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Tips For Buying A Used RV

by Adam Doolittle

Recently we wrote about whether you should buy a new or used RV. Buying a used RV has many benefits compared to that of a new one. The cost is a big one as you can save many thousands of dollars when buying a used RV over a new one. While you may save a lot of money when purchasing a used RV you may also be buying a giant money trap if you’re not careful when buying. Used RVs are often well-used and have gone through lots of maintenance and still could have underlying issues that maybe even the current owner doesn’t know about.

We’ve now been in our RV for 4 years and looking back, while I thought we were prepared to shop for a used RV, we quickly realized we weren’t. There were many things that popped up not long after we took possession of our RV. This signalled that at the very least that we paid too much for our RV as it came with issues. The big repair we’ve had to undergo since we’ve owned our RV was getting all three of our slides rebuilt due to water damage. If we were better educated when inspecting the RV we could have possibly noticed the early signs of water damage.

If you are a first time RV buyer like we were, it can be extremely overwhelming and a bit scary as you don’t want to be sinking your hard-earned money into a money pit. Here are some helpful tips to help you in your search for a quality used RV.

Never Buy A Used RV Without Seeing It

One of the challenges of buying a used RV is that you may have to look for a very long time before finding the one you really want with the floorplan and amenities that you desire. Kate and I took a long time to find our current RV and even then we settled a bit. If you live in or around more populated areas it will be easier than if you live in rural areas. We scoured RVTrader looking for a perfect used RV but quickly gave up. It was just too big of a potential hassle to have to go look at multiple RVs all over the place. We’ve read many stories about people in similar situations who agreed to purchase RVs online without physically stepping foot in it. Guess what? They’ve had major issues because they couldn’t properly inspect it. Not seeing an RV (new or used) in person before you purchase is just too big of a gamble. Avoid at all costs.

Ask Lots of Questions

Whether you’re buying your RV from a private seller or from a dealer, you’re going to want to ask a lot of questions. The benefit of buying from a private seller is they should be able to 100% honestly answer all of your questions since the RV has been in their possession and they’re the ones that used it. Ask them everything about the RV like how much they travelled with it, were there pets in it, smokers, what kind of maintenance has been done, etc…You get the point. Ask lots of questions. If the owner can’t seem to answer your questions or might seem insincere in their answers it might be best to move on before really inspecting the RV. Make sure you also have the person who owns and has used the RV show it to you not a friend or relative who knows nothing about the RV. You’ll just be wasting your time if that’s the case. Once you’ve asked your questions it’s time to roll up your sleeves are start inspecting the RV.

Hire A Professional RV Inspector

If you’re new to the world of RVing inspecting a used RV for issues can be a very daunting task as it was for us when we were purchasing our RV. In the future, if we purchase another RV, we will definitely hire a professional RV inspector. These professionals are just like a home inspector for your sticks-and-bricks home. They’ll thoroughly inspect the RV for issues big and small that will help you determine whether or not you should purchase the unit. Hiring a professional RV inspector is likely going to cost a few hundred dollars at minimum but that’s money well spent in our mind considering the fact you can save yourself thousands of dollars in repairs. Plus, you’ll also be able to better negotiate a sale price for the RV of your choice.

Inspecting The RV – Inside

Look/Smell For Mould and Water Damage

Once you open the door and walk into a used RV take a deep breath in through your nose. Ideally, you do not want to smell anything but often there’s a scary smell. It’s musty and sometimes smells like cat pee. That usually only means one thing – mould and water damage are present. You might as well turn around and walk away at that point because you do not want to be dealing with water damage. It’ll cost you thousands of dollars and lots of time to fix.

Even if you don’t smell that musty smell that doesn’t mean water damage isn’t hiding from you. It’s key to look thoroughly throughout the entire RV for any sign of water damage. Starting with the ceiling, look for brown spots. This will likely mean there is some sort of water damage in the roof likely causing rot. Also, keep an eye out for bowing ceilings as this will mean the same thing.

