My #1 RV-buying tip

Published June 21, 2017   Posted in In Retirement

These damn recreational vehicles (RVs) are getting super popular these days. Especially in the last couple of years, RV ownership has thrived, and those living in these movable homes are getting younger and younger. How do we avoid getting ourselves in over our heads?

Our Airstream and truck in the woods outside Bryce Canyon, Utah.

While it’s great that RVing has become the “in” thing, it also means a slew of new people are looking into buying their first RV. A ton of styles and sizes exist, and knowing exactly what you want can be a daunting experience.

More times than not, we figure out what we don’t want before we figure out what we do want.

The more RVs I see on the road, coupled with our own experience as owners of a 30′ Airstream Classic, I can easily pinpoint the most critical tip to buying your first (or second, or third…) RV.

My #1 Tip: Buy as small as you can

Boom, done. That’s it. Seriously, that’s the tip. Buy small. Figure out the absolute smallest space that you could comfortably live in, and don’t exceed that square footage when you’re looking for your first (or next) RV. When in doubt, buy smaller.

Why buy small?

Because small is easy. Smaller RVs can fit into more campsites and wild nature spots (aka: Boondocking) than a larger RV. Buy a 40′ Class A motorhome and you’ll be restricted to the places that you can camp. Guaranteed. Mark my words, it will happen. Perhaps often.

We’ve seen this even with our 30′ Airstream Classic. Especially in trees. One can’t easily run over toweringย 5-foot thick trees in the Pacific Northwest. You gotta meander your way around those suckers and find a spot big enough to fit your RV, without scraping the shit out of it.

In Oregon, we were forced to turn around and look elsewhere plenty of times – enough that it made us wish we bought a smaller rig.

Keep in mind thatย 30 feet is a common maximum in campgrounds. Anything over 30′ may get turned away. Even if you do talk your way in, putting the ass of your RV straight into a smaller site might prove to be a frustrating challenge. And if you hit something, a costly one.

Smaller RVs also get much better gas mileage. We get 12 to 14 miles to the gallon pulling our Airstream with our Dodge RAM 2500 – a diesel. A diesel helps – or at least an EcoBoost. They are incredibly strong and long-lasting engines. But, that’s a topic for another day.

It is common for larger motorhomes to churn through fuel at less than eight MPG. Weight is a huge determining factor, but the larger the rig, the more you’ll store in it and, therefore, the more weight you will haul.

The smaller the RV, the easier it will be to buy and maintain. The smaller your space, the easier it is to keep clean. To buy. To fix when things go wrong. The tires alone on larger rigs pump up the cost of those beefier rigs. The cost to replace four, six or eight tires can easily reach into the thousands.

Smaller rigs require fewer tires. Lighter RVs require less expensive tires. And in general, the more the weight, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong, especially on the road. Larger RVs can’t stop as fast. Corners become much tighter. Narrow road shoulders are a greater threat.

Our boondocking site outside of Bend, Oregon.

The more space you have, the more space you’ll fill. Let’s face it: This shit is human nature. When we have space, we tend to fill that space. With stuff. Stuff is expensive. It adds weight. It causes clutter. And, you gotta maintain all of it.

Sometimes, the less storage space you have in your RV, the better. It makes downsizing decisions easier for you.

Also, understand that your first RV will likely not be your last. Don’t blow through your savings buying your first RV, and avoid buying something brand new. Chances are you WILL sell it for something else, and you’ll eat the depreciation cost before you even think about getting another one. Buy used to get a feel for what you need. Then, buy used again – but if you absolutely must buy new, make it your third or fourth RV. If you must.

Nine times out of 10, smaller RVs make it easier to enjoy your time on the road. Buy small, then live large.

What about slideouts?

Slideouts on a motorhome

Slideouts on RVs are ingenious ways to extend the living space of an RV. Slideouts are areas built directly into the RV that literally slide outward. This reveals additional living space inside the RV and can easily make it feel more like a “traditional home”.

