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Stef and I have a lot of interaction with our readers and YouTube viewers, and we like it that way. We enjoy sharing our knowledge of RVs and fitness. But when we find ourselves sharing the same knowledge over and over, that tells us that many of you have the same questions. And when lots of people have the same question, one-to-one email isn’t the best way to handle it. We get a lot of our best ideas for posts this way – it’s like taking a pulse and then acting on it.
Which brings us to this post. Our site has grown to the point where I now get several emails per day like this:
My wife and I are planning on buying an RV about a year from now and doing some traveling. Can you tell us what features are absolutely necessary for us to have in our RV, and which ones are “nice to have?” We’ve done some research online, and are interested in models from 18 to 36 feet in length, and we’re gravitating toward either “Brand A” or “Brand Nothing At All Like A”. You’ve seen a lot of models, can you compare those two manufacturers and give me a list of pros and cons for each?
Thanks for doing all this free work for the RV community,
Prospective RV Buyer
And so, in response to these queries, I now present to you
My 8 Step Program
I’ll make a couple of assumptions here, and the first is – if you’ve found this site, you’re primarily interested in smaller motorhomes. By this, I mean either Class B or small Class C RVs. The following may be good advice for purchasing a larger RV, but since we’ve never done it, I can’t say for sure.
The second assumption is that you’re looking at models from what I’ll call mainstream manufacturers. These are the names you’ll find on my Class B Manufacturer List, for example. RVIA members. This advice might not apply to one-off custom shops, or to self-build enthusiasts.
And finally, I’m going to assume you’re interested in buying new. There are a lot of other considerations that come into play when purchasing a used vehicle. There are also a lot of other considerations that come into play when purchasing a used house. Buying a used RV combines the two, and that’s just too much to tackle in a blog post.
Well, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s on to
Step 1: Stop thinking about RVs
At first, you shouldn’t be thinking about specific models, or manufacturers. You see, nobody buys an RV just to own an RV. (Well, OK, maybe some people do, but I can’t help them.) People generally buy RVs to do something. And that’s what you should think about first and foremost. What do you want to do with your vacation time? How are you planning to use an RV to achieve that goal? In software development, we call this a use-case. And while it may seem academic, if people would start here, it would really help them narrow down what’s important, and prevent them from looking at the wrong RV.
Examples of the kinds of questions to ask yourself at this step are:
- Will you be staying mostly in RV parks, or in remote locations (boondocking)? The capabilities of RVs vary widely in this regard, from getting there to staying there.
- How many travelers will you be bringing? While most small motorhomes can handle two seat-belted occupants, many offer more, and you’ll want to know if this is a consideration for you.
- Who’s going to drive the vehicle? If you’re planning on sharing the driving, you had better look at models that both of you are comfortable driving.
- Will you be taking longer trips (3 weeks or more) or shorter trips (2 weeks or less)? Things that might be workable compromises for 10 days (like composing a bed out of seat-back cushions every night) can become unbearable irritations over the course of ten months.
- Will you be traveling year round, or in the cold? Cold weather capabilities of RVs vary a lot as well. If you plan to follow the warmth, or store the RV for the winter, perhaps those things don’t matter.
- Will you be taking the RV into an urban environment? If you plan to see the sights in the heart of a metropolis, something like the ability to Parallel Park takes on a whole lot more importance.
- Do you have any special storage needs? Stef and I travel with expensive bikes that we like to keep inside. This one requirement seriously limits our choices in RVs. Dog kennels, trade-show supplies – all these can come along in the RV, but it works out better if you’ve bought the RV with those in mind in the first place.
- Are you planning on pulling a trailer? Stef and I avoid it at all costs, but we know of other small motorhome owners who pull trailers for kayaks, bikes, or just general camping supplies. The towing capacities of small motorhomes vary greatly. Knowing how much you need to tow is not something to figure out after you’ve bought the motorhome.
And that’s just a partial list. Depending on what your answers to those questions are, there are obviously lots of follow on questions.
When working these things out – don’t be afraid to be specific. This is YOUR motorhome, YOUR vacation, YOUR dream! Spell out exactly what you want at this stage. Maybe someone makes such an RV, and maybe they don’t, but now is not the time to limit your thinking with model years and manufacturers. You owe it to yourself to have these types of questions answered before you reach out to someone for help, because these are things that ONLY YOU can answer.
Once you feel like you’ve got a solid handle on what you’d like, it’s time for a reality check with
Step 2: If you’ve never owned an RV – rent one!
