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Is buying a used RV worth it? Here's what to watch out for
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Imagine this: You purchase a secondhand RV in beautiful condition. It's been inspected and cleared as good to go. Your first few hundred miles of adventure are blissfully smooth... then comes a mechanical breakdown, followed by the painful discovery that instead of buying your dream home on wheels, you purchased a nightmare that is riddled with hidden problems.
That happened to me. And while it's tempting to say I was a fool for being — well, fooled — the truth is that a whole lot of used-RV buyers get taken in by sellers who either don't know, or don't care, about potential problems lurking inside their vehicles.
Here's the big surprise: I would buy used again in a heartbeat. That's because, thanks to that first, horrible experience, I now have a much better understanding of how to protect myself while balancing the lower cost of a used RV against questions of build quality, mechanical soundness, and reliability.
Don't take my word for it, though. If ever there were a case for expert input this is it, and the following list of things to watch out for when buying a used RV draws heavily on correspondence with Duane Lipham, Certified RV Inspector, who was gracious enough to chat about what hopeful RV shoppers should watch out for.
That used RV is in great shape! ...or is it?
Let's tackle the most obvious issue first: Build quality and mechanical condition. While we're at it, keep in mind that if you're shopping from a dealer — whether new or used — the sales staff aren't necessarily RVers themselves. In fact, many of them are more knowledgeable about the sales process than about RVs and RV life.
"Their ultimate goal is often to just make the sale, whether or not the customer is happy with what they get," Lipham explained. "So many newer RV buyers will often ask questions of the salesperson and expect to get an honest and truthful answer. But all too often, the salesperson simply tells them what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear."
There's also the harsh reality that just because a vehicle has been "inspected" doesn't mean it has really been inspected.
"A dealer's pre-delivery inspection [PDI] can be anything they wish it to be," Lipham said. "It can run the gamut from a legitimate overall check of the RV's functions and equipment to pretty much nothing done at all. And in the current climate of RV popularity and strong sales, many dealer PDIs are leaning more toward the latter."
You also usually don't know who did a PDI, or what their qualifications were. "In many cases, a PDI is conducted by an employee other than a qualified RV service tech... because it costs the dealership too much money to take highly skilled techs away from profitable repair jobs in the service area," Lipham explained.
He also pointed out the inescapable truth that a dealer PDI is rather like the fox guarding the hen house. "Why would they want to find issues that need attention, and therefore slow down the buying process? It is in their best short-term interest to simply claim that the PDI found nothing and get the sale completed as soon as possible."
That's exactly what happened to me. And of course, all the same uncertainties — and then some — apply to buying a used RV from a private party. Even with the most honest and forthcoming individual, RVs represent such a complex set of interlocking systems that it's very easy for problems to slip through the cracks.
Get it inspected
Happily, the solution is simple: Leave room in your budget to have the rig you want inspected by an NRVIA-certified RV inspector. The NRVIA, or National RV Inspectors Association, is a nationwide network of RV inspectors that have undergone stringent, standardized testing to ensure a high standard of professionalism.
Yes, hiring such a highly qualified RV inspector will cost you some money up front; a certified inspector can easily bill $100/hour. But when you go this route, you know exactly who's doing the inspection and their qualifications — and you don't have to be worried about any hidden motivations to fudge the results and get you out the door quickly.
If the thought of shelling out for a pre-sale inspection still stings, try looking at it as relatively cheap insurance against being stranded at the side of the road, paying for expensive repairs, and being without your RV for however long it takes a backed-up service shop to get the right parts and do the repair.
"[An RV inspection by a certified NRVIA inspector] is as complete a snapshot of the true condition of an RV at a particular point in time as can be had," Lipham explained. Once the inspection is complete, you receive a written report that details everything the inspector tested, what results they observed, and which problem areas need attention.
Use leverage while you have it
When you buy a used RV, ignorance is not bliss — and if there's something wrong with it you need to find out before you take delivery of the unit, because that's your window of opportunity for negotiating appropriate repairs and/or a lower price.
If you're shopping from a dealer, it might be tempting to accept their "generous offer" to let you take ownership of the RV now, so you can enjoy having it, with a promise that the dealer will handle any needed repairs later. But signing that sales contract means giving up a lot of your leverage.
"Many RV dealer service departments are backed up for weeks or even months," Lipham explained. "But if [the buyer refuses] to take delivery of the RV until the issues found in the inspector's report are resolved, they suddenly go to the front of the service line because the dealer wants that RV sold and off their lot as quickly as possible to maximize their profits."
Obviously with a private seller, you're not dealing with a service department. But getting the RV inspected still gives you the information you need to negotiate for repairs and/or a lower price.
Is there a warranty?
No matter how late-model that RV you're eyeing is, buying used means giving up the luxury of a manufacturer's warranty; structural warranties and limited warranties from the factory almost never transfer to a new owner.
(If you're thinking of buying new, you might want to check out this great article on RV warranties.)
Extended warranties and service contracts are more likely to transfer to a new owner, but there may be fees involved, and there will be strict limits on what is and isn't covered.
Even if you are getting an RV with some version of transferable warranty coverage, you might take it in only to find out that the service department is backed up — and warranty service appointments aren't necessarily the highest priority. That's all the more reason to get that inspection, then negotiate for repairs to be done before you take delivery.
A house with an engine
Here's something else to consider: As valuable as a certified NRVIA inspection is, your inspector may or may not also be a mechanic — which means there could be some limits on how much they can tell you about the mechanical condition of your home on wheels. Ask your inspector about their qualifications to inspect the RV's mechanical systems and, if necessary, for a referral to a trusted mechanic.
While you're at it, before you pull the trigger on a used RV, make sure there's someone in your area who can help with service and maintenance. If there's a nearby dealer, that's the logical choice — but their service department might be so backed up that they prioritize appointments for clients who purchased from them. If that's not you, you might be stuck with a long wait at the back of the line — if you can get service at all.
If you're stuck for a mechanic, try contacting the RV manufacturer for a list of service centers in your area that handle their warranty work. That gives you an immediate short list of which shops will have the right qualifications and equipment to work on the RV you're thinking of buying.
Or maybe there's not an engine
No matter who you're buying from, their motivation to make a sale can translate into telling you what you want to hear, instead of what you need to hear.
"This happens a lot in the area of towables like travel trailers and fifth wheels," Lipham explained. "These kinds of RVs require a tow vehicle that is up to the task of towing that RV down the highway in a safe manner." Sellers often don't go to the trouble of matching the RV they want to sell you to the tow vehicle you already have, or explaining how large a tow vehicle you'll need to safely tow your new-to-you RV down the highway.
"If they did, some buyers would hesitate when they realize how much of an investment needs to be made in not only the RV but the vehicle that can safely tow it," Lipham said.
So, should you buy used?
I'll close with one more golden piece of advice from Lipham: "It's best to do your homework first before you visit the dealer's showroom. Know what RV you want and how much you want to pay for it. Then also know what it will take to tow it safely if it is a towable RV. In other words, know enough about RVs that anything the salesperson may tell you will not fool you into making a big mistake."
And you can take it from me: Buying the wrong used RV can be a big, expensive (and incidentally, hard to tow when it breaks down) mistake. But in retrospect, I can see that I asked most of the right questions... I just didn't get my answers from the right people.
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