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Buying a Used RV or Tow Vehicle

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

These difficult economic times present financial challenges, but they’ve also created opportunities for savvy shoppers. Squeezed by the downturn, many potential buyers have found they can avoid the normal depreciation and higher prices of new units by buying used tow vehicles and RVs. Right now, many bargains are out there, with lease endings (tow vehicles), repossessions and overstock from slow sales flooding the market.

There are several major steps to the process of determining what to buy, where to buy it, performing an inspection, negotiating a sale and documentation. Take your time on each step to be sure of making the right decisions for your situation and always think about it overnight. It’s also a smart idea to get the Good Sam Continued Service Plan, because CSP is specifically designed for current RV owners or those who are interested in purchasing an RV from a private party rather than from a dealership. That way you’ll be covered for any unexpected mechanical breakdown.

But before you begin shopping, determine your budget and what you can realistically afford to spend initially, either for a down payment or the entire purchase price, and what you can afford if you make monthly payments. If your income is not secure, it’s best to pay in full and not overspend. Keep some reserve for repairs, since a used vehicle, especially one without a warranty, may need some expensive work during the time you own it. Also consider insurance expenses, storage fees (if applicable) and fuel costs.

For those planning to buy a tow vehicle and who already have a trailer, be sure to research the towing capacity. A good place to begin is with Trailer Life’s annual tow ratings guides, available online at www.trailerlife.com. Read all the fine print and try to leave about a 20 percent safety margin between maximum tow vehicle ratings and actual loads. Having the correct axle ratios, transmission, engine and other equipment is critical in determining tow ratings. Just to be safe, use a trailer’s posted gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) as the actual weight for towing. You’ll also be surprised at how many extra pounds get added to factory-claimed dry weights when fully loaded.

If you’re shopping for a trailer and have a tow vehicle, decide the size of the RV that you need, guided by the tow-vehicle ratings as described above. Trailer Life‘s annual RV Buyers Guide (www.rvbg.com) can be invaluable for looking up RVs and giving you an idea of what’s out there. Make a list of all the makes and models that interest you. Read magazines and online reviews and ratings and talk to any owners of these RVs to narrow down your choices.

For towing heavy trailers, the high torque of a diesel engine often makes it the best choice, and diesels can achieve as much as 30 percent better fuel economy than gas models. However, the higher price of fuel, initial purchase and maintenance may offset these in favor of a large gasoline engine. Two-wheel drives usually have higher tow ratings and lower operating costs, so consider whether you really need 4WD. There are also many lighter trailers that can be towed by cars, SUVs and lighter pickups.


Once you have a good idea of what you want, it’s time to begin shopping. In today’s market, there are more ways than ever to shop for a vehicle, including advertisements in Trailer Life and Highways magazines, using the search engine on www.rvsearch.com, checking out the online ads at www.campingworld.com, plus dealers, newspaper classifieds and online auctions such as eBay.

Try to find vehicles for sale in your general vicinity. Traveling a long distance to inspect a rig and transporting it home can be very expensive, and the cost of the trip can tempt you to buy an unworthy vehicle.

The Latin phrase caveat emptor – or buyer beware – applies perhaps now more than ever. Today there are many Internet and other scams that buyers need to be wary of, and purchasing a unit sight-unseen from an unknown seller is risky. Beware of buying from individuals who are not listed on the title or have long involved stories, or of any deal asking for Western Union Money Transfers, wire transfers, escrow or any intermediate persons.

That doesn’t mean you can’t find good deals online, but you should always arrange an inspection before purchase. Another old axiom – if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is – really applies here. If you are looking for a hard-to-find specific model and the only ones you can find are far away, it may be possible for you to arrange for a trusted friend or relative to do an initial inspection and then to have it checked by a professional.



A thorough inspection is essential, so bring along another knowledgeable person for a second opinion and “reality check.” Carefully look over the RV or tow vehicles from top to bottom and front to back in good daylight. Inspect the interior and undercarriage, looking for signs of damage, rust, leakage and other problems. Look through every storage compartment and closet on RVs, and get up on the roof for inspection. Check the ceilings for any signs of water leakage and the side walls for delamination – all of which are very expensive to repair. On tow vehicles and motorhomes, check the engine compartment for signs of repairs, leakage, missing or added parts and alterations that might affect an emissions test. Make passing a smog check one of the purchase conditions.

For motorized purchases, ask the seller to not start the engine before you get there. Starting a cold engine can show you if it has problems – look for smoke, noises or rough running upon initial startup. Test drive the unit long enough to determine if it has any problems with overheating, leaking head gaskets, etc. while also paying attention to how the transmission shifts, and whether or not the brakes are quiet, smooth, even and stop well.

Check every system and item possible, including exterior and interior lights, gauges and the audio system and look for a telltale check-engine light. Try out all systems, including the AC generator, batteries, converter, inverter, solar panels, water system, refrigerator, air conditioners, heaters, stove, microwave, water heater and other appliances. Make up a checklist and take notes. After checking a few vehicles, it will be difficult to remember many details without these records.


