RV Shopping: Getting the Best Deal

Lisa Fritscher May 10, 2012 No Comments

Negotiating an RV purchase

Negotiating an RV purchase can be intimidating

So you are in the market for a new RV. After a tedious search, you finally found the RV of your dreams. The floor plan and design scheme work wonderfully for your family. If it is a towable, you have performed seemingly endless calculations to ensure that you are within all weight specifications. You have picked out a weight-distributing hitch and sway control system. You’re ready to roll. Now just one hurdle stands between you and a lifetime of vacation memories—the negotiation process. No matter how many cars you may have purchased in your life, buying an RV is an entirely different ballgame.

Dad and I were in the market for nearly two months at the beginning of 2012. We negotiated hard on numerous models, only to have a deal breaker pop up at the last minute. Along the way, we learned some tips and tricks for getting the best deal.

RV Shows

An RV show can be a fantastic place to make a purchase, but only if you have done your homework in advance. RV dealers are generally hungry to make a sale, and may be willing to throw in extra dealer options or other incentives. Numerous financing companies are on site, luring in customers with terrific offers. Manufacturer reps are often available to answer technical questions for which the dealer may not have expertise.

RV Shows

RV shows are noisy, crowded and exciting

However, trying to make a purchase at an RV show can be a nightmare if you do not already know what you want. The larger shows feature literally hundreds of models in all sizes, floor plans and design schemes. Even if you have already narrowed your search to a specific type (travel trailer, fifth wheel, motorhome) the sheer number of options is frankly exhausting. The RVs are crowded into a massive outdoor space such as a fairground, thousands of shoppers are traipsing in and out, and both dealers and manufacturer reps are often overwhelmed. Invariably, the two or three models that you like the best are on opposite sides of the fairground, requiring a long trek back and forth to make comparisons.

If you know what you want, buy early or buy late. The RV shows typically start on a Wednesday or Thursday and last through the weekend. The smaller weekday crowds give early birds the best shot at negotiating with a dealer who really has time and energy to sit down and have a conversation. Of course, RVs sell throughout the show, so shopping early also ensures that you have first pick.

The last day of the show is often the best time to get a great deal. Faced with moving inventory back to their lot, which may be a few hours’ drive away, many dealers are ready to negotiate hard. Markdown signs are a common sight in RV windows, particularly in the last hours of the show. As a side benefit, you may also be able to pick up common RV items such as a sewer hose or campground directory at a reduced price from a vendor who is ready to go home. However, most dealers are understandably exhausted by the end of a show. Many RVs are already sold, and the dealer may be less inclined to extend a special “show price” on a new unit that has to be ordered.

In addition, show prices are not always the best prices. Many dealers post the MSRP in the RV windows alongside that dealership’s show price, to demonstrate just how great a deal you are getting. Of course, just like cars, the reality is that no one ever actually pays the MSRP. Sometimes the same dealer is offering the same price on their lot, meaning that you could go in three weeks later and get the exact same deal without the stress of the show. Additionally, not all dealers go to the shows. If two dealers in the area sell the same model, many shows allow only one to participate. The other might have a “show weekend” sale on their lot with prices that undercut the show dealer by as much as a few thousand dollars.

What if I Don’t Know What I Want?

RV Show Selection

RV shows offer a mind-boggling number of choices

Does this mean that you should not shop for an RV at a show? Not at all, but it does mean that you should go into a show with your eyes wide open. Dad and I find that it works best to treat the show as an exploratory trip. Where else are you going to find hundreds of different models all in the same place? Plan to visit at least three times. The first day, simply shop to see what is out there. Take a camera and take detailed photos of any model that really catches your eye. Grab a brochure on that particular model, and take copious notes on what you like and don’t like. Also note the show price.

That night, take the time to go through your brochures, photos and notes. Go through your weight capacities carefully, checking them against the listed brochure weights. Compare the photos and notes to your overall wish list. Go online and research the specific models, paying especially close attention to reviews and comments by people who already own that RV.

On your second visit to the RV show, walk back through the units you are still considering. Compare the brochure weights to the actual “as equipped” weights found on a yellow sticker on the outside of the RV. Talk to the dealer or manufacturer rep about any customizations you would want. Inspect the quality of workmanship—does anything look cheap or shoddy? Do cabinets and drawers open and close easily? Lift up the bed to access the under-bed storage, open the hide-a-bed, stand in the shower, and even sit on the toilet. Does the RV feel functional? Is anything difficult to use?

