So, you want to buy an RV but aren't sure where to start? Buying used makes sense simply for the lower price. The previous owner has already taken in most of the depreciation that's expected on a new RV, so you can enjoy getting better market value out of your rig.
How to choose your RV? Where to look for it? What should you be looking for once you find that perfect RV? We've got you covered with a thorough analysis of considerations as well as a checklist of things to look into before you make your purchase.
Which type of RV to choose
If you're new to RVing, you may not be familiar with the various types of RVs out there. In a nutshell, RVs belong to two groups: Motorhomes and towed units.
Motorhomes include both the living quarters and vehicles in one unit. They come in three different classes -
- Class A - bus-like RVs
- Class B - converted vans that are usually suitable for up to two people.
- Class C - Large motorhomes that typically have an additional sleeping area above the driver's cabin.
Towable options, as the name suggests, are the ones where you need a pickup truck or very large SUV to tow the rig with. You won't be buying an engine - just the living quarters. There are several types of towable RV options, including -
- Travel trailer, aka camper - the most basic form of towed RV.
- Fifth Wheel - a trailer that connects via a 5th wheel hitch to the back of a pickup truck.
- Toy hauler - a travel trailer with a built-in garage for ATVs and other "toys".
- Pop-up campers - lightweight camping units that fold down for easy towing.
There is one more form of RV and that is the truck camper. These units are not towed but rather hauled on the back of a pickup truck.
If you're looking to learn more about these, check out our detailed guide about types of RVs.
Which RV model to choose
Once you know which type of RV you're after, it's time to consider the specific model. When buying used, you're may find you have a more limited choice of models, especially if you're buying local. After all, an RV dealer can easily order any new model for you, literally off the catalog.
When looking to buy a used RV, you're limited by the models that other owners offer on sale. Usually, you're going to buy locally. While it may be worth it to drive 200 miles to get the RV of your dreams, you're not likely to be buying an RV from someone in Texas, if you happen to live in California.
Having said that, you definitely should acquaint yourself with RV brands and models. You'll be able to narrow down your search once you know which brands you prefer.
Floorplans matter too
Going beyond the brand and model, there's the issue of choosing the right floorplan for your needs. Each model usually comes in several possible layouts, so just because you know you have your heart set out on a Jayco Hummingbird, doesn't mean any such travel trailer will be a suitable option for you. The Hummingbird is offered in several floorplans, and you need to decide whether you're looking for one that has a rear living room, or maybe a bunk bed-type bedroom.
The floorplan also affects the length. There is a lot of variety within each model, depending on the exact floorplan.
Should you buy from a dealership or a previous owner?
Experienced RVers usually have a preference when buying used, but if you're buying an RV for the first time, this is a major consideration.
A good RV dealership will have a large selection of rigs for you to choose from. You should be able to view up and close and get the advice of an experienced salesperson. They may even let you take a motorhome on a test drive before you buy - which can help you assess how easy or hard that RV would be to maneuver.
However, buying from a dealership would mean you're paying a mark-up price too. That service you'll be getting isn't really free. Granted, when buying from a previous owner, you're still not guaranteed a good deal.
In the end, it's a matter of personal preference. If you're in a rush, going to an RV dealership makes sense. If you have plenty of time to look for a good used RV, buying directly from a previous owner may pay off.
Already made up your mind? Take our quick survey to let us know which you prefer -
Where to find your RV (online resources included)
There are many online resources where you can find used RVs listed for sale. Common sites include Craigslist and Ebay. A favorite site to buy used RVs at is RV Trader. On that site, you can easily sort through available rigs by make, model, year and other parameters.
Beware of RV sales scams
Unfortunately, there are scammers out there, especially on sites such as Craigslist where you have no way of checking someone's reputation. A typical RV scam involves asking for a deposit on an RV before you even get to see it. According to this site, scammers come up with touching stories about why they can't be around to show you their RV, yet requesting a downpayment so they will "save" the RV for you.
