The Shady Truth about Buying an RV

The Shady Truth about Buying an RV

There’s no doubt about it, we love the freedom and ease of spontaneous travel that comes with RV’ing.  It suits our travel lifestyle perfectly! What we don’t love is the potential stress and frustration that can come along with buying an RV.

We would love to tell you that the RV shopping and buying process is fun (for some it is and can be) but wow are there some horror stories out there!  So, while we can’t guarantee a smooth and easy experience for each of you, we can tell you the shady truth about buying an RV.
Why?  Because information is liberating and can be the difference between feeling uneasy or certain about such a big decision and purchase.  Also knowing the “ugly” part before starting this process might just make it better.

Let’s begin with a few quotes we’ve heard from fellow RV shoppers:  “Salesmen are liars and don’t know crap about RV’s.”  “We dealt with the nicest salesman who knew all about Winnebago, Fleetwood and Tiffin, he was so nice.”  “It’s frustrating because I know more about the RV than the salesman!”

If you’ve ever gone to a dealership looking to purchase a new RV you may have walked away more confused than ever, or maybe you…gasp…purchased your RV right on the spot!  We’ve personally been to dozens of RV dealerships across North America looking at motorhomes and helping friends seek out the “perfect” RV to start their adventures.  If there is one certainty across the board when it comes to all RV dealerships it’s this:  THERE IS NO CERTAINTY!

After hundreds, maybe thousands, of interactions throughout the industry we decided to put the controversial topic up for vote on our crowdsourced content page, and its no surprise the topic titled The Shady Truth About Buying an RV won the vote. In the video above and text below we’ve outlined many of the negatives, and a few of the positives, that we’ve experienced over the past several years.

Purchase Price

Let’s begin with the million dollar question that everyone asks:  So what price should I expect to pay when purchasing a new RV and how big of a discount is normal?

You’ll get the idea when you visit your first dealership and the MSRP is $200,000.00 and the salesman quickly pipes up with something like “Don’t worry about that price, we’ll get you a real good deal.”  Like much of the RV industry the sales tactics are leftover dinosaurs from the past.  Nowadays with a car you can get up front pricing, or you can check a website and get the average sale price of similar cars in your area…this doesn’t exist anywhere in the RV industry (as far as we know).

35% off MSRP – We’ve read on other websites, and we’ve had potential buyers mention to us they plan to get 35% off MSRP or else they’re not buying.  I wish we could give you a magic number but there are too many factors that must be understood when getting a discount on a new RV.

  • Factory Incentive – Sometimes the factory will launch a new product with incentives to the dealer and a set price. Recently this happened with the Winnebago Vista HE in order to compete with the Thor ACE pricing (we actually reviewed this Vista in this video: ).  The dealerships were advised to sell exclusively at a set low price with zero options, so to make more money each dealership would offer “upgrades” that they could sell and install at their service center. Incentives may also occur when the factory has built too many of one RV and it’s not selling as well as they’d hope, so they take a profit cut on their end and the dealer is supposed to pass this along to the buyer.  The best place to get factory incentives is an RV show, each RV Mfr. wants to sell the most RVs at the show so they can rub their success in each other’s faces, and so pricing is often fixed on many of the RVs on display.
  • Best Place to Buy an RV – We’ve seen some of the best deals on a new RV at the major RV shows.  A “major” RV show includes multiple dealerships and manufacturers at the same location who are all competing for your business.  Mfrs. are super eager the first day of the show to get those first sales on the board.  This is prime time to get a good deal on the coach you want.  If you’re not in a rush to purchase at the show we’ve seen great deals made on the last day in the last hours of the show from dealers (the downside is they may have sold your RV by then, so you can’t be in a rush with this tactic).
  • Best Time of Year to Buy – As the new RV year models are coming out, the factory, nor the dealerships, want old models sitting on the lot, so big discounts can be offered by both to move the RVs quickly. This is a prime time to purchase, but supply is limited to what’s in stock so you might not be able to get the floor plan or the fabric you had your heart set on.  Here’s an example:  Our friend just emailed me yesterday and said he found a 2014 Fleetwood Bounder 33C at La Mesa RV in AZ on “clearance” for $99,998.00; that’s a whopping $40,000 off the MSRP!  Not a bad deal, and he hasn’t even started negotiations yet.
  • Supply and Demand – its how most markets are run and the RV industry is no different. Take the Leisure Travel Vans for example:  If you purchase a new Leisure Travel Van today you won’t likely receive it for 4-6 months!  That’s right the factory can’t keep up with the demand.  With an MSRP around $120,000.00 you’d be lucky to get it any cheaper than $110,000.00.  On that same note a quick search online shows there’s only 2 used Unity Vans and they’re listing for the same damn price!  Sure these vans look cool and are designed very well, but over 100k for a used one????  Come on!
  • Real Discount Expectations – Our go-to response when people ask about what discount they should expect to get when purchasing a new RV is 20% – 30% off MSRP. The best thing you can do is search online for similar dealer stock BEFORE going into your local dealership.  I generally start with a search at these places:  MHSRV, La Mesa RV, Lazydays, General RV and RVTrader.  If a dealer makes you call in to get the “price” it often means they want to play games, I find it a very off putting way to start the purchasing process.

