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Inspecting A Used RV Before You Buy

Let me forewarn you, this is a lengthy page, but we wanted to be very thorough because this is important.

Purchasing a used RV can save you a significant amount of money over a new one. Even a unit that is only one year old can be $30,000 less than a new one. There are tens of thousands of used RVs for sale all across America and Canada. Some are "like new" and others are money pits. If you buy a used RV without thoroughly inspecting it, you can generally expect to get a lot less RV than what you paid for.

While an RV can pretty on the outside, it can have a boat load of problems hidden below the surface. When considering a used RV, go into it with the mindset that there is something wrong with it that the owner is hiding. No, the owner is probably not hiding anything, but there are likely issues the owner is simply not aware of. If you buy the unit AS-IS, those problems are now yours. A picture in an ad on a website may be enough to get your interest, but it should not be enough for you to make a purchase. Most owners don't keep receipts and maintenance records like they might with a car, so they rely on memory to tell you what they did and when. And if the owner is a do-it-yourselfer, there won't be any records to show you. If the seller is honest, they will tell you of any repairs or warranty issues they had done and they may even tell you about things that need to be done but have not been completed.

RVs are built fast and cheap, generally speaking. Some seem to be built to last one day longer than the warranty. This pre-purchase inspection is crucial, now let's get on with what to look for...

Check For Damage Outside
Is there obvious warping in the exterior wall panels? Look closely around all lights, doors, fixtures, openings, etc., ESPECIALLY the nose of the camper. There's nothing like a 70 MPH driving rain to force a leak and serious water damage. If there are any giant bubbles or other signs of warping, walk away unless you are capable of repairing it. If the warping is minor, and you fix the leak that caused it, and you are OK with the how it looks, negotiate the price down substantially. Look for any holes in the wall or any indication of holes that have been repaired. Check the condition of any decals, cracked or chipped glass, etc.

Check The Condition of the Roof
If it is a rubber roof, look for tears or wear spots. Tree limbs love to snag rubber roofs. See if the rubber roof is flaking or the white, visible layer is wearing off. Look for bubbles or ripples indicating the rubber membrane is stretched or has been damaged. If the roof is another material, look for dings and punctures. Look for any previous repairs to the roof. Be very methodical in your inspection and be sure not to skip any areas. Check every seam, every inch of every edge, around every vent, antenna, etc. Make sure the Dicor lap sealant is not cracked. If it is, look inside for evidence of a leak. If you don't find one, you can apply a new layer of Dicor as needed. If all of the Dicor on the roof is cracking, consider scraping it off and applying Eternabond. Dicor requires yearly inspection and routine re-application... Eternabond is good for decades.

Check The Condition of the Frame and Chassis
If not a motorhome, crawl underneath and look for obvious signs of damage or repairs. Look for rust, and a little rust is normal. If the trailer came from a location where they salt the roads in winter, you may find an excessive rust problem. Check the function of the hitch and the trailer brakes. Inspect the wiring to make sure mice have not chewed on it, it is not corroded, sagging, etc. Check all propane lines while the system is pressurized. Use a spray bottle with soapy water to detect leaks. If the trailer has insulation under it that prevents you from inspecting it, you either need to partially remove it to gain access or hope that everything is OK under there. Make sure the frame is straight and there aren't any extra welds on it as this would indicate an accident.

Ask when was the last time the wheel bearings have been packed or replaced. Most owners don't even know this is something that needs to be done periodically. You don't want a bearing failure on your road trip to Yellowstone! Look at the date code on the tires. The tire may have plenty of tread but it may also be rotted. Make sure the right size and grade of tire is on the unit. Some people go cheap when replacing tires and this can cause serious, sometimes fatal problems.

If it is a motorhome you are inspecting, also check the engine and drive-train just as you would a truck or car. Maintenance records are key here. No records usually means maintenance was haphazard or not done at all. Check the operation of all dash warning lights, switches, dash A/C, radios, headlights, tail lights, blinkers, emergency lights, etc. This often requires 2 people to inspect so take a friend... do not rely on the seller. Also check all the places where wires go through the floor and make sure it is well sealed around them. Mice can squeeze in places you wouldn't imagine they'd fit.

Check For Water Damage Inside
You will need to check everywhere there is a water line or water connection. Under sinks, around water filters, all around toilets and showers/tubs. If you can remove the access panel by the tub, do so. It is very common to find floor rot around tubs, showers and toilets. That is expensive to repair. If the cheap water lines are leaking, consider replacing them with household grade equipment from your local hardware store. Fittings nowadays are quick and easy so anyone can do the job themselves and save money. If you plan to keep the RV for a long time, you may want to do this anyway.

If the RV hasn't been properly winterized, you may have swollen, cracked or busted pipes in the walls. Pressurize the system and check. Look for discoloration on the ceiling, under windows and under cabinets. If you see mismatched screws on the ceiling or fresh paint, it likely the ceiling sagged and stained due to a water leak. Walk away. Press on the floor with your hand around the toilet and tub/shower. If it is spongy, you have rotted wood under there. Check visible water lines to make sure all the plumbing matches. If there are different brands, colors, etc., it is likely due to a repair.

