Recreational vehicles are more popular now than they’ve been in years, and that might have you thinking about buying one yourself. These things are expensive, so a used version is sometimes a good way to go, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about buying one. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide on how to buy a used RV for you.
First thing’s first. Before you start looking for an RV, you need to decide what kind of RV you’re going to get. The big choice is between a pull-behind camper or a motorhome. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages.
For one thing, a motorhome is an all-in-one unit. You don’t need to worry about a vehicle to pull it with because it’s its own tow vehicle. On the other hand, that means you can’t leave the campsite without taking your whole camping rig with you, unless you buy a vehicle to tow behind the motorhome. A pull-behind camper gets detached at the campsite, leaving you with the tow vehicle to drive around, but you’ll often need to buy a tow vehicle, because many passenger cars sold today won’t be able to pull your camper.
A pull-behind camper will need some setup once you get it to the campsite. Especially if it has a refrigerator, you’ll need to level it. Depending on the campsite, that might mean you need to detach it from the tow vehicle. That can be kind of a pain if you roll into the campsite late at night. A motorhome is a lot more self-contained. Especially if it has power leveling jacks. You can pull into a campsite, level the coach from the inside, and go to sleep, handling the rest of the setup in the morning when it’s light out and you won’t annoy the neighbors by making noise late at night.
It’s a good idea to rent the kind of RV you’ve settled on, to make sure it really meets your needs. A lot of new RV buyers get something too small or large, then lose a lot of money selling it to get what they really want. Don’t let that happen to you. Rent first!
Once you’ve decided on an RV style and confirmed it’s right for you, now it’s time to narrow it down further. On the motorhome side, there are several options, commonly divided into classes.
A Class C motorhome is built on a cutaway pickup or van chassis. The defining characteristic of a Class C is a cap over the cab with a sleeping berth. Farther back, Class C’s can run the spectrum from small and basic, to large and luxurious.
Class C’s are easier to get into because they keep the front doors from the donor vehicle, and some think they’re easier to drive because the seating position is lower to the ground. But being built on a van chassis, they have a more limited weight capacity than motorhomes built from the ground up. That can get important, as we’ll discuss later. Some Class C builders get around the weight problem by building what’s becoming known as Super C’s - Class C motorhomes built on a heavier-duty chassis. Sometimes they’re even built out of semi trucks.
A Class B is usually smaller than a Class C. Many Class B’s are built by adding RV components to a regular full-sized van. Others look a lot like Class C’s, with the main difference being that the cap over the cab doesn’t have a bed in it.
Class A’s are the big rigs of the motorhome world. They look like buses, and in fact some of them are built out of buses. They usually can carry and tow more weight than the other classes. They generally have more interior room, better storage, and offer a more comfortable, sometimes luxurious experience at the campsite. Bus conversion Class A’s are usually more durable than any other motorhome category. But the downside is that their fuel economy is pretty abysmal. Don’t be surprised if you sometimes see as low as 6mpg when driving a Class A rig.
Pull-behind campers want in on the multiple categories thing too! In their case, there are two main types; pull-behind and 5th-wheels. Pull-behinds get pulled by a ball hitch at the back of the tow vehicle. 5th wheels require a pickup for towing. They stretch over the back end of the truck and connect to a hitch installed in the bed.
The advantage to pull-behind trailers is that they can hook up to a wider variety of tow vehicles. The disadvantage is that they have less interior room for a given overall length than do 5th wheels, because the hitch extends out in front of the living space instead of being underneath it as in 5th wheels.
If you have a pickup, there’s another option - the slide-in camper. Just as it says, it slides into the pickup bed. The advantage to this style is that your camper isn’t much bigger than your regular pickup, so it’s easy to drive. The disadvantage, of course, is that there’s less room inside than in trailers or motorhomes.
Once you’ve picked the style of camper you want, it’s time to go shopping. Don’t just rely on RV dealerships - while they’re the most convenient, and usually have lots of used RVs to choose from, they’re also the most expensive route, and there’s no guarantee the used RV you get at a dealership will be any better than one you find from a private seller.
When you find an RV you’re interested in, the hard part starts. It’s not enough just to take it for a spin around the block and try out the bed. This is the critical phase of RV buying. You need to thoroughly inspect the camper for any flaws. You want to catch them now, because some RV problems can be prohibitively expensive, and also quite common.
To help you in the process, we’ve assembled a multi-point checklist that you should print out and bring along any time you’re buying a used RV.