I’ll be honest here – renting RVs is kind of expensive. It’s one of the reasons Stef and I wound up buying one. But the cost of renting an RV is just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of buying one. And this is an absolutely essential and worthwhile step.
You see, there are things you won’t know about RVing until you’ve actually done it, at least in some form. And it’s not important at this stage that you rent the exact type of motorhome you’re thinking of buying. Class C RVs are easy to find and rent, while Class Bs are more difficult to find on rental. But it’s important to just get out there and rent something – anything – and RV.
Obviously, it’s a good idea to capture as much of your use-case as possible with your rental. But, you know, if your dream is to spend 3 years touring all of North America, that’s not economical from a rental perspective. But do rent for something longer than a weekend. Stay a while. You’ll learn a lot. And I mean things like:
- Is that 24 foot motorhome on a truck chassis easy to drive, or did your significant other drive it for ten minutes and refuse to get behind the wheel ever again? Do you need to rethink your plan for splitting the driving?
- How did it go getting along in a small space for a week? Stef and I do fine here, but hey, it’s not for everyone.
- Did you realize that one of you gets up early, and you need a floor plan that can close off the sleeping space from the living space – with something more than a curtain?
- Speaking of getting up, how was getting out of the bed? Did you have to climb over your partner? Or get out of bed at the head or foot of the bed? Those things can be difficult. Imagine doing them for weeks at a time.
- Did you watch that outdoor entertainment system with the subwoofer and the 28 inch TV, or not? How about the oven? Sure, it seems cool, but did you use it?
- How did it go with the bathroom? Would a split bath arrangement work better for you? How about showers? If your rental RV had a shower, did you use it? Or did you find yourself using campground showers? Why?
- Did you have enough storage space? Did you have too much – and wound up bringing many things that you never used? Storage is a big differentiator in RVs, so this one is important.
There are lots of other things you’ll find out as you try out RVing. And you’d be doing yourself a pretty big disservice if you bought an RV without knowing them. So please, don’t skip this step. There’s just no substitute for the experience, especially if you’ve never had it before.
And one final word here. If this really is the first time you’ve tried RVing, you may be intimidated by learning to use the RV systems. (Like – what am I supposed to do with 33 gallons of human waste?) This is completely normal, and would happen with ANY RV. Don’t let it cloud your judgement. And the good news here is that RVers are generally a friendly bunch, so just ask for help. Most of us would be thrilled to help out a newcomer.
And with that experience under your belt, It’s time to move on to:
Step 3: Now, you can think about specific features
Notice, I said “features”, not “models”… yet.
RVing, like most things in life, involves compromises and trade-offs. LOTS of them. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of features and compromises in a single RV. So if you start comparing models before you have a solid list of what features you want or need, it’s easy to get off track. The idea here is to get your “must”, and “must not” out on paper.
There are lots and lots of features that can be built into or left out of RVs. Based on your use case from Step 1, and your experience from Step 2, list out all the RV features that you need, want, or even just like. Don’t worry about putting them in order yet. Also include things you’ve realized you can’t abide, maybe on a second list. Just brainstorm and get them all out. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you might think about at this stage:
- Tankless Water Heaters – yes, the ability to take an endless shower is completely cool. But how cool is an endless shower with only 22 gallons of fresh water for drinking, cooking, and showering? If your use case doesn’t have you in RV parks with water hookups, maybe this is something you can skip. And if the 6 gallon water heater in your rental did the job just fine, you can make this call from experience.
- Solar panels – If you ran out of battery power in your rental, this may have worked its way up your list. On the other hand, if your use-case has you with full hookups most nights, it might be a waste of money.
- Sleeping arrangements – How did that go for you with the corner bed in your rental? Do you both need access to an aisle for mid-night breaks? A twin-bed floor plan, though unromantic, might suit your needs here. And was sheeting and un-sheeting the bed every day a hassle? If so, you’ll want “permanent bed” on your list of must haves.
- Tank sizes – Did you want to take your rental to the lake for five days, but broke camp at 3 because you ran out of water? Some of that, you can learn to work around by using your water more efficiently, but to some extent – you are who you are. Do larger tanks figure into your list of features?
- Winter-ready – maybe you got to try this and maybe you didn’t. Maybe after RVing for 4 days in Texas in August, you can’t imagine ever RVing in the heat again! If this is (still) important to you, get it on to your list.
- Length or maneuverability – You should have tried (with your rental) to go to someplace you would typically like to go. Were you able to get the rental in and out without too much difficulty? Was your rental so small you felt cooped up? From these experiences, you should be able to get a rough idea of what length of RV you would like.