Used RV Checklist
Go through this checklist, and you will feel much more confident about buying a second-hand RV. These items will help you see if the rig is in good condition or not. The list should be useful to all RV buyers, regardless of where and whom you buy your rig from.
- The Engine (If there is one)
- The hitch(es)
- Exterior Walls
- Doors and Windows
- Vents, Air Conditioner, and Fans
- Awnings, Slide Outs, and Jacks
- Electrical Systems
- Plumbing Systems
- Gas Furnace
- Kitchen Appliances
- Liquefied Petroleum Gas System
- RV Undercarriage
- Safety Equipment
- Entertainment Systems
- Buttons - all of them
- Allergens and hazardous materials
- The rest of the RV
- Maintenance Records
- Proof of Ownership
1. The engine (in a motorhome)
Considering buying a motorhome rather than a towable like a 5th wheel, travel trailer or toy hauler? Then the engine is one of the most expensive and important things you'll need to check. Fixing parts of the "car" part of a motorhome can be very expensive, so you should be prepared.
The thing about the engine is that inspecting one is crucial - and best left to the pros. If you're getting a motorhome, especially an older one, get a licensed mechanic to come over and thoroughly check the engine, as well as the other "vehicle" parts in the RV.
2. The Hitch
If you're buying one of these towables, then you need to inspect the hitch too -
- 5th Wheel
- Travel Trailer
- Toy Hauler
Watch for signs of erosion and rust. A rusty hitch isn't necessarily a terrible one. It's possible to clean out the rust and find a solid hitch underneath it. However, it does mean you'll have to put in some more work and - even more importantly - that the current owner wasn't taking the best possible care of the rig.
3. The RV Roof
The roof is the most important pre-sale checks you can make on an RV. An RV roof that is constantly leaking can cause immense damage that is not visible from the outside of an RV.
Look for water damage and if you find any, there may be mold and rotting walls that you will need to check for too.
- Take a look at the roofing material for tears, rips, or worn spots.
- Remove all of the vent covers so you can view the seams that are underneath the vent covers. Check all joints and seams for holes and cracks. Pay attention to where water naturally forms pools. It is important to know that the back and front seams are common places for a leak.
- Use a hose to spray water on the roof. While doing that, check to see if the gutters are in working properly. Also, have a second person look and listen for drips and drops of water inside the RV.
- Do the sealants and caulking look dried-out and old?
- Remove the fridge vent covers and waste tank. Use a bright flashlight and look down into the vents to check for a rodent, bird, or insect nests that could be blocking the vents.
RV roof-related problems are typically pricey, and repairs may take a couple of weeks. Make sure to hire someone to check an RV’s roof if you are uncomfortable doing so. Also, if you use a ladder, make sure it is safe to stand on.
4. The Exterior Walls
Closely inspect the RV walls for any delamination, cracks, bulges or bubbles. Inspect the decals and make sure they look clean.
A part of an RV wall that looks like it is not in the proper shape is typically a sign of underlying damage to the frame.
Check all the seams to make sure the sealant and caulking are clean with no peeling or cracking. Look closely for possible mounting screws and loose molding.
5. The Doors and Windows
Windows also need their seams and sealants checked like roofs. Pay attention to the bug screens and rubber gasket seals.
Spray the previously mentioned areas with water to check for internal leaks. Check for delamination or cracking if the windows have films on them.
Check the cabinets, entrance doors, and drawers. Make sure there is not any misplaced hardware, loose screws or damage. Always double check the latches and locks to make sure they are working properly.
Check for any fogging in between windows that are double paned because fogging indicates a failure.
6. The Vents, Air Conditioner, and Fans
Remove the cover, or covers, of the air conditioning unit. Inspect the inside for any signals of water leaks from the roof gasket. Also, make sure to check the filter to make sure it is in a decent condition.
A filter that is clogged-up is a definite sign that the air conditioning unit has never gone through the most basic form of maintenance.
Check the exhaust and cooling vent fans for proper operation. Inspect the bug screens to make sure they are installed properly and are not clogged up.
