With so many things closed or cancelled, in many ways, it feels like the perfect time to purchase a travel traveler and hit the road. You can camp without coming into contact with people, social distancing is easy in the woods, and hotels don’t seem super safe right now.
I’m not going to disagree with you, I think now is a good time to buy an RV. But I would have agreed with you before the global pandemic too. We have been camping for over a decade, love our camper, and have yet to tire from a weekend in the woods or a week in another state.
Camping is something I don’t think we’ll ever regret doing or investing in. Sound like something you want to do too? Here are some questions I’d ask myself before I even open the internet browser to start looking at what’s available:
How often can you camp? I *know* it looks fun. It is fun! But if you look at your schedule (okay, not right this second, but in general) and hardly ever have a free weekend, buying a camper might not be the best idea for you. It’s a costly purchase to only use a few times a year. It would probably just be better to rent one from a company or an RV-share site. I’m not covering upkeep or maintenance in this post, but unless you just like throwing money away on something you don’t use very often, I’d skip the purchase for now.
But if you’re learning through this pandemic that the slower pace is for you and you want to make some serious schedule/life boundaries, buying a camper might encourage that. We camp a lot, but that also means we say no to a lot of other things. We limit sports commitments, summer camps; sometimes we miss baby showers and friend parties. If we stayed home every weekend we had an invitation or offer, we would never camp. Getting away in your camper involves missing other things. If your schedule or priorities are different, you might not want to buy the RV right now.
What’s my price range? Know what you’re willing to spend before you start looking. You can get a decent, first camper for around $4,000. It’s not going to be pretty or new, but if you just want to camp, it will work. Or you could buy a trailer worth more than my house. Whatever you want to spend, figure out the budget before you begin looking because once you start, it will be reallllly easy to get distracted or think you should spend *just* a little more. We live in the Midwest so keep that in mind when I’m talking money, also. We don’t have access to oceans, but we do have better prices when shopping for a camper.
I’m writing this in the spring, when the weather is turning nice and everyone wants to be outside. Campers are more in demand in the spring so you normally pay a little more right now than if you bought in the fall. Everyone wants a camper in May. But lots of people buy campers, hardly ever use them, and decide as the weather turns cooler that it’s time to get rid of it. You get better deals and more selection if you can purchase in the fall. I know that’s less time for you to use it before it gets too cold, but if you can wait or know you want to make a purchase for next summer, fall camper shopping will be to your benefit.
How much insurance do I want and how much will it cost? You should definitely call your insurance agent and double check everything I’m about to tell you. I haven’t checked your specific insurance policy in a few weeks, so things might have changed since the last time I was rifling through your glove box. But most car insurance policies cover anything you hook up and pull/tow with your insured vehicle. So technically, we had insurance on our camper the minute we hooked it up to our SUV. But that just meant if something flew off while we were driving or it hit something, we’d be covered.
We wanted more insurance than that. Your travel trailer will spend the majority of its time not hooked up to your car. So if you just use the vehicle insurance, it’s uninsured while you’re camping in the woods. Or when it’s sitting in storage. We pay about $400 a year to have full coverage on our camper. That means if a bad storm comes through and rips off the awning, insurance covers it. That means if a window has a leak you didn’t know about and it lets water in all winter, the damage is covered by insurance. We’ve always paid cash for our campers so we didn’t technically need extra insurance for a loan stipulation, but we also felt our investment needed full protection. We blew a tire in Wyoming one summer and it was so jarring that it damaged the kitchen cabinets above it. We’ve lost an awning in high wind in Montana and suffered water damage one winter. Our full coverage insurance has saved our butts many times.
What will plates and registration cost? Every time I go to register and plate a recreational vehicle, I’m shocked. If you buy from a dealer, you’ll pay sales tax, but if you buy from an independent seller, be ready to pay that sales tax to the BMV too. I wasn’t prepared for this expense with our first purchase. I wish I would have included plates and registration in my budget so I didn’t have that unexpected expense.
How will you tow it? We have always bought towable trailers. We don’t want the additional expense and stress of owning a class A, B, or C camper with a motor. Plus, we like the ability to use our vehicle while leaving the camper hooked up at the campground.
We don’t own a truck. We purposefully bought an SUV able to tow 9,000+ lbs. because we knew a travel trailer was in our future. Most SUVs cannot tow that much weight. We basically bought a truck frame on an SUV body (a Nissan Armada). If you’re interested in a pop up, you can tow those easily with most vehicles. The older the camper, the heavier. The campers they make today are ridiculously light. But our budget, especially for our first camper, was pretty small so we knew we’d be buying an older and heavier camper to tow.