Check under every window and all along the ceiling seams for signs of water damage. This can be rot, a spongy feel, swelling and/or discoloration. Leaks like this are commong so check carfully.

Check Your Propane Tanks
Propane tanks are tough. They can sit outside in direct sun all day long and not explode on you, but they do have to be checked periodically and maintained. Make sure you have a modern tank with the latest valve safety system. When you fill your tank, the person doing the filling will tell you if you have a new style safety valve. You can check for leaks using soapy water and a spray bottle. Spray the connections and look for expanding bubbles... this indicates a leak. A propane leak should be fixed immediately because if you don't, you just might blow yourself up. If your LP detector in your RV goes off, act on it and get out. Fix whatever is leaking and in the off chance your LP detector is just dying on you, replace it right away with a quality unit.

When making LP connections, remember the large threads on the tank are threaded opposite of what we call normal. No 'lefty-loosy, righty-tighty" here... it is "lefty-tighty, righty-loosy". Or you could just say "counterclockwise".

Another tip, when lighting your stove, don't use matches. Get yourself one of those BBQ lighters from Dollar Tree and save yourself some burnt fingertips. If your stove has a piezo lighter or "clicker", use that.

Make Sure Everything Works
Check the operation of everything! This means doors, latches, switches, hitches, jacks, levelers, appliances, lights, drawers, and so on. Check the holding tanks for damage, make sure all the dump valves are in good condition, etc. Take your time and methodically go over the camper from end to end and top to bottom. If you miss anything during the inspection and you buy the RV, the problem is now yours to fix and you missed an opportunity to negotiate the price down.

Check the electrical system. Check all the fuse boxes, all the outlets and exposed wiring. Look for signs of burning or other discoloration. Look for splices that are unprofessional. Use a fuse checker and circuit breaker tester. Check the batteries using a tester, determine the age of batteries and make sure they all are the same type and age. Check the water levels unless the battery is a sealed version. Look inside each cell for floating debris. Check for corrosion or frayed cables. Check the voltage while the batteries are at rest as well as when the converter is plugged in. Make sure the batteries are not car batteries but are labeled "deep cycle". Marine batteries are OK but true deep cycle batteries are best. Many RV dealers install marine batteries because they are cheaper, but they don't provide the same amp hours a true deep cycle will.

Check For Stains And Smells
If the previous owner was a smoker, you will never get that smell out of it. You'll have yellow nicotine stains on everything! If that's OK with you, so be it. Look for cigarette burns on the seating, the edge of counter tops and on the bathroom sink. Check for stains on any mattresses. These could be from sweat, someone peeing in the bed or a messy love making session, and my guess is you wouldn't want to be sleeping on any of that. Check for pet stains on the flooring, you don't want the smell of urine to be there when you go camping. If you see a stain and aren't sure what might have caused it, ask the seller. They may or may not know.

Ask What All Comes With The RV
Sewer hoses, power cords, covers, tow dollies, etc. The more you get with the camper, the less you have to buy after the sale. Some dealers will throw in hitches, power jacks, free installation, servicing, warranties, and other things to sweeten the deal if they think you are close to buying. Ask for everything and take what you can get, the worst thing they can say is no. The biggest thing in your favor is they are more eager to sell you an RV than you are to buy one.

Don't Buy An RV Sight Unseen
I'd hope no one would buy an RV without first seeing and inspecting it but if you do, keep in mind you may be in for some surprises. Have the RV inspected as soon as you can and address any issues that arise. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, great. If not, be sure to hire a professional who has experience working on RVs. If you have a pre-purchase inspection done, tell the inspector not to share their finding with the seller. You are paying for the inspection, not the seller so they are not entitled to the findings.

The old saying "you get what you pay for" is usually true. If you pay $500 for an RV, you will likely end up with a $500 RV. If you pay $200,000.00 for an RV, you will get a very nice RV and it should come with a warranty and service schedule second to none. Don't buy an RV on your first visit to a dealer. Learn to negotiate and if you can't, take someone with you who can. Many new RVs can be discounted to nearly 40% off MSRP and the dealer still makes good money. Buy used if you can, let someone else take the depreciation hit. You can find 6 month old RVs for a fraction of what a new one on the lot is selling for. Plus, the original owner will likely have worked out the problems with the RV.

Don't Be In A Hurry To Buy
Wait for the right RV at the right price. Don't let a pushy RV salesman force you into something you don't want or can't afford. Be knowledgeable about RV financing, interest rates, insurance requirements, etc. The burden is yours to know these things. Don't be intimidated by anyone or anything, you are the buyer and you are in control. Use that leverage to get the best deal and enjoy your new or new-to-you RV!
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