Beginners Guide to Buying a Used RV

by Erica

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Two of my favorite things are travel and music festivals (Or even better, traveling to music festivals!!), but with the increasing cost of flights, concert tickets and hotels – the amount of trips I can take is limited.

Instead of doing less and accepting boredom, my boyfriend and I decided to embark on a hunt to find the perfect used RV or Van to help facilitate more adventures without the high costs.

Not knowing much about motorhomes, vans, or anything else involving an engine – the search was difficult.

There were just TOO many postings to understand what I was looking at.

Did we want a van so we could stealth camp anywhere you could park a car? Or would we get more use out of an RV with amenities such as a bathroom and kitchen?

Since we’re young and not looking to put ourselves in any more debt, our options are limited by our budget. This means we’re only considering used rigs that are ranging from adolescent to old AF. (Models from late 1970s – early 2000s.)

Over the last couple of months, I’ve obsessively hunted for information about the available options, as well as every “For Sale” ad I could find.

Lucky for you – I think it’s a damn shame for someone to have to repeat the work I’ve already done, so I’ve put this guide together to help you, too, find the used magic school bus of your dreams.

TYPES OF MOTORHOMES

Lets start out by noting that when I refer to a motorhome, I’m talking about the campers that have an have an engine and don’t need to be towed by another vehicle.

I also use the word RV interchangeably as well, however, this often refers to ALL recreational vehicles, including those that you tow.

That being said, there are 3 main classes of motorhomes. Class A, B and C

**You may come across a class B+ as well, but in my experience they have all been priced WAY out of our range, so I’ll skip that class in this post**

CLASS A MOTORHOMES

Class A RVs are the ones that look most like a bus. They may be very long (up to 50 ft.), or on the shorter side (about 27 ft.) – but all are quite tall (11-13.5 ft.) and have a very large windshield.

Pros:

This type of RV will provide the most living space and storage underneath. For full time living, families, or those of you who are high maintenance (like myself), this may be a great choice.

Another positive about used Class A’s is cost (we’re talking resale cost, of course. New Class As are the most expensive motorhomes on the road). There are tons for sale for reasonable prices at any given time. In my searches – I’ve often come across younger (1990s – early 2000’s) models, that have low miles and have been maintained well – for well under $10,000.

While I realize that a 20+ year old motorhome doesn’t SEEM new on paper, this is the age range in which you’ll get the nicest rig for the most reasonable price.

It’s also worth noting that new Class A motorhomes often cost as much as an actual house. So paying $10k or under is actually a pretty steep reduction in price.

CONS:

While size may be a pro, due to comfort – if you’re looking to maneuver into tight spaces or through aggressive terrain – this type of motorhome may not be for you.

Other issues with the size may arise if you’re looking to park on any city roads, or trying to “stealth camp” anywhere. Obviously a bus sized vehicle will be noticed, as it takes up several normal parking spaces. This may limit your options for camping outside of traditional campgrounds.

Another negative to this size RV is gas mileage. On average, they will get between 6 and 11 miles per gallon of gas (or diesel). If you’re traveling only for vacations – this may be reasonable, but when full time RVing – this may get expensive quickly!

Additionally – with the size of this rig, driving around town may be difficult, if not impossible – so towing an additional vehicle will often be necessary. (Think, more $ in gas.)

CLASS B MOTORHOMES

Class B can also be described as a “camper van.” They typically have a kitchen, small bathroom and sleep 2-4 people.

PROS:

The size of this class is AMAZING. They are typically about the same length as most cargo vans, but have all the necessities to be self sufficient.

This makes Class B motorhomes easy to maneuver and allows for stealth camping ANYWHERE you could park a regular van. This will allow for more travel options and less camping costs.

Gas mileage is also better in these vehicles than the class A and C models. Most models will fall into the 12-25mpg range, depending on year, manufacturer, ect.

CONS:

The price tags on camper vans are often significantly higher than class A or C motorhomes. Even in older models with higher mileage, they seem to hold their value very well.

