How to buy a $10,000 RV

(this article is for sale for use in publications)
Copyright 1996, Franklin Hu

How to buy a $10,000 RV
by Franklin Hu
So, you want to buy an RV.  You love the idea of owning an RV and
pursuing the RV lifestyle but don't have a lot of money.  This article
chronicles my adventures in buying a low-cost $10,000 RV.
By buying a used RV, you can save tens-of thousands of dollars and by
doing some careful shopping, you can get an RV that will serve you
Finding good used RV means searching as many places as you can.
Initially, I wasn't looking forward to doing this since I was afraid
that I would be attacked by rabid high-pressure used-car salesmen.
However, I found that most of the salespeople were friendly and were
quite content to show me only the RVs in my price range.  They let me
poke and prod the RVs at my own pace.
Typically, when you arrive at an RV dealership, you will be greeted by
a salesperson.  You can ask to wander around the lot by yourself to
inspect the RVs but you'll need the salesperson to tell you the asking
price of the RVs since the prices usually aren't posted.
I was quite surprised at the quality and condition of the RVs in my
price range considering that $10,000 is about the lowest price that
you can get for an RV.  When I went shopping in February 1996, I found
several RVs that fit my requirements for a low cost RV in the 20-23
foot length.  Here is a sample:
Year	Miles	Asking Price 
81	59k	10,900 
79	50k	10,000 
78	62k	10,900 
78	75k	10,000 
78	89k	10,000 
77	73k	10,000 
79	44k	10,000 