After inspecting the ceiling you’ll want to check the floor for water damage. The easiest way to do this is simply by walking around. If you feel any soft spots that are noticeably different than the rest of the floor that’s a good sign of water damage. Be sure to check around the edges and corners of the RV. This is often where a lot of water damage can be. Don’t forget to check behind couches, in closets and any other areas that you don’t normally walk on. While you’re walking around testing the floor you can also give the walls a test. On the exterior walls give them a good push to make sure they’re nice and solid.

Be sure to check inside of drawers and cabinets for water damage as well – especially in the kitchen under the sink. A long lingering plumbing leak can cause some serious damage if not quickly attended to.

Test The Electrical Outlets

Make sure you test all of the electrical outlets inside and out to make sure they’re working properly. You can do this with a volt metre. One of our outlets stopped working once we owned the RV and wasn’t a quick fix. Thankfully, it was an outlet that was in our bunk room that we barely used. The last thing you’ll want is to discover an important outlet in the RV isn’t working, so check them all.

Interior Appliances

You’ll want to make sure to test out all of the appliances in the RV to make sure they’re working as they should. The refrigerator is the big one as they cost a lot to replace. Make sure both the fridge and freezer are nice and cold like they should be. Make sure to check that they work both on electric and on propane. Also check the microwave, TVs, surround system, fireplace, etc. If you find any appliances not working as they should you can use this to subtract from the purchase price.

Run the AC and furnace to ensure that they’re both working well. You’ll probably want to run both the AC and furnace for 10-15 minutes each to make sure they keep the RV nice and cold/warm. Check the vents to make sure the air is flowing out properly as well.

Stove/Oven

One of the steps for testing the propane should be to test the oven and stove. Do all of the burners work? Does the oven get nice and hot? You’ll want to ensure the oven works properly as it can be a costly replacement.

Plumbing

Be sure to run water through all the faucets in the RV making sure it runs steadily. Test the hot water heater by running hot water. Most hot water heaters will help keep water warm for around 5 minutes. It may seem a bit annoying to the owner to run water for so long but you don’t want to find out after purchasing the RV that you can only shower for two minutes before losing hot water. When you’re running the water be sure to look under the sinks for any leaks as well.

Outdoor Inspection

The Roof

The most important part of the exterior to examine is the roof. A bad roof is a bad RV and you will want to stay away. On the roof, first, you want to see that it is relatively clean and that it’s been taken care of. You don’t want to see it covered in fallen leaves or lichen. Anything that doesn’t look like a nice clean white RV roof is a red flag. To me, it means that the owner didn’t put enough care into the unit. Most RVers know that the roof requires a lot of attention. If the owner can’t show the roof proper attention then what else did they ignore in all of their years owning the RV?

If the roof looks nice a clean then you can continue inspecting other elements of the roof. The big one is the seals. Ask the owner when the last time they replaced/inspected their seals on the roof. You should make sure to check the seals on the roof at least twice a year to make sure they’re in good shape and not cracking. Lack of sealant or old, cracking sealant is not a good sign. Water can and will get into every little crack and crevice. You want to see that that roof is sealed and secured better than Fort Knox.

Much like you did inside with the floor, you want to walk around on the roof and make sure you don’t feel any soft/sagging areas. Sometimes when you walk on a roof you will even hear what sounds like you’re walking on Styrofoam. We had that happen when we were inspecting RVs. We found a beautiful used RV but when we walked on the roof we instantly knew there was rot. The front/back corners seem to be the worst areas so be sure to check there.

Don’t forget to check around and under all of the skylights, vents and vent covers. We had a hairline crack in our skylight which let in the slightest trickle of water. It’s a quick fix but if that’s something that hadn’t been noticed immediately it could cause some serious damage. Make sure to also look into any vents for blockages or signs of rodents/insects.

While you’re heading up and down the ladder of the RV make sure it’s nice and sturdy as well. These things are held in by screws and if there’s any rot around them guess what…you’re going to take a spill if you’re not careful.

Other Seals/Seams

Besides the roof, it’s imperative that you check the seals/seams all around the exterior of the RV. Just like the roof, you’ll want to know that this has been done relatively frequently. This is especially true if the owner travelled a lot with the RV as the natural flex of the RV will cause the seams to separate from the seals while travelling. If you see any sort of discolouration on the seals you know that they likely haven’t been done in a while. Check for separation and cracks. Just like the roof if you spot any it means there’s likely been some water getting in at some point. Don’t forget to check around the windows and doors as well.

