounds can't keep up with increased demand, Padgett says. That means you might need to be prepared to boondock (or camp off the grid) or use public lands. In which case, you don't want to have a heavier rig, which is often prohibited on these lands.

RV Storage and Parking:

  • Where do you live?

Another key factor in determining type and model is parking and storage. "Many homeowner's associations prohibit you from parking your RV outside of your house," says RV enthusiast and blogger Tina Klinefelter. "Maybe you have a family member who will agree to let you leave it on their property, but if you don't you might have to pay for parking."

If you're only planning to use your RV in the summer months, you'll want to find a safe, secure place where it's protected from the harsher elements (and from the snarky comments of neighbors), whether that's indoor or outdoor RV storage. Either way, you'll need to prepare the vehicle to sit unused, but with outdoor storage, you might want to consider investing in an RV cover.

2. The Cost of an RV

The price of an RV can vary wildly, ranging from $10,000 to $300,000, depending on the type, model, year, and other factors. If you need to purchase a second vehicle to tow or transport your RV, that's an added cost, as is the towing and braking system to connect the two.

Remember to factor in additional expenses such as RV insurance (about $300-$350 a year), accessories, and fuel both for driving (diesel is more efficient but more expensive than gasoline) and for heating and cooking. On the road, campground or RV parks will charge a nightly fee to park (as much as $100 a night). When you're not on the road, you'll need to pay for RV parking and/or RV storage. CubeSmart's RV storage lease terms are flexible with month-to-month agreements that can be used for either temporary or long-term storage as needed.

3. New versus Pre-owned

As with any vehicle, used RVs for sale offer the greatest value and potentially the safest investment, especially for new owners. For one, there's the simple reason that any new purchase will depreciate from the minute it leaves the lot. With RVs, though, there's another reason, Padgett says.

"RVs are assembled by hand, typically by Amish people in Indiana, which is very cool, because you get this unusual craftsmanship. But because these are not made by automated factories, often there are going to be little mistakes. With a new vehicle, you're more likely to come across one. Given the volume of RVs on the road, it can be difficult to get service, and getting stuck somewhere while waiting can quickly ruin your vacation."

The sweet spot, she says, is to find something between two and ten years old, which will still be running well but will likely have the kinks worked out. However, pre-owned vehicles carry the risk of damage or wear. When purchasing a pre-owned RV, be sure to do a close inspection for water stains, mold, pests, and rust as well as tire strength. Ask questions about the vehicle's previous ownership and its history, including crashes and manufacturer recalls or any upgrades or repair work.

4. Finding Your Floorplan

Just as you would in choosing a home, you want to be able to picture yourself living inside your new RV. For most RV users, the point of RV travel is to enjoy nature, and outdoor space is as crucial as the vehicle's indoor space. With a clever design, your vehicle will maximize the area around its walls to expand rooms for sitting and eating with back or side porches.

Slide-outs on the rig can also expand the living space. "That was a number one consideration for us," says Padgett. "We wanted a space that felt open, and not like one narrow long hallway."

Smart tip: A common refrain from experts is to stand in the shower before purchasing an RV. "If you have to bend down when you're taking a shower, you're not going to be comfortable," Klinefelter says. "But they're getting smart in the industry and more and more you see bubble skylights in bathrooms. The same thing goes for the bed. Make sure you can fit and it's comfortable."

Kitchen layout, including counter space, sinks, and appliance placement can make or break functionality in a limited space. And while many RVs rely on slide-outs for more room, they can sometimes be less efficient than they would seem, says RV blogger Marshall Wendler of Camp Addict. "We've seen models that look great when they're open, but when they're closed you can't access the bathroom. That's not great if you need to quickly pull over while you're driving."

Depending on how many people will typically be along for the ride and who they are, you will want to take a hard look at how space is divided.

  • Is there enough privacy?
  • Where are the beds relative to other areas?
  • Are the kids' bunk beds in the middle of the floor where they will be disrupted as others pass by?
  • Can someone cook or use the shower easily while another person is sleeping?

5. RV Features and Add-ons

Once you've decided on the basic model and floorplan it's time to home in on the fun details such as the features and accessories. On the basic side, most people plan to use the kitchen and bathroom in their RVs, reducing the need to stop during their travels. Whether you need basic functionality or bells and whistles like a tile backsplash, dishwasher, or stainless steel residential size refrigerator largely depends on how you envision using the kitchen. For many RV owners, laundry facilities are paramount, and many vehicles come equipped with washer/dryer combos.

If you have a less restricted budget or you're looking for more luxury, today's RVs offer an impressive list of features, from fireplaces and solar showers and home theater setups including projector, screens, and multiple speakers. Grand Design RVs, for instance, offer walk-in closets, showers with glass doors, and LED awnings on many models.

Of course, the market for RV accessories is ever-expanding, but there are two key items that new owners will want to consider purchasing:

  • A portable RV generator can be extremely useful in many camping situations.
  • A water pressure regulator to keep the flow at campgrounds in line with manufacturer recommendations.

Final Thoughts
A great way to find the right RV for your specific needs is to sample a few, much like you would test drive a car, but for an overnight experience. Peer to peer RV share services such as RV Share or Outdoorsy operate much like Airbnb and allow you to borrow an owner's vehicle for a short-term rental.

"With so many variations to choose from, the ideal thing would be to try a few different types before you actually buy one," says Wendler. "Take them for a spin and see which one feels like the right vehicle for you."

Header image: Harvests Host site in Gettysburg credit Alyssa Padgett

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Elisa Ludwig

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