Buying An Older Used Motorhome: How To Inspect It Before Purchase (A Checklist)
Looking to buy a used RV and save some money? Perhaps something as much as 15-20 years old? Here's what I've learned doing it - including an inspection check
Among people not familiar with RVs, there seems to be some misconception that you have to be putting out a huge pile of money to have one. And surely, if you buy a brand new one, it can be pretty expensive.
But, I’m a HUGE fan of buying used. Plus, buying a used motorhome makes this kind of thing SO much more accessible to a wide variety of people.
Not just any used RV, but something in the range of 15 years old. Perhaps 20 years old.
Is it risky to buy a used RV in this age range?
I sure as hell don’t think so. In fact, in many cases, it will give you less trouble than a new one.
Buying an older RV can be quite attractive because… well, they’re cheaper. A LOT cheaper. This will get you out onto the road and traveling with a lot less money paid. You also save a lot of money on depreciation. The newer the RV, the more depreciation you have left on it. Honestly, buying a new RV is just a stupid financial move. Read: Buying an RV: New Versus Used.
My first RV was a 1996 Coachman Santara and I spent $12,500 on it. I had to do a few things to it, including fix the dashboard A/C, put on new tires (which are cheaper on those older rigs because the tire size is smaller), and other random things. But, all said and done, I was about $15,000 all in on that Coachman and it was a great motorhome that treated my family well. When I traded it in, I got $10K for it. If I had sold it privately, perhaps I could have gotten more.
A 1996. For many of us, that seems new-ish. After all, the 90’s don’t seem like that long ago. But, then reality hits: That RV is 20 years old!
(Damn, time flies.)
Evaluating an older motorhome like this can make you nervous. It is especially that way if you’re not all that familiar with RVs to begin with. It would suck to buy a lemon and to have somebody else’s problem pawned off on you.
I don’t hold myself out as any kind of expert on RV mechanics or the like. However, I’ve learned alot.
So, here’s some of the things I have learned. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful.
In this guide, we will cover:
Ford Vs. Chevy Vs Diesel
Best Brands To Buy (And Avoid)
Does It Have Maintenance History?
Low Miles. Good or Bad?
Any Signs Of Water Entry? And how to tell.
How Old Are The Tires? Reading tire signs and date codes.
Taking It For A Test Drive. What to watch and listen for
Testing The Internals. Testing the components.
Other Random Things To Look For
The Case For Older Motorhomes
Let’s get started…
Ford Vs. Chevy Vs Diesel
I know I spent a fair amount of time researching this issue. And there are so many opinions out there. But, let me boil it down for ya…
There’s essentially no real difference between Ford and Chevy (on the Workhorse chassis). I had the Ford 460 engine in my Coachman and it was a reliable engine for me. It had the F53 chassis on it which road like a horse carriage (in other words, it was no limo ride). The Workhorse chassis has a little better ride to it. But, in terms of engines, Ford or Chevy. It makes no real practical difference. The engine’s maintenance history is far more important than who built it.
Workhorse chassis has been discontinued, but there’s still plenty of shops who will work on it. Aside from ride quality, the Workhorse usually has an Allison transmission on it and these things are built like tanks. An Allison is a great transmission. With my Coachman (on the Ford), the transmission was a weak point for the chassis.
In terms of diesel, this is a whole different matter. I’ve personally never owned a diesel. I thought seriously about it before I upgraded. Certainly, if you really want a diesel but still have an affordable RV, you’re going to be looking at older rigs that are 20+ years old. Diesels are great engines. Maintenance is going to be a lot more expensive, but generally you won’t have to do it as often. Personally, I concluded that it wasn’t worth getting a diesel unless I was going to be doing a lot of driving. For a family weekend rig or just summer trips, a diesel is overkill.
Best Brands To Buy (And Avoid)
As a buyer, I was always curious which brands were better and which aren’t. But, like most things, asking around gets practically every opinion you can think of. But, here’s the general jist of it…
Your high quality brands (for gas rigs) would include Winnebago, Holiday Rambler and Fleetwood. Coachman is a decent brand, however it is definitely on the cheaper end of things. Hurricane is one I’d avoid. Georgie Boy is generally a cheaper unit, too. National makes some decent ones. Generally, I prefer the Winnebago, the Rambler and Fleetwood. Also keep in mind that every brand has models which vary in quality. For instance, Fleetwood makes the Bounder and the Flair. The Flair is a cheaper base model while the Bounder is generally a better motorhome. The Southwind would probably be a hair above Bounder in the quality department.
All that said, when you’re dealing with a rig this old, almost all of this depends much more on how well it was cared for than who built it.
Does It Have Maintenance History?
Smart RV owners keep records of all maintenance done to it. It makes a real difference when you go to resell it.
Does the rig you’re looking at have records? Maintenance receipts? Sometimes you’ll find clues to the history of the unit piled in with all the manuals.