On the top of the RV’s roof, check the evaporator and condenser fins for signs of damage to make sure they are not jammed with debris. Check the electrical connectors, wiring, and fan.
The fan should freely spin without squeaks or wobbles. Remove and replace the covers and turn on the AC.
Let the AC run for ten to fifteen minutes. Use an IR thermometer gun to measure the outgoing and ingoing air temperatures. A difference of twenty degrees would be considered normal for most RV air conditioners.
7. The moving bits: Awnings, Slide Outs, and Jacks
Check the full range of motion for the RV’s awnings, slide outs, and jacks. They should move easily without squeals, squeaks, or clunks.
Check the rubber seals on the awning material and slide outs for damage. Check all the mechanical parts looking for any rust, corrosion, or other damage too.
8. The Electrical Systems
The electrical systems in an RV are complex. After all, this is a vehicle and a mobile home in one. Let's break down the list of electrical systems and see what you need to go over, one by one.
Power Distribution Panel
Take a look at each AC breaker. Both AC breakers should feel firm when switched on or off.
Turn on all of the circuits and inspect them for excessive heat. The 12 Volt DC circuits should not have any blown fuses.
Take a close look at each fixture and make sure they are in working properly. Remove the covers and verify that the bulbs do not show any signs of overheating. Overheating would damage the metal connectors or plastic holders. Also, do not overlook the exterior lighting and storage bay lighting.
Look for the coach battery bank that is typically found in its own vented box. Check it for corrosion on the connections. The wires should be in good shape and show no signs of overheating.
Use a multimeter to scan for a voltage measurement that is between 12.6 - 12.8 volts when not plugged in.
If the battery is a lead acid battery, then test of each cell with a hydrometer to get a more accurate charge reading. Check for a date code on the battery label too. If the battery is older than five years, then there is probably not much life left in the battery.
AC Outlets and Power Cord
Take a close look at the main power cord for defects and blemishes. Closely inspect the metal plug prongs to make sure they do not have any arc damage.
You can use an inexpensive circuit tester to check all the AC outlets in the RV and outside of the RV.
9. The RV's Plumbing Systems
Waste Tanks and Fresh Water
Firstly, assess the city water hookup. Fill the waste tanks and fresh water and then take the RV for a quick drive.
Look closely for any leaks under the RV. Dispose of all the waste tanks and look for decent water flow. The wastegate valves should have a smooth feel.
Plumbing and Toilet Fixtures
Attempt to turn on and then turn off all faucets to check for decent flow and leaks. Check the drains to make sure that they work correctly.
Check the toilet for any indications of leakage. Then, inspect the bowl seal. It should hold plenty of water. Inspect the shower head, the seals on the door, and the stall walls.
Find and check the 12-volt fresh water pump. Inspect the condition of the hoses and wiring.
Run the water pump and listen for smooth operation while simultaneously inspecting it for leaks. Make sure it can supply a consistent stream to all faucets in the RV.
Open the exterior and interior access panels to get a view of the wiring and plumbing. Then, put the water heater in gas mode and take a look at the burner flame.
It should quickly ignite, and the flame should be mostly blue. Turn on the electric mode and turn off the gas. Allow the water to come to a high temperature. Run taps testing for satisfactory clarity and heating.
On the outside of the RV, open the pressure relief valve to verify that it is working properly. Be careful. The water may be hot.
10. The Gas Furnace
Inspect the RV’s gas furnace and make sure it fires up swiftly. Also, make sure that the fan does not have any squeals of rattles or squeaks.
Inspect each output vent for decent airflow and heat. Remove the furnace access panel to see if the area around the furnace is cleared of debris and dust.
11. All Of The Kitchen Appliances
Verify that all of the appliances are working correctly. Light the gas stove to check each stove top burner and the oven as well if you have one.
You can use an oven thermometer to examine the oven for adequate heating.
Then, test the fridge in gas and electric mode. Use an IR thermometer gun to check the temperatures in the fridge and freezer sections for cooling.
