There are thousands of RV's on the market today. How do you know which one to choose?
An RV may be one of the largest purchases you ever make. How can you make sure to pick a solid rig that will offer you years of great service without leaving you stranded?
Welcome to RV 101 - How To Choose An RV
In this article, we are going to start at the beginning and assume you know as little about buying an RV as I did when we first started. Over the course of my research, I discovered 12 key questions that can help you determine your future RV lifestyle.
Once you know your lifestyle preferences, you can pick the right RV. You can then successfully move to the next article in this series, RV 101 - Types of RV's, with a solid sense of which style of rig is right for you.
Let's jump right into the questions. If you don't know the answer yet, don't worry. Use the questions as a guide to identify what is and isn't important to you.
1: How Do You Define Camping?
This is a big one. Camping is a broad term and can mean different things to different people. When I was a kid, we owned military surplus canvas tents. Camping in our family meant Dad dragging us to the woods and putting up a tent. The goal was to do without and experience the great outdoors.
How do you want to camp?
Are you a minimalist that wants to live in the wild and go without?
Are you a glamper who wants all the amenities of your home while staying at an RV resort?
Believe it or not, it's crucial to know what camping looks like to you and to your travel companions. If a couple plans to take up the gypsy lifestyle, they better make sure they are on the same page when it comes to camping style.
My husband knew from the start that I was a glamper. This meant that if we planned to actually live in an RV full-time, I would be bringing my china with me. This choice would dictate the style and size of rig that we bought. It would also limit our location options. He was ok with that, but we took the time to talk through it.
2: Where Do You Plan To Camp?
Do you want to stay in State Parks with full hook ups?
Do you want to primitive camp (also called Boondocking)?
Do you hope to stay in an RV resort for an ongoing period of time?
Will you be traveling or staying in one place?
If the idea of neighbors drives you mad and you plan to camp off-grid in the desert, a big rig is not for you. In fact, you will want to buy something under 32 feet. A small unit can go just about anywhere, allowing you the freedom to stay in nearly all state and national campgrounds.
Do you hope to stay in an RV park with lots of amenities? If so, a large multi-slide 5th wheel or a big Class A Motorcoach will work well.
If you want to vary your camping style, then you will need a rig that is 35 feet or under that offers good ground clearance.
Brian and I had already decided we needed something I could glamp in. This meant it would be big. This also meant we would not be staying in state or National parks (for the most part) due to size restrictions.
We wanted to Boondock some, but we knew that would only mean staying in parks without hookups or free parking lots as we traveled. Our big rig would not be a "go everywhere" kind of option and that was ok for us.
You have to decide where you want to camp before you can choose the right rig for your RVing lifestyle.
3: One location or Many?
This seems like a stupid question. If you are buying an RV you plan to travel, right? Not necessarily.
A snowbird will park their rig in the same Arizona park for five months out of the year. Due to their lifestyle, they need a solid unit with good living space.
A photographer who travels the U.S. and moves his RV every three days needs something easy to maneuver that can go anywhere.
If you can answer this question, you will have a better idea of which rig to buy.
RV's are built more like a car and less like a stick and brick house. This means the wear and tear on the unit will require ongoing maintenance.
If you want to Boondock off-grid, you will need an RV with large gray and black holding tanks. You will need space for solar and something that offers greater ground clearance.
Once you decide on your travel pattern, you will begin to have a clear idea of the style of unit that best suits you.
We personally looked at a ton of RV's. We spent two full days at MHSRV down in Texas driving around in a golf cart in the hot sun. MHSRV has just about every style of rig you can imagine and we looked at nearly every one.
One of the first things we noticed is many RV's were poorly built. This was hard to detect when they were new, but look at a model four or more years old and the issues are pretty obvious.
Brian and I knew that we would probably stay in one place for a few months at a time. We would like to dry camp for a week or two at a time when traveling between locations. We have four cats that we knew we would take with us, so the idea of caging them for hours bothered us. As we added up our priorities, we began to lean toward a Class A coach.
4: Whose Traveling With You?
We have four indoor cats who are family. These fur babies go everywhere with us, like it or not.
Who will travel with you? This question is super important. If you are single without pets, your rig choice will be different from a family of five traveling with two dogs.
Here are a few items you should be aware of:
- Many RV parks charge extra for more than 2 people per unit.
- Animals are not allowed at all RV parks, including state parks.
