Before we bought our first RV in 2014, I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I didn’t know the difference between a Class A motorhome and a Class C motorhome. (Hint: one has a big windshield and one typically has an overhead bed in front). I didn’t know what to look for in used RVs. And I didn’t know it might better to find an RV with more mileage versus less (the former typically means it is well-maintained instead of sitting still).
Buying your first RV is an intimidating and exciting process. We were pumped to buy an RV and hit the road, but we were terrified of making the wrong decision on something so expensive and important.
So, if you’re just now thinking about buying your first RV, I wanted to share five questions to ask before buying your first RV.
1. Do you want to buy used or new?
Buying either new or used has pros and cons.
One pro of buying a new motorhome means that you’ll have at least a one year warranty. This way, when things break (as they do) you’ll be covered without the stress of paying out-of-pocket for service.
One con to a brand new RV is that you may have to deal with a number of small build-quality issues that manufacturers aren’t always able to identify before the RV goes onto the lot.
As an example, one of our skylight vents was installed backwards, so it flew open while we were driving! This was an easy fix, but since most American RVs are assembled by hand (at least in part), there are occasionally human errors like this on new RV models.
We bought our first motorhome used for two reasons:
- We had never traveled in an RV before and had no idea if we’d enjoy it.
- Between us, we didn’t have enough money to buy anything else.
After our research, we purchased a 1994 Leprechaun Coachmen for $11,500 on Craigslist and then promptly remodeled the interior since it would be mine and my wife’s full-time home for the first year of our marriage.
Buying a used RV allowed us to taste test the RV lifestyle with less skin in the game. If our RV fell apart as soon we hit the road, we’d only be out $11,500 (better than a new coach).
Also, because the previous owners had little kiddos and were responsible, they kept the rig in immaculate condition and still had all the previous service documents.
Fortunately, our 20-year-old RV held up during our first year on the road (with only one breakdown). We drove it over 20,000 miles, visited national parks all over the US, and crossed 48 state lines.
We loved RV life and our first motorhome so much, we decided to keep living in it after our first major road trip. After 18 months of living, working and traveling in our Class C motorhome, we sold it for $9,700 (only $1,800 less than we’d originally paid).
Note: This doesn’t include the $500 of renovations we put into the interior and the maintenance costs during our 50 state road trip (you can see those in this blog post). But hey, $1,800 to live and travel in an RV for 18 months isn’t bad!
2. How much room do you need?
We don’t always watch football on our massive TV, but when we do it’s the Cowboys and there is a lot of salsa involved.
Something we hear all the time from fellow RVers after they’ve spent time on the road: “I wish I would have bought a smaller RV.”
I think one of the reasons many RVers wished they’d gone smaller is accessibility. The smaller rig you have, the more remote places you can visit. Some of the most beautiful boondocking opportunities (aka wild camping) are off the beaten path, and the bigger RVs have trouble getting there.
That being said, if you’re traveling with a big family and a couple pets, this changes things. You’re likely going to sacrifice accessibility to some of these epic views so you can have more living space. Although, we do have some friends who travel with their family of six in a 23-foot RV, larger trailers or fifth wheels are the norm for families.
And just because you buy a bigger RV doesn’t mean you can’t still visit beautiful destinations. We have a 33-foot Class A RV and our all-time favorite boondocking site is on national forest land outside of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
This is a free campsite and you can stay there up to two weeks. We had to drive a mile down a dirt road in order to have this view, but it was definitely worth it.
3. What kind of RV travel do you want to do?
Some of our RV friends never stay in RV parks.
You can find them camping out in remote BLM land or in places far away from everyone else.
If you want to be totally off grid in your RV, you’ll need to find an RV that can support this kind of camping. For instance, many of the newer RVs come pre-installed with solar or come solar-ready. Having a great solar and battery set up could cost you a couple thousand dollars upfront, but it will offer you the most flexibility in the places you can stay.
Here’s a great article to read if you’re on the fence about whether or not you need solar.
In addition to solar for dispersed camping, you should look at the size of water tanks in your future RV. If you’re unfamiliar, most RVs come with a black tank (toilet waste), grey tank (used shower water, sink water, etc.) and a fresh water tank. The larger water tank you have, the longer you can stay out in the middle of nowhere, doing whatever people do in the middle of nowhere.
If you see yourself mostly staying in campgrounds or RV parks, it’s not as pertinent to have a great solar set up as you can hook up to electricity and water. We typically stay in RV parks when we travel so we can have access to electricity and water.
Our campsite at Fiesta Key RV Resort in the Florida Keys.
4. Do you need slide outs?
I’ll help you answer this one. The answer is yes, you most likely want slide outs.
Slide outs are walls inside your coach that expand and offer more living space when you’re stationary. Our first RV didn’t have slide outs and I found myself constantly wishing we had the extra room. Our current rig (a 2016 Winnebago Brave) has two large slides and it makes a world of difference in living space once we’re set up.
The only reason I’d go back to an RV without slide outs is if we were traveling very quickly (meaning staying places no more than three nights at a time). Not having slide outs was more convenient when we were constantly moving because it was one less thing to pack up before leaving our campsite.
5. Do you want a motorhome, fifth wheel, truck camper, or another kind of RV?
When we first started shopping for an RV, we fell in love with truck campers.
We loved the idea of being able to take it anywhere and also having a truck to use when exploring new places.
However, we weren’t in love with the ridiculously small space. Once we learned that we could buy an affordable and used Class C motorhome for roughly the same price and have a lot more room, we loved the truck camper a little less.
It wasn’t until after we hit the road in our motorhome that we realized the true value of having our home and vehicle be all-in-one. We love the ability to travel throughout our motorhome on travel days. If Alyssa needed to grab a snack or make coffee during our drive, she can just stand up and walk to the back. We really liked this versus the alternative of having to park a vehicle and then walk to the back of a separately attached RV.
As a result, when it was time to upgrade to a newer rig we decided to stick with a motorhome and not buy a towable.
Some of our friends love their fifth wheel or trailer and swear by them. Something we’ve learned when it comes to selecting your RV is that it is very subjective. If you ask ten different RVers why they chose a particular kind of RV, you’ll likely get ten different answers.
If you want to see a full overview of all the different types of RVs with pros and cons, price range and more, you can check out this blog post by my wife comparing each type of RV.
Ultimately, buying an RV is a stressful process, but so rewarding. You have a million questions about the make, year, and model and yet you’re excited to just hit the road.
My last piece of advice is just to talk with as many RVers as you can. There is no wheel that needs to be reinvented during the search process. Join RV centric Facebook groups, engage with fellow owners, read books about RVing and try not to let the search process loom over you.
At the end of the day, RV life has a way of working itself out. Even if you make the wrong decision, it can often lead to some really great stories.
Heath Padgett is a writer and filmmaker who left his job in software sales to pursue a more adventurous career. Combining a love of travel and his career transition, he decided to go and work a job in all 50 states. Four days after his wedding, Heath and his wife Alyssa hit the road in a 1994 RV and toured across America while they fulfilled two bucket list items—filming a documentary and visiting all 50 states—all within their first year of marriage. Their story has been shared on CNN, CBS, Fox and Friends Morning Show, Huffington Post Live, Business Insider and The Daily Mail.
Follow their story at heathandalyssa.com.
Heath is the co-founder of CampgroundBooking.com, his software startup for campgrounds.