To make a probably poor analogy, I like to think of this as the “ingredients” bit of ordering dinner. Every item on a menu is composed of the same, limited set of ingredients. They’re just combined and arranged in different ways. Personally, I can’t stand raw tomatoes (they’re evil). And I love nuts in all shapes and sizes. So when I look at a menu, I automatically filter it with my mental list of ingredients and immediately drop from consideration anything with raw tomatoes. That’s what you’re doing here – figuring out your nuts, and your raw tomatoes. Then, it’s time for
Step 4: Put that list of features in order
Yes, I know this seems pretty academic as well, but here’s the deal. I can guarantee you that you’re NOT going to get everything you want in your RV. You are most definitely going to have to make compromises. Having your list ordered will let you know – quickly – what you’d be willing to trade off for what. If you know this up front, looking at different models and choosing one becomes much easier.
Let’s say you really want a large black tank. Like over 30 gallons large. And let’s also say that you’ve also decided that you desperately want to take your RV into remote, off the grid campgrounds, so it needs to be short. I can tell you from experience that 30+ gallon black tanks on Class B RVs are pretty rare. I can also tell you that Class B RVs are going to be more maneuverable than just about any class C. So knowing that “maneuverability” is more important than “I don’t wanna empty the black tank very often,” well that would guide you towards a true Class B. That’s just one example of how this ranking will come in handy.
And now, I’m going to geek out on you. If you’re looking at your list and having a hard time putting it in order, I’ll make a pitch to use a “paired comparison” tool to do your ranking.
Basically, this takes the task of ordering a list, and breaks it down to just comparing two items at a time, and deciding which one is more important. There are lots of calculators online to help you if you want to do a little looking, but here’s my over-simplified explanation with a diagram.
- Make a grid. If you have 10 items to rank, the grid should be 10×10.
- List your items to be ranked down the header column, and across the header row.
- Blank out the diagonal, and all the cells below the diagonal.
- Compare the items in each remaining row/column combination, imagine you can only have one of them, and write the winner in the box.
- Complete all the boxes.
- Count up the number of times each item won. Order your list by the number of wins.
- If you have a tie – look to the direct comparison between those two items to decide the winner.
If I took our “what are we really looking for in our next RV” list and ran a paired comparison for it, it would look like this:
And from that, you can see that I’ve got 4 “A”s, 3 “E”s, two “D”s, and one “B”. So the final ranking would be:
- Under 24 feet long
- Indoor bike storage
- 4 season capability
- Permanent bed
- Dry Bath.
Which, considering what we bought, works out nicely! It really doesn’t take that long to do, and once you get the hang of the technique, you’ll start using it all the time. And when you’ve got an ordered list of the things you want in your RV, move on to
Step 5: Make a list of models you would consider
Based on the emails I receive, 90% of people skip steps 1 through 4, and jump in right here. Please don’t do that! An RV is too large of a purchase to decide on an impulse (at least it is for us). Figure out what you need and want, and have your wants in a row before starting on this step.
But the good news is that this step is FUN! (That’s why most people start here – it’s like skipping right to dessert.) Once you get the bug, it’s tough to resist going online and daydreaming yourself into motorhome after motorhome. It’s good, clean fun. I honestly don’t blame folks for getting sucked in – it would be hard to get through steps 1 through 4 without having looked online for at least a few motorhomes, and developing some preferences.
The difference for you, if you’ve done steps 1 through 4, is that you’ll be going in with a solid understanding of what you want and need in a motorhome, and you won’t be as likely to get sucked in by a sales pitch, a slick video, a feature that shows cool but you really won’t use, or a floor plan that looks open and inviting in the Virtual Reality 360 video, but really isn’t the best fit for you.
There are a number of online sources for checking out potential RVs. I’ll humbly suggest our own “RV Reviews” as a starting point for inspiration. There are other YouTubers reviewing RVs as well – you just have to find one that you think you can trust.
The manufacturer’s web sites are an obvious place to gather info on specific models, and they should be pretty authoritative. If you’re looking for a true Class B RV (and you should know this by now), The Fit RVs own Class B Manufacturer List is a good place to start. Class C manufacturers are more numerous and vary widely in terms of what they offer, so you’ll need to do some searching if that’s the direction you’re leaning.
If you happen across the motorhome that meets all of your desires, and has all of the features you’re looking for, more power to you! But more likely, this is where you’ll find yourself making trade-offs with each RV you look at. One RV might have everything you want… except for those really small tanks. How important is tank size to you? You should know. And based on that, you can either include or exclude the model from further consideration.
