Buying an RV? Here’s what to know

family standing beside their pickup truck and travel trailer
Photo by Matthew Osborn on Unsplash

Dreaming of life on the road, seeing the country, and camping along the way? If you’re thinking about planning a trip but don’t want the hassles of hotels, or you’re worried about cleaning or safety issues, an RV home might be the investment for you and your family.

An RV purchase is a major event. In addition to the price tag — which can range from around $10,000 to well over $250,000 — there are loads of different features to consider. From the basic necessities to the must-have luxuries, it pays to learn before you buy. Read on as we discuss some of the key features every RV shopper should consider.

Cost beyond the purchase price

Buying brand-new from a dealership is a relatively easy way to start out. They’ll have a great selection to choose from, expert advice on all the latest upgrades, mechanical and technical support, and more. Sometimes, a brand new RV has a blemish or default, and the dealer will be able to fix it under warranty. Plus, they make it easy to buy with competitive financing options.

But a new RV depreciates quickly after you drive it off the lot. That’s no big deal if you’re happy with your purchase and use it often. But if you realize you bought the wrong model or you end up not camping as often as you had planned, you may want to sell it or trade it. And if you’re behind on a loan, you could end up shelling out thousands of dollars just to get rid of it. 

On the other hand, the value of a used RV is relatively stable, and the upfront cost is significantly lower to begin with. The downside of buying used is the possibility of hidden damage: anything from tires and brakes to weather seals, the plumbing system, or the generator could break down, and you’d be stuck with the bill. If you do choose to purchase a used vehicle, be sure to perform a thorough inspection inside and out before shaking hands on the deal.

The cost of ownership doesn’t end with the purchase price. Campsite fees average $35 to $55 per night. RV storage costs range from $100 to $450 per month, depending on the size of your rig and the amenities at the storage facility. You may need to purchase insurance as well, which can run as high as $2,000 per year or more for a Class A motorhome. And then there’s the cost of fuel. Whether you drive a motorhome or pull a travel trailer, plan on seeing gas (or diesel) mileage between 6 and 14 mpg. 

couple sitting outside a camper at dusk
Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash

Drive or tow?

A big decision early in the shopping process is whether to buy a drivable or a towable RV. Most owners of drivable RVs, also called Class A, Class B, or Class C motorhomes, tow a get-around vehicle. That way, they don’t have to pack up camp just to run into town for groceries. Travel-trailer owners simply drop the trailer and go. But the differences don’t end there.

Motorhomes offer a comfy travel experience for passengers, with access to the bathroom and fridge while on the road. With a towable, everyone rides in the truck, and you only have access to the trailer during driving breaks. Those with young children may prefer keeping them safe in a truck rather than letting them roam in a motorhome. When traveling with pets, a motorhome allows them to move and may be less stressful. Some drivers are more comfortable maneuvering a truck and trailer rather than a bulky RV, so the driver experience is also an important consideration. If you’ll be boondocking very often (camping off-road), a trailer may be the better pick due to better maneuverability.

Balance comfort and convenience

Campers are measured in different ways for different reasons. In general, larger rigs are more difficult to maneuver on narrow and winding roads, through low tunnels, and in tight campsites. Heavier trailers require larger, more powerful trucks to pull them. Big, heavy campers require more fuel while traveling. But the added size adds comfort and convenience in camp, with more living space and creature comforts. It’s important to balance the two for the best overall experience.

The length of the rig matters for campsite access. The smallest motorhomes and travel trailers measure 20 feet or less and can fit virtually any RV site or hybrid RV/tent campsite. Midsize units between 21 and 30 feet will have no problem in most campgrounds but may not fit into hybrid sites. Large campers of 31 to 40 feet may need to reserve large campsites. More than 40 feet, and the selection gets very limited, so you should call ahead to ensure the campground can accommodate your ride. 

Trailers have a unique issue in the way the tow vehicle and trailer are assembled. A fifth-wheel camper attaches to a hitch mounted in the bed of the truck so that the truck and trailer essentially overlap. Fifth-wheel trailers add maneuverability and decrease overall length when compared with travel trailers of the same size. However, travel trailers can increase available vehicle space for traveling. A travel trailer can be towed by a large SUV that seats seven passengers comfortably, possibly eliminating the need for a second vehicle. 

Sleeping capacity is simply a measurement of the total number of bed spaces. This includes dedicated beds/bunks as well as convertible spaces such as a dining set that folds into a bunk. Maybe the queen bed plus convertible dining area will be sufficient for your family of three, but you’ll probably prefer to go a bit bigger and avoid resetting the table twice a day.

The holding tanks for potable water, gray water, and black water also come in different sizes, although these typically correspond with the overall RV size. Larger holding tanks let you camp longer between fill-ups or clean-outs. Not a big deal if you typically camp with full hookups, but if you’re boondocking for a week, it matters. 

interior view of an RV
Photo by Airstream Inc. on Unsplash

RV features

With popularity on the rise, RV manufacturers continue to keep up with the latest consumer needs. Look for these trending features:

  • Residential-style seating, appliances, and full-size beds
  • Entertainment systems with big-screen TVs and Bluetooth capabilities.
  • Below-floor storage space
  • Off-grid capabilities, like off-road tires, raised axles, larger holding tanks, and prewiring for solar power
  • Outdoor kitchens and entertainment centers
  • Light interior with minimal graphics
  • Tire pressure monitoring systems
  • Smart RV capabilities such as lights, slides, awnings, and tank levels
  • Pet-friendly amenities such as leash latches, pet bowl drawers, doggie beds, and kennel space

There’s a lot to consider when investing in an RV, but when it all comes together in a home away from home in which you and your family will make cherished memories for a long time.

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