The freedom, the solitude and the adventure that comes along with RVing is hard to beat. At ROAM, we’ve been living, working and playing on the road for years now. We have team members in RVs of all shapes and sizes and know what it’s like when you’ve got an itch to get outside. We think that camping is always a good idea, and finding the right RV setup for you is crucial to spending quality time outdoors. Buying an RV is a big commitment and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Our ROAM team members created this guide to give you all the information you need before making the jump into RV life.
What kind of RV to purchase is largely dependent on your specific needs, budget and travel style. It’s important to assess what kind of camping you’ll be doing, how often you will use your RV and who’s riding along with you. Before buying an RV, try renting one to see how well it works with your camping preferences.
Check out these RV rental sites:
Important Questions to Ask Before Purchasing an RV:
What’s my budget?
Setting your budget is the first, and arguably most important, step in the RV buying process. Ticket price of the RV is one thing to look at, but it’s also crucial to think about fuel costs, taxes, registration fees, insurance, maintenance and gear. It may be easier to separate your RV purchasing budget from your travel budget when starting out. Download our RV Budgeting Template to get you started.
How many nights out of the year will I be camping?
Whether you’re a weekend warrior, snowbird or full-timer, the amount of nights you wish to spend on the road is a key factor in determining your budget and overall RV goals.
Who (and what) will be traveling with me?
The quantity and size of pets, children and family members is going to impact how much space you’ll need inside your RV. If you’ll be towing a boat, hauling bikes or taking your motorcycle with you, cargo space and towing capacity is crucial to consider.
Where will I be camping?
Campgrounds, national parks, boondocking and rest areas all have different costs and size limits to consider. The climate and road conditions of where you’ll be traveling will also come into play. Most RVers have a variety of different destinations where they take their rig. If, for example, you’ll be taking your RV to go ice fishing on a remote lake in Minnesota every year, be sure you buy a camper that can handle off-roading and freezing temperatures.
How far am I traveling?
Most aspiring RVers have a bucket list of places they want to visit. Make your list and determine what is doable in your first year or two of RV ownership to help you calculate the cost of gas. Roadtrippers is a great app that helps you add up the mileage for a trip with multiple stops.
Where will my RV be stored when not in use?
If you don’t have a driveway or backyard to park your RV in, storage facilities are a good option if that fits your budget. Indoor storage is ideal to protect your RV from the elements, but most rigs will do fine in an uncovered driveway as long as you keep up with maintenance and run the engine once or twice a month when not in use. Some neighborhoods and towns have laws against RVs being parked on the street and even in your own driveway. Be sure to check out your local parking restrictions.
Terms to familiarize yourself with before hitting the dealership.
Dry Weight: how much your RV weighs without any gear or passengers
Dump Station: a depository where RVs can empty their gray and black water tanks safely into a septic tank or sewage system
Fresh Water Capacity: the maximum amount of clean water your RV can hold at one time
GAWR (Gross Axle Weight Rating): the maximum weight the axles on your vehicle can support
GCWR (Gross Combination Weight Rating): the maximum weight your loaded tow vehicle can support while towing a fully loaded trailer
Vehicle Curb Weight: how much your car weighs before any aftermarket equipment (gear, passengers, cargo) is added on. Your driver’s manual or VIN sticker should tell you the exact factory curb weight of your vehicle
Towing Capacity Formula: subtract your vehicle Curb Weight from your GCWR, that number will determine how heavy your trailer can be
Gray Water: all wastewater that does not contain fecal contamination (ie, wastewater from sink, shower, washing machines)
Holding Tank: where liquids are temporarily stored. RVs typically have separate holding tanks for gray water, black water and freshwater
Leveling Jacks: tools that attach to the frame of your rig to balance out your RV when parked on a an uneven surface
Slide Out: a space-creating feature that increases the living and sleeping area of your RV by expanding out when your RV is parked. Also called slide rooms, one RV can have several of these features
Sway Bar System: an extra tool that connects to your trailer hitch to keep the vehicle and RV stable during twists and turns on the road. Most large 5th Wheel RVs need anti-sway systems
Tongue Weight: the amount of weight a fully loaded trailer bears on the hitch of a tow vehicle. This varies by vehicle, so check with your manufacturer to determine your max tongue weight
House Battery: this powers the interior of the RV. It is different from your vehicle battery or chassis battery
Full Hook Up: used to describe RV campsites that have sewer, water and electric hookups
CCC (Cargo Carrying Capacity): the amount of extra weight (typically from gear and passengers) that your RV can support while in motion
Cockpit: the driver’s command center in a motorized RV
4-Pin Electrical Connector: provides synchronicity between the car and trailer electrical systems, allowing brake lights and turn signals to function simultaneously on both the car and trailer
7-Pin Electrical Connector: a larger electrical connector made for heavy trailers that need their own brake system separate from the tow vehicle. This connector syncs the car brakes
with the trailer as well as the lights.
