By Chuck Woodbury
Here are 18 truths about buying an RV in 2018 that you should know before making a purchase. Some of this advice is blunt and not flattering to the RV industry. I’m not trying to discourage you from buying an RV but simply encouraging you to be very careful when you do. In many cases, an RV will be the most expensive item you will ever purchase after your home. Don’t blow it!
•First and foremost, RVs are not an investment! They’re a luxury that depreciates fast. The minute you drive off a dealer’s lot, you just lost 25 percent of what you paid for it. So, let’s say you paid $100,000 with a 10 percent down payment. It’s now worth $75,000. If you or your spouse gets sick, or for some reason you can’t afford your payments (often financed for 20 years), you’ll need to come up with $15,000 just to pay off your loan. Got that kind of money to spare?
•Whatever you do, never buy on impulse. Take your time. Wise buyers research for a year or more. There is no Consumer Reports for RVs, although businesses claim to be that will gladly take your money.
•When buying a new RV, offer 30 percent off the MSRP (if it’s a low-priced tent or travel trailer start at 20 percent). If you can’t get the deal or close to it, don’t buy. Walk away. Or try a different dealer. Try again at the end off the month or in the off-season, when a dealer or salesman is trying to meet a quota. If you buy an RV at 15 percent off MSRP and think you got a great deal. . . well, you’re the sucker of the month.
•You can usually get a good deal at an RV show. But you usually get the same deal later at a dealer’s lot.
•RVs are NOT the cheapest way to travel. The RV industry preaches it, but it’s a lie. To figure an RV’s true cost, consider its monthly loan payments, interest, maintenance, repairs, license, camping fees, insurance, fuel (gas, diesel and probably propane). Be sure to factor in depreciation, too. Most RVers will use their rig a month or less a year. So total up your payments for another 11 months, when the RV is sitting, and plug that into one 30-day period. Sure, once you buy your RV, if you want to travel with it for a year, your expenses will be far less than if you stayed in hotels every night. But who travels a year, staying in hotels? Nobody! And, really, you can’t ignore the $50,000, $100,000 or $300,000 you paid for your RV to begin with.
•Salesmen earn their income from commissions. Some really do care about you and will treat you right. But too many others will say whatever it takes to make a sale. Be sure anything they say of significance is in writing.
•To be really smart, buy a used RV, one that’s a few years old that’s been well cared for, where the owner has kept good maintenance records. You can often buy such an RV for half what it costs new, looking like new, with all the bugs worked out.
•RV dealers will try to sell you an extended warranty. They make a lot of money selling them. But maybe you don’t need one. Do your research. Some RVers swear by them, others swear about them. Not all warranties are created equal. Read (and fully understand) the fine print.
•The RV industry is cranking out RVs at a record pace these days, close to a half million a year. They have trouble finding qualified workers so end up with many with marginal abilities. The manufacturers push the workers so fast they make mistakes and take production shortcuts. RVs are often shipped off to dealers without a final inspection. And even if they are inspected, dealers are expected to fix what is wrong before selling them, which some do and some don’t. Read what one RV delivery man says about this.
•Only a few states have lemon laws covering RVs. If you get stuck with an RV that has fatal problems in a state without lemon laws, too bad: find a lawyer. RV manufacturers will do all they can to avoid paying you for a piece of junk they churned out because money was more important than doing it right.
•There is no national organization that represents the interests of RVing in Congress or state legislatures. The most powerful RVing association is the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), which represents RV manufacturers, not consumers. One of its mandates is to fight lemon laws wherever they are proposed. The largest association in the campground industry, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), is focused on helping its 3,000 RV park members make more money, with no interest in promoting new, badly needed places to camp.
•Getting service on an RV is harder and harder with so many new RVs on the road, and so many new ones needing repairs of problems that should have been fixed before they were sold. RV technicians are in huge demand, but there aren’t enough of them. Dealers don’t pay them very well, so they take their skills elsewhere.
•If you buy a new RV from a dealer a few hundred miles from your home, then need to get it serviced locally, good luck! Your local dealer may refuse to work on it. “You didn’t buy it from us; we won’t service it.” Sounds illogical right? But it happens (read about it).
•RV manufacturers know that most inexperienced buyers purchase an RV based on its appearance — the “bling” — most often the floor plan. They don’t take the time to look at the details, the little stuff, the hidden stuff, the cheap components. Buying impulsively is like playing Russian roulette: You’ll make out okay sometimes, but too often you’ll end up with a nightmare.
•Never assume when you’re looking over an RV that those who designed it knew what they were doing. They often don’t. Most RV manufacturing executives and their designers have never owned an RV or even traveled in one. And when it comes to design and functionality, RVs are prettied up for their “bling,” not how practical they’ll be for you and me. Next time you’re at an RV show, check how many RV televisions are positioned in a way that you need to bend your neck awkwardly to watch.
•Never buy an RV without seeing it with its slideouts pulled in. In some cases — and this happens too often — with the slides in, you will not be able to get to the refrigerator, bedroom or even bathroom. At a highway rest area, when you want a snack or a nap, you’re out of luck unless you extend a slide or two.
•Before buying an RV, talk to owners who already own a model you’re thinking of buying. They will be your best source of information. Do not trust reviews in RV magazines. They’re supported by advertising and are afraid to say bad things and risk losing future support — ditto for most large websites.
•Camping or Living? What do you plan to do with your RV: use it to camp on weekends or live in it full-time? Whatever the case, be aware that with so many new RVs on the road these days, campsites are getting harder to find without making reservations, sometimes a year or more in advance in popular areas. The day of “going where you want, when you want,” is fast disappearing unless you want to stay in Walmart parking lots (where stays are free). Many RVers these days do just that. If that’s your idea of camping, then have fun. But no campfires, please! “Boondocking” on public lands is still a great option, but mostly if you live or travel in the Southwest, with millions of acres of public lands.
In summing up: While RVing is still a wonderful way to travel, it will be no fun if you don’t do your homework before buying and understand the quickly evolving, often crowded environment. Sign up for the weekly RVtravel.com newsletter before you sign on the dotted line: You’ll learn a lot which will help you avoid making buying mistakes.
Besides editing and publishing the RV Travel Newsletter, Chuck Woodbury is the host of the Better Business Bureau DVD, “Buying a Recreational Vehicle.” He has been profiled on ABC World News Tonight, the Today Show, on CNN, NPR, and in hundreds of newspapers and periodicals including People Magazine, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. For six years, his dispatches as a roving reporter appeared in newspapers around the world through the New York Times Syndicate.