First, I feel its important that you know that I grew up in the RV industry. My Grandad started a dealership in the Atlanta area in the 1960’s. My dad and uncles ran the business until selling it 3 years ago. The first 20 years of my life I spent every weekend at the dealership, eventually becoming a technician in the service department, even working full time before and during college. I’ve seen every aspect of the business and can honestly say I’m proud of the way my family treated customers and developed relationships through multiple generations. In those days, dealers were passionate about seeing families build memories. They exhausted every resource available to secure affordable financing and to keep buyers from making mistakes. Unfortunately, a good portion of the industry is now motivated by profit alone and the love for camping only exists once you leave the dealer. Hopefully the following tips will help you avoid some common mistakes and help you find the best deal possible!
1. Quality – Since the early 90’s, especially the 07’-09 recession, the RV industry has greatly reduced its quality of product. Cheaper materials and poor workmanship have plagued the industry. During this time a huge percentage of manufacturers closed or consolidated leaving behind an oligopoly of brands, less competition, higher prices, and poor support. Much of the Amish labor that once took pride in building RVs has been traded for outside workers willing to take lower wages.
2. Very little difference in brands – If you’ve ever visited northern Indiana you know that the RV industry is centralized in the same two or three towns of this region. They ALL use the same vendors for appliances, windows, trim, frames, etc. That said, apart from a few small engineering designs and preferable floor plans, there isn’t much difference between branding (Airstream excluded). I know this is a generalization and there are plenty of exceptions, especially factories that still hire a predominately Amish workforce. The important take away here is to focus on brand stability and warranty support. If you buy a “cheap” product from an emerging brand, don’t be surprised if they go under and you lose your warranty support.
3. Best time to buy – January camping shows are huge for the RV industry. This is the first sales push before entering the busy spring season. Salesman at these shows focus heavily on numbers, not just with their co-workers, but with all the other dealers in the show. It’s like a feeding frenzy of great white sharks. Unlike the car industry, RV sales are very seasonal. Early spring through early fall is the prime time. You can also do well at the fall camping shows which are typically the last push before business cools off for the winter. If you buy at the end of season when the new year models are released, buy from last years inventory and negotiate heavily. If buying in any show you’ll want to get a few dealers in the building competing for your purchase. Once you get the rock-bottom price you were hoping for, don’t forget to ask for a free hitch, brake controller, and that fancy tire cover you saw in their parts department. If they balk, tell him the other dealer is more willing so you’ll just walk back over to their display. Go to the food court and eat a sandwich. He will call you back before you finish your meal.
4. Not an investment – If a sales guy uses the term “investment” when selling you a new RV, consider running away. There is likely not a new product in existence that loses value faster than an RV. Plan to lose 20% of value after driving it off the lot and 50% or more in the first 5 years. This is one of the main reasons the used RV market is so strong.
5. The truth about warranty – Interview your service manager prior to picking a dealer. You will probably visit the dealer for warranty issues two or three times in the first year. If your only factor in choosing a dealer is purchase price, you may pay dearly later. Choose a dealer that will fight for you. Warranty claims are not lucrative for dealers so many will tell you it’s not covered and send you home. Know the terms of your warranty and if this happens, call the factory directly. The factory rep can put a lot of pressure on your dealer to do the right thing. However, if you escalate to the factory too soon, all you will do is ruin the relationship with your service manager. Be patient, these guys work hard and sometimes getting a warranty answer can take weeks.
Also, DO NOT expect a dealer who didn’t sell you your RV to perform your factory warranty. If you traveled out of town to buy an RV to beat your local dealers price or you bought from a .com dealer, you’ll probably find that your local dealer will be reluctant to spend hours on the phone fighting for your cause for no benefit. Furthermore, if you do buy from a .com dealer you’ll likely find that your RV wasn’t prepared or inspected properly for final delivery. Dealers spend 8-10 hours inspecting systems and finishing final assemblies. You wouldn’t believe some of the ridiculous factory screw-ups that are found during this process. If this happens happens to you, you’ll be forced to take the RV to a local dealer to complete the pre-delievery inspection process, likely negating any savings. If you do go the .com route be sure and ask what their policy is for compensating you for any expenses if this does happen.