Towable vs Motorized
A towable does not have it’s own motor, it’s an RV that hitches onto a truck or SUV. There is a huge variety of towables on the market. They make ultra-light campers that can be pulled with a small SUV and massive 5th wheels that require a special in-bed attachment for your truck. If you already own a truck or SUV, it’s important to note the towing capacity on your vehicle. Adding a trailer hitch onto your car for a lightweight camper can be done inexpensively (anywhere from $250-600) at a U-Haul or a dealership for more of a premium.
Motorized RVs don’t require a tow vehicle to get around, they have their own engine built in. Also known as motorhomes or motorcoaches, there’s a wide variety of self-powered RVs available. There’s people who have converted old vans into motorhomes and then there’s tour-bus style luxury rigs that can sleep 10+ people. It all depends on your travel style and budget.
- Cost: Ticket price is lower than a motorized RV, especially if you already own a vehicle that’s capable of pulling the RV you want. This also makes them less expensive to repair and customize.
- Freedom: Being able to unhitch your RV and use your car to explore is a huge benefit especially when trying to access hiking trails on back roads or venture into high-traffic cities.
- Space: Typically, towable RVs offer more living and storage space at a lower cost. Having the extra space in your car or truck bed adds more room to haul gear.
- Tow Vehicles: Trucks with a high towing capacity are often expensive. Using your vehicle to haul a heavy RV causes a lot of wear and tear that can decrease the value of your vehicle.
- Time: Hitching and unhitching your RV when leaving a campsite can be time consuming. Motorhome owners like being able to pull away without the hassle of securing the trailer hitch.
- Length: RV length plus the length of your vehicle can make fitting into small parking and campground spaces a challenge. For example, if your entire rig is over 40ft long, you’ll only fit into about half of the country’s national park campgrounds.
- All-in-One: No tow vehicle required means you’re not required to perform maintenance and make payments on both your RV and your truck. It’s an all-in-one machine, which makes for easier repairs.
- Convenience: When you’re on the road, passengers can easily access your RV’s toilet, a change of clothes or snacks from the fridge without having to pull over.
- Safety: If you’re sleeping in an area that suddenly feels unsafe, you can go straight from your bed to the driver’s seat to pull away without having to exit the RV.
- Alternative transportation: Separating your car from your home isn’t possible with a motorhome. This can cause issues when the motor needs to be worked on, but you still need a place to live. It can also be tricky when you need a small vehicle to get around town, but are stuck driving your large motorhome around cities or backcountry roads.
- Cost: The ticket price is typically more expensive than a towable RV, requiring a larger down payment and more of a commitment.
- Rugged terrain: Motorhomes are typically not built to go off-roading. These RVs can have trouble boondocking or traversing roads that aren’t well-paved. This may take some extra planning for travel days.
Types of Towable RVs:
These campers are usually considered the starter-RV. Some people don’t even consider them an RV because they really resemble more of a high-end tent. Pop-ups are typically very lightweight and some can even be pulled by a motorcycle. A traditional pop-up has two beds on each end and a dining area in the middle. They get great gas mileage and are compact which makes them easy to store. Because of the soft vinyl walls, they are not ideal for long term use and can be tricky to control the inside temperature.
“Teardrop trailer” is usually used as a blanket term to describe a small towable RV that is under 25ft in length under 3,000 lbs. These typically only sleep 2 people, but can be pulled by most SUVs. Teardrop trailers are popular with backpackers and bikers who need a basecamp, and are a great budget-friendly starter RV. Because they’re lightweight, they are easy to tow and usually don’t require an anti-sway bar.
