Before you start searching for that used RV to begin your journey, you should ask yourself a few basic questions such as the type you need, how much time you will spend in it, and what your plans are for using it after you’ve purchased your RV. For example, if you plan on living in it as a full-time RVer, then a pop-up type camper is probably not for you. Or if you plan on boondocking for instance, you want to consider an RV that will have sufficient ground clearance when you are traversing through the back country on U.S. Forest Service roads.
Private Sale > Dealership
Once you have determined the RV that best suits your needs, you can then start the shopping and buying process. I recommend visiting a few RV dealerships at the beginning of this process and looking at the models you think might work for you. However, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a used RV from a dealership because purchasing one from a private individual is usually far more cost effective from the buyer’s perspective and the sellers as well. Remember, dealerships are in business to make money and they take in trades to maximize that profit. If you’re considering buying a new RV, read my new RV buying guide first.
Where Can I Find a Good Used RV?
I have always found mine the old fashioned way, by looking through the classified ads in local newspapers or buy driving around and seeing one parked in someone’s yard for sale. However, there are tons of great websites today that can help you with your search. I recommend a website called RVTrader.com – on this site you can compare all types of RVs listed by different parameter such as size, type, model, and manufacturer. Another good resource is Craigslist.com for local sales (but be careful!).
Now That I Found the RV I’m Interested In, What’s Next?
The first thing you should do is call the seller and set up an appointment to go take a look at the RV. If information such as the unit’s mileage or history is not listed in the ad, you should ask some of these questions now. Here are a few things I would consider asking about on the initial call and you should consider making list of questions you may want to ask before calling the seller.
- What is the history of the RV? As a potential buyer it is important to know as much of the history of the RV that you can find out. Ask the seller if they purchased it new or used. If it has had only one owner, then it’s more likely that it has been better cared for that a unit with multiple previous owners.
- Mileage. The mileage is an important thing to know. Higher mileage means the RV will likely need more maintenance because of worn engine components and general wear and tear.
- Damage. Ask the seller if it had ever been in an accident or been damaged by natural events such as hail, wind or flooding
- Ask if everything is working. Now is a good time to find out if everything is operational. If for example, the seller tells you it needs a new furnace or air-conditioning unit then you will know that you will have to put some added money into the RV.
- Ask the seller how they used it. This should give you some idea of how much wear and tear the unit has. Let’s say they tell you that they only used it for weekend trips during the summer a few times. Now you know that the likelihood of it having worn out appliances or frayed and dirty carpeting in low.
If a seller omits some of this basic information then there’s always a chance they are hiding something. However, accidents happen and the seller may have just forgotten to include this information when they made their listing or placed their ad. Once you have agreed to an appointment time, you should ask the seller to have it plugged in for at least three hours before your appointment so you can check the refrigerator for proper cooling.
What Should I Look for at the Appointment?
The Auto Essentials
There are several factors you should consider in this part of the process. If you are buying a motorhome then you should inspect the engine and the transmission. Look for any excess oil or fluids that may be leaking. Do you see any loose wires? What do the batteries look like? Are the cables corroded? Those are the type of things you should look for but if you are unsure of the exact things to check, then you should bring along someone more knowledgeable than you to inspect it with you, maybe a relative who is a mechanic or a trusted friend who is already an experienced RVer. For trailers (and motorhomes), check the tires, do they have decent treads? Are they weather checked and cracked?
Inspect the outside for any bows or cracks in the body. Look in the compartments for any signs of water stains or damage. In the northern climates, it’s not unusual for water pipes to burst if not properly winterized. Look up high for good seals between the roof and walls and try to inspect the roof. Do all the vents look like they have good seals? How is the seal around the rooftop air conditioner unit?
Once you have inspected the outside of this unit, it’s time to move inside. Here again you should be looking up high and along the framework. Look for any signs of water damage or mold in the corners and along the seams. Check the refrigerator for temperature. Is the oven and stove working? Turn on the air conditioning and check the furnace. Look in all of the cupboards and remember to always be checking water stains or mold in these area too. Check all the lights too, a couple of burned out lights in a row or on the same wall may mean you have an entire circuit that is not functioning.
If the unit has a slide out, make sure to test them as well. Run them in and out a couple of times and make sure they seal properly when closed. Listen to them as they operate, they should be making a low hum as the move in or out and any sound of grinding or scraping could be a sign of trouble.
Take it for a Test Drive
Try to take your prospective purchase on a test drive at higher and lower speeds. Listen to the engine and be aware of any slips in the transmission or unusual bumps you may feel while driving. Take it to an empty parking lot and test out its turning radius, do some practice parking with it and see how that works out for you. It’s also a good idea to ask the owner to drive it while you do a walk through it while it’s in motion. You should be looking for loose cabinetry or fixtures and just getting an overall feel of how it rides down the road.
Have It Inspected
If the owner is agreeable to this, it’s worth it to take the RV to a mechanic or auto shop have it thoroughly inspected. Make sure to read my recent article where I interviewed an official RV inspector on how to hire him and what to expect on inspection day.
Try to find out as much information as you can about the motorhome or RV you are looking at. Why is the owner getting rid of it? An older couple may be getting rid of it because they can no longer travel or have health issues. A family may be selling their unit because they have outgrown it or don’t use it as much now that their children have grown up. Some of these answers may give you an idea of how well taken care of the unit is.
Ask about any maintenance records they may have. You may even consider paying for a VIN number history report to determine whether it has been damaged in an accident, how many previous owners it has, or whether or not there are any recalls on the model.
Remember, this is going to be your home away from home or perhaps for some, a full-time home, so it’s important that you feel safe and comfortable with whatever choice you make on purchasing a recreational vehicle that works for you.
For recommendations on specific RVs, be sure to read our guide on the best RVs for full-time living.