Open up the outside access panels to make sure that everything looks spotless with no dirt or debris. Inspect the condition of the drain hose. Verify that the auto switch over feature is working properly.
You should hear a flickering sound outside, and you should be able to see a small blue flame in the burner area when the electricity is removed.
12. The Liquefied Petroleum Gas System (Propane)
Verify that the RV’s liquefied petroleum gas system has been certified and inspected. It is the law before a sale in most jurisdictions.
Check the age of the propane cylinders since many can only be refilled for ten years. Inspect the condition of the regulator, rubber hoses, and tank switchover valves.
Walk around the entire interior of the RV and try to sniff out any sign of a propane leak.
13. The RV's Undercarriage
Go under the RV and take a look at the suspension and axle components. Inspect them for any fragmented parts or unwarranted corrosion. Check on the condition of the underbelly covering too.
Take a look at the tires for flaws and use the DOT code to figure out the tire’s age. Any tires that are older than five years need to be replaced especially if the RV is a trailer.
Check the entrance stairs, the bumper, and the pull-out bike rack if you have one.
14. The Floor
Thoroughly inspect where the floors meet the walls. Brown spots indicate rotting in many cases.
This may sound strange but jump up and down in a few places. The floors should all feel sturdy and stable. Jump up and down around the bathroom and kitchen where water is used frequently to check for rot.
15. All Safety Equipment
Inspect the carbon monoxide, functioning smoke, and LP gas detectors. Make sure that the fire extinguishers are up to date.
16. The Entertainment Systems
Make sure that all of the audio systems, TVs, satellite, DVD and remote controls are working properly. Inspect all of the speakers for clear sound. Do not forget the outside speakers if they are on the RV.
If you can, send a signal to the outside cable input to make sure it works. Examine the rooftop antenna and the signal booster too.
17. All Of The Buttons You Can Find (Lights etc.)
As you inspect the RV, try any button and knob you can see. If you're not sure, ask the owner what they do - always wise to find out - and then give it a try to make sure it's actually working.
Turn on every single light. Make sure that the brake lights and clearance lights work from the outside of the RV.
18. Allergens and hazardous materials
Always ask about cigarette smoke and about pets. Many people are allergic to cats and dogs. Third-hand smoke is bad for everyone - and stinks to boot. You can typically pick up on these allergens from the smell of the interior of an RV, but it is important just in case.
19. Everywhere Else
Open all the storage bays and cabinets. If you can, look inside any access panels after unscrewing them. Remember, serious problems to check for are signs of water leaks, mold, dry rot, rodent activity, or insect activity.
Use a bright flashlight and go through the entire RV. Scan for any problems and potential problems.
20. Maintenance Records
Maintenance records are super important when purchasing a used RV. They give people assurance that the vehicle they are buying has been well maintained. They could also be important down the road, especially for anything that's still under warranty.
21. Proof of Ownership
A Recreational Vehicle Bill of Sale is mandatory when an RV is transferred or sold between a buyer and a seller.
It is essential that a legal sales document that archives the sale. They are required in most states in order to transfer the title of an RV and show proof of ownership of an RV.
When buying a used RV, you are taking a big risk because you might end up being stuck with an RV that does not work properly or requires more repairs than previously anticipated.
It is very important that you implement a thorough investigation of the exterior and interior of the RV, do your research ahead of time, and make sure all of your questions are answered in advance before you contemplate purchasing a used RV.
Remember, older RVs are bound to have some issues and malfunctions. The key here is figuring out what they are, how much they matter to you and what it's going to cost you to fix them. Knowing this in advance will help you plan your budget - as well as negotiate the best possible price.
Still in the planning stage of your purchase? You may be able to save a few bucks by reading our post about the best time of the year for buying a travel trailer.
Thinking of buying a rig? You may find these posts on our blog helpful too -
And once you buy your rig of choice, don't forget to maintain it properly. Not sure where to begin with RV maintenance? Don't worry - check out our 49 RV Maintenance Tips That Will Save You Time, Money and Heartache.