The RVillage Guide to Buying Your First RV 

Feb 14, 2023 | RVillage Guides

The RVillage Guide to Buying Your First RV 

Shopping for your first RV? Here are a few things you need to know before heading to a dealership.

By Eric Toll

Photo: Eric Jay Toll

Shopping for an RV can be an exciting process, but it can also be overwhelming if you’re not prepared to navigate your way through the many rig options on the market today. Before making the trip down to your local RV dealership, there are a few questions you should ask yourself to prepare for your future purchase.

From travel style to sleeping space, here’s what you should consider before you start shopping for your new rig. 

1. Towables vs. Drivables

While extra space and affordability point some shoppers to towables, flexibility, boondocking capabilities, and load-and-go camping make drivable RVs more appealing to others. Having an idea of which style of RV you’re looking for can help you narrow your search. 

Too often, potential buyers will begin the shopping process with little to no knowledge about the differences between towable and drivable rigs, making the experience more overwhelming than it needs to be. “We have to ask a lot of questions because many buyers don’t even know the questions,” says Jared Westemeier at Rowley White RV in Mesa, Arizona.

The kitchen and dinette area with yep easy chairs and a couch are shown as part of the interior of a towable RV
Interior view of a towable with slide-outs. | Photo: Eric Jay Toll

Doing a little research upfront on whether you want to tow or drive your RV can save you time and help your RV dealer find the right rig for you. “It’s kind of like that Cheesecake Factory menu,” says Vince Licciardi at Tom’s Camperland in Avondale, Arizona. “Sometimes it’s a good thing. There are so many options; you can get overwhelmed.”

Your RV budget is also a big factor, but it’s further down the list when choosing an RV. 

2. Find the Right Size

The size of your rig determines more than the amount of living space you’ll have inside. It will factor into your tow vehicle’s capabilities, the types of campgrounds you can park at, and even the routes you can take when traveling.

“Let’s look at a towable,” says Jeremy Puglisi, host of the RV Atlas podcast. “You need a truck or an SUV to tow it. For safety, you have to make sure that the tongue weight (the amount of weight pressing down on the hitch of your tow vehicle) is something your vehicle can handle. If you buy a too-big towable, you could also need a new truck or SUV.” While a 40-foot fifth wheel might seem like a solid choice, it could also mean you have to invest in a new tow vehicle too, which is one more thing to consider before arriving at the dealership. 

Likewise, larger drivable rigs can come with their own limitations as well, and may not be permitted at some campgrounds. “Motorhomes are not convenient for driving around town or within national parks,” says Puglisi. “It’s hard to park, and you won’t be able to use drive-through restaurants. With a motorhome, you may need to tow a car.”

The front view of a Class A motorhome resembles a commercial coach bus
The modern Class A motorhome is a house for road trips on a bus chassis. | Photo: Eric Jay Toll

Does this mean you should disregard big rigs altogether? Absolutely not. It simply means you need to think through your travel plans, tow vehicle, and budget before choosing a size that meets your needs. While you don’t want a rig that’s too small to accommodate your family, gear, toys, etc., you also don’t want to find out at the last minute that the campground you want to book has size limitations. 

“It’s hard to find a place to set up in a public campground with anything over 30 feet,” advises Puglisi. “If that’s your destination, you need something nimble.”

Check your tow vehicle’s hitch weight rating, think about the types of destinations you’d like to visit, and consider how much room you and your travel companions will need to comfortably hit the road. By knowing the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to make a more informed purchasing decision.

3. Choose Your Travel Style

From luxury RV resorts to boondocking on remote public lands, knowing where and how you intend to camp is another key consideration when shopping for your rig. 

“If someone is planning to roadtrip to RV resorts, a Class A motorhome may be what fills their needs,” says Licciardi. “It’s essentially a bus built for the open road and resort comfort. If someone wants to boondock, they might consider carefully where a Class A can go. You can’t take it very far off paved roads.”

Towables, in general, aren’t known for their off-road capabilities, although that trend is changing due to a surge in off-grid-ready trailers in recent years as more people look for rigs that can handle backcountry camping and offer the creature comforts of higher-end models. While this market has been dominated by Class B and Class C RVs, the landscape is changing to include towables of all sizes and capabilities. 

Two motorhomes, one on a bus chassis and the other on a truck chassis are set up in the desert with mountains in the background
A Class A (left) and Class C motorhome set up at a boondocks campsite on Bureau of Land Management public lands outside Quartzsite, Arizona. | Photo: Eric Jay Toll

“Boondockers like the Class B and Class C motorhomes,” Licciardi says. “They’re shorter, and some have the clearance needed to get on more developed backroads.” Outside of off-roading abilities, more RVs are coming equipped with solar panel systems to provide power in remote areas where there are no hookups. 