You’re looking for evidence that it has been maintained. Oil changes. Fluid changes. Belt changes.
Low Miles. Good or Bad?
Lot of times you’ll see people in their ad for a used motorhome proclaim “Low Miles!” as if it is a thing worth bragging about. But, that isn’t always the case.
Think about it. A rig which is 15-20 years old and has low miles. Perhaps not even 30,000 miles on it. That’s only about 1,500 miles per year on average. Most likely, however, those miles weren’t spread out but came in chunks.
The potential problem with low miles is that the rig has spent a lot of time sitting still. Engines which aren’t used tend to fall apart. They rust. Belts rot. It just isn’t always a good thing.
On the flip side, a rig with over 100K miles isn’t great either. A gas rig with over 100K miles could be in fine shape if well cared for, but it also means all those components have been under a lot of stress. RV’s aren’t like cars where you can have a car with 150K miles on it and it keeps going like the Energizer bunny. RVs are much heavier and are under far more stresses so you don’t usually see rigs with those kinds of miles. Usually by that time, the house portion of the RV is falling apart.
My Coachman had about 60,000 miles on it when I bought it. I thought that was just fine. I say shoot for a sweet spot on miles. Under 30k miles for a rig that old and I’d worry. Likewise, if you’re getting up near 100k, I’d be cautious.
Any Signs Of Water Entry?
This is a big deal. Water leaks can be quite problematic for an RV. The damage can be severe enough where you have to total the rig. So, it is paramount that you go over every inch of an older motorhome and look for any signs of past or current water leaks.
You want to look at:
The entire roof. Is there any staining on the ceiling? Any fabric hanging? Any soft spots?
Inside the cabinets and closets. Open them all up and feel the wall and ceiling inside. Any softness or staining is a sign of leak.
Under all windows. Look for spots on the carpet. Feel the walls and look for any soft spots where you can push the wallpaper inward. Those are all signs of leaks. Especially around the rim of the window.
Fiberglass exterior. Any spots where the fiberglass is delaminating from the exterior could potentially mean water intrusion. Delamination (where the exterior material is literally hanging off or looks wavy) is definitely a bad thing.
Around the windshield. The windshield on RVs is often held in by adhesive. Over time, it can develop holes and allow water and air to get in from around the windshield. Look for this.
The floors. If you detect any soft spots in the floor, this can be a problem. Look especially in the areas where the floor is most likely to see standing water, such as the kitchen and bathrooms, or under windows.
Now, even if a rig you’re looking at seems free of water leaks, you need to look at where it has been stored. If it has been under cover much of its life, then it could mean it’ll leak like crazy when exposed to harsh rain. So, you want to take a look at all the seals and the roof as well.
Look at all the windows. Most RV windows are held in using screws, but there is a layer of butyl tape which forms the seal. On a rig this old, it is ideal that the windows have been pulled and resealed. Fresh butyl tape will keep the water out. If you’re seeing dried out seals around the perimeter of the windows (between the lip of the window and the fiberglass), then it probably hasn’t been done.
Look around the windshield. Again, look for potential holes in the seal around the windshield. You may need to gently peel back some of the rubber stripping around the windshield to get a look at what’s underneath.
Look at the roof. Get up on top of the rig and look at the roof surface. Do you see any cracks? Cracks around anything which emerges from the roof can be a problem (antenna, vents, A/C, etc.). Also, is the roof generally clean? You can’t expect a showroom finish on an RV roof, but a generally fungus-free roof is a good thing.
Lastly, if you see any internal signs of mold or mildew, that’s a huge red flag as well. It means there’s been a moisture problem inside the rig. Look at the fabric on the curtains and furniture. If you see signs of mildew, this is an issue. It doesn’t mean you can’t buy the rig, but you have to take all things into account. Mildew on fabric just means there was a humid environment in the RV. It doesn’t necessarily mean there were leaks.
Personally, I would avoid a rig that has had water damage. It can be a nasty (and expensive) problem to deal with.
How Old Are The Tires?
Tires for older motorhomes are usually cheaper because they’re smaller. New rigs generally have the bigger 22.5″ tires and they just cost more. However, even if the tires are cheaper, you still want to know what you’re getting into.
Older tires on an RV tell you two things:
You’re looking at an extra, potentially large, expense in the near future.
The RV has potentially been neglected.
See, RV tires usually need to be replaced every 5-7 years regardless of how many miles are on them. Tires older than 7 years are ready to be replaced soon. Some people say you can take them up to 10 years, but there’s debate on it and I generally just wouldn’t go that old. However, tires on a rig which are older than this just means that the owner was either ignorant or he/she simply wasn’t paying that much attention. And not paying attention to the tires probably means they weren’t paying attention to other things as well.