That’s just an example. You’ll be making decisions like that all the time as you winnow down your list of potential RV models. This is why it’s so important to actually complete steps 1 through 4, and to go about this from the perspective of your own personal needs and wants. It’s too easy to be paralyzed by all the choices otherwise.
Your goal for this step is to narrow the entire world of RV choices down to 3 to 5 models that might work for you. If you have more than that; you haven’t been critical enough in your thinking. And if you have fewer than that; you might not wind up with enough to work from. So shoot for 3 to 5 models going into the next step, which is even more fun
Step 6: Visit an RV show
Maybe you were lucky enough in Step 2 to actually have rented one of the models that’s on your short list. But you probably weren’t. So now, it’s time to go find them. The easiest and best way to do that is at an RV show.
We’ve written before about the benefits of going to an RV show, and everything we said in that post still holds true. If you’re going through this process, an RV show is probably the easiest way to knock out as many of your short-list coaches as you can. They can be from different manufacturers, from different dealerships, or even different countries. You can likely find them at a decent sized RV show.
Another benefit of visiting an RV show is that there’s a little less pressure. Oh make no mistake about it: the dealers are at an RV show to sell RVs, for sure. But unlike going to an RV dealership, where you’ll likely have a sales person following you around to even let you inside RVs; at an RV show, the RVs are all open. And there are usually so many people there that the sales folks are spread pretty thin. These two things make visiting an RV show less stressful than visiting an RV dealership.
If you’d like to read what an RV show is like from the perspective of a sales person, check out the blog I wrote about my experience as an RV salesman. And, after reading that, if you’d like to buy an RV from me next year at Pomona… let’s talk! (lol)
Oh, and another thing, RV shows happen all the time! It shouldn’t be that difficult to find one. Remember, our hypothetical reader from the introduction was looking to buy an RV in about a year. An RV is a big purchase, so somewhere in your budget you need to include a little time and pocket money for this field trip.
While you’re at the RV show, you have objectives. You need to actually get inside and spend some time in the RVs on your short list. You could be spending a lot of time in this motorhome, so while you’re there, you want to try to mimic some of the ways you envision using it and see if it works in real life, and for you. Not just on paper. Some of the things you might do at this stage include
- Hop into the shower and pretend (please, oh please just pretend) that you’re using it. Can you wash your ankles without spilling out of the shower? Can you wash your hair without banging your elbows on the shower walls?
- Maybe a bit embarrassing, but try sitting on the commode. If your knees prevent the bathroom door from closing, well, you’ll need to decide what to do about that…
- Try out the driver’s seat (both of you, if you intend to share the driving). Take some time and adjust it to a reasonable driving position. Sit there for 10 minutes. Still comfortable? Are you really tall? Is it even possible to get the driver’s seat comfortable for you?
- Did you give yourself a concussion getting up from the driver’s seat to get into the rear of the coach because of a low overhang?
- Lie down on the bed as you would sleep. Is it long enough? Get up while trying not to disturb a partner. Is that even possible? Do you hit your head if you sit up suddenly?
- Pretend to cook something. Is the fridge low to the ground? Can you get into it without contorting yourself in a narrow aisle?
- If the model has slides, ask to put them in. This is how the motorhome will look when traveling. Would there be times when you couldn’t put out a slide? If so, can you still use everything with the slide in?
- If you intend to watch TV, sit down where you think you would, and try to watch the TV (or just look at, if it’s not on). Is it in a comfortable position? Did you sprain your neck to see it?
- Try to get into any exterior storage compartments. Are they accessible (to you)? Did you smack your head on a slide-out in the process? Did you drop the door on your fingers? Good things to know.
There are lots more things you should be doing and looking for when you’re narrowing down your short list of RVs, but they will be governed by what’s important to you. I can’t give you your own personal list of tests, and I shouldn’t.
The end goal at the RV show is to further narrow down your list of possible choices. It’s an elimination game, mostly. And by now, you’re pretty much getting to be an expert on what YOUR motorhome should be and look like.
It’s also likely that you’ll come away from the RV show with questions about particular models. Questions like: “How do people deal with that weird shower curtain?” or “I know what the factory rep said, but how much power can you really get from that RV solar charging system?” If you have those kinds of questions, it’s time to move on to
Step 7: Ask Questions. Good Ones. Of owners, if possible.
Without a doubt, the best sources of information on how a motorhome works out in actual use are the owners of the motorhomes themselves. The factory can tell you that the water heater is six gallons. But only another owner can tell you if you can wash long hair or take back to back showers with that. Those should be the kinds of questions you’re prepared to ask now, and those are the kinds of topics that owners love to share their experience about.