These usually range anywhere from 25-45ft long and require a heavy duty truck to pull. They’re spacious and typically have multiple beds, making them great for family travel. Stoves, showers and fireplaces aren’t uncommon in a fifth wheel. Make sure you take into consideration the correct towing equipment needed to pull a fifth wheel. Anti-sway bars, gooseneck adapters and electric brakes are good things to ask your dealership about before purchasing.
Also known as “backpacks”, these RVs sit in the bed of your truck and are somewhat of a hybrid between a towable and a motorized RV. The tricky part is finding one that fits the specific dimensions of your truck. What’s great about truck campers is you don’t need RV registration or license plates in most states. These usually have slide outs and can get as simple or elaborate as your budget allows. Watch out for your truck’s suspension, the weight of these RVs can cause expedited wear and tear.
Types of Motorized RVs:
These typically have the largest interior out of any RV. Most commercial bus charters are Class A and this is what you’ll see superstars riding in on tour. These look and feel like a real apartment when you’re inside and are about as spacious as you can get in an RV. These are the most expensive to fill up and can have trouble with climate control since the windshield is so large.
The smallest of the motorized RVs, these are often called camper vans. Class B RVs are the most fuel efficient of the three motorhomes, but they are the least spacious. They aren’t built with any slide outs, but typically have amenities such as a kitchen, bathroom and a sleeping area. Lots of avid campers have created their own Class B RVs by renovating a large van to have camper-style amenities. There are plenty of camper vans on the market that come equipped with all the bells and whistles.
These RVs are the middle ground of motorhomes and can be distinguished by their over-cab sleeping area. Class C RVs usually sleep 4-6 people and have more space for amenities than the Class B. These are the most popular motorhomes and allow for a lot of flexibility in the interior space. Class C RVs are typically small enough that you won’t have to worry about fitting into campgrounds pads or national parks.
There’s tons of great used RVs out there for sale. Like buying a used car, you’ll need to make sure the RV is in good condition for the price. If you’re buying from a private seller, like on craigslist or facebook marketplace, be sure to ask for the service records before you even go look at it. Avoid RVs that have been in accidents and have had several owners. If you’re serious about buying a used motorized RV from a private seller, it’s worth paying a mechanic to take a look at it before purchasing. Used motorhomes can need thousands of dollars in repairs which may not be recognizable from just a test drive. For towables, one of the biggest things to look out for is rust. Once the body of the RV has started rusting, parts start to deteriorate very quickly.
Shopping online? Try these sites:
- RV Classifieds
- RV Camping Buying and Selling
- RV’s for Sale by Owner
Most RV buyers will need to finance their purchase. If you are buying from a dealership, you should ask about existing relationships the dealership has with different banks. Credit unions are also a good option and may offer lower interest rates than banks.
Most major car insurance providers also offer RV policies, but not all RVs are legally required to have insurance. Smaller travel trailers are sometimes covered under your car insurance policy as an extension of your vehicle. This varies by state, so be sure to look into it. It’s definitely a good idea to insure your RV regardless of whether or not it’s required by law. Bundling your RV insurance with your home or car policy is typically the best way to get a good deal on rates. Remember that you may need to get a separate policy if you wish to ensure the items inside your RV (i.e, computers, appliances, bikes, kayaks). Unfortunately, break-ins are common among RV owners, so be careful what you leave inside your RV while unattended.
Renting Out Your RV
Many RVers list their camper on rental sites to help cover the costs of RV ownership. This can be a great option for first-time RV owners who don’t plan on living the lifestyle full time. Rental services give you control over your RV rental schedule so you can use your rig when you need it. On certain sites, like Airbnb and VRBO, you can even rent out your stationary RV to travelers looking for a place to stay on vacation. Be sure to look into what kind of insurance policies each booking site offers so that your RV is protected.
Here are some sites you can list your RV on for rental:
Becoming Part of the RV Community
RVers are some of the friendliest folks around, and are usually happy to help a newbie get into the lifestyle. There are several Facebook groups, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts and Reddit threads that can answer specific questions you might have on RV brands, local dealerships and at-home repairs. You can even drive through your local campground, check out the RVs and ask the owners about motorhomes that peak your interest. This is a great community to become a part of, and ROAM is here to help you on your journey.
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