While we were able to find 2 reasonable looking units from the 1980s for around $6,000, the most common price range seen was $10,000+ for units that were often older than 25-30 years old.

The biggest negative I saw with these vehicles was the lack of storage and space.

After actually touring one of these vans in person – I was most concerned about where to put all of our stuff! While I can TRY to pack light, that’s not a fun time for me.

With a plan to cram 2 humans and 1 fur baby inside of this little RV, we ultimately decided that this was not the right choice for us.

CLASS C MOTORHOMES

The last class of RV is class C – which is characterized by the loft compartment over the cab. These come in many shapes and sizes, and are a bit more difficult to find than a used Class A, and quite a bit easier to come by than a Class B.

PROS:

They are built around the cab of a van or truck, so they are easier to drive than the bus-like Class A models.

For those of you who are like me and don’t feel confident in your ability to literally drive a bus (Class A), this option may be a little less intimidating.

This type of RV also comes in a variety of sizes. Some are very long (up to 35 ft.), and others as short as 22ft (which is only several feet longer than a camper van). This leaves for a wide variety of options, depending on your needs.

CONS:

Similar to Class A motorhomes, Class C rigs also typically get pretty low mileage per gallon. As mentioned before, this is an obvious disadvantage if you’ll be traveling frequent and far distances.

Also – depending on what you have planned for your trips and how big your Class C is, you may also need to tow a vehicle as well.

When considering a Class C, expect less living space when compared to a Class A of the same size. The cab of the vehicle is more closed off, the ceilings will be lower and you may make some sacrifices like not having a full bedroom, an oven or even a full shower.

For us, this is not an issue (Except for the fact that I would LOVE a closet), but if you’re planning to live in your motorhome full time, or traveling with a family – this may not be ideal.

Another minor negative to buying a used Class C motorhome is that there are often less for sale by owner, at higher prices.

During my search, I would often find Class C units from the 1970s-1980s with the same price tag, but lesser quality than those of Class A from the 1990’s – early 2000’s.

At first I wasn’t sure if this was just due to people assuming what they are selling is worth more than it actually is, or if I was just searching at the wrong time – but I was made aware by several sources that this is actually very common to see.

While this may lead to more time searching for the perfect motorhome – it does not make class C’s any less worthy of purchasing.

SO, NOW WHAT?

Ultimately, we decided that a small Class C would best fit our needs.

We were very interested in a Class B, but with our ideal price range ($5,000) and the amount of bodies and baggage we plan to travel with – this just did not seem as practical in real life as it did in our minds.

When it comes down to it, the biggest factor in choosing a type of motorhome is YOUR NEEDS AND DESIRES.

Since all three classes have so many positives and very similar negatives, it is important to ask yourself,

WHY am I buying this RV?” and, “WHAT do I want to do with it?”

Another huge factor in making a decision is COST. How much are you willing to spend? And on top of that, how much do you feel comfortable spending in repairs?

Because let me tell you – even the most pristine motorhome in pictures and description will cost some money to get on the road.

Once you’ve considered all of these things – it’s time to start your search! Best of luck!

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1 comment

RV Mush April 4, 2018 - 5:12 pm

Hey Erica!
Great post!

I started fulltime RVing in 1985 and I just wrote an 8 part series on How to Choose the Right RV for Fulltime Travel – http://realrvliving.com/how-to-choose-the-right-rv-for-fulltime-travel-types-of-rvs/ is the first post. #3 comes out tomorrow (still editing;-) It might give you a few more things to think about.

Totally agree with your assessment of “new” for RV’s with one caveat-they must be high-end rigs when they were sold. I currently live in a 1996 Safari (think $300k 22 years ago!) and she has been a delightful home for three years now. As for mpg I average 9-10 except in the mountains, which is about the same you will get with a 8-10 cylinder Class C. In fact, my diesel frequently gets better mileage than rigs 15′ shorter than her and NO I don’t tow a vehicle to get around in town-I could, there are just too many reasons not to.

Anyway, if you’re interested come on over and check out our series-tomorrow will be about towables or non-motorized units.

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