Many retirees decide that they want to spend at least part of their time on the road, traversing North America or some other part of the world in an RV. For many, the new freedoms offered by retirement and the allure of the open road are too enticing to pass up; spending months traveling independently can indeed be exhilarating and even life defining.
However, there are scores of practical matters to be decided beforehand, not the least of which is purchasing an RV. These vehicles can be expensive to purchase, and expensive to operate, so first you need to determine what your budget is. The simplest fold-up trailers — which you can tow behind a compact car — can be as cheap as US$5,000. These campers pop up once you’ve arrived at a campsite; the walls are collapsible canvas, and there’s no room for anything other than sleeping, but they can be perfectly adequate if you’re willing to rough it. (And you can pack a large stand-up tent with walls made of mosquito netting as your living, dining, and cooking space.)
Deluxe Motor Home
On the other hand, a deluxe motor home — a 40-foot-long vehicle with self-contained living space — can cost up to the mid-six-figures, as much as a large single-family home in an expensive housing market. You will enjoy nearly all the comforts of home with the added benefit of being able to transport those comforts from place to place, but it may be hard to enjoy your new freedom knowing that you’ve just spent a substantial percentage of your retirement savings. You’ll need to find the proper balance between the comfort level you’re seeking and a budget you can afford.
If you’re buying a trailer that needs to be towed (rather than a self-contained motor home), you’ll spend a lot less per linear foot, but make sure that your existing car or truck is capable of pulling it. If you’re intent on a 35-foot trailer but only have a subcompact car, you’ll also need to buy a new car (or truck). Don’t forget to calculate in the costs for that.
Most RVs are purchased through dealers, just like cars. Shop around on the Internet as well as at local dealers; if choices in your area are limited, then travel to a larger town and talk to dealers there. Dealers are always willing to bargain; customers often return for service, upgrades, and eventually trade-ins for larger RVs. And dealers usually have plenty of wiggle room; their markups are as high as 40 percent. If your dealer won’t bargain, go somewhere else.
A dealer will likely try to sell you various extras and add-ons; before agreeing, think carefully about how you will actually use your RV. If you’re purchasing a motor home or trailer that includes a kitchen, and you’re offered a convection oven to replace the standard oven at extra cost, how much will you actually use that convection oven? In campgrounds, it’s likely that
you’ll be doing a lot of cooking outdoors, with a portable gas stove, so kitchen upgrades might be a waste of money.
Pay close attention to brand. There are plenty of reputable, long-standing manufacturers that you can choose from; try to stick with an established company. You may be offered a great deal on an off-brand vehicle or trailer, but be careful. If it’s an “orphan RV” — manufactured by a company that’s no longer in business — you might have trouble getting parts or service. Warranty issues with orphan RVs can also be complicated. And if you believe you may be trading up in the future, think in terms of resale value. It’s not only brand that matters here: don’t select a motor home with a strange floor plan, for instance, even if it suits your personal style. In most layouts, the bedroom should be all the way in back, with nothing beyond it. Most RVers prefer not having to walk through a bedroom to get to a camper’s only bathroom, for instance.
Buy Factory Direct
Another option is to buy factory-direct. More manufacturers are offering this option, which can result in significant savings. You may need to travel to the factory or some other central location to talk with staff and examine various trailers and vehicles, but you can do most of your research online beforehand. Factory tours can be educational; you’ll learn more about RVs than you ever would at a dealer’s showroom. And you can even customize your purchase — though if you go overboard with customization, your savings will quickly evaporate. Manufacturers offer various warranty options and even financing.
Buy a Used RV
One more way to save money is to purchase a used RV. As with any vehicle, a new RV plummets in value the minute it’s driven off the dealer’s lot. If you can find a “barely used” RV, you can save thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands for luxury models. However, you’ll need to inspect your prospective purchase very carefully. If you don’t know much about RV construction, find a friend who does, or hire a mechanic to give you an independent appraisal. If you get the vehicle’s VIN number, you can scan thousands of databases to determine any service record. Buying a used RV is always something of a gamble, but with some careful research and inspection, you can often find great deals.
There is so much else to take into account. Above all, determine for sure whether you’re actually suited for the RVing life. If you’ve never gone RVing, or if it’s been decades, rent a vehicle first and see how it works out. If you’re uncomfortable driving a big rig or pulling (and backing up) a trailer, then rent a smaller camper van. Don’t make a hasty purchase. When you’re finally ready to make the investment, you want to be sure you’re doing the right thing.