There are few better ways to explore North America than traveling by Recreational Vehicle or ‘RV.’ At its core, an RV, camper, trailer, caravan, campervan (it has many times) is just a large vehicle that provides housing as well as transportation. And with hundreds of thousands of RV parks and campsites, not to mention the fact that most roads are open to RVs, this is a realistic dream for many. A lot of people even choose to save money by living in their RV full-time. But speaking of finances, it’s no secret that this type of live-in vehicle can be extremely costly.
The good news is that, just like other kinds of vehicles, there are various things you can do to make things easier on your wallet. And, no, that doesn’t just mean bargaining with the sales person at your local RV dealership. Here’s a detailed list of tips for saving money when buying an RV that both experienced and new buyers alike can benefit from following:
Start Saving Up Right Away
An RV should never be an impulse buy. If you’re like the majority of RV purchasers, there’s a good chance you’ll need to save up a considerable amount of money in order to make a sizable down payment on the RV of your choice. It’s also a big investment that will require years of regular maintenance and care in order to keep delivering on the adventure.
Planning to get an RV post-retirement, upon getting a promotion, or after a move to a new state? Not only will starting to save up early help pad your wallet with the funds you need, but saving up over a long term will help you realize whether or not investing in an RV of your own is truly the best choice for you and your lifestyle.
Now, saving up doesn’t have to mean taking drastic measures either. Instead, making small adjustments to your weekly expenditures will go a long way. For example, not buying a fancy coffee drink from Starbucks every other day or so can translate to $40 or more towards your goal every month! The exact ways you save will be up to you, but just remember that your efforts are going to be very rewarding in the end.
Rent an RV Before Buying Your Own
Saving up money is one thing, but it’s important to know for sure that you would like to own an RV of your own before buying. One great way to make this decision is by renting an RV for at least a short trip before you make the decision to buy. There are many companies that allow you to do this, including established RV rental businesses like Cruise America and direct-from-the-owner rentals via Craigslist and other platforms. Many used car dealerships or cargo van rental spots offer RV rentals as well. Quite a few may also offer ‘rent to own’ plans that allow you to start out via renting and progress to ownership if you like the vehicle.
Regardless of which option you take, renting an RV prior to owning will allow you to get a feel for driving this large home-vehicle as well as what it’s like to live and/or spend the night in one. At the very least, you may want to do a cargo van rental to experience driving in a larger format.
Know What You’re Looking for Before Heading to the RV Dealership
Once you’ve decided that, yes, an RV is the right choice for you, it’s an excellent idea to really think about what you want in your own RV. For example, is spaciousness more important than the feasibility of driving from Point A to Point B? Are you looking for luxury and ultimate comfort, or just somewhere decent you can rest up at night in between outdoors adventures? Is it okay if you have to do a significant amount of remodeling and improvements upfront, or would you like everything ready to go right from the start?
In addition to asking yourself those questions, it’s also imperative that you consider both your space needs and what kind of RV or camper actually fits best with your lifestyle. Many people who already own a truck or SUV and don’t have major space needs can save money by purchasing a tow-along camper that hitches to their current vehicle. However, this may prove to be extra costly or simply insufficient for those who have greater space needs and/or lack a vehicle that is able to tow the camper.
Consider Used Models or Even a ‘Fixer Upper’
Driving around in a brand-new, shiny RV model sure sounds great, right? Not really, if it means being trapped with a huge amount of debt! The truth is that the majority of RVs and campers last for many years if not decades when cared for properly. Because of this, it’s a good idea to look at used models first. And if you have the time, one that needs a significant amount of work could be a viable option, Have the RV inspected first before buying to evaluate the full cost of repairs. Then, weigh it against the cost of a newer vehicle. Either way, exploring all your options with this level of detail will help ensure you are getting the best price.
When you do find a specific RV you like, be sure to examine every inch of it (bringing in a professional if you have to). Kitchen and bathroom areas often get outdated quickly and need some work, but bedroom and regular living areas should be able to go for many years before needing upgrades. If you need to pull in a kitchen remodeling service, for example, it really helps when you don’t also have to pull in someone to do the rest of the space.