It shouldn’t be too hard to find other owners to ask questions of online. Our own Winnebago Travato has an owner’s group on Facebook. I know Pleasure-Way, and RoadTrek have similar groups on Facebook as well. There are other forums for other makes as well, and search engines are your friend in finding them.
If you have questions or concerns about the chassis that a motorhome is built upon, there are online forums for most of the major chassis, too. Having owned each, I know I’ve visited the Sprinter-Source and the ProMaster forum on many occasions.
Some RV manufacturers also have ambassador programs, for lack of a better word. These are owners who have agreed to share their experience on a call or meet-up that can be arranged by the manufacturer. You’d have to call the factory directly to find out if there are any ambassadors near you, or if the maker you’re interested in even has such a program.
There are also other online groups (google groups, yahoo groups, etc) that can be valuable sources of information for you.
In addition to Step 5, a lot of people like to jump in directly to this step as well. The key thing for you, if you’ve completed the previous steps, is that you can ask intelligent and specific questions. You’ll get much better answers that way, and you’re much less likely to be directed to the group’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) post. Here are examples of the right and wrong kinds of questions to ask:
Bad Question: I have a dog. Should I buy model G or model K?
Don’t ask this question. You owe it to yourself to pick the model that best meets YOUR needs, based on YOUR investigation and YOUR circumstances. DON’T ask a group of virtual strangers to sway you one way or another. You don’t need the RV that works for them. You need yours!
Good Question: Is the cab air conditioning in model G enough to cool the rear of the van where my dog crates will be? Or will I need to run the house AC while underway?
Perfect question to ask! You’ve clearly thought through the floor plans and selected the one that makes the most sense for you. You’re asking something only an owner, who’s had the coach on a trip, would be able to answer. You’ll probably also get answers from other owners who take their pets along about what works for them, where do they keep the water dish, etc.
Those are just examples, but don’t sweat it too much. Almost all of the RV owners I’ve met would be happy to share their opinions and experience. In reality, the only bad question is the one that’s left unanswered to you.
The other thing you’ll find out during this step is what sort of reputation the different manufacturers have with their owner community. Different RV manufacturers are known for impeccable quality, solid wood cabinetry, off-road toughness, technological wizardry, amazing warranties, outstanding value… the list goes on. You’ll pick up on these kinds of things just by hanging out in their owner’s groups. (The online term for it is “lurking”.) If some of those attributes are important to you – if “warranty strength” was on your list of features – then this is where you’re going to learn about those things first hand.
And a final word of caution about the owner’s groups. You will hear about people reporting problems. RVs are complex machines and any manufacturer might have something slip out the door that they wish they had caught. DON’T be scared away just because someone reports a problem. The majority of problems from the majority of manufacturers are resolved satisfactorily. And if you have a problem, the odds are it will be dealt with professionally and in a reasonable time frame.
The only time I would be concerned is if I saw a persistent pattern of problems, and it didn’t seem like the manufacturer was doing much to address them. If calls to Customer Service go unanswered, for example, that would be a red flag to me.
The end goal of this step is to answer any remaining questions you might have about the models you are considering. Ideally, you have it narrowed down to just one or two models after this step. You’ll know you’re ready if:
- You don’t feel any nagging doubts that you’ve made the right choice.
- You’re not waiting to see what’s in next year’s model before you decide.
- It doesn’t matter if a new model from a different manufacturer is introduced tomorrow.
- You feel good about what you’ll be getting for the price you anticipate spending.
And notice that now, over five thousand words in, I’ve mentioned price for the first time. That’s because it’s finally time to head to a dealership and wrap things up with
Step 8: Buy yourself an RV and hit the road!
There are so many variables that come into play here; I’m not going to tackle it in this piece. But ultimately, this is where you want to get to. There are numerous other resources online that cover the process of actually negotiating and buying a motorhome, so I won’t try to duplicate all of that knowledge here.
As RV bloggers, our purchase process is likely to be very different from what you might experience. And that’s OK. What I’m more concerned about is not if you got 22% vs 24% off of MSRP. No. What I’m concerned with is that – whatever you paid – you got the right motorhome for you.
So, if you’ve made it this far, you must be pretty serious about selecting the right RV for yourself. Congratulations! If you follow the steps I’ve outlined above, you’re much less likely to get into your first RV only to realize you would have rather had something else. That would be a terrible waste of time and money.
Because ultimately, it’s not about picking an RV, or buying an RV, or owning an RV. That’s not why you’re here. It’s really about getting out there and doing something. The RV is just the wonderful vehicle that makes it all possible.
Here’s to getting out there and living out your possibilities!