RV Basics

How to (First-Time) Buy An RV Camper Van: What You Should Know

I started this site in 2014 when I bought an RV and set out to live and work in it full time as I traveled the country. I had never owned or spent time in an RV before and I had to learn absolutely everything as I went along. I had an amazing time but eventually moved back into an actual house and sold the RV.

Since then, I’ve gone on lots of road trips (from Seattle to NY and back, to San Antonio, to Tuscon, lots of trips down PCH…), using the car + hotels method. And that works fine too, but I missed having an RV. Last year, I almost bought a new Roadtrek Agile, but the company was in its non-existent phase and the lack of any visible warranty didn’t seem ideal.

These days, the stop at rest areas, restaurants, and hotels method isn’t as appealing. I have a portable bathroom set up that works great, but it’s not the same as bring a full bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom with you everywhere you go.

So, I’ve been on the hunt for an RV and maybe you are too! If you are new to the RV world and it all seems overwhelming, this post may help demystify things a bit.

First, my interest is in a camper van, otherwise known as a class B, so this post is mostly about that (although some of the information is applicable no mater what kind of RV you get). A class B looks like a regular van on the outside (a Mercedes Sprinter or Dodge Promaster, for instance), but the inside is an entire house. More on the pros and cons of that below.

Is Traveling in an RV Safe Right Now?

Next, is it actually a good idea to travel the country in an RV right now? Honestly, not really. I plan to do that eventually, but for now, I’m planning to use my new RV (once I can find it!) for shorter day trips and nearby overnights.

If you’ve never traveled in an RV, you may think it’s the safest choice, and for sure it’s probably the safest, but not as safe as staying home. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Campgrounds and RV parks are absolutely packed right now, so you may have trouble finding a reservation anywhere. (Although check the apps because things do open up!) If you’re comfortable spending the night in Walmart parking lots and truck stops (which I definitely am), you might be OK with a mostly traveling (vs. camping in one spot) type of vacation, although truck stop parking lots might be full too. Dispersed camping in national forests and public lands might be an option, although definitely research that in advance (and keep in mind that some of those roads are pretty rough). Some areas may be closed and some areas may be overrun with partiers. The Allstays app can help with the latter sometimes. For instance, I was looking into Moses lake dispersed camping and an Allstays review included: “The partying went on all night at the other campsites including vehicles spinning out and yelling… Seems like a really cool spot for those that want to enjoy the sand dunes on the weekend however if your driving through looking to rest I would recommend either finding a quiet spot not next to any of the other trailers or to keep going and find another location.” I’m researching the best ways to find spots now so look for a post soon on that.
  • Because everything is full, social distancing may be difficult. The dream is wide open spaces and no people other than you, but that may not be the reality in a lot of spots. Definitely do some research on where you’re thinking of traveling (especially trip reports from full time RVers). We like to mostly drive around during the day and find random isolated places to hang out. For instance, during yesterday’s day trip, we pulled off on an abandoned road and had lunch. A deer and a coyote (not together!) wandered by while we were there, but no other people.
  • RVs can have problems. Especially if you’re thinking of buying an older model, you might have trouble, but RVers with brand new vehicles will tell you that issues pop up with those too. I had a rock shatter one of my windows and my propane tank started leaking in winter and couldn’t find any place to repair either. So you could get stranded and need that hotel room you were trying to avoid. Even if you do find a place for repairs, you’re no longer living the dream far away from people.
  • Refrigerators and storage in RVs is pretty small, so if you’re gone more than a few days, you’ll have to find places to restock that might be unpredictable.

So, we’ll be sticking close to home for now. We are lucky enough to live an hour’s drive from mountains, beaches, and lots of wide open spaces.

What Kind of RV Should You Get?

I don’t know what kind you should get, but we’re getting a class B. When you’re new to the RV world, one of the first things you learn about are RV classifications. A class B is a full RV on a van chassis. My last RV was a Roadtek 170 Popular, which was on a Chevy van chassis and was around 19 feet long.

A class B is great for a single person or a couple, and depending on the size, maybe a child too. (Some, like the Winnebago Solis, have a pop up roof for a second bed.) The smallest class Bs are 19 feet long, and these are the easiest to park and maneuver around. Most are longer — between 21 and 24 feet, which provide a bit of extra room (especially storage), but won’t fit in a lot of parking spaces. Class Bs are small, for sure.

These days, you can find most class Bs on either a Mercedes Spring, Dodge Promaster, or Ford Transit chassis. You can find a pretty good list here. There are pros and cons to each chassis, but they all work well.