Things you’ll need:
General Appearance. Peeling paint/graphics, rust, dents, scratches should all be jotted down. Dents at corners or seams should be carefully examined for signs of water leaks.
For fiberglass-clad RVs, check for delamination, bubbling, or cracking.
Windows. Make sure they don’t have cracks. Examine the gasket around the windows to make sure it’s in good shape. Look for brown lines heading downward on the body from the seals - that’s a sign of water leaks.
Awning. If the camper has one, make sure it opens and closes smoothly and isn’t torn or otherwise damaged.
If the camper is a trailer, inspect the tongue to make sure it’s not damaged or overly rusty.
Again if the camper’s a trailer, connect it to the tow vehicle’s wiring harness and make sure all the road lights work. If it’s got its own brake system, make sure that works too.
If the camper’s a popup or hybrid, crank the tent(s) out and inspect the fabric carefully for rips and undue wear. Hybrid campers are known for developing leaks where the fabric attaches to the rest of the camper, so inspect that area very thoroughly.
This is very important! A roof leak can destroy a camper and your entire investment. Climb up to the roof and check it carefully with this sub-checklist:
Some RV roofs are made from a rubber membrane, which has a tendency to tear if the camper gets dragged under low-hanging tree branches. Check the whole roof carefully for tears.
Fiberglass roofs can crack, so check for that too.
Examine all the caulking around roof-mounted equipment, like air conditioners, vents, and even the TV antenna. You’ll probably need to pull the vents off so you can see the seams beneath them.
Remove the vent covers for the fridge and the wastewater tanks. Use your flashlight to check for blockages.
Check the roof seams, especially around the edges and corners. Make sure they’re all in good shape. Roof leaks can quickly cause so much damage that it costs more to fix it than the camper’s worth. If it’s a class C motorhome, inspect the cap in the front. Many have windows that are prone to leaks. Check them, and the seams where the cap roof transitions to the walls.
Slides. If the camper has slideouts, test them. Have your helper run them out, then back in. Make sure they slide smoothly. Make sure they close tightly to the RV’s body.
Doors. Check that they all open and close smoothly and without squeaks or squeals. Make sure all the locks work. Check the screen in the camper door(s) for holes.
Outside Hardware. Check hand-grabs, steps, the roof ladder, and anything else that’s attached to the outside. Make sure it’s all functional and in good shape. Check the propane tank(s) for damage, rust, and leaks. Some RVs have exterior kitchens and even TVs. If this one does, make sure all that equipment is in good shape and works.
Wheels. Check for damage. Make sure all the lug nuts are present. Check the tire pressure. Most motorhomes have double tires in the back, so be sure to check the inside tires as well. Then check the tread depth on the inside and outside of each tire. Make sure it’s even across the width - if it’s not, that can indicate an alignment problem or poor maintenance. If the tires are too worn, find out how much it’ll cost to replace them and deduct that from your offer - some RV tires are very expensive.
Tire Age. RV’s get stored a lot, so it’s not unusual to see very old tires with excellent tread. But consensus amongst the RV community recommends replacing them at 6 years no matter how good the tread is. Make sure they aren’t too old. Look for a marking like “LMLR0218.” The first two numbers are the week of manufacture. The second two are the year. In that example, the tire was made in the 2nd week of 2018.
Tire Weight Rating. Write this down - you’ll need it later. Check each one, in case they’re different.
The minute you walk inside, take a deep breath. You’re checking for smells. Rigs that’ve been smoked in are very hard to air out. You’ll also want to check for mildew smells, which can indicate leaks. Then flip on the power and the propane: You’ll need it in a few minutes.
Leaks. This item should take you a while. Inspect the ceiling and every wall for signs of water entry. Use your flashlight if you can’t see clearly. Leaks are one of the worst problems to have in an RV, and you don’t want to start off with any.
Leveling. If the camper has an auto-leveling system, check its operation now. Once it claims the coach is leveled, check. You can download a bubble-level app on your smartphone. Just put the phone on a table and make sure it’s level. Pop outside and make sure the leveling jacks are in good condition.
Electronics. Check everything. Make sure the TV and radio works. If it has a KingDome, make sure it finds the satellite.
Electrical panel. Check each breaker for proper operation. They shouldn’t be loose. Check the DC side for blown fuses, and if you find one, replace it to make sure it doesn’t blow again.
Outlets: Check every outlet to make sure they all work.
Lights: Inspect all the lights to be sure they work.
