Buyer’s Guide for a First Time RV or Travel Trailer Purchase

Our retirement home is 30’ long (26’ of living space) and will, we certainly hope, follow the Suburban faithfully (well, okay, the GMC Yukon). The decision tree that led us to our decision of what kind of RV or trailer to get was complicated.

Since we Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age—those of us that haven’t already hung up our nail aprons (like my dad) or computers (like me) or stethoscopes (like my bride) or whatever the tools of our trade are—we are starting to think in those terms. We thought others might be interested in the questions we had and how we answered them. Here goes.

What type of RV or Trailer makes sense for us?

That, of course, is question number one. If you haven’t started looking, the choices are truly overwhelming.  Here are the different categories of RVs to get you thinking.

  • Class A are those big buses you see, usually towing a smaller vehicle behind them. They can be as luxurious as a Gulfstream private jet, and their price reflects it. Expect to be well into six figures.
  • Class B are the vans, some of which are oversized with slideouts. They are more affordable, you have to really option them out to hit six figures.
  • Class C are the ones that are built on a pickup truck frame. Think a pickup with a camper shell but, instead, it’s built as a unit.
  • Fifth Wheels are the truly big travel trailers you see, their hitch mounted to the bed of the pickup truck.
  • Travel trailers are the smaller trailers although still pretty big. The hitch hooks up behind the tow vehicle (we expect it to work with a Yukon for example).

What will you be doing with your RV or Trailer?

Will the RV (notice, I don’t say “camper” since in our case it’s not for camping) be a more-or-less permanent residence, or something only used for a week or two at a time?

  • If you picture being a snowbird and living in it for months at a time, you’ll need plenty of space. You probably want the fifth wheel. It features a king size bed and plenty of elbow room.
  • If you see it as a place you’ll be in for a couple of weeks’ vacation, you don’t need as much room although you might decide you want it.
  • For us, since we already had the Yukon, the travel trailer was the obvious choice. At 26 feet of living area with the slideout adding quite a few extra square feet it felt comfortable for the two of us. If we had kids, we would have had a different set of priorities. Then we’d have been looking at a fifth wheel and probably for one of the “bunkhouse” variants that sleeps several kids stacked nicely.
  • Decide what each individual wants in your new RV.
    1. The bride wanted a “real bathroom/shower” not a toilet with a shower over it. She also wanted a “bedroom”—not a bed in a camper—and lots of storage.
    2. Most importantly the bride wanted a great air conditioner unit.
    3. The husband wanted comfortable indoor seating across from the television screen. I want to watch Nascar, Play XBox, etc. and not be twisting around to do so. So, theater seating was a “have to have”.
  • Also, from the bride, you just have to accept the decor in all of its brown or blackness. If you want a lighter more cheerful interior, you will spend a lot of money to get a custom rig.  Just decorate with bright pillows, bright quilts, flamingos….. You get the picture.

Don’t neglect a visit and walk through

  • Sit in the various seats. Remember, much of the stuff is built in and so the design is constrained. Seat backs tend to be straight up.
  • Don’t forget to check where the TV is. If you’re at all like us, it will be your primary evening entertainment. Floorplans constrain locations and you will not like a layout that requires you to look over your shoulder. Trust us on that one.
  • Try the rocking chairs or the recliner for comfort. Some are remarkably comfortable.
  • Remember, more space equates to more length and more cost. The “theater” seating will have your most comfortable chairs, rockers or recliners, at the back facing forward with the TV (big screen of course) on the wall that separates the living area from the bedroom. We opted for the shorter version with twin recliners along the side of the trailer, facing the TV (still a big screen) on the opposite wall.

Buy from a reputable dealer

Buying an RV falls somewhere between buying a house and buying a car. Oh, sure, a new car can cost a lot more – if we were going to buy a new Yukon as a tow vehicle, for example, we’d be lucky to get out of that transaction for under $50,000 compared to the $25,000 all in price for our rolling retirement home – but functionally, the RV is more like a home.