6. Cost of ownership – Few dealers (especially salesman) do a good job of telling you about the recurrent maintenance and upkeep needed to keep your RV looking and running great, not to mention residual value. Many salesman want you to believe buying new means “maintenance and cost-free.” Pushing products like “never-lube axles” and “carefree awnings” are great but still require maintenance. You should be cleaning and treating your rubber roof annually. Park it in covered storage (not cheap). Reseal all seams and roof every two or three years. Lubricate of all moving components yearly. Treat slide-out seals and winterize every fall. And yes…those never-lube axles still have to be inspected for bearing failure. These items add up. If you fail to do these things, expect a major leak or mechanical failure to develop and the residual value of your RV to be exponentially lower.
7. Trade in – If you don’t mind the hassle of selling your old RV yourself, do it! You’ll get way more money for your used RV than you will from a dealer. Not only will the dealer quote you a wholesale price, they will likely be less willing to negotiate the new RV price if you bring them a clunker. With free websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, selling things quickly has never been easier. If you must trade, my advice is to negotiate the new RV price first, then mention you have a trade and let them know that you are aware of the NADA value. Never drive to the lot with your old RV in tow with intentions of buying same day. Tell the sales guy you have a few more dealers to visit with plans to purchase later. Trust me, he will call you. Patient buyers are more likely to find a better deal.
8. In-house financing – This is where the money is made. Approximately 80% of RV purchasers do so with a loan. Of those, most use the dealer’s loan service to secure their financing. This isn’t always a bad option but if you want to save money, maybe thousands, do your homework. Dealers make huge profits off these in-house loans. The best advice is to shop around and get an idea of rates. Join a credit union and get pre-approved. Take your pre-approval to the dealer and you’ll be surprised how quickly they become competitive with these rates. If you don’t do your homework, expect a rate 2-5% (or more) higher which could cost you thousands, maybe tens of thousands over the life of the loan. In my opinion, never get a loan over 10 years. The value of your RV might drop as much as 70-80% in a 10 year period. You don’t want to be paying on something for 20 years that you sold for scrap 10 years prior. If you have to extend the loan out to 15-20 years to afford the payment, you can’t afford the purchase.
9. Negotiating accessories at purchase – If you must buy in peak season and you find that the dealer isn’t willing to negotiate much on that “must-have” RV, your best bet for negotiation is to ask for free or at-cost accessories. A quality 4-point hitch system and hitch head can cost upwards of $1,200-$1,400. Sway controllers, wiring for brakes, brake controllers, toilet paper, tank chemical, electric plug adaptors, water hose, etc, are all items that should be on the table for negotiation. You have to be willing to walk away to get these items. If the sales guy sees you are impulsive and are going to do the deal either way, you won’t get anything. Ask to waive dealer fees, doc and prep fees, and any other nuisance fees. If they tell you they have to charge these fees for dealer associations, they don’t. Go to another dealer.
10. Never buy extended warranties. These warranties only cover major appliances like A/C, refrigerator, furnace, and water heater. They don’t cover the more common terms like plumbing, electric, water damage, etc. Furthermore, the price of the warranty costs more than the repairs. Extended warranties are simply a revenue stream for dealers, playing off the fears of purchasers that are worried about the reliability of the RV. Few realize or are told what these warranties actually cover.
In Conclusion: Read dealer reviews, BBB complaints, and ask around for word-of-mouth references when choosing a dealer. You will find that your relationship with your dealer will be the single-most important decision when buying a new RV. Many of the mom and pop dealers that existed 20 years ago have sold out, giving way to big box RV companies that now dominate the market. My advice, shop at the single-outlet local dealer first, you will likely get the best service and warranty support with a local dealer that knows you by name and is interested in securing your business for generations to come.