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How To Buy An RV Without Getting Screwed – Even If You’re A Complete Newb

Although Brian and I have devoured all things RV for over a year now, we are not experts. As RV buyers with months of recent shopping experience still fresh in our minds, however, we’ve learned at least a few things worth passing on now. More-experienced RVers could probably add to this list (if that’s you, please do!).

The tips below are the biggies that should keep you out of major trouble. They come mostly from personal experience, with a sprinkling of others’ sad sagas we’ve read in various RV forums we frequent.

Don’t fall in love. Just don’t.

If I had five dollars for every RV buyer comment I’ve read that starts with the words “We fell in love with…,” we could’ve paid cash for our RV. The phrase too frequently includes the name of an RV brand notorious for quality issues and customer service woes. “OMG, it’s gorgeous! I just love the floor plan!” And after they take delivery the roof leaks or the slideout won’t slide or there’s some sort of demon sucking all the juice out of the wiring.

Let’s get one thing straight, fellow starry-eyed, love-struck RV shopper: this ain’t love. It’s infatuation. The surest way to get over it is to go to an RV show and spend time in a rig of astoundingly high quality – one that comes with a price tag ten times greater than anything you could afford. Guaran-damn-tee it’ll shatter those rose-colored glasses so you won’t ever “fall in love” with another piece of crap RV with a nice floor plan. How about this Liberty Coach?

2018 Liberty Coach "Elegant Lady"
This’ll cure your infatuation with mediocrity.
“Love” clouds the kind of judgment you need to evaluate things that can have a big impact on your day to day. Floor plan does affect how people live in their particular RV, but floor plan alone isn’t worth the cost you’ll pay for quality issues, water damage, a poorly maintained engine, flimsy cabinets or cheap plumbing.

The first RV we got serious about was a really nice Tiffin Allegro Bay FRED. I won’t say we fell in love, but there was definitely some infatuation going on. It might have been a nice RV for us, but it had potential drawbacks that didn’t come into play as much as they should have until the sellers (or the consigning dealer – who knows?) refused our three fair-market-price offers. It’s easier to walk away from the object of your affection when your resolve is firm and s/he is in the custody of a demanding guardian.

“Love” for us newbs may be around things we think are important, but don’t yet have the experience to truly judge. While I wouldn’t take a $50,000 mistake lightly, I know enough to know that I don’t know. We have to make the best decision we can, and at the same time recognize that the only way we’ll know what works for this completely new way of life we imagine is to actually live it. That might mean we don’t need things we bought, or that we need things we didn’t get. Wanna bet it’s a little of each?

Don’t take a seller’s/dealer’s word on anything

It may be true that the average RV salesman sees the inside of more rigs in a month than most of us will in a lifetime. And in theory, a private seller should be intimately familiar with the RV he/she is offering to sell you. Neither of these possible facts mean that a seller is an expert on the RV in question or on RVs in general. Before looking at a particular RV model, or at least before investing any significant time or money, do your own research.

Google the specific year, brand and model and read what people are saying about it in RV forums. Download the brochure and check out the specs. If you have your heart set on any of the listed options, make sure the RV actually has them.

Whether the seller is a private party or a dealer, know that crucial information could be missing. Even if he/she seems like a decent person or has had the coach its entire lifetime, it can be tough to accurately recall important details.

If there aren’t service records indicating when the engine was serviced, don’t assume it was. I think of myself as honest to a fault, yet I’m often surprised and appalled when I say something “just” happened and Brian proves it was more like a year and a half ago. If it’s not documented, assume it hasn’t been done and adjust your offer accordingly.

Doin' the Deal
Oopsie – left a few things out of the contract.
Whatever it is, if it’s not in writing, it’s not in the deal. As I write this post, we haven’t yet taken possession of our new-to-us RV. The deal we discussed included the balance of the warranty, a boatload of miscellaneous housewares and whatever else was inside the coach. The seller is also getting the RV serviced and having a couple of minor issues addressed.

Since we have a houseful of stuff that we have to pare down before going into the RV, we don’t really need the housewares (although I do hope there’s a nice outdoor rug…). But if the seller declined to pass along anything we talked about we couldn’t complain because we didn’t get any of it in writing. Dishes or glasses? No biggie. $2K+ warranty? Da-yummm.