As you’re scanning the list of what’s available, some other key features to look for in addition to length and chassis are:

  • Bathroom – many class Bs have a full “wet bath” (separate room with a plumbed in toilet and shower combo), but some don’t have a bathroom at all, or have a portable cassette-style toilet. A quick way to check on the toilet is to look for a black tank in the specs. I wrote a post on emptying the black and grey tanks and the Russos wrote a post on using a portable cassette toilet.
  • Bed configuration and size – some setups have twin beds or bunk beds, and some have loft or murphy beds that drop down, but most have a sofa in the back that folds out into a bed. Some are easier to convert than others (touch of a button vs. manually moving things around) and they’re not all the same size.
  • Power – this is a huge topic, but the key thing to know when you’re staying out is that many set ups don’t have huge amounts of battery storage/replenishment so you can’t set up in the woods for weeks an expect to have infinite power. My Roadtrek had a small battery and solar panel setup that was OK for me for a couple of nights. These days, you can get more powerful lithium batteries, more solar, larger inverters… Most RVs have propane and a generator, but lots of options exist these days. With most set ups, you can’t run the air conditioner unless you’re plugged into shore power (for instance, at a campground with hookups) or have the generator running. Just be aware of this, and check to see what’s installed (and upgradeable) in the RV you’re looking at. In many cases, the standard installation is plenty.

I Can’t Find Any RVs for Sale!

This is the key issue right now. Inventory is super low and lead times are super long for ordering a new one. I’ve been quoted lead times from three months to twelve months depending on the manufacturer. So what to do?

First, be flexible. You may have your heart set on a Sprinter because you think it looks the coolest, but a Dodge Promaster may work just as well. You might not really need four wheel drive. A different color may be OK. Obviously, don’t compromise on anything you truly do need.

Next, expand your search. If you are OK with not seeing the RV in person, you can buy one from anywhere in the country and have it shipped. Most dealerships will arrange this for you (or you can contact an RV shipping company and arrange this yourself). Of course, consider the extra cost of this when looking at prices.

Be open to new or used (if your budget allows). A used one that’s just a couple of years old might actually be less likely to have issues than a new one, since any problems have already been uncovered and fixed. As I mentioned earlier though, I’d be wary of getting something too old right now, just because things do start to need replacing after time and now is not the best time to be stuck on the road.

Once you have your general criteria set, check RV Trader for what’s out there. I use a nationwide search, sorted by newly listed. You can also check directly on local (or national) dealer web sites. You may find something that fits your criteria, but if not, you can set an alert to get an email when something new pops up or you can do a new search, sorted by “newly listed” each morning. Some things I’ve learned:

  • If it’s listed, it’s still probably not available. If you see the listing on RV Trader, click through to the dealer web site. It might say sold or sale pending.
  • If it says on order, it’s probably not on order. Probably that’s just the dealer wanting you to order it (with the corresponding long lead time).
  • If it has no price and no photos, it definitely is not a real RV that’s available to buy. Maybe you can order one. (It’s also possible the RV is on the way.)
  • It’s still worthwhile to call dealers that specialize in what you are looking for or that have listings that may or may not be real, as they do sometimes have real RVs on the way and you might be able to snag one of those with a shorter lead time than a new order. (These can be tricky as they often don’t know when the on order RVs will arrive.) At the very least, you can leave your contact info in case something becomes available. A lot of ordered RVs are coming in around now and not everyone has been able to get financing. Or maybe they’ve found something else while they’ve been waiting. So every so often something becomes available. (We just got a call from someone we talked to not long ago to let us know a 2020 used RV was on its way to them.)

RVs are available if you’re willing to be a bit flexible, especially with length. Shorter models are definitely harder to find. We narrowed down what we needed vs. what we thought we wanted. Everyone’s list will be different. Our must-haves included being as short as possible (19′ would be ideal, 21′ would be OK, 24′ would be too long), full bathroom, largish bed, new or slightly used. Our nice-to-haves included four wheel drive, Sprinter, lithium batteries/lots of off-the-grid power availability.

We first zeroed in on an Airstream Interstate 19 (would have to order and would take at least 3-4 months), then considered older, nearby older class Bs (not many to choose from; a lot older than we wanted) and finally decided on a new Midwest Legend (at a dealership in Louisiana so we have to wait (and pay for) shipping). It’s a Dodge Promaster instead of a Mercedes Sprinter. It’s not four wheel drive. It’s 21′ with a full bathroom and large bed. AGM batteries, 2000 watt inverter, 100 watt solar. So it hits our must haves, but not all of our nice to haves.

We were comfortable buying an RV sight unseen but only from a dealership (that we researched separately) and not from a private seller. We were only comfortable buying from a local private seller. We found the listing for the Legend on RV Trader, but I looked up the dealership and called the number on the web site and not the number on the RV Trader listing, just in case someone was scamming by using a dealership name. I looked up reviews of the dealership on Google Maps and a few other places and made sure most people had a good experience.

In order to find the Legend, I had to call a lot of dealerships across the country. From that, I was able to learn a lot about what inventory was available, what was on the way, and what the ordering situation was. In many cases, dealers had RVs on the way that you could put a deposit on.

With some patience and work, you can definitely find something to fit your needs and probably you will love it! If you haven’t had an RV before, definitely research what RV ownership is like first to see if it’s something you’d be up for and think through what the practical day to day would be like (not necessarily all isolated nature with only birds and chipmunks like from a Disney movie). Check out the Allstays app (or a similar app) to see what kind of campground availability exist in the areas you’re thinking of going.

But mostly, enjoy! And let me know how it goes!

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