Be Realistic About Your Budget and How Much Effort You’re Willing to Put In
Perhaps one of the most important factors of all will be your actual budget range. For this, it is important to establish the absolute maximum you’re willing to pay as well as the minimum. It is also crucial to ask yourself whether or not you’re willing to finance the RV, and if so, how much you’re able to pay each much. If you are planning to live in the RV full-time and park it somewhere extensively, you may actually qualify for home loans. If it is purely for recreation, you may still qualify for an RV loan, much in the same manner as a car or truck loan.
In addition to considering loans and determining your budget, now is the time to think about how much work you’re willing / able to put in to getting the RV into ideal running conditions. A used 1980s Winnebago may seem idyllic as far as price goes, for instance, but if it comes with thousands of dollars of water mitigation work or other vital repairs needed, it is really so friendly to your budget and time? On the other hand, a used RV in need of some repairs that are largely cosmetic could end up costing you considerably less if you have the time to spend on it before your trip.
Know the Alternatives to a Traditional RV
Going along with the above, if you’re truly willing to put in the work and are skilled with construction or engineering (or are able to hire the professionals), you may want to consider building an alternative into the RV or camper of your dreams. Buying enclosed trailers or even used freight carrier and retrofitting it to living conditions can be a viable option, not to mention fun. While you’ll still have to make sure it is up to code and suitable to your living and traveling needs, doing so can offer more freedom as far as customization goes. This isn’t an option for most people due to the logistics involved, but others may find it’s the perfect solution.
Do Your Research
Again, no RV should be an impulse buy. Bring a notebook with you whenever you visit an RV dealership, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Nevertheless, in order to make as informed a decision as possible, it’s important to do your own independent research on different RV models you’re interested in. This will help you compare values and make the most financially sound choice. If you’re having trouble comparing the differences between them, try creating a spreadsheet that displays key points (including price, gas cost and estimate of repairs) side by side.
Don’t Go Bigger than What You Need
Many people make the mistake of buying monstrously-sized RVs because they’re stunned by the spaciousness and the affordability with the right payment plan. But if you do find that a large RV is within your budget, consider the other expenditures that are bound to come with it. You’ll likely need to pay more for gas and RV service on your trips, and you’ll also need to arrange a specialized freight carrier should it become stranded anywhere. Likewise, you may be frustrated by its drivability and/or parking challenges. As with other areas of life, you’ll save the most money here by living within both your means and actual needs.
Bring Someone with You
Just like shopping for any new vehicle or other big purchase, it’s a good idea to bring a close friend or family member with you while at the RV dealership, used car dealership or when you’re buying directly from the individual owner. Tell them ahead of time what you’re looking for an why, and they can help keep you on track. And while many sales people are good and reasonable, those that may be trying to up-sell you will be less likely to do so when you have someone else there witnessing every move.
Furnish It Yourself
Visit any RV dealership, and you’ll find that most modern RVs come with built-in furniture, decor and other furnishings. Brand-new models are often customizable, allowing you to order them with your own specifications. That’s good and all, but not when you’re trying to save a buck.
If you have the option, you can often save some money if you choose to outfit the RV yourself inside and out. Try visiting a discount furniture store for basic things like foldable chairs, tables, bench mats and mattresses. Now’s also a great time to get involved with the local RV community (check online for meetups and forums) and see if there are any furnishing or gear sales nearby.
Follow a Plan to Get the Most Money out of Your RV Purchase in the Long Run
It’s not just about saving money right now — it’s about ensuring your RV won’t be money down the drain in the future. When purchasing, it’s a good idea to know when your first trip will be and where. Then, plan to use your RV at least semi-regularly after that (otherwise, what’s the point of having an RV if you don’t actually use it?) For your actual trips, download an app like Gas Buddy, RV Life, DoitYourselfRV, etc. that shows you where the best gas prices are. Filling up your RV will be far more pricey than your regular car, so this can save you a fortune in the long run!
It’s worth noting that many RV owners also choose to rent out their RVs when they aren’t actively using them. This can be a terrific way of making some money back on your purchase (or even turning a profit!) Just be sure to follow all applicable laws in your area when renting / leasing out to anyone, or you could end up facing fines that counterbalance your efforts to save money.
The bottom line about both shopping for and owning an RV is that you have fun doing so. Whether you call it an RV, camper, trailer or other, your purchase should provide you with plenty of days of freedom and exploration. No matter how much you end up spending, having a good time and enjoying your purchase should always be the goal. Happy trails!