Toy haulers are also becoming increasingly popular as RVers opt to ditch their towed vehicle for an ATV. “You can put all your gear into the RV, haul it to where you want to camp and play, set up, and enjoy your time,” Westmeier says. This saves you the hassle of towing an extra vehicle behind your rig or relying on your tow vehicle to get around.

The variety of options available to make an RV fit the owner’s lifestyle is amazing and improving every day. If one model doesn’t meet your needs, chances are there’s another that does. Don’t be afraid to tell the dealership exactly how and where you plan to travel, and what features you need to hit the road. 

4. Plan Your Living and Sleeping Space

Families may want to focus on an RV with lots of sleeping space. Couples may want a little more luxury and space to spread out. “There are only so many basic shapes,” says Westemeier. “The interior options are designed for the way you want to travel, and there’s something for everyone.” From convertible toy hauler garage spaces to triple-stacked bunks in a trailer, manufacturers have gotten creative with sleeping spaces, leaving behind the days of small, inconvenient setups. 

Ample sleeping space is crucial for RVing, especially if you’re frequently traveling with kids or other family and friends. Providing yourself and others with adequate sleeping and living space can turn a cramped camping experience into an enjoyable one. 

“Folding down a bed can be annoying,” says Puglisi. “You want an RV with a permanent bed. If you have someone sleeping on the dinette, they will get rousted in the morning if everyone else is hungry for breakfast.”

Many motorhomes and towables now have a separate primary bedroom, often with king- or queen-sized beds. The dinette bed is still an option in some rigs but is less likely to be your main sleeping area. Bunkrooms, over-the-cab bedding, and even toy hauler garages also offer designated sleeping spaces that are cozier and more convenient for everybody. 

Bathroom options can vary greatly in RVs depending on the size of the unit. They come in the form of either a wet (a combination sink, shower, and toilet setup) or dry (traditional separate shower and toilet/sink area) bath. 

A bathroom with a single sink, toilet and full-size walk-in shower in a towable RV
An example of a dry bath with a separate shower, toilet, and sink space. | Photo: Eric Jay Toll

Some larger fifth wheel RVs and motorhomes can even come equipped with two bedrooms and bathrooms, for families needing that additional space. Toy haulers with rear secondary bathrooms are also great options for travelers looking for a way to rinse off before tracking a day’s worth of the outdoors through the RV. 

Look for RVs designed to comfortably fit your traveling lifestyle now, and what it could look like a few years down the road. Having “just enough” sleeping space might seem like the most budget-friendly option now but could lead to a size upgrade sooner rather than later. 

5. Know Your Budget

When purchasing an RV, it’s important to understand how much you can afford, what your financing options are, and what your trade-in or resale value will be after a few years. Like cars, RVs will depreciate once you drive them off the lot, but like homes, you can finance them for up to 20 years in some cases. While financing a rig over an extended period of time will save you on monthly payments, by the time your rig is paid off, chances are its value has decreased significantly. 

“Be careful about buying more RV than you can really afford,” says Puglisi. “It’s a depreciable asset, just like a car.”

Puglisi also says that research by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) finds that people tend to trade in or upgrade their RVs every 3 to 5 years. This is something you should keep in mind when researching financing options, even if a trade-in isn’t on your radar right now. “You don’t want to be upside-down if you’re thinking it’s time to move up to a new RV,” he says.

Related Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Budget-Friendly Road Trip

No matter what type of financing you choose, before you enter a dealership, set your budget and stick to it. This will not only help narrow your RV search, but this way, you can avoid being talked into an RV that doesn’t make sense for you financially. 

Puglisi also says that 2023 looks like a buyer’s year. “The prices are coming down, and dealers are discounting,” he says. “Inventory was overbuilt during the COVID-19 pandemic while demand was high.”

Budgeting Tips 

Once you’ve purchased your new rig, you’ll need to plan on a few other costs that come with RV ownership. From insurance and maintenance to gas and campground fees, here are a few things you’ll need to pay for as an RV owner:

  • RV-specific insurance that covers your travel and storage needs
  • Annual and unexpected maintenance costs
  • Fuel for your tow vehicle or drivable rig
  • Propane refills for your RV tanks
  • Campground reservation fees
  • Winter storage and RV winterization costs (if you’re not doing this yourself)

With these things in mind, you can enter an RV dealership more informed and prepared to shop for your first rig. Record and take photos, bring a notebook, and work with your dealer. “We don’t want to sell someone the wrong RV,” says Westemeier. “We want them driving happy wherever the road takes them.” With so many options on the market, there’s no doubt that you can find one that meets your needs, from size to budget. 

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Eric Toll

Eric is fond of red rock country and the landscape of the American West. He is a hiker, cyclist, canoeist, photographer, camper, and aficionado of dude ranches and luxury resorts. Eric and his chocolate lab, Chaco, often are found far from paved roads, sitting by the fire and counting shooting stars.