As with any purchase, the sales guy is NOT your friend. He is trying to sell you something. He’s not your enemy either, though, but as with any salesman his loyalty is to his employer (and his commission check)—not to you. Check reviews of the dealer online.

On something like a travel trailer, they’re not terribly concerned about your repeat business. But in this era of online reviews, they do care about a good review. Always remember that the first number he shows you, and it will almost always be written down, is the MSRP. That’s the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price. The keyword in that phrase is SUGGESTED.

As with the purchase of a car, you can mortgage the farm and bet it all on the salesman needing to “check with his manager” for a final price. Just relax and play along. The reality is that he knows, to the penny, what the rock bottom dollar the company will take for that trailer is, and as long as he can get that amount it will be approved. But he would like to pad his commission check a little.

Here are a few other things you should know when negotiating the price of your RV or trailer.

  • Will the dealer include everything in the sale price? Does the hitch come with? Equalizing system? Sway bars? Electric brakes?
  • Will they set everything up?
  • Will they offer a full training walk through?
  • Will they finance?
    • Remember, for tax purposes this could be a second home and interest paid and personal property taxes are tax deductible for your second home. To qualify your second home must have a kitchen, bathroom and bed. You must spend at least one week every year using it.
    • Even if you’re ready to pay from retirement funds, short-term financing may be needed. Most likely the dealer will be willing, eager actually, to arrange that.

Buy at the beginning of the season

  • RVs and trailers, like cars, have model years.
  • When the new models start coming in there are often good deals on last year’s model.

Speaking of which – should I buy my RV or Trailer new or used?

  • You can save buying used
    1. They often include stuff you would have to buy later – hoses, covers, stuff like that
    2. The bugs have already been worked out
  • But – you can also end up buying someone else’s troubles
    1. Check for leaks
    2. Check for cracks
    3. Check to make sure slide out seals are intact and not dried out
    4. See about a test run

Go to Wal-Mart

  1. Some stuff you’ll need to get from Amazon or a specialty store
  2. But common stuff is at Wal-Mart
  3. Plus, you can touch it
  4. They handle Camco and that seems to be a big name in travel trailer stuff

RVs and Trailers Can Make a Lot of Financial Sense Depending how you Use Them

For us, the travel trailer is going to be our retirement home in many ways. We like to vacation at places like the beach. In December 2017 we spent a week on the Florida panhandle. The rental for our beach front condo came in at about $1,800 for a small studio apartment (50 yards from the beach with a huge dune between us and the view) and included a couch so uncomfortable it could have been used as an Enhanced Interrogation Technique at a CIA black site in Egypt or Romania or wherever they had those things. There was a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a room with a couch and a bed. The travel trailer might have a few less square feet but it’s a lot classier. And on-beach sites are about $80 a night with very few hidden fees.

Make Sure Your Vehicle Can Handle What You Buy

Since we’re not planning on long stays, by which I mean months at a time, and we had the Yukon already, the travel trailer makes sense. At 5,700 pounds, our 26 foot “ultralight” is about as much as I want to pull. If I had known I was going to do this I would have hunted longer and found one of the Suburban/Yukons on a ¾ ton frame with the bigger engine.

Our Yukon has the Vortec 5300 (what geezers like me call a 325 although I haven’t had time to do the math and wonder if it’s not really a 327). If I had planned on hauling three tons around I would have made sure I had the 5700 (a 350) or even a 6000 (364). Heck, I might have held out for the 7400 (454) big block.

I’m pretty confident that I have enough truck to handle the trailer but if I’m being honest here, I’ll be watching gauges VERY closely when we make that first trip. Well, that first trip over about 5 miles. The maiden voyage is going to be within 10 minutes of the sales (and maintenance) guys.

Do Routine Maintenance on your Tow Vehicle

Oh, yeah, and while I’m thinking about it, make sure the tow vehicle is in good shape. I took the Yukon to the local tire guys that do my work and had them tune it up, change oil in the differentials and transfer case, change oil in the transmission, put on fresh shock absorbers (air shocks in the back) and, generally, give it a good going over. My credit card had $1,100 on it by the time I left, but I’m confident for our maiden voyage.