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Buying direct from the Mfr

Some RV companies sell direct to the consumer, and while we haven’t had personal experience with this type of transaction we have seen a few brands represented at shows and they play the same games:  “Show Specials” or marked out MSRP with an updated “Sale Price” I mean COME ON!  Wouldn’t the benefit of buying direct be so you don’t have to pay the astronomical markup that the average dealership charges?

The “Show ‘em Three” tactic

I hate to say it but don’t think most salesman are your friends, keep in mind if you don’t buy an RV they don’t eat!  We had a friend tell us an old sales trick, which you’ll see in action if you watch our HGTV RV Hunters Episode:  Show them the RV you think they should buy, show them one that’s not as nice, then show them one that’s way bigger than they want…then take them back to their original and it’ll seem “perfect”.  It’s a surefire way to convince a potential buyer that their original idea was the perfect RV, unless there’s a similar RV that pays a larger dividend to the salesman!  That’s right, some RV mfrs pay a higher percentage to the salesman so think twice before you purchase based solely on a salesman’s recommendation.  For instance it’s not uncommon for you to come in wanting brand “A” but the salesman directs you to brand “C”.  Stick to your guns, if you’ve read online that brand “C” isn’t a quality product don’t let a pricing incentive and sales tactics sway your decision.

You get what you pay for

Fleetwood and Winnebago make great products, Tiffin and Newmar make some great products too, but there’s one RV model that comes to mind to show you EXACTLY what you’re paying for:  If you can do a back to back walk through of the Winnebago Vista 26HE and the Winnebago Vista 27N (or really any other Vista) you’ll see a huge difference.  The 26HE has no factory options, it uses gelcoat instead of real paint, the interior products are all about budget; this specific floorplan was built to compete with other class “A” and “C” crossover RVs like the ACE, FR3, Pursuit, etc.  You’ll notice a huge quality difference between the 26HE and Winnebago’s normal RV quality.  After doing a back to back walk through you can see where they skimp on in order to save the $20,000+.  You’ll begin to understand what’s left out in order to reach such an attractive price, then you can take this knowledge to other mfrs and models.

“We won’t service you” scare tactic

We were pressured with this sales tactic in Dallas when we purchased our first RV and we’ve had other friends tell us the same.  When you tell a dealership “I can purchase this RV for $8,000 less in another state” they may tell you something along the lines of “If you don’t purchase it here we won’t service you.”  This is a crummy scare tactic used by some salespeople, and while they can refuse service to anyone should they choose to, it’s not in the dealerships best interest to do so because the service center makes a lot of money with repairs.  The good news is even if you buy your RV from another dealership there is likely another mfr. certified service center nearby, and if you plan to travel full-time then it’s really not a problem because you’ll be visiting service locations all around (or preferably visiting the factory service centers).  Another unsettling tactic is the promise “we’ll give you better service if you buy from us”, another untruth we often hear, service is service and the service center operates separately from the sales center, and often times the service guys dislike the sales guys for making unrealistic promises like these.  In many cases you can expect to receive ZERO help from your salesperson once you’ve purchased your RV.  When we were having major issues with our first RV I attempted to contact my sales guy multiple times and his best answer was “I wish I could do something to help, but I’m sure service will take care of you”…how about that for a “screw you” from my sales guy?  Not Cool man, not cool.

