If you're in the market for a used motorhome or other type of recreational vehicle, fall and early winter can be a good time to buy. While many snowbirds are heading south in their RVs in search of warmer weather, there are plenty of other folks who enjoyed the summer camping season and are now looking to unload their rigs rather than pay to store and maintain them during the long winter ahead. That's good news for you. Buying a used RV that's still in good condition can save you real money. According to the website RVers Online, after factoring in depreciation, financing, maintenance and other costs, an RV that's three years old can cost about half the price of a new one. So how do you find a previously loved RV that's right for you? Here are a few tips.
1. Do your homework
It's easy to get caught up in the moment and start fantasizing about the good times you'll have cruising down a scenic highway in your home-away-from-home. So do the research first. Many RVers are eager to share their stories and advice. Popular websites and online forums where RV enthusiasts chat it up and swap advice — and offer tips for buying used RVs — include rv.net (sponsored by Good Sam Club, the world's largest organization of recreational vehicle owners), rv.forum and rvtravel. You can find a nationwide directory of local RV clubs, shows and rallies on rv-clubs, including clubs for owners of specific RV brands, which is a great way to find out more about the make and model you're interested in. If you're new to RVing entirely, you might want to rent one for a week or two to make sure the lifestyle is for you. The website of the GoRVing Coalition provides a directory of rental outlets, dealers and other resources.
2. Know what you want
Most people who sell or trade in their RVs are looking for an upgrade or different model, Christine Bowes of American Family RV in Chesapeake, Va., told me. "It's usually that their current vehicle is the wrong size, or they can no longer handle it on the road, or whatever. That's why we see so many used RVs on the market," she says. In the book Buying a Used Motorhome: How to get the most for your money and not get burned, author Bill Myers does an excellent job of helping readers figure out what type of RV is the best fit for them. He also points out how some used RVs are a better value than others, depending on your situation and the RV's intended use. For example, an older, high-mileage, gas-guzzling "Class A" behemoth might be a nightmare for long-haul travelers, but a terrific bargain for those planning to drive infrequently and park it at a peaceful spot close to home.
3. Search online and on the street
Websites such as RVT.com (formerly "RV Trader"), RVzen.com and CampingWorld.com allow you to search nationwide listings of used RVs by make, model, price and other criteria. Most sites list RVs for sale by dealers as well as individual owners. This time of year, it's also worth cruising through area RV parks and even residential neighborhoods to see if anyone is selling a rig in their driveway. In the past month, I've seen half a dozen used RVs with "for sale" signs on them in our surrounding neighborhoods, including one that looked suspiciously like the 1980s Fleetwood Bounder in the hit cable series Breaking Bad.
4. Determine a fair value
Once you've identified recreational vehicles that meet your needs, NADA Guides for RVs allow you to enter the make, model, year and other details for a used RV and get an estimate of that vehicle's fair market value. While the NADA Guides are commonly used by lenders and dealers to determine book value, keep in mind that you might do considerably better than the estimated value, particularly if you buy directly from an eager seller. Comparison shop for that same used RV online (including on Craigslist and eBay) to see how the book value compares to the pricing of similar vehicles in the marketplace.
5. Check the RV's history
For a fee of about $25, you can purchase a vehicle history report on rvchecks.com. You'll need the RV's 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to order the report. Depending on the vehicle's history and the data available, the report may include information on whether the vehicle has ever been damaged, rebuilt or stolen, as well as the manufacturer's specifications and recall notices.
6. Ask away
Before you even inspect and test-drive a used RV, you should ask the owner or dealer about the condition of the vehicle, its history, title, warranties, repair and maintenance records, reason it's being sold and so on. The website frugal-rv-travel provides a good checklist of questions to ask. When you test-drive a vehicle, ask the seller to have all mechanical systems fully operational and charged before you arrive. Ask to test-drive the vehicle with the seller onboard to answer any questions, and let the seller do part of the driving as well, so you can see how the RV rides as a passenger. Look for noises or other problems that you might not be aware of while you're behind the wheel. Test-drive the vehicle on different roadways, particularly at top speeds on an open highway, and find an empty parking lot to see how it backs up and handles in tight situations.
7. Beware of common and not-so-common problems
You might think that an RV with low mileage is a real plus, for example. Not necessarily. In his book, Bill Myers recommends looking for a used RV with at least 10,000 miles on it (and preferably not more than 35,000), since too few miles can be an indicator of a problem-prone vehicle or one that's difficult to drive. Motorhomes that have been parked and unused will almost always require expensive service, Myers writes, including replacing fuel pumps, belts, batteries, tires and brakes, and rebuilding the carburetor on the generator. Another costly problem: leaks in the roof and other seams. If you have the chance, try to inspect and drive an RV during a downpour to help reveal leaks and give you firsthand experience with how the vehicle handles under harsh conditions. And if you're looking at a used unit that has spent some winters in cold climates and perhaps has not been properly winterized, be sure to check the plumbing for possible burst pipes and other leaks.
8. Make an offer
Arm yourself with information on fair market values, recent sales and prices for comparable vehicles, and a list of any problems with the specific vehicle you're interested in, all of which will support your case for offering a lower price than the asking price. Also, offering to buy immediately and pay in cash can be a powerful bargaining chip. If you need to finance the purchase, the website DRVFinancing says it's more difficult to find a willing lender if the RV is beyond five years old. In some cases the lender will want to inspect and approve the used vehicle.
One more tip
Before you set off on your first road trip, consider enrolling in a roadside assistance program offered by Good Sam Club to cover towing and other services. Its programs, which start at about $80 per year, can provide some peace of mind as you head off on the happy trails in your previously loved RV.