Turn off the main breaker. The lights should dim. Flip the breaker back on and make sure the lights get bright again. This checks to ensure the power converter is working properly.
Batteries. Check the camper batteries for proper condition; No signs of melted or burned wires, no corrosion on the terminals. Look at the manufacturing date - if they’re more than 5 years old, assume you’ll have to replace them soon.
Appliances. Take your thermometer and check that the fridge is getting cold after turning the power on. Then flip it to gas mode and make sure the burner lights. Check all the burners on the stove. Put a bowl of water in the microwave and turn it on to be sure it gets hot. If there’s an oven, turn that on and make sure it works too. If the rig has a furnace and/or AC, check their operation as well.
AC leaks. Take off the AC cover(s). Check for signs of leaking from the roof.
Generator. If the RV has a generator, make sure it starts well and provides sufficient power. Leave it running for a while to make sure it doesn’t overheat.
Connect the RV to external water.
Let the water heater fill, then light it if not self-lighting.
Check all the faucets for operation and leaks.
Check the shower for operation and leaks.
Run all the faucets long enough to run a few gallons into the grey tank, if equipped. You’ll need this later.
If there’s an external shower, check that for operation and leaks.
Push the toilet flush lever all the way down and let water flow down the hole. If water quickly collects in the bowl, you either have a blocked toilet line or the dreaded “poop pyramid”. If the RV has a blockage, you can bet the black tank wasn’t properly maintained. Clearing it should be a condition of the sale.
Run some water into the toilet with the ball valve closed, and make sure it doesn’t drain out. Leave it there and check again in a few minutes. If the water’s still there, flush, then run several gallons of water into the black tank by holding the toilet pedal down. Find the tank level gauge and run the water until the black and grey tanks are half-full.
Find the fresh water pump and make sure it didn’t leak while you were running water.
Sit on the toilet. Don’t use it, that’s rude. But make sure it’s not too tight a fit; many RV bathrooms are ridiculously cramped.
Openings. Open and close all the windows and vents. If a vent is equipped with a fan, turn it on and make sure it works without vibrating. Check the window screens for damage, and make sure the windows close tightly against their seals.
Check the camper’s cargo carrying capacity. It’s usually on a yellow sticker somewhere in the RV. If you’re having trouble finding it, check the bedroom closets. Oftentimes, especially on larger Class C motorhomes, it’s abysmally low, and you would easily overload the vehicle with two people and their gear. Make sure there’s enough CCC for your planned usage.
Now that you have several gallons of water in the black and grey tanks, slide under the rig with your flashlight and check for leaks. If the tanks are exposed, inspect them for damage.
Check the camper’s frame for rust, and check the underside of the floor for signs of damage.
If the camper is a motorhome, check the exhaust and driveshaft for excessive rust.
Look at the suspension, and make sure it’s in good shape.
Drain the tanks (you will probably need to move the rig to a dump site). Start with the black tank. If it doesn’t drain, the rig probably has a compacted tank, where solid waste compresses in the bottom and prevents draining. Clearing that should be a condition of the sale. Then drain the grey tank to flush the hose and make sure there aren’t any drain pipe leaks.
If it’s a motorhome, you’ll obviously want to check the engine over. You can look at some basic things yourself just to rule out obvious reject points, but as with any used vehicle purchase we recommend taking it to a good, local, independent mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. They’ll catch more than you will.
Check the belts for cracking or splitting.
Check all fluids for proper level and condition.
Check the battery and cables for signs of corrosion.
Take off the oil cap and shine your flashlight inside. You’re looking for sludge, which indicates poor maintenance.
Inspect the spark plug wires (if gasoline-powered) for cracking and wear.
Inspect the shock towers for rust.
Inspect the engine mounts for cracking or worn bushings.
Do lots of research, then carefully inspect the ones you’re interested in.
It definitely can be! RVs lose a lot of value quickly when they’re bought new, so you can save a lot of money as long as you’re careful to make sure it’s in good shape.
That depends entirely on what you’re buying. A bus-conversion Class A from a high-end manufacturer can be hundreds of thousands of dollars used. An old Starcraft from the 60’s that’s been a hunting shack for the last 10 years? You’ll be upside down if it’s free.
The process is similar to buying a private party car. But you’ll want the seller to give you access to water and shore power so you can test all the systems.
Research, research, research. Then inspect it very carefully. Be especially careful to look for water leaks.
Yes, a number of companies offer loans for used private-sale RV purchases.