- You cannot leave a pet in a trailer while traveling in some states.
Once you know who you will be traveling with, imagine your life on the road. If you are a weekend warrior, picture your two and three-day pattern. If you plan to full-time, think about your day-to-day life.
Where will the kids sleep?
Where will the kids study?
Will you need a bunkhouse RV?
Will you work from your RV?
Do you need an office space?
Do you need storage for work equipment or supplies?
Where will your pet sleep?
Make a list of everyone's wants and needs before you look for RV's. You won't find everything, but if you know what your priorities are, you will be a lot better off.
Once Brian and I knew what we needed, we made much better use of our shopping time. We could pull onto a lot and eyeball the half dozen units that fit our criteria. No more running to and from every single RV in the heat. We were creating an organized system and you can too!
5: Do you already have a truck? How big is it?
Airstreams and vintage travel trailers are all the rage. Fifth wheels are getting cooler every day. If you own a truck, you may be automatically thinking you want to buy something you can pull.
The truth is: you need to do some research before making any decisions. Just because you own a truck does not mean it can pull the type of RV you want to own. If you have to upgrade your truck and then buy a fifth wheel, it may cost you more than a Class A or Class C Motorhome.
I wanted a Class A from the beginning. It fits my glamping lifestyle. My husband liked the maneuverability of a fifth wheel. We looked for a compromise. We finally found a 5er that had exactly what we both wanted, but unfortunately, it was big and heavy. That meant we needed a diesel dually. When we added up the costs, we realized we could buy a much better Class A then we had thought for the same price.
The key is staying open to all your options and knowing what your truck will and will not pull.
Recently, while work camping in the Midwest, we met a single mother who just purchased a new travel trailer. The problem was her jeep could not tow it. She found herself stranded on the side of the road, all because the dealers told her the Jeep could tow the trailer. The next day, she traded the Jeep in and came back to the park with a truck.
The lesson? Do the research and save yourself some stress.
6: How Much Can You Spend?
Now the rubber meets the road. How much money are you willing to spend? It’s important to set a budget early in your RV search. Recreational Vehicles are traveling apartments and they are priced like it. If you want to spend $35,000 then you have immediately removed a ton of possibilities. That’s a good thing. Now you can concentrate on your options within that target price. If you do not own a truck, and your budget is only $35,000, you will need to purchase something used. Perfect! That eliminates another batch of options.
If after answering the above questions, you know:
You want to boondock in the wild
You want to explore the outdoors more than stay inside
You will be traveling with your wife and dog
You want to travel often and only stay in a place for a few days at a time
You don’t have a truck and don’t want to buy one.
AND your budget is $35,000
Your RV choice is beginning to take shape. You now know that you want a small rig with solar and other off-grid potential. You also know that you need something that can go anywhere and is easy to pack up. It won’t be a trailer or fifth wheel because you don’t have a truck. It will need to be used because $35,000 will not be enough to buy a new rig.
See how this works?
Originally, Brian and I planned to buy a new 5th wheel and truck. When our budget was cut in half, we re-evaluated and found the perfect Class A. Prior to our budget cut, we weren’t considering anything used. In the end, knowing how much we could spend actually drove us to a better RV for our lifestyle.
Take the time to work through these questions. Combined with determining your budget, they will bring instant clarity.
7: Who’s Driving?
Believe it or not, this is a key element in choosing the perfect rig. If you both want to drive, but only one of you feels comfortable with a big rig, you need to look for something smaller.
RV’s are just like cars - they all handle completely different. It’s important to find a comfort level that fits your needs. Before you buy, be sure to take some time for both partners to test drive and take their turn at the wheel.
If you want to drive and your spouse doesn’t, then pick something you feel comfortable with. In our case, we knew we would be big and since I have terrible depth perception, I also knew I would not be driving. That was fine by me. You have to decide what your family is comfortable with and buy something appropriate.
8: What’s Most Important To Me?
Your new RV will be a tiny house on wheels. In the process of moving into your new rig you will have to downsize a lot of your life. Before you start that process make sure that your RV has the items you consider absolutely essential. I suggest you pick your top three items of importance from the list below:
Easy to maneuver
Multiple sleeping areas
Diesel or Gas engine
Large Gray and Black Tank
Ability to go off road
Lots of storage
Abundant kitchen cabinets
Quick setup and tear down
Can be towed by a small truck
We discovered our priorities were a diesel engine that could pull anything we wanted to tow. A solid build that wouldn’t be falling apart with wear. A neutral palette that would be easy to update without a major gutting. Storage!