Besides being on the lookout for normal wear and tear, look for telltale signs of damage. In the last few years there have been many flood-damaged vehicles that were cleaned up and put onto the market. Water (especially saltwater) leaves lasting damage, potentially causing electrical and mechanical components to fail early, and the resulting mold and mildew are difficult to eradicate. Be on the lookout for flood vehicles even if you don’t live in a flooded area, because they get transported all over. Do you smell a sour, mildew-like odor? Look for any sign of dampness or gritty dirt or signs of rust under seats and inside lights and enclosed compartments. Mismatched interior components on a fairly new vehicle are also indicators of a problem. If you suspect a car or truck has been involved in a flood, walk away from it, even if it appears to be a deal. The money you save on its purchase price will fade away fast when you start repairing it.

Several services help consumers check a vehicle’s history, including the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which is an electronic system that provides consumers with valuable information about a vehicle’s condition and history. Prior to purchasing a vehicle, NMVTIS allows consumers to find information on the vehicle’s title, most recent odometer reading, brand history and, in some cases, historical theft data. Another service, www.carfax.com, charges $29.99 to check out one vehicle, and www.experian.com charges $14.99. Carfax claims it gets information from police agencies among other sources, which might be why it’s costlier. Auto Data Direct charges $2.50 to provide information on a VIN, and CARCO charges $2.25 for a summary and $3.50 for a more complete report. You can also get a free VIN check from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

A clean slate does not guarantee that a vehicle hasn’t suffered damage, though, which is why a thorough inspection is so important. A repaint on a tow vehicles or RV that is fairly new could be a tip-off of major damage repairs. Sometimes vehicles with serious damage are totaled and repaired without their titles being marked as salvage. Look for signs that the vehicle has been titled in several states, which may indicate that sellers are trying to remove a negative notation on the title, such as salvaged or totaled, by titling in states where damage disclosures are more lenient or don’t exist.

Have a Technician Examine the Vehicle

Vehicles can be made to look beautiful cosmetically, while hiding many defects, which is why an experienced eye is indispensable. Unless you are an experienced technician, take the vehicle to a shop you trust for a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) before you lay down hard-earned money for it. This involves paying a shop to professionally inspect and evaluate a used tow vehicle or RV under consideration for purchase. They can remove the wheels to inspect the brakes and suspension components, check for evidence of body repairs, look for rust and paint overspray, check for leaks, test climate controls, note overall condition and do a test drive on a motorized unit. If there are any questions about the engine’s performance or condition, there are several diagnostic procedures available to them.

Many shops have a checklist to make sure all systems are inspected, with space to show what repairs are needed with estimates for these repairs. You can take the inspection sheet back to the seller and use it in negotiating a purchase price. The cost of a PPI may not be cheap, varying anywhere from $100 to $250 for a full inspection, but it’s worth it. If the vehicle passes inspection you’ll have peace of mind, and if it fails you can walk away and potentially save countless headaches and thousands of dollars in repairs.


When you come across a deal that appears promising, ask plenty of questions and insist on straight answers. Any evasiveness should be a signal to opt out. If you are convinced the tow vehicle or RV is worth consideration, be certain it has a clear title and all paperwork is in order. Carefully match the VIN on the title to the actual VIN on the vehicle. If there’s a warranty, read the fine print to determine if it is transferable and with RVs, check that the manufacturer is still in business to honor its warranty.

A wave of dealership closures has left many people with vehicle loans that dealers were supposed to pay off during trade-in. When a person still owes money on a trade-in vehicle, the dealer is responsible for paying off the outstanding loan before reselling the vehicle. But as more dealers go out of business, some are leaving consumers with the bill. Lenders can then go after the previous owner who thought the debt was already paid, or repossess the vehicle from the new owner who assumed it came with a clear title. A few states have programs that require dealers to post substantial insurance bonds, but consumers in states with no such programs have little recourse but to sue the dealer, which typically has declared bankruptcy.

Therefore, buyers should inspect the original title to ensure it has no liens (or isn’t marked “junk,” “salvage,” “flood” or another designation). And buyers trading in a tow vehicles or RV should make sure any existing loans are paid off at the time of the sale. Don’t sign anything until the seller has met all conditions to your satisfaction. Ask for a photo ID driver’s license, match it to the information on the title, and record the seller’s license details.

There are plenty of legitimate sellers and good vehicles out there, so don’t focus excessively on just one. Be patient, find an excellent example, have it inspected, and enjoy owning it for years to come.

Information and Sales

Auto Data Direct,www.add123.com.
Autobytel, (888) 422-8999 ext. 3050 www.autobytel.com.
Camping World, (888) 626-7576, www.campingworld.com.
CARCO Group Inc.,www.autotitleinfo.com.

Consumer Reports,www.consumerreports.org.
eBay Motors,www.ebaymotors.com.
Kelley Blue Book,www.kbb.com.
NADA Guides,www.nadaguides.com.
RV Search, (866) 457-7346, www.rvsearch.com.
Yahoo Auto,autos.yahoo.com.


Check for Recalls
National Motor Vehicle Title Information System:www.nmvtis.gov.
Repair and service bulletin information:www.alldata.com.
Vehicle history:www.carfax.com.

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