Purchasing a Used RV





Introduction ;  For those of you who yourn for the freedom of being able to travel and not being confined to needing to find, or to check into a motel without pre-registering, a RV (Recreational Vehicle) may have some benefits.  However I suggest you do a lot of looking, and even rent a few to become more in tune with the numerous pitfalls you may encounter.  Don't be sucked into the thought that bigger is always better.  Mistakes made in buying the wrong one for you and your needs, OR one that needs lots of repairs can become VERY EXPENSIVE.  However even some of us can get taken at times by trusting the seller.


First off RVs come in towable trailers, both tag along and 5th wheel versions.  The tag alongs are towed using a regular towing receptacle, (trailer hitch) on a towing vehicle.  This vehicle needs to be large and powerful enough to handle what it is towing.   Balls are usually 2 5/16" diameter.  Trailers longer than probably 20' should also use a torsion bar / anti-sway system to help level and stabilize the trailer so it does not sway enough to put your towing vehicle out of control.  These will also have electric brakes so your towing vehicle needs to be wired to accept that.


5th wheel units require a pickup bed mounted towing receptacle and the trailers will have a overhead bunk in this upper forward section.  These older units may not have a lot of headroom in this overhead bed.  Newer units are a lot taller on the front to accommodate full headroom there.


Motorized units will have their our power, and usually mounted on van or truck chassis.  They are classified into different classes A, B, C.


The Class A will be the larger motorhomes with the outer shell all built together including the driver/passenger compartment similar to a commercial buss.  Simply a motor home on wheels up into 40' models.    These will, by necessity be powered by larger motors that may be well known to be thirsty on fuel.


The Class B is a smaller unit built on a 3/4 or one ton van.  Many of these will be called a conversion van, meaning the van company purchased a standard factory van and usually chopped off the top, being replaced by a whole new fiberglass raised top.   Some are "wide body" versions, meaning the rear section of the van has also been replaced with a wider section allowing a full sized bed to be placed crosswise in the rear.  These wider units are a bit more desirable instead of using lengthwise running bunks.   These units can have all the anemineties of the larger units including bathroom, shower, micro wave, onboard generator, 12 volt to 120 volt inverter, even possibly solar panels, possibly even a TV, everything just all compressed into close proximities. 


The will be built on a small enough frame that these units can be parked in a regular parking spot or not take up extra room/charge a on a ferry.   They are not built for comfort, but convenience and usually with smaller motors, giving better mileage.


The Class C is a combination of the A and the B, in that it uses the cab section of a truck attached to the rears  section of a travel trailer.


Newer units may have slide outs to provide more room when parked, however they need a lot more attentions as for maintenan=ce.


As of yet you do not need a special drivers license endorsement, however it seems inevitable.


One very important thing to consider, (even on the Class B units) is that they all take a lot more room to maintenance.


Cost ;  Value  would be a used unit as it is not uncommon to see new units sell for over $200,000, and loosing 1/2 of their value in 10 years.    Some units retain their value better than others, especially the Class Bs which will be under 20' long.  Where new these may be near $130,00, at 10 years old maybe $50,000 to $60,000 but at 20 years old, $20,000 and don't drop much from there on if well maintained AND have proof of the repairs performed.  Where a Class C in a 24' to 28' at that same age may be only $6,000 to $8,000, probably somewhat because they are more plentiful.  BUT condition and mileage effects this use price on older units no matter the model.


What to Look For ;  In buying a used unit, more so than like buying a used car, here you need to look the whole unit over carefully.  Has it sat outside, uncovered in the rain during the winters, developing possible water leaks?


Most trailers will be made on a steel frame but of a light wood body  framing, with aluminum siding and a metal or rubber top.   This upper seam can be subject to the seal deteriorating, producing a water leak.  If the top is leaking, many times you will see a brownish stain along the edge of the ceiling.  Ceiling vents can also be a source of leakage.  If a leak is bad and the owner did not catch it while being laid up over the winter and stored outside, there could also be enough water damage to leak down the wall and into the flooring, creating rot, making it soft.


If a trailer, check the tires for checks as if exposed to a lot of hot sunlight, they can become checked.  Also check for uneven wear on the tire tread.  It is not imposable for a trailer to be backed into a spot where the axle may get pushed rearward or even forward enough to get the axle/tires out of alignment creating excess wear on the sides of the tires.


Also check for non-professional repairs to the outside because of minor accidents.  Are they sealed properly?


Now for units with their own power, the Class A, B and C units.  Here are where maintenance records will really help.   (#1) How many miles does it have on it?  A 20 year old unit with only 45,000 miles may be a good buy, even one with 120,000, but usually the low mileage units means it has sat for a lot of it's life.  Possibly not a good thing as far as needed maintenance, OR the engine could be so large and a gas hog that was OK when gas was $2.00 a gallon it was not a big an issue but now when it is in the $3.50 to nearing the $4.00 range, it's a whole different situation if you intend to use your new intended purchase.


But if the seller can't come up with maintenance records, do you trust someone you do not know when they are to gain monetarily by withholding information/or the lack of it?  Or just plain ignorant as to all maintenance or lack of it, like a grandson selling grandpas vehicle.


Also what about owner's manuals?  Are they provided?  If not, how do you even turn on the furnace?  What is the towing capacity?  How large are the water and holding tanks?


 Personal Experience ;   I have owned RVs of one sort or another for over 50 years.  Starting out with a 16' travel trailer that we used on our beach lot at that time.  Then numerous (3) slide in overhead pickup campers, that were used mostly for hunting.   Finally after retirement and at a beach clam digging family venture, where my wife had problems climbing into the overhead bunk, we sold the last one and bought a used 23' trailer shown in the upper right header photo.