One thing you will notice right away is how old these RVs are.  If
these RVs were cars, they'd be dead by now.  After all, when is the
last time you saw an 18 year old 1978 car on the freeway.
However, RVs spend most of their time in a parking space and a well
maintained RV can withstand the test of time quite well.  Some of the
RVs were beat up and rusty, but others looked almost new.  Generally,
the condition of an RV is reflected in the miles and not its age.  I
wasn't concerned about an older RV being prone to a catastrophic
breakdown since none of the RVs I looked at claimed to have rebuilt
engines or transmissions,
When shopping for RVs, a major difference between dealers is the kind
of repair service they can offer.  Some don't offer any repair
service, others can only repair the appliances in the RV.  Some can
repair both the RV appliances and the mechanical chassis of the RV
including the engine, transmission, suspension, etc.  However, when
buying an old RV, you can expect it to be sold as-is without any
written warrantee and only a verbal assurance that they will fix any
of the appliances in the RV.  So you should try to get the dealer to
fix everything before you take delivery.
As with any used automobile purchase, you should thoroughly inspect
the RV.  People will often advise that you have the vehicle
professionally inspected.  While this is a good idea, I have often
found it impractical because it is difficult to find a mechanic who is
immediately available to do an inspection and knows what a pre-sale
inspection consists of and has a set price for it.  Since I couldn't
find a suitable inspection mechanic, I made my own inspection.  Here
are some things to look for to make sure you're getting a good RV.
Start your inspection by looking at all of the RV's surfaces and make
sure you can live with any dings, dents, scratches or stains that
might be there.  Next check for leaks.  Leaks can be very difficult
and costly to fix.  Look for any stained or warped walls, especially
in the corners.  If your RV comes with a generator, make sure it
starts smoothly and measure the voltage it produces.  It should
produce around 110-125 volts.  Check if all lighting fixtures,
especially florescent ones, come on at full brightness.  Turn on any
fans to see if they need lubrication.  Check the door hinges for wear.
When you go on a test drive, check if your side mirrors give you good
visibility.  If you have never driven an RV, you might be surprised
that it isn't that difficult.  As long as your side visibility is
good, you might forget that you've got 20+ feet of RV behind you.
Check if the RV starts immediately.  It is unacceptable if it doesn't
start on the first try.  You can be sure that the RV won't start for
you when you take it home if it has a hard time at the dealership.
Don't test drive RVs with dead batteries - or if you do, make sure you
don't stop for gas.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  Drive the RV
on the open road at highway speeds and note any unusual sounds.
Repetitive bumping, grinding, creaking, or clanging is bad.  If
possible, drive the RV up the steepest hill you can find to make sure
that it has enough power and doesn't hesitate when the engine is hot.
Use your brakes and make sure that the RV stops smoothly.  Look at
where the RV was parked and check for any obvious fresh drips.  An RV
shouldn't drip anything.  Run the AC for at least 15 minutes and make
sure it stays cool.  Check if the radio works.  Use the fader controls
to check if the front, back, right and left speakers work.  Check if
heating/cooling controls work.  Check if the cruise control works.
Check if the door locks and interior controls operate.  Check if the
play in the steering is acceptable.  RVs tend to have looser steering
than cars and the gearboxes can wear down as the RV gets older.  Check
the rubber on the tires, hoses and belts.  Anything with a crack in it
will have to be replaced.  If a tire looks old and cracked, you should
consider replacing it since it might blowout on a long trip.  Finally,
when the RV is warmed up, take a look at the exhaust in the sunlight.
It should be perfectly clear.  If there is any bluish smoke - forget
it, the engine is shot.  The exhaust should be fairly odorless.  You
shouldn't be able to smell it from a few feet away.
During your initial inspection, it may not be possible to test all of
the appliances since the RV may not have enough water or propane.
Therefore, before you take delivery, you should expect your dealer to
fill your RV with sufficient water and propane to test all of the
appliances.  You should insist that the dealer give you a walk through
of all the RV systems to show that they are working.  If the RV is
equipped with a propane freezer/refrigerator, you should expect to be
shown an icy cold freezer.  It takes about 3-4 hours for a freezer to
chill, so your dealer needs to turn it on before your inspection.
Check if water leaks into the bowl of the toilet with the water pump
on.  Turn everything on and off so that you know how it works.  You
don't want to go on your first trip and not know how to turn the water
heater or furnace on.
The RV I initially selected was a '79 Ralle with 50K miles for $10k.
My friends and relatives (being the back-seat hagglers that they are)
said "Hey, they're not going to sell that RV anytime soon, you got to
be able to walk away if they won't give you a deal".  Naturally, that
RV sold an hour after I left.  There is always the risk that someone
else will buy the RV you're looking at.  Fortunately, the dealership
had another RV just like it - a '78 Tioga with 62k miles for $10,900.
The exterior of the RV looked new - not a spot of rust anywhere and it
was equipped with many features including a 4000 watt generator, roof
antenna, hot water heater, and awning.  My only concern was with the
retro 70's orange pizza colored carpet and decor.  Why, if I only put
in a disco ball, I could complete the 70's ambiance!  Oh well, for
$10,000, I could make a few sacrifices.
Once you've made your selection, comes the part most of us either love
or hate - haggling.  Since I had been shopping around, I knew that the
asking price was similar to the other dealers.  The NADA does publish
a book on used RVs that goes back many years but many libraries don't
carry the RV book.  So I couldn't be sure what a reasonable price for
the RV would be.  The price negotiations started out at $10,900 and
they would give me $3,000 for an 85' pickup and camper combo that I
was trading in.  Determining the proper price for the trade-in was
also difficult because most automobile pricing guides only go back 7
years.  I made a guess that $3000 was reasonable based upon newspaper
ads I had seen for similar pickups and campers.
After receiving the initial offer, I remembered a good rule of thumb
that says you can offer 10 percent less than the initial offer.  I
went a little beyond that and offered $9,500.  The dealer responded by
taking my camper for a test drive.  When they came back, they agreed
to the RV price, but they would only give me $2,500 for my trade in.
Finally, I offered to split the difference on the camper for $2,750
and we had a deal.  I was required to put down a $400 deposit check
with the rest paid on delivery.  The total cost including tax and
licensing was $10,063.25.  I bought the RV as-is with only a vague
verbal assurance that they would fix the appliances on the RV.  I
crossed my fingers and handed over my money.
When you buy an 18 year old RV, you have got to expect a few problems.
If you're not handy with a screwdriver and pliers, buying a used RV
might not be for you.  Things like loose doors, oil leaks, weak
batteries and broken controls needed to be fixed.  I was able to
repair most of the minor items on my RV but it took nearly a full week
to do it.
One item that I was unable to repair was the AC generator.  The
generator is a small gas engine that is started with a switch inside
the RV.  The voltage coming out of the generator was around 150 volts
instead of the more usual 110 volts.  I took my RV back to my
dealership and they agreed to fix the generator under their verbal
guarantee.  They worked on it for nearly four hours, first rebuilding
the carburetor and then finally replacing it for free.  It was good to
know that you can trust some dealerships to abide by their verbal
Buying a used RV is riskier than buying a new RV, but the savings are
impressive.  My RV cost at least $30,000 less than an equivalent new
RV.  Over the long run, my RV turned out to be a reliable performer.
I had the same kind of problems that you might expect with any used
car.  But so far, nothing major has broken.  Getting into the RV
lifestyle doesn't have to be extravagantly expensive.  Just buy
carefully and be prepared to do a little fixing up.