Dad and I were strongly considering one unit, until we tried to remove the cover from the propane tanks. The clearance was too tight, and we both ended up scratched and bleeding! The manufacturer rep explained in a low tone that the particular unit we were looking at was a prototype, and the design had changed to provide another 2 inches of clearance. We could order the same RV at the show price from the factory, but it would have the additional clearance. We ended up not purchasing that one for other reasons, but we never would have known if we hadn’t tried everything that day.

Ask the dealer to bring the slide-outs in on any unit you are seriously considering. Although it may be rare, virtually every RVer eventually runs into an overnight situation in which it is impossible to put out the slides. Many of today’s RVs are designed with multiple slide-outs to create more living space, but they may be impossible to use with the slide-outs in. Dad and I fell madly in love with an RV that we found on the first day of the Tampa show, and actually let the dealer arrange financing. When we came back to find out we were approved, but before we signed anything, it occurred to us to bring the slide-outs in. Good thing we checked, because the entire unit mashed together tightly! We couldn’t access the bathroom, the refrigerator, or the area in which I would sleep at all. Needless to say, we walked away.

Before your third visit, comparison shop prices on your two or three top choices. RVTrader.com allows you to search in your local area or nationwide. If the dealer’s show prices are competitive, you may be able to make a great deal. On that third visit, do a final detailed walkthrough of your top choices. Then negotiate hard as you would with any dealership. But if you are not absolutely, 100 percent convinced that one of the show models is the best choice for your family, be prepared to leave the show and continue looking elsewhere. The knowledge gained at the show is invaluable no matter where you make your final purchase.

Working Multiple Dealers

RV Dealer Negotiating

Don't be afraid to walk away and negotiate by phone from a neutral location

Dad has one key catchphrase that he pulls out whenever he’s seriously in the market for a major purchase. “XXX dealership sold me a car, but I bought it from YYY dealership.” Here’s the story. A long time ago, Dad was in the market for a new car. He shopped around and then ended up at XXX dealership. He worked with the dealer for a long time, checking out the specific features of a few models, test driving, and deciding what he wanted. He was ready, willing and able to buy that car. But like most young adults, he was on a budget. He and the sales representative came to a meeting of the minds on price. But Dad needed to break the down payment into two chunks a week apart, due to his payday schedule. The dealership flatly refused. He was going to make the full down payment that night, or the deal was off. So Dad walked away. He went 20 minutes down the street to the next town over, where the dealership was hungry. They wanted to make that sale, so they readily agreed to Dad’s terms. The first dealership put a lot of time and effort into making the sale, only to lose it at the last minute. The second dealership only spent about 10 minutes and raked in the cash.

That story has served as an excellent lesson over the years, and it is even more common in the RV industry than it is in the auto industry. RVs are high-priced luxury items. No one really *needs* to buy a new RV, while many people genuinely need a new car. As luxury items, RV prices also include a huge markup—some sources say as much as 30 or even 40 percent. In many ways, despite the popularity of RVs, it really is a buyer’s market.

If the model you like is available at more than one dealer, it is worth the time and effort to visit multiple locations. Each dealer has a unique contract with the manufacturer, meaning that incentives may vary from location to location. Dealers need to move inventory at different times, either to meet a quota or to make room for incoming units. In addition, if you are able to travel to an out of state dealer, you may be able to save hundreds or thousands in freight fees—the closer the dealer is to the manufacturer, the less money is spent on getting the RV to the lot.

Don’t get so stuck on price that you miss the intangibles, however. Take the time to get to know each dealership. Check out the service department. Watch how the dealership handles customers with warranty repairs. Talk to the service manager and customers who are having work done. Even the most expensive RVs are complicated and mostly hand-built pieces of machinery, and are prone to minor problems. Choose a dealership that demonstrates excellent customer care beyond the point of sale.

Negotiating Tips and Tricks

Like any other major purchase, in order to successfully negotiate, you have to understand the rules of the game. The dealer wants to make as much profit as possible, and you want to get the lowest possible price. Dealers generally want to combine everything into one big, complicated deal—trade-in, base purchase price, options, upgrades, financing and taxes. This is an easy way for the customer to get confused or misled, so insist on separating out each portion.