This trailer did not get much traveling use when we owned it because the wife was developing a disease where initially her balance was effected, then walking, voice and swallowing, called Primary Lateral Sclerosis, a rare form of ALS.  But before I became her 24 hour caregiver, I would move the trailer to a friends property at the beach and use it as a base camp for my fishing ventures.


 I had done a lot of looking and after she passed away, decided to try to find a used Class B RV van.  From this I could tow my boat and have a place to hang my hat for a week or so at a time if I wanted.  These things sell new for upwards to near $130,000, way too much for my budget.   Along with the fact that I did not like the new body styles.  I settled my looking on something used in the 20 year old class, which on Craigslist would show up occasionally for from $10,00 to $20,000 depending on the make, model and miles or condition.  I finally settled on a Dodge chassis, because they used a 360 CI engine and with a overdrive transmission, which can get 15-16mpg freeway driving, as compared to the Fords 460 CI, at near 6-8mpg.


The problem is these units are very desirable and if the model, where the price and condition are good, they don't last long before being sold.  I had set $15,000 as my top end, which eliminated a few.  Finally one day after lunch, I got on Craigslist and found a 1997 Dodge Leisure Travel van about 60 miles from my home for a asking price of $12,900 OBO.  The photos showed that it had been taken care of as far as the living quarters.  It had 129,000 miles on it, which was not excessive if taken care of like the body appeared to have been.  The add mentioned it had the transmission replaced a couple of years before.  I called an hour and 1/2 after the add appeared on a Friday and was the first caller.  I was committed for the week-end so my daughter and son-in-law went to look at it.  They found a few things wrong, like the oil pressure gauge was not working, the passenger power window was not working and the onboard generator's carburetor needed repaired.   They negotiated down to $12,300.


The problem now arose that the seller had no maintenance records, owners manual or anything, they even had to file and get a new title.  What became known was Grandpa bought it new, Grandma had died, and Grandpa was then in a assisted living facility.  Apparently when he was moved out of the family home, all the information on this van had either gotten thrown away or boxed up and in storage.  But the Grandson who was selling it said Grandpa would take it to a RV dealership every winter to have it gone thru and winterized.


OK, I could probably do those repairs.  However in my initial driving it, the steering was way loose, allowing it to wonder a bit.  The check engine light then came on and the brakes felt like they at least needed to be bled as they were a bit spongy.  Well, I had just turned 82 and decided maybe I was not as nimble as I once was, and did not have all the newer test equipment to do a good job, so decided to take it to a well known automotive repair shop that I was friends with the owner.


When I left it, my desire was for them to go over it and repaired so that I would not get broke down on the freeway or back-country road.  When asked may repair amount, I had set $1,000, but figured it may go double that.  BOY WAS I WRONG.


A few days later they called and the steering gearbox was worn out and it was so old that only a rebuilt one was available at a price of $560.71. The front suspension was also worn, including the ball joints and upper control arms at $246.12 each.  Plus the power steering needed to be rebuilt.  Then and the engine needed a tune-up, all at a cost of almost $4,000.  Then another call saying the front brakes needed new calipers, pads and rotors for another $500.  Then another call a few days later saying the rear brakes needed the drums turned and all new shoes at another $400.  Lastly after them having it 2 weeks, another call saying that the in the fuel tank, fuel pump was failing, putting out low pressure (1/2) at an idle, it was old enough that was hard to find, but they located one for $850.05 and approximately another $1,000 labor for that repair as this fuel tank was nestled above gray or black water tank, which had to be removed to access the fuel tank.  They had called the manufacturer to see if there was an access hole to the pump on this model.  NO.


What option did I have now, as this would be the best time to have it replaced as compared if I was on the road a 1000 miles or more away from home or possibly even close to any repair shop.  I asked the owner if it was possible to install a electric fuel pump near the engine.  OK, I learned something here.  With the older engine mounted fuel pumps on carbureted engines, the fuel pressure was at about 4#.  But this unit was new enough to be one of the early fuel injected motors and had the fuel pump in the fuel tank, and at a pressure of 50#, which was needed because of the fuel injected motor.


My only salvation is that I got it reasonable enough buy that by now spending this $7,006.93 repair, I am now at the upper end, or slightly above the selling price of one of that model and year in excellent condition.   But it is rather comforting to know that now I will have the reliability (or even better) of a new vehicle.  And with my limited retirement funds, now it may have to be only used for shorter trips.


It is now my conclusion that Grandpa probably knew very little about vehicle maintenance, and possibly thought the RV dealership had done all maintenance including the vehicle's.  Or he was blissfully ignorant on these matters.  And the grandson was simply in the dark as the contact person seller.


I have now visited a RV dealership that handles that model and received a reprinted manual.  Then have added to it manuals obtained online for the refrigerator, onboard generator, air conditioning, space heater and hot water heater.


My thoughts now are it would be best if buying one from private sale, to make arrangements to pay a mechanic $200/$300 inspection fee before you lay down your money, or have a agreement signed with the owner for a return of your money within a specific time frame if the vehicle report proved to be what I have experienced.   However with these being that desirable, and there was another possible buyer waiting in the wings on mine, I suspect this may not work out.  Meaning someone will possibly be the one paying thru the nose.  Maybe the early bird did not get a decent worm.


I have taken it on a 2 day shakedown drive, taking in a night razor clam dig, Westport WA, boat basin Coho fishing trip and just relaxing a bit.  I am impressed with all the conveniences and comfort available in this vehicle.


There are many small things I am doing to it internally to make it more livable and trying to find where I can store different items. 



Copyright © 2018 LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved


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Originated 10-09-2018, Last updated 10-28-2018
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