If we lose on any of this, it’ll be partially my fault for knowing better but pulling my girl card and leaving the contract to Brian. I was too busy focusing on issues like lack of a pull-out pantry and what type of finish would best obliterate the shiny brass hardware throughout the coach. As soon as our deal is 100% done and the RV is in our driveway, I’ll write everything up in a post and let you all know how we did. In the meantime, lemme pull another of my cards on you – the MOM card – and tell you to do as I say, not as I do, or face the consequences 🙂

Don’t assume that the asking price is fair

Phaeton. Money
Oh, look – a “discount.”
If you’re buying new, it’s almost certainly not fair. Attending RV shows and visiting Camping World just for fun is about as close to new-RV shopping as we got. But from everything we read, we understand that even if we negotiated the best price ever, we’d take a huge depreciation hit and have to deal with initial maintenance “shake down” issues that happen with every new RV. If it’s important to you to buy new, know that the markups are something like 30-40%, and don’t fall for the gimmick of offering a “discount” off the MSRP. Nobody pays MSRP.

Used RV pricing is every bit as ridiculous as new-RV pricing, percentage-wise, anyway. For at least a year before we bought, we’d watched RV listings on RV Trader, RVT, Craigslist, YouTube and eBay. It’s helpful to set up saved searches on these sites so you’ll receive notifications when a rig meeting your requirements comes on the market, and get a ballpark idea on pricing. Honestly, though – once we got inside information on actual selling prices we realized that asking prices were, more often than not, bullshit.

As we searched with our limited budget, I became more and more discouraged with RVs listed in that price range. Brian was more in tune with pricing than I was. Oftentimes I’d share a listing I liked and he’d tell me it was overpriced by $20K or more. When I looked at asking prices it seemed to me we’d have to spend a lot more or get a lot less than what we expected. Brian realized before I did how out of line with reality asking prices were, and I guess he just figured we’d eventually find a combo of the right rig and a motivated seller.

We learned about David Lester’s RV Pricing and Values service fairly early in our search, and planned to use it once we found an RV we were serious about. For a small fee ($35 as I write), David provides insider information on an RV, including dealer trade-in value, actual cash value and any other pertinent market condition that might influence the price. We used David’s service for each of the three RVs we made offers on, and his solid info helped us stick to our guns when sellers tried to get more than a rig was worth.

RV Pricing Ripoff
This Coachmen RV is waiting on the perfect stooge.
David told us the most we should pay for the Dutch Star was $44K, unless it was in pristine condition. Brian was hung up on this number as a max, but given that the tires and batteries were fairly new, we’d get a 2-year warranty and the seller was having all the engine maintenance (a $1500 job, I believe) done before the sale, I think it was worth the $50K we’ll pay. Also, while it might not be in “pristine” condition, it’s pretty damn close – especially given that it’s a 14-year-old rig. The seller’s initial asking price was $60K. If we hadn’t had insider info, we might not have had the courage to negotiate that far down.

Hopefully you won’t ever feel responsible for someone else’s buying mistake, but know that there are many, many RVs for sale by owners who “fell in love,” or assumed they were getting a deal, or accepted ridiculous loan terms – often all of the above – and are upside down in their RV. These poor decisions are not your problem, but they will be if you don’t walk away. Even if you’re like me and hate haggling, you owe it to yourself to avoid overpaying. Pay too much and you’ll be the one who’s upside down when you need to sell or trade.

One last point on price: It’s not just private sellers who overprice RVs. Dealers hoping for maximum margins routinely do it. Check out the photo above showing a recent example posted to the RV Pricing and Values Facebook group. This Coachmen RV should have been listed in the $70K realm, but was overpriced by nearly $100K!

Before we made the deal on the Dutch Star, we had a deposit on a Monaco tag axle that we walked away from (Brian is still sad we’re not getting a tag axle) over a combination of price and features/condition that weren’t as stated. The dealer (not gonna name names, but rhymes with Crazy Ways) wanted $55K for it. When we finally got photos (it was out of state) we found many reasons to make an offer at the low end of the range – if we decided to proceed at all. The salesman offered to take $1500 off the price. Nice, Mr. Salesman – $1500 “discount” for us and $14K+ in bonus money over the legitimate price for you? I don’t fucking think so.