I have no problem with slideouts – though, we don’t have, and purposely avoided, them for several reasons:

Slideouts have problems – Usually, slideouts work via a motor. Motors go bad. A friend of ours had to replace their slideout motor within two years of buying their RV brand new. In the end, it’s extra maintenance, expense and weight that we’d rather not carry around with us. They have even been known to slide out driving down the road. While rare, it can happen, and it makes for one heck of a headache.

Slideouts are meant to be slid out – Most RVs that contain slideouts are designed to be lived in with the slideouts fully extended. But, what if you’re camped in a Walmart parking lot without a lot of clearance? Or between two trees? Or heck, what if your motor breaks and you cannot extend those slideouts? Your living space becomes compromised. Counters can (and do) butt up against furniture, making it awkward to walk around, much less live, in. When the slideouts aren’t out, the living space tends to be muddled.

Slideouts expand your living requirements – One of the reasons why we chose to live full-time in an RV is to streamline our lifestyle. We are not looking for a ton of space…only the space that we need to feel comfortable. For us, slideouts defeat the purpose of living small. We like a smaller footprint.

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Comments

35 responses to “My #1 RV-buying tip”

  1. Great post – I get so psyched every time I read about other people living up van/RV life!

    I’m in the process of converting a van into a camper, and we’ve actually had to look at things the complete opposite – for us, it was all about size! More specifically, headroom! Can’t imagine anything worse than living in a converted campervan I can’t stand up in ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

    • Steve says:

      Oh yeah, I can totally understand that concern. We know a couple of vanners, and the vans that you can stand straight up in make a HUGE difference in comfort. No doubt about that.

  2. Steve, good timing, as we’re getting close to finalizing our RV purchase decision. I’d also add that it’s great to take in some camper shows a few years before you’re ready to buy. By the time you’re buying, those shiny new RV’s you saw in the convention center will be a few years old, depreciated, and less expensive to buy.

    We know what we want. We’ve finalized our decision. And, no offence, it will have slideouts! (hope they don’t swing open while going down the road!). We’ll see you “out there” somewhere….

    • Steve says:

      RV shows are awesome, Fritz. I love walking into different RVs and imaging myself living there. There are some awfully nice ones out there!

  3. Physician on FIRE says:

    Thanks for the tip! I heard this one in your chat with the Mad Fientist, and we will take it to heart. We’ll be traveling as a family of four (probably in a couple years), so we may opt for the slideout, but will absolutely plan to keep the 30′ max in mind when shopping for a rig.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

    • Steve says:

      Good deal, PoF! I definitely understand the need for more room if you have a larger family traveling with you. The length of your rig becomes more important if you want to really get out into nature, so it’ll depend on your travel lifestyle. But, smaller rigs will almost always be easier to drive and maneuver – which is a good thing.

  4. Thanks for the tips! Man, I do think it would be pretty cool to tour the country in an RV. Full-time wouldn’t be my thing, but for a summer I think it would be so neat! It’s a cool way to experiment with much smaller living. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Steve says:

      Yup! And you might be surprised at how little space you need to feel comfortable once you do start living in an RV for a while. We humans have a remarkable ability to adjust to our surroundings – whether we live in a 200 square foot RV or a 2000 square foot home.

  5. DadsDollarsDebts says:

    I love these posts. Keep them coming. While I would love to do what you are doing, the wife has put the brakes on it until our kid is in middle school (8-9 years from now). In 2-3 years I am going to buy an RV for weekend camping (3-5 days). So my needs will be much smaller.

    So my goal now is a TAXA outdoor RV- The Cricket is pretty sweet (16 feet) pop up that can sleep 4 with a kitchen. Even that seems to big and would require me to get a new car, so I am also thinking the Wooly Bear trailer which is not so much a camper as a full kitchen/gear holder. You can tow it with a sedan (we have a Toyota Camry) and the tent goes on top. If the wife vetoes that, then there is always the Tiger moth which is a smaller camper but only sleeps 2 (talk about being a close family).