While those were our main priorities, there were some things that we gave up. Originally, I really wanted a washer/dryer unit and considered it a make or break option. When this option was placed against a solid built unit, I decided I could use Laundromats. Initially, we liked the idea of separate rooms and multiple slides, but when we looked at our priorities, we realized we didn’t want the hassle and the possible repair. Once that was decided, we were able to move forward with our choices.
Rest assured, you will have to make compromises, so be clear on what is important to you. Decide what is most important and what would just be nice to have. Some items are easy-going without and others are make it or break it. Take the time to discover which is which for you.
9: Cash or Finance?
The most important thing to realize about purchasing an RV is their value drops like a rock. The value of many units is cut in half in just 5-8 years! Start the buying process by considering your personal financial goals BEFORE you find your RV. If you plan to finance, look at a reasonable monthly payment and then create a budget around it. What other expenses will you have? Be sure to factor in:
Upgrades and Maintenance
Gas or Diesel
Do you already have a car payment on the road? (The vehicle you are pulling?)
Believe it or not, there are a lot of costs to owning an RV, so just because you qualify for $100,000 in loans doesn’t mean you want to take it. Create a full budget and look at every aspect before you commit to purchasing anything.
If your goal is to minimize your payments, you may need to wait until you can buy something in cash. Don’t let the salesman pressure you. Know your budget and stick to it.
10: How Long Will You RV?
Weekends only? Full time for years? Will you upgrade over time? Knowing how long you intend to use your recreational vehicle can help you plan for the future. Let’s say you plan to travel full-time with two small children. Your needs today versus in five years will change dramatically. As the kids grow, so does your need for additional space. You will either need to buy small and upgrade down the line, or buy big and grow into it.
Some people start small and trade up over the years. Other people start big and realize they really want to go to more remote areas, so they have to purchase something smaller. The truth is, we don’t know what our future holds, but spending some time to think through the process will help you make sure you get the right rig.
Brian and I wanted to purchase one RV and use it for years to come. That meant we needed to find a unit that had a very clear history of outstanding maintenance. We didn’t want to find out about problems later. Once we made this decision, we looked at the lasting value of each RV we considered. How well would this brand wear? (Go look at some used units and you can tell pretty quickly.) How hard was it to get service? How big a drop would we take on the value?
11: Will You Work From Your RV? Will Your Kids Road School?
If you plan to work from your new rig, make sure it has the space that you need. This will vary from job to job. If you work on a laptop, your needs for space will be less restrictive than a crafter who needs a work table for beading. Artists need a space that can be set up and not torn down every few hours. Do you use multiple screens? Where will these be located?
One of my favorite websites is Technomadia. The Technomads offer great posts on using technology while you travel. They also have a large section on their site about RV work spaces.
If instead you plan to travel the U.S. while road schooling your kids, you need to consider their school space. Are there desks that can be set up and then folded down? Will you use the dining room table? Will they work outside when the weather is good? This in itself is a huge topic and deserves its own section. If you’d like more ideas, be sure to visit Families on The Road. They also offer a great article on choosing an RV for your family.
12: Where Will You Park It?
This final question may seem funny. Why would you park your RV? Don’t you plan to travel? Um, yep, but getting to that point is a process. If you plan to buy an RV and downsize your life, where will you park the RV in the process?
If you plan to weekend travel, where will you park your RV when you are home at work?
Can you park it in your driveway? Don’t just assume. Find out if there are any homeowner association rules that prevent this.
Will you store it somewhere? If so, where? How much will it cost? Is it covered or uncovered? Do they have space available?
I have actually known people who have gotten excited, bought their rig, and then found they had nowhere to park it. Their HOA didn’t allow parking it next to the house or on the street. The storage units in their area were full and required reservations. They bought their unit at the height of the camping season and were hard pressed to find a safe haven for their new baby. Don’t let this happen to you.
Well, that’s it. Those are the top 12 questions that will help you determine which RV is the right rig for you. In the next part of our series, we will take an in-depth look at the types of RV’s that are available, along with the pro’s and con’s of each.
That's it! Those are my top 10 tips for buying an RV. Oh, and don't forget to test drive the unit. I guess that's an obvious one, right?