How to Get Used RVs, Travel Trailers, and Motorhomes for the Best Possible Prices

Used RVs are the biggest bang-for-your-buck when buying an RV… right?

Maybe, maybe not. It depends. Do it right, and you’ll get a great RV for below market price. Do it wrong, and you’ll get an endless list of problems… and a seller who’s laughing at you, having dumped his ‘lemon’ in your lap.

Advantages to Buying Used

The biggest advantage to buying used travel trailers or motorhomes is depreciation.
Somebody else has to pay it!

A brand-new RV loses about 15 percent of its value in its first year. The second year, around 10 percent or so. The third year, maybe 8-10 percent. (These numbers will vary depending on the brand and model, of course.)

That’s bad enough for the RVer who bought it new. But it’s even worse than that.

Depreciation goes on model years, not physical years. RV manufacturers start their model years in the summer – many in June, others in July or August. Units manufactured before the changeover have model years that match the calendar year. Units made after the changeover are “next year’s” models according to the calendar.

This has serious implications for you as the RV buyer. I’m constantly getting emails that sound like this:

“I’m getting an X percent discount off retail on a brand-new Acme coach – is this a good deal?”

When I get more details, I find out that (for example) this “brand-new” coach is a 2009 model. The person is usually dumbfounded when I explain that, even though it’s still the late summer of 2009, and this coach is still brand-new and never been driven…

It’s Already a Year Old!

Once the model year changeover occurs, all the RVs on the lot become one year older, and lose 15 percent of their value, even though they’re (physically) still brand-new!

RV salesmen know this, of course, but most RVers don’t. That’s why I’m always getting these emails about the “great deal” the buyer thinks he got. The salesman convinces the buyer that 10-12 percent off is a super deal, even though the RV’s value has already fallen by more than that amount!

Plus, the buyer could have gotten the coach for an additional 10-40 percent lower anyway, if he or she had known how to do it. But that’s a different story.

Even if you manage to avoid the first-year depreciation (which is possible if you know what you’re doing), your new RV will still get hit by an additional 10-20 percent depreciation over the first couple of years you own it. It’s part of owning a new RV, unfortunately.

The Biggest Benefit to a Used RV

That’s why many RVers prefer to buy used travel trailers and motorhomes. You let the first owner lose all that value to depreciation. Then you come in and scoop up a bargain.

That’s the good news. But, like anything else, there’s some bad news too.

The Biggest Drawback to
Used RVs, Travel Trailers, and Motor Homes

Unless you’re very careful, you can easily be stuck with a maintenance nightmare.

Unfortunately, the RV industry has quality problems. Some manufacturers are worse than others, but all suffer from the nationwide shortage of qualified RV technicians. So even the best manufacturers make an occasional lemon.

When you buy new, you’re protected (at least somewhat) by warranties. When you buy used, especially if you buy from a private party, you have no such protection.

That’s why it’s imperative to thoroughly inspect a used RV before you buy it. Examine everything. Insist that everything is turned on before you arrive: the water, electrical systems, heating, etc. Test everything and make sure it works, in both hooked up and stand-alone modes. Make sure the slide-outs operate smoothly. If it’s a motorhome, have a mechanic inspect the engine. And so on.

Yes, it’s a tremendous hassle. But it’s imperative you do this. If you don’t do this, and you get stuck with someone else’s lemon, you’ll regret ever hearing the words “recreational vehicle.”

Getting Great Prices on Used Motorhomes or Travel Trailers

There are two primary sources for used RVs: dealers and private sellers.

Dealers often have used coaches traded in by others. The good news here is that you can sometimes get a warranty as part of the deal. The bad news is that you’re less likely to get a great deal, since the dealer will know how much the coach is worth. (You can still get a bargain, but it’s dependent on the dealer needing to move the unit off his lot.)

Private parties are more random. The good news is that some private sellers have no idea what their coaches are actually worth. Or, they might be selling the RV for someone else who’s too sick or elderly to use it anymore. In these situations, you can get some amazing deals.

But the opposite is just as likely to be true. An RVer who bought the coach new is often unwilling to acknowledge the depreciation that’s occurred, especially if he/she still owes money on the RV. So he’ll refuse to give you a good deal.

Plus, people who’ve used the RV over a period of years often get emotionally attached to it, and can’t see its obvious flaws. (“Look, there’s the stain where Junior woke up from his nap and accidentally spilled the entire jug of iced tea onto the carpet. He was so cute when he was sleepy like that…”)

So, when looking for used RVs from private sellers, be ready to look at a look of coaches before you find one that’s been maintained well, and where the seller is willing to sell it to you for a great price.

If after all this, you wind up buying from a dealer, here’s some info on the RV sales process. Check out this interview I did with a former RV dealer. He explained how to get an RV for close to, or even (in some cases) below, dealer cost.