    Anyway, lots to think about and thanks for the post…keep on trucking!

    • Steve says:

      I’ve heard good things about the Rpods too, but those might be a little too small for your needs. We had a pop up camper when I was a kid and it did surprisingly well for its size. And like you said, you won’t need another vehicle, necessarily, with the smaller campers. That can make a huge difference to not only your budget, but your way of life! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Thanks for the advice!

    My brother has a very large, expensive, RV with lots of slideouts. He uses it to take extended trips of 2-3 months. He told me that on the last trip he spent more than $10K just on gas. Yikes, that’s nuts!

    Did you ever consider a Tiny Home as opposed to an RV?

    • Steve says:

      Yup, we did consider a Tiny House, but not for long. Our goal was to travel, and tiny homes aren’t nearly as convenient to travel with. Campgrounds don’t consider tiny homes to be RVs, so they won’t let them in. That alone made a tiny house not the right fit for us. RVs are made specifically for travel and we much prefer our Airstream to something like a tiny house.

      When we become stationary some time in the future, though, a tiny house may very well be a more workable option for us.

  7. Mrs. BITA says:

    Would you believe that I have never so much as set foot in an RV? We don’t have them in India (at least I have never seen one there). Mr. BITA’s grandmother had one when he was little and he has such fond memories of family holidays in it. It is on our bucket list though – I definitely want to try out an RV vacation and see if I fall in love with the lifestyle.

    • Steve says:

      Believe it or not, Courtney had never really been in an RV either before we decided to live in one! They aren’t for everyone, but they do provide incredible freedom. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Joe says:

    Hi, could you please recommend a good RV shop for buying an used airstream? I’m looking for 23 or 25 fts airstream. Thanks!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Joe – What I would do is look for an Airstream dealer in your state. They will probably have used Airstreams for sale. Or, there are HUGE RV show and sales in Tampa, FL and I believe the Dallas, Texas area every year, and you may be able to find some decent options there. Also, take a look at web sites like rvtrader.com and airstreamclassifieds.com for online listings.

      Hope this helps!

  9. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I never understood the allure of living in a metal container. I mean I “get it.” Travel around with a mobile home in tow. The freedom, etc. But I don’t know, I like having the stability of a “semi-permanent” residence. I wouldn’t mind having a trailer as a bonus, but not as a permanent living situation. Maybe my tastes are too bourgeois? =P

    • Steve says:

      Living in an RV isn’t for everyone. Some need the stability of something permanent to always go back to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. My wife and I just don’t need that, and we’re finding more and more people are beginning to feel the same way – even younger people, like us. I don’t know, maybe our society is becoming more nomadic? Less traditional? Not sure, but it’s fun to watch! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I like this post. We’re debating sometime in the next three years buying a small trailer. We’re between a pop-up or a small one with slideouts, nothing bigger then 17′. Any recommendations on things to look out for?

    • Steve says:

      Nothing necessarily to look out for. But, the more trailers that you look at, the better idea you’ll have about what will work best for you. If there are any RV shows in your area, make it a point to attend. Picture yourself actually living in one for a while. Sit on the couch. Pretend you’re fixin’ a meal. Things like that. There’s a lot of good stuff out there…the trick is finding something that works for you.

  11. We are looking at small travel trailers like R-pods. Totally taking size to heart! They have all we need for shorter trips and we definitely want to be able to get around in smaller cities too.

    • Steve says:

      Good point, Vicki, about getting around in smaller cities. There’s no question that driving our Dodge RAM 2500 makes it tougher sometimes in smaller spaces like parking lots or parallel parking…especially in smaller cities. The smaller your rig, the easier EVERYTHING usually becomes.

