How I did it: Deciding whether to buy an RV

November 05, 2021

Since many of us have changed the way we spend our free time in recent years, more Americans than ever are hitting the road in a camper or RV. But is now the time you should buy one?

By Jen Wendt, Vice President, U.S. Bank

 


When COVID-19 put our usual summer travel and event plans on hold in 2020, my family started daydreaming about a new kind of summer getaway.

We had visions of buying a cozy little travel trailer and road-tripping to amazing destinations every weekend with our dog, getting out into nature – but without roughing it too much.

The problem was, as we quickly learned, we weren’t the only ones with that idea.

With RV and camper sales booming and supply chain issues making it harder for manufacturers to keep up with demand, it’s particularly difficult to get your hands on your dream camper or RV right now, even a few years after the pandemic first hit. Or if you can find one, you’ll likely pay a premium for it. And that applies to both new and used models.

So, one big question loomed over our daydreams of hitting the open road in a new camper: Is now really the best time to take the plunge into RV ownership?

To help us make that decision, we spent countless hours searching for advice on YouTube, RV owner Facebook groups, and for sale listings. We also visited multiple dealers, talking to salespeople who could help us understand what’s happening in the market during this time, and what we need to know about RV ownership in general.

Here's what we learned.

 

Buying in a hot market means you're going to pay more

Right now, it’s a seller’s market. That means as a buyer, you’re losing out on negotiating power and prices have been going up. With prices so inflated right now, it also means that your new (or new-to-you) camper or RV probably won’t hold its value the same way it would during “normal” times.

It’s likely that many people who bought their RV on a whim during the early days of the pandemic will decide that owning an RV isn’t something they want to continue doing. This could create a flood of used RVs on the market which will likely drive prices down quickly.

So, depending on your situation, it may be a better financial decision to wait a few more years before buying an RV. And if you do buy one now, only do so if you’re able to absorb the financial loss in the event you need to get out of RV-ing while the resale market is adjusting post-pandemic.

“To help us make that decision, we spent countless hours searching for advice on YouTube, RV owner Facebook groups, and for sale listings.”

Beware of all the extra costs that come with RV life

When you buy a camper or RV, the cost of the camper isn’t your only big expense.

You also need to budget for insurance, storage, and – if you’re buying a travel trailer – a suitable vehicle to tow it.

(Side note: If you’re considering a travel trailer, be sure to do your homework on what towing capacity and payload your vehicle needs to safely tow your camper. We discovered that it’s not as straightforward as we thought and you may need a more heavy-duty vehicle than you anticipated!)

And don’t forget about all the gadgets and accessories you’ll need to make your camping trips safe and enjoyable: Tools for handling repairs on the road, sewer hoses (ew, I know), extra batteries and propane tanks, cooking gear, bedding, and the like.

 

Consider the tradeoffs of buying new or used

New campers and RVs are more expensive, but they’re typically covered under a warranty, and you may get better help from a dealer or manufacturer if something isn’t working right.

In fact, we went on a camping trip a few years ago with a friend who had just purchased a brand new – and very expensive – RV. The first night on our trip, there was a wiring malfunction that triggered an alarm to sporadically beep, ALL NIGHT LONG. It wasn’t the most restful weekend for us, but the good news is that our friend was able to bring his RV into the dealer and they fixed the problem at no extra cost.

On the other hand, buying a used camper can be a great way to score a great deal, even when the market is hot. The tradeoff here is that it may need repairs, some of which aren’t immediately obvious, especially if you’re buying it from a private seller.

We have some friends, for example, who bought a used RV that they got for a great price. But once they got it home, they discovered hidden water damage from a leaky roof. Unfortunately, they spent most of their summer repairing the RV, instead of driving it to scenic state parks like they had planned.

But buying used can still be a great option for people who have good DIY skills and are willing to spend time doing repair work. 

 

Be honest, how much will you actually use your RV?

Everyone buys a camper or RV with the intention of using it. But the reality is that life often gets in the way, and many people who invest in an RV end up letting it sit idle.

So, before you take the plunge into a big purchase like this, take a step back to ask yourself some questions about whether an RV fits into your lifestyle.

Here’s the key: Be honest with yourself. Don’t just think about what you wish your lifestyle will be like – consider what it’s actually like.

Here are some of the questions we considered:

  • Location and climate: Based on your location, how many months out of the year do you think you’d be using a camper? (I live in Minnesota, which means there are only 4-5 months out of the year when the weather is RV-friendly!)
  • Destinations and frequency of travel: What destinations do you want to with your RV? And how often would you go on these trips? Does your work schedule allow for the kinds of trips you want to take?
  • Friends and family: Do your friends and family like to camp or travel by RV too, and would they join you on some of your trips? If not, would you be OK missing out on spending time with them?
  • The kid factor: Do you have kids who are in sports or activities that would cut into your camping time? What age are your kids? Are they at an age when they'll enjoy family RV trips?
  • Other responsibilities: What other obligations do you have during prime RV season? If you own a house, do you usually do yard work, house repairs or run errands on the weekends, and if so, would those tasks become overwhelming to you if you weren’t around?
     

It’s a lot to consider!

As for us, after weighing all the pros and cons, we decided to go for it. We bought ourselves a 24-foot travel travel trailer and hope to have many adventures with it in the years to come. 

Ready to start making plans for a big purchase like an RV? Learn how to set and track financial goals

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