If it’s broke don’t fix it

Some dealerships won’t accept an RV from the Mfr. unless it’s fully repaired and functioning.  Other dealerships will leave things broken till a customer purchases the RV and at that point they will put the brand new motorhome into service before they allow you to take it home.  Recently we’ve heard of a few dealers that send all incoming RVs through a “PDI (Pre Deliver Inspection) location” which seems like a good fix to the standard RV issues.  We took a tour of the Giant RV PDI center in Rancho Cucamonga and the manager there said the number one priority of the facility is to test, service and prepare all incoming RVs to be in top quality before putting them on the sales floor.  If you’re visiting a dealer that doesn’t do an incoming PDI make sure you give the Mfr. a brake because it’s not necessarily their fault the RV you’re walking through has cabinets falling off because it hasn’t been repaired from delivery or the recent RV show.

Post Purchase Walk-through

Many dealers will rush you through the process, and at this point you’re so overwhelmed you can’t slow them down.  Make sure you schedule your RV pick up in the AM so you can sit in their lot and soak it all in.  Tell the technician to give you an hour or two minimum in the morning, then break for lunch, come back to the RV by yourself, then follow up with the tech again before they close.  An even better plan (if available) is on camping overnight to test everything on-site, many RV dealerships have full hook-ups on location and will allow you to stay for a night or two while you work out all the initial bugs.  Make sure you request this BEFORE you sign the papers, otherwise they may want you outta their hair ASAP after the purchase.

Quality vs. Price

Obviously it’s a delicate balance to hit your personal budget.  I mention the Thor ACE and the Vista 26HE above, if you need a RV that sleeps 4-6 people for the occasional weekend trip/tailgating/party wagon you might be perfectly happy with one of these selections.  If you plan to go full-time you may want to think about something put together a little more solidly like a Bounder or a “non HE” Vista.  There’s also a drastic quality and price difference for each model level upgrade: check out our video where we compare the Excursion vs Discovery.

Straight-up Lies

We have witnessed many blunt, bold faced lies while walking through new RVs:  “Those are dual pane windows”, “no that fridge doesn’t need a lock and won’t come open while driving down the road because of the vacuum seal”, “All the slideout issues were fixed when they added a third rail”, “No, you don’t need a special license to purchase this size RV”, “The 4 batteries will last you a week, no problem before you’ll need to plug in”; we could go on and on about the crazy things we’ve heard but we’ll spare you.  The thing to keep in mind is always do your research and do not rely on your salesperson to know everything.  We’ve met a few knowledgeable and helpful salespeople, sadly just not as often as the latter.

The buyer knows more than the salesman

RVs change as often as a baby’s diaper, so there is a good chance you’ll know more details, specs and features about your favorite RV than the salesman.  It’s difficult to understand at first but the more we’re around the RV industry the more we can relate with the salespeople.  Give your salesman a little slack here, every mfr puts their inverter in a different location, batteries can vary from 1 to 8 and tank sizes are all over the map depending on brand, model, floorplan, etc.  Granted when you’re considering dropping $200k on a new rig it’d be nice to feel like your salesperson was fully educated, but that’s pretty rare.