Backing a Trailer for the First Time

About that backing thing. If you’ve never backed a trailer, you’ll want to practice… In a big area… Where there’s nothing to hit. But it’s really not brain science or rocket surgery. Although my wife will tell you it is in the male chromosomes to be able to back a trailer, it’s a skill and can be learned.

The trick an over-the-road trucker taught me is this—put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and then whichever way you want the trailer to go that’s the way you move your hand. The thing is, with your hand on the bottom of the wheel, that’s about as far as you’ll want to turn the wheel anyway. That’s far less confusing that trying to remember that the camper will go opposite of the way you turn the wheels. I learned it when the kids were quarter-midget racing and it’s worked for me since.

Random Tips for First Time Buyers

No, you do NOT have to have the white hose to bring your water in. There isn’t really anything special about that white hose except that, well, it’s white. But, and it’s a very big but, you want to get the white hose so you won’t get it confused with the other hose (it’ll be orange if you buy it in the RV section) because that hose flushes your sewer system and you probably want to not get them mixed up.

Speaking of water, spring for one of the pressure regulators. City water pressure can damage the relatively light duty plumbing of the trailer.

Remember, the sun is hard on things. By that I mean pretty much everything. The point being, you’ll want covers. A trailer cover will keep the sun from fading those pretty decals on the sides. Alternatively, store it inside. That will run at least a hundred bucks a month but it keeps my wife happy. Wheel covers will keep the sun from dry rotting your tires.

Get the basics you need to stock your new home away from home and leave it stocked. We have lightweight pots and pans, lightweight dishes, separate silverware (settings for four), basic spices, the obligatory cornhole game, Roku gadgetry, board and card games, wifi booster, stuff like that. If you think you can remember to bring all of that from the house, you’re wrong.

But, and once again it’s a BIG but, do NOT leave anything perishable when you’re home from your trip. If you leave a pound of hamburger in the refrigerator, or a bunch of bananas under the sink, you might as well plan on a new refrigerator or, well, get used to it.

Flush the toilet a few times before you use it. You want some water in there to, well, keep things moving and movable.

More about water. Unless you’re going to be remote, do not carry water with you. It’s heavy and there is almost always water available at campgrounds.

Big tip – BIG BIG TIP – you’ll read this in other places. Live it. Love it. Accept it as gospel. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP YOU WILL EVER RECEIVE ABOUT YOUR NEW RV. Ready? Here it is:

LEAVE THE BLACK VALVE CLOSED.

Here’s the thing – think about the way the toilet works in the RV. You flush, and it dumps, NOT into a sewer but into a tank, a tank with a flat bottom. THINK ABOUT IT!

You need some water to make things flow. So, DO NOT just leave the black valve open. You can, no check that, you WILL wind up with the dreaded poop pyramid. Read enough of the RV/Camper/Retirement Home sites on the web and you are sure to run across that most dreaded horror story of all—The Time I Bought A Used RV That Had A Petrified Poop Pyramid.

So, just to make sure it’s clear – LEAVE THE BLACK VALVE CLOSED.

Once your gauge says you’re three quarters full or so, THEN open the black valve.

We are due to pick up the mobile vacation home the week after the 4th of July madness. We are going to a local RV Park right after we have our dealer training on hoses, gas, etc.. We will be there while the dealership is open on Friday and Saturday and their number will be on speed dial for those “what do I do” or “how do I do” this questions that probably will occur once we are on our own.

Adventures await us, and we can hardly wait for our first long distance over-the-road trip. Stay tuned for updates from the “Couple of Greenhorn Retirees”.  In fact, if you want to follow our adventure, click here for the next installment!

Comments

  1. I wanted to thank you for these tips for buying and RV. I like that you mentioned you should make sure that you do maintenance on the tow vehicle. It sounds important to do this even when you aren’t using it to tow, especially so it can be in good condition for when it does eventually tow.

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