Look at the DOT codes on the tires to see how old they are. Keep in mind that the DOT codes aren’t always on the outside, so you may need to get on the ground with a flashlight and hunt them down on the reverse side of the tires. Be sure to check the inside tire on the rear duals, too. Many RV owners tend to forget about those tires, for some reason. My Holiday Rambler had a 12-year old tire on it when I looked. Ridiculous.
Also, any signs of dryrot on the sidewall of the tires is a red flag. It doesn’t mean you avoid the motorhome, but it does mean you’re looking at replacing that tire very soon.
Taking It For A Test Drive
Obviously, you’ve gotta drive it. And any rig feels odd to drive the first time – especially if you don’t have much experience driving an RV. They all make noise and have their little quirks. Here’s a few things to look for, though:
Engine belt squeaking. Could mean you’ll need to replace a belt soon. A serpentine belt replacement isn’t a big deal, but you want to know going in.
Oil leaks. With the engine running, get out and look under the rig. See any oil leaking?
Dashboard A/C Works? Many older rigs have dashboard A/Cs that aren’t working. Even a simple refrigerant leak could mean component replacement. I spent about $1,000 to repair the A/C in my Coachman and I hear this is pretty average.
Engine hesitation. When you hit the gas, is there any hesitation? Any transmission slip (where it will feel as if the rig is bucking even though the engine RPM is increased)?
Front cap shift. The RV is basically a fiberglass tunnel with caps on the end, and your front cap is where the windshield is. The front cap is bolted and sealed onto the rest of the motorhome, but age can lead to leaks and even structural shifting. My Coachman had an issue where the front cap would visibly shift a little when I took a turn. You could tell because you could see the windshield glass shift sideways in comparison to the dashboard. So, as you drive the rig, watch the glass as you take turns or as you go over bumps. If you see cap shifting, it could be an issue. Keep in mind that the front cap – and the whole rig – will shift and twist a bit. Noises are normal. But, you don’t want to see visible movement in the cap.
Testing The Internals
Water heater. Light it up on propane and see if it lights up and stays running. And if it can run off electric, test that as well.
Refrigerator. Have the owner turn it on the day prior to you coming to look at it that way it will be cold. Also, if it is running on electric, be sure to unplug the RV to ensure the fridge properly switches over to propane and continues to run.
Microwave. It either works or it doesn’t.
Stove. Light all the burners and ensure they’re working.
Sinks. Run water through them. Also, go into the cabinets below the sinks and check the pipes while the water is running to ensure no leaks.
Shower. Is it working? Also, be sure to check the caulk around the shower to ensure a seal and not allow water to go places it shouldn’t.
Roof A/C. Are they working?
Furnace. Turns on properly and produces heat. You’ll likely need to crank it way up to get it to turn on, depending on ambient temperature.
Ventilation fans. Turn them on and see if they spin up.
Generator. If it has a generator, start it up. This is an engine like any other and has to be run periodically and maintained properly. Does it start readily? Is it properly providing power to the rig? Unplug the RV and test the generator under load. Also look for any evidence of when the oil was changed or if the fuel filter was changed.
Tank gauges. Are the tanks showing accurate readings? With the fresh water tank, you can sometimes visually see the tank water level and then compare to what the gauge is showing. For the waste water tanks, you usually can’t eye them. Sometimes these tanks can be empty yet the gauges still show contents. Often this is due to gunk in the tanks or gunk on the sensors which is impeding a proper reading. Not a super big deal. Worse case, you can have the tanks professionally flushed.
Tank Flush Valves and Water Connections. I’d hook up the water hose and see if you get any leaks with water pressure. Also, see if there’s any leakage from the flush valves on your grey and blank tanks.
Water Pump. With the hose disconnected, does the water pump produce water pressure and run properly?
Other Random Things To Look For
Does the rig have slide-outs? If so, bring them in and out to ensure the mechanism is working. Also, look at the rubber seals around the slide. Do they look fresh and flexible? Does it look like a good seal? Do you see any evidence of water entry around the edge of the slide?
If the rig has levelers, you need to test them. Just follow the instructions and extend them out and in.
Rear camera work?
Awning. Pull the awning out and see how free-flowing the hardware moves. Also, is the awning fabric good to go?
Basement doors. Do they all open properly and are the door supports holding them up?
Headlights and running lights operational?
Keep In Mind… Don’t Expect Perfection
Remember, this is an old motorhome you’re looking at. Don’t expect perfection. Wear and tear is normal. You might even find a few items that need to be repaired. That’s normal.
What you want to do is have the best possible knowledge of what you’re getting into before making a deal. Don’t expect the person you’re buying it from to fix everything for you. Most likely, a rig this old is being sold private party and they’re not a dealer. These rigs will almost always be “as is”. So, take your time and evaluate the rig.
In fact, if you’re not confident in yourself, you can always hire an RV inspector.
One thing is true about RVs and that is that stuff WILL break. You WILL find things that you need to address and/or repair. That’s called RV ownership.
You just want to be reasonably sure you’re not walking into a big expensive problem.