buying an RV

A few other items to consider

  • Depreciation – When we sold Windy, our Monaco Vesta, she was 3 years old, had 32,000 miles on her, and had been lived in nearly full-time with 2 cats. She was in fine shape with average wear and tear.  We sold her for about $100,000, that’s half off the MSRP.  Considering we got her for around 30% off we only lost 20% over 3 years.  Some people might say that’s horrible, but I say what’s the depreciation on a family trip or rent on an apartment? It’s 100%!  We feel if you want to travel North America there’s not a better, more comfortable, more affordable way to do it.
  • RV Loans – Many RV loans are treated like a home loan with 15-30 year payoffs. I can’t say what your loan will be, but with our first RV we got a loan on a $100,000 coach and paid about $900 per month.  Talk to a CPA before you purchase an RV as there are many tax benefits to owning a motorhome.
  • Shipping Miles – Unlike a new car, most new motorhomes won’t have “0” miles when you purchase them. When they’re shipped they’re typically driven from the mfr (most are made in Indiana) so they could have a couple thousand miles on them before they even make it to the dealership.  Your warranty should start at the mileage you purchase the RV, not at zero; for instance if the warranty for your RV is 10,000 miles and you purchase a RV new with 2,000 miles, your warranty should cover you till 12,000 miles on the odometer.  Make sure you confirm with your dealer (and double check your paperwork).
  • Never Enough Battery Power – The RV industry is notorious for under supplying the battery bank of an RV, so don’t expect your RV will last more than 12-24 hours without plugging in. This is a pain because if you want to wild camp you’ll need to add more batteries (or solar/generator), but the mfr. rarely leaves enough room to install more batteries, so you may have to replace all your batteries with lithium to fit in the tight spaces or AGM because you can put them indoors.  Currently there’s only a small portion of the RV population that wants to dry camp (according to Mfr. studies), so until more people demand more batteries don’t expect a change anytime soon.
  • Dead Battery Situation – the more times your batteries are drained the shorter their lifespan. Dealerships are not particularly good at keeping the batteries charged while the RVs are sitting on the lot.  I cannot tell you how many RV’s we’ve walked into on the lot, at RV shows, etc. where the batteries are completely dead…so dead the generator has to be cranked using the “aux power” from the chassis batteries.  So consider this your fair warning:  Don’t expect your batteries to last as long, or be as powerful as the battery manufacturer suggests!
  • GoRVing and RVIA – Every RV that’s manufactured and sold with the RVIA seal has to pay a ‘fee’ to RVIA, it’s like the parent industry of all RVing. GoRVing is the public face of RVIA and they are supposed to be providing inspiration, education and spreading the word about RVing to the general public.  GoRVing has a multi-million dollar budget each year and most RVers and Manufacturers alike wish they provided more information to the buyer.  Their site is worth a visit but don’t expect to gain a great understanding or do any ‘real’ research on selecting RVs.

Where else can you turn to for help?

There are a lot of great websites and blogs out there with a ton of helpful information.  If you haven’t visited our RV’in page yet, please do.  Then check out all of these links to our favorite RV Resources where we list everything from helpful blogs to membership programs.

Please know we’re not saying all salespeople are bad and we’re not saying the industry is out to ‘get you’, it really boils down to years of the same practices. Sure the majority of sales stories we hear are negative, but we’ve also spoken with some people that had an amazing purchasing experience, so there’s a chance you may have one too.  We’re not trying to frighten you, we simply feel it’s our duty to share our experiences (good and bad) to help you prepare for the day you walk into that dealership looking to fulfill your dreams of travel.

The good news:  Finding the perfect rig and the purchasing process is the most difficult part of RVing, once you’re on the road everything else is smooth sailing…until you breakdown (hopefully a rare occasion), but that’s another article entirely!

Please share some of your RV shopping tips and stories in the comments below.  The main purpose of our site is to inform and inspire newbies, part-timers, long-timers and first-timers so share away and let’s make this crazy process a little bit easier on everyone…who knows maybe we can eventually effect a change in the way RVs are sold!

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Disclaimer – We’re not trying to tell you we know everything or have experienced it all, we’re simply providing our personal experience to help equip you with the knowledge that may help cut through some of the crap, and find that perfect new (or used) RV.  These are all our opinions, nobody paid for us to write this (I think that’s pretty obvious) and this is an entertainment site so do your own research and good luck out there!