Dad and I had a trade-in for our recent RV purchase. We shopped hard at multiple shows and dozens of individual dealer lots. Almost invariably, the initial exchange went something like this:

Salesperson: How can I help you today?

Me: We’re in the market for a new travel trailer.

Salesperson: Great, I’ll be happy to help. Do you have a trade-in?

Dad: I don’t want to talk about that yet. What can you show us in a (long list of exact specs)?

Salesperson (to me): Can you just tell me what year, make and model your trade-in is?

It’s a classic sales ploy. Get the customer to talk about all the things he or she dislikes in the old model, ostensibly finding out what the customer wants in a new model, but actually taking detailed notes of problems as a reason to lowball the trade-in later.

When that one didn’t work, the salesperson would move on to the next:

Salesperson: Okay, I understand you don’t want to talk about the trade-in. How much are you looking to spend?

Dad: A hundred bucks. How much are you looking to make?

This one is a little trickier. Many salespeople genuinely want to know your price range so that they can show you things that fit your budget. But giving a number can also backfire later in negotiations. Once the salesperson knows that you are comfortable with up to $50K, for example, it can be harder to negotiate down the price of the $25K RV you fell in love with.

While out on the lot, make a detailed inspection of the unit you want. Many dealers try to discourage this, since “any issues will be addressed during the PDI (pre-delivery inspection).” But what happens if something turns out to be more complicated or more difficult to repair? What if you discover that you need or want a particular modification that was not included in the negotiated price? Go over the unit with a fine-toothed comb and decide what, if any, modifications you want.

When you are ready to make a deal, separate out each portion. Negotiate the base purchase price of the new RV first—the as-is price, with the dealer correcting any problems before you take delivery. If you have done your homework, you should know how much comparable units are selling for in your area. Make an offer that is a few thousand less than the lowest price you have seen, and be willing to negotiate up from there. Know your top figure as well and be willing to walk away.

Once you have agreed on a base price, get a quote in writing for any modifications or changes you want. Depending on the time of day and how busy the dealership is, you may not get this number for a couple of days. Be patient and refuse to sign anything until you have an itemized list with accurate prices.

Now you are ready to discuss your trade-in. RV dealers use the NADA guide to price trade-ins. NADA figures are available online, so know what your trade-in is worth before you begin. Make full disclosure to the dealer of anything that is wrong with the trade-in—most dealers have a checklist that serves as a guide, but if there are any problems that the checklist does not cover, go ahead and come clean.

Most dealers told us that they intended to wholesale our previous trailer due to its age and condition, and offered only a thousand dollars or so. But the dealership we ended up buying from saw its potential as a fixer-upper and offered us a fair price. Sure enough, the trailer was sold at a profit after only sitting on the lot for a couple of days!

Negotiating the trade-in after the purchase price prevents dealers from making slippery deals—bloating the trade-in offer to cover an overcharge for the new RV or vice versa. Your trade-in should be a deduction from the fair market price of the new RV—what the dealership would charge to someone who had no trade-in at all.


RV financing is a complicated subject, and there is no single answer that works well for everyone. Those with excellent credit profiles buying expensive RVs may do best with dealer financing, which is usually tied to a major bank. There are always excellent financing deals for “well-qualified buyers” financing over $50,000, with terms that may last as long as 25 years.

If your credit is slightly tarnished, the RV costs less than $50,000, or you have a great credit score but a relatively short credit history or thin credit profile, you may have more success finding your own financing. Many credit unions are willing to finance RV deals that the major banks do not want, particularly if you are already a customer.

If you happen to be a full-time RVer, things may be even trickier. As of 2012, full-time RVers and live-aboard house boaters got caught up in escrow regulations designed for sticks and bricks houses. Rather than try to separate out the two types of customers, many financial institutions simply stopped writing loans for full-time RVers. Although this can disqualify you from some of the best deals, Dad and I were easily able to obtain good financing through our long-standing relationship with a credit union.

Related Articles:

RV Shopping: Meeting Your Family’s Needs
Florida RV SuperShow: The Biggest RV Show in the Country

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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