  12. Jacques says:

    What advice do you have for me. I’m in the US for only one more year under work visa. Before I move back to my home country I’d like to spend 6 months in an RV going from coast to coast exploring the most I can. Should I buy an used motor RV or rent? What size for a family of 3? Are there free RV parking spots how to find them?
    Thanks so much for any advice

    • Steve says:

      Jacques – It can be tough to advise on the size because I just don’t know your living situation or how you like to travel. If it were us in your situation, I’d probably rent – this saves you the hassle of having to find an RV and make sure that everything works okay at the beginning…and also the hassle of selling it in 6 month’s time. Renting would seem like a better option.

      Regarding size, so much of that depends on your goals. We wouldn’t go over 18 or so feet at the biggest. There are a ton of free camping spots, especially out West. The southwest, for example, is jam-packed with free BLM camping. The East coast has fewer free sites, but I’m sure you can find them here and there. Remember that your RV will need to be able to sustain itself (water, battery, waste tanks) while you’re outside of a campground and hook ups.

      As for how to find them, try web sites like campendium.com and freecampsites.net.

  13. Amy Blacklock says:

    Thanks for the tips Steve! So with all the above being said and your now 1 year of experience living full-time in the Airstream, what would be the ideal size for you?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Amy – somewhere in the 22 to 25 foot range we’re thinking, would be the ideal size. We still need enough room to live comfortably, and I need a desk of some sort for my computing equipment. But other than that, we don’t need much. We value living small.

  14. Mr. Tako says:

    Great tip Steve! If I ever decided to live in an RV full time, I’ll definitely take that one to heart.

    When I was younger, my parents and I would go on RV trips across the US, and it was always a bear to park that RV. Now, they’ve downsized to just a camper that mounts on the truck. I guess they’ve learned the same lessons!

    • Steve says:

      Yup, truck-mounted campers are perfectly legit. Definitely tests your abilities to live small, but hey, you can get almost anywhere in those things – which is awesome.

  15. Really cool list of tips you give here that I’ll put in my mental back pocket. My wife and I don’t know if we want to RV full time, but we know we at least want to try it eventually to see if we like it. We’re starting to build up the passive income streams to support us when we do it. It seemed like just a few months ago I was commenting on your blog for the first time in the 150K net worth mark, and now we’re inching into the 220K net worth mark, with new real estate investments to help increase our monthly cash flow. Wait until my full story comes out, that’s when it will get interesting. Buy small is what I’ll remember. Thanks for the little nuggets of wisdom in this area. See you on the road, brother.

    • Steve says:

      Dude, that’s awesome! It’s amazing how quickly your net worth grows when you’re focused on building wealth. It definitely sounds like you’re setting yourself up for a very, very nice retirement with multiple streams of income. Good on you! If we’re ever in the same area, meeting up with you guys will be a priority!

  16. Miss Mazuma says:

    What?! Campgrounds dont allow Tiny Homes?! Brutal. Well, Charlie has served you well for the past year. You don’t know what you do’t know! Do you have plans to downsize or switch things up? I would love to live on the road for a year but would ultimately love a piece of land to grown food on. My gypsy soul and homebody nature are always at war with each other!

    • Steve says:

      Yup, Charlie is serving us well, and we have no plans to downsize in the near future. The general feel is once we no longer have our dogs, we’ll have more freedom to travel internationally, and that’s when we might consider a smaller Class B-type rig to drive down to South America with. Still a long way off, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. […] for my own RV loving self, a post by Think Save Retire on their #1 RV-buying tip. Buy small is the goal. I have been looking at a 16 foot TAXA Cricket, Airstream NEST or Airstream […]

  18. Debbie says:

    I’m looking forward to living in an RV full-time one day to travel. I have a 2016 24 footer and feel it’s the right size for 2 people to travel. It might be a tad small to live in f/t for me because I want a couch. It does have a full length slide and so far no problems w/ it (2yrs). I love the slide out. One benefit of Airstream is they have modern and cool interiors unlike every other brand. I have dreary brown on brown on brown interior space which is so like 20 years ago.

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