We had a generic hitch on our SUV, but it wasn’t made to tow more than a small trailer. We had a travel trailer hitch with sway bar installed on our vehicle so we could pull the camper. I think it cost around $1,000, but it made sure we didn’t tear up our vehicle by pulling something we shouldn’t and the sway bar helped keep the camper stable which helps with driving and gas mileage.
Where will you store your camper? Do you have room in your driveway? Will your HOA allow it? Do you need to pay to have it stored? How much will that cost? Camper storage costs can be ridiculous. We kept our first camper, the one we rehabbed, in our driveway for months. It blocked access to the garage and required my husband to park on the street. Once the season was over, we paid to store it. Soon after, we moved out of the city and had space to store it in our driveway. Make sure you have a place and budget to store your camper, especially if you don’t have space at home.
Where will you shop? For our first camper purchase, we stuck to dealerships. We didn’t know enough about buying a camper and what to look for that we felt it was safer to stick with reputable places that were, hopefully, not going to sell us something uninhabitable. We had a friend who owned a camper give us a list of things to ask or check, and then we had my dad come give it a once over before we signed on dotted line. The more eyes on that first camper purchase, the better. I tend to get excited about something and ignore problem signs because I just want it so bad. Bringing a friend or annoyingly practical father with you can’t hurt.
Buying at a dealership will probably mean you spend a little more than you would if you bought from an independent seller. We were willing to do that to ensure we got something safe and usable, but if you’ve got an experienced friend or are buying from someone you trust, independent seller is the way to go. Once we got the hang of maintaining a travel traveler, we bought our next two from Craigslist or Facebook independent sellers. Do whatever makes you the most comfortable.
Where will you camp? Obviously, you don’t know the answer to that completely. No one does. But it might be good to check out a few campgrounds you’d like to visit and see what it will cost you. For a quick weekend trip, we spend about $50-$80 for a spot in a state campground. That means an electric site, no sewer or water. We’re also pretty loyal to KOA campgrounds and pay about $100 for a weekend with full hookups. You can find places cheaper than state parks and, if you want to go completely off the grid with no amenities, you can find places to stay for free. Just be aware of what you’d like to do and how much a weekend away will cost. (This means extra gas expenses too; towing a camper eats gas fast.) If you get a camper but can’t afford to go anywhere, it would be a total bummer.
Ready to look at a camper? There are plenty of YouTube videos that walk you through buying a camper and how to do it. I’m not going to do it any better. But as you’re checking out a camper you’re interested in, make sure you:
-look for soft spots in the floor; that signals water damage even if you can’t see it with your eyes
-check windows, skylights, the A/C, etc. for water leaks or places that have been patched; water damage is the kill shot for RVs and something you really don’t want to mess with
-if you see visible rot or mold, run away
-check the exterior for damage; use the ladder or bring your own, you’ll need to climb on top of the RV to see what’s happening up there
-check the tires; campers sit for long periods of time and tires rot out fast when they don’t move. They’re not too expensive to fix, but know before you buy if that needs to happen, it might figure in to your final cost.
-check the plumbing; does the toilet leak? Does the sink drain okay? We bought our first camper without realizing the shower head was missing. When we got it home and hooked it up, that was a nice, messy surprise.
-what’s the dry weight? Can you pull it?
That’s a short list and watching a few YouTube videos ahead of time will give you a good foundation to start looking at campers. I was really scared of buying a camper that ended up having massive damage and wasting our money; having a friend there to help was crucial for us. Also, if you feel something’s off or have a concern, there are more RVs out there. Don’t make concessions because you like something and ignore a major issue that will end up costing you a lot of money in the long term.
We had our first, small camper for two years before we sold it and upgraded. I’m forever thankful we got to learn the ropes on an older camper before moving on to newer ones. It felt like less pressure if we broke something or if we decided camping wasn’t for us.
I hope you made it through that list and still want to camp. I wouldn’t trade anything for the thrill of throwing some clothes and food in the camper on a Friday afternoon and taking off for the weekend. We’ve explored the country in a travel trailer and spent weekends just a few hours from our house. Both of them feel adventurous and special. So whether you’re planning on traveling the country or just heading up state a few miles, the camper life is always a worthwhile adventure in my book.