Brian noticed a week or so after we walked that the price on the Monaco had been changed to one that reflected the actual market. He later made an anonymous call to Crazy Ways (he’s crafty like that 🙂 ) and found out it sold for $38,900. That right there is proof: They try to git mo’ money, but they will sell fo’ sho’ money.

Seek professional counsel before making the leap

I’m going to suggest something that costs hundreds of dollars if done right, and that might cause you to walk away from “the RV of your dreams.” Sorry not sorry. Just as you would a sticks & bricks home, get your prospective RV inspected by a pro who’s qualified to judge all its systems. Make any offer contingent on the outcome of the inspection. If the inspector uncovers things that weren’t disclosed it’ll give you options you wouldn’t otherwise have. You can walk away, or proceed knowing what you’re dealing with and possibly lowering your offer to compensate.

Shore power connection
Does this thingamajig work? Hell if I know.
The tricky thing about RVs is that they’ve got the complex systems of a home jam-packed into a fraction of the square footage and, in the case of motorhomes, they have a motor (duh) and all its related mechanical stuff. A regular mechanic – or even a diesel mechanic – doesn’t have all the experience you need, nor would a home inspector. Your Uncle Bubba who’s always fixing up his trailer probably wouldn’t be any better.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a qualified inspector via the NRVIA website. If no one’s listed near you, try a Google search for RV repair + the name of your city (or a nearby metro area). Check reviews to weed out any obviously problematic candidates, then call others to find out who’s able and willing to handle inspections. The NRVIA site has a Standards of Practice page that lists all the systems their inspectors are expected to check; that page could be used as a checklist to ensure your potential inspector will look at anything that applies to the RV you’re considering.

We got a little bonus insight from the inspector we planned to use for the Monaco, which only added to our mounting misgivings about the deal. Crazy Ways (a.k.a. The RV Dealer Who Won’t Be Named) apparently has a reputation for “forgetting” to have all the RV’s systems hooked up so they can be properly tested. The inspector advised us to call Crazy Ways in advance to ensure the RV was ready to go, lest the inspector’s trip be wasted and we be forced to reschedule and compensate him by paying a trip charge.

Your inspector should tell it like it is, whether you want to hear it or not. Unlike you, he/she has no emotional attachment to a particular outcome. Or to tag axles, or pantry slideouts. You’ll gain knowledge that empowers you to make the best decision, instead of “falling in love” with something that will not love you back.

How do we not get screwed?

We don’t fall in love with RVs. We don’t take the seller’s word on anything that isn’t documented, even when they’re super-nice guys, and even if Teresa and Brian might’ve screwed this part up. We understand that 99.9% of asking prices are the seller’s wishful thinking and/or stooge bait, and we will get insider info on actual pricing before making an offer. Finally, before committing to an RV we get it inspected.

Our future RV is scheduled to go in for service on Monday. I am absolutely clueless about how long it’ll take, so I won’t make any promises about the post where I’ll (hopefully) come back and tell you it all went swimmingly despite our obliviousness to getting 100% of the deal in writing.

Bought an RV or been shopping? I’d love it if you had something to add to this newb’s info. Just scroll down to leave a comment.

6 thoughts on “How To Buy An RV Without Getting Screwed – Even If You’re A Complete Newb”

  1. Thank you very much for the info. We are new to this and have not bought yet but we are going to pay David Lester’s fee when we do find one. We are looking for a new to us class c.
    Regards,Kenny Burleson

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Boy, did I need this! My husband and I are currently in the research phase (plan to make the big purchase early in 2018), and have been to several dealerships, looking at all the different options. We’ve already “fallen in love” with three or four RVs! And we’ve both had to give ourselves a good old fashioned “ya dumb sh*t” slap to get ourselves back to reality and snap ourselves out of the madness. Your article is a perfectly timed and very helpful reality check for us. Thanks for that! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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