Exterior Walls

While you’re walking around checking the seals/seams you can also be checking the sidewalls of the RV. There are a few things to look for here. First, if it’s a motorhome, you do not want to see any damage from an obvious collision. Even if the RV has been repaired there could still be underlying issues that weren’t fixed or were unknown at the time of the incident.

The big thing to look for with the exterior walls is delamination. Delamination is a separation of the fibreglass from the plywood frame. The big cause of delamination is water damage. When we inspected our RV before we purchased it we didn’t thoroughly inspect the exterior as it was -30 degrees outside on the day we went to look at the RV. When it was delivered to us the park manager where we were staying instantly pointed out the delamination on our RV. I almost exploded inside and couldn’t believe we were so careless during our inspection. We pointed this out to the delivery driver who worked for the dealer we purchased our RV from. He mentioned that it could also be caused by heat. Possibly. But the fact we didn’t really know didn’t leave us with a comforting feeling. Basically, if you see delamination it’s another big red flag.

Storage Bays

Most RVs have outdoor storage bays. Be sure to check inside of these with a flashlight. Try to focus on seeing if there is any water damage but also check for any signs of rodents. If these bays aren’t latched properly rodents can easily enter and who knows where else they managed to get into the RV – especially if the RV was in storage or sitting unused for a long time. Rodents can cause big issues to electrical systems if they manage to chew through a wire or two not to mention other messes they can and will make throughout RVs.

Propane

Propane is an important part of RVing especially if you’re planning to be off the grid for any amount of time so it is imperative to make sure that everything with the propane system is working well. Check the propane lines/hoses for any cracks or damage. A leaky propane line can be dangerous and cost you lots of money in lost propane. Also, check the tanks. All tanks have an expiration date. They’re cheap to replace but it’s good to know what you’re buying with the RV. We bought our RV with an expired tank. When we went to fill the tank the attendant refused to fill it as it was expired and we were forced to purchase a new one.

Tires

For whatever reason, tires seem to be an afterthought for many people when looking at an RV. Always check the tires of an RV. You need to check not the tread of the tires but also for cracks or other wear or damage. It’s also important to determine the age of the tires. Older tires need to be replaced and this is something you might want to do immediately after buying an RV. If you’re buying from a dealer possibly ask them to throw in a new set of tires with purchase.

Awning

Kate and I have never used our awning. We’re not awning people I guess but other people love using their awning and regardless of how much you intend to use your awning you should check it. They’re expensive to replace so you will want to make sure to open it up and inspect it for any tears. Also, make sure that it opens and closes with ease.

Jacks

Make sure all of the levelling and stabilizing jacks work properly. Check to make sure that they rise and lower as they should with no issues. Be sure to fully extend them up and down to ensure everything is moving smoothly without any strange noises.

Undercarriage

It’s time to get dirty and get on your back and check out the RVs undercarriage. This is an awkward and uncomfortable inspection to do but it’s necessary. Slide a piece of cardboard under your back to make it more comfortable. With the undercarriage, you’re looking to see the condition of the cover of the underbelly. You don’t want to see any holes or protrusions of any kind. It needs to be sealed nice and tight. This can be an area where rodents enter if not sealed tightly so be sure to inspect carefully around every seam.

What To Do If You Find Issues With A Used RV

Just because a used RV has some issues doesn’t mean you shouldn’t purchase it. You may be handy (unlike me) and be able to fix up some of the issues yourself once the RV is in your possession. You should always stay away from an RV that has obvious water damage, though. Even if you are handy, unless you can get a used RV for dirt cheap, trying to do the repairs necessary after discovering water damage will prove costly and time-consuming. The main thing is that if you do see some obvious issues with an RV but still like it, do some research and math. Calculate how much it would be to roughly get the issues fixed and repaired and knock that off from the sale price and used it as a negotiating tactic when purchasing a used RV.

RV Inspection Checklist

Now that you have an idea of what to look for when buying a used RV it’s time to do it in person. Let’s make sure you’re fully prepared though. We’ve put together a full RV Inspection Checklist for you to either print off or download to your phone for when you go to inspect RVs in person. DOWNLOAD HERE

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