How I did it: Deciding whether to buy an RV during COVID-19

With the pandemic changing the way we spend our free time, more Americans than ever are hitting the road in a camper or RVs. But is now the time you should buy one? 

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

 

Tags: Budgeting, Loans, COVID-19
Published: February 24, 2021

When COVID-19 put our usual summer travel and event plans on hold in 2020 (and, let’s face it, most likely 2021 too), 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 during a global pandemic.

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. 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 has 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 for ourselves, we spent countless hours searching for advice on YouTube, RV owner Facebook groups, and for sale listings. We’ve visited multiple dealers as well, talking to salespeople who could help us better understand more about what’s happening in the market during COVID-19, and what we need to know about RV ownership in general.

Here's what we learned about buying an RV during COVID-19, and what to consider about long-term RV ownership.

If you're buying a market as hot as it is now, buying a camper or RV is going to be more expensive than usual. 

During this pandemic, 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.

When COVID-19 is behind us, it’s likely that many people who bought their RV on a whim during the pandemic will decide that owning an RV isn’t something they want to continue doing. This will create a flood of used RVs on the market with fewer people in the market to buy one, which will most likely drive prices down very quickly.

So depending on your situation, it may be a better financial decision to wait it out a few years until the market stabilizes when RVs will likely become more affordable. 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.

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, despite what the salesperson may lead you to believe.

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, also be sure to do your homework on what towing capacity and payload your tow vehicle needs to safely tow your camper. We discovered that it’s not as straightforward as we thought and you may learn that you 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 can potentially get better access to 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 some sort of wiring malfunction that triggered an alarm to sporadically beep a few minutes at a time, 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 were able to fix the problem for him 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 some 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 last summer that they got for a great price. But once they got it home, they discovered that it had years’ worth of hidden water damage resulting from a leaky roof. Unfortunately, they ended up spending 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 some time doing repair work.

Have an honest look at your lifestyle to determine how much you’ll actually use your RV – both in the near AND long term.

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

So before you take the plunge into a big purchase like this, take a step back to ask yourself some questions to really get an honest feel for 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:

  • Your 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 really 4-5 months out of the whole year when the weather is RV-friendly!) 
  • Destinations and frequency of travel: What kinds of destinations do you think you’d be hitting up 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?
  • Post pandemic life: There’s not much going on right now during COVID-19 in terms of sporting events, concerts and festivals. But as the pandemic winds down, they’ll eventually make a comeback. Do you plan to attend more of those types of events? And, if so, will they get in the way of time you’d be able to use your RV? 
  • Friends and family: Do you have friends or family who are into camping or RVing too, and would they join you on some of your RV trips? If not, would you feel that you’re missing out on things your friends and family are doing back home while you’re out of town on weekends? If you have friends who aren’t regular campers, don’t assume they will be interested in joining you just because you’re excited about it.
  • The kid factor: Do you have kids who are in sports or activities that would take time away from your camping time? What age are your kids? Are they currently too young or too old to 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 or weekly errands on the weekends, and if so, would those tasks become overwhelming to you if you weren’t around on weekends?

It’s a lot to consider!

As for us, in the end, we decided that we’re going to hold off on purchasing our own RV until after the pandemic-driven demand has settled down.

This summer, we plan to take a road trip in a rented travel trailer so we can give the RV life a trial run before we make the investment for ourselves. And we hope that waiting a year or two also means we’ll be able to score a great deal on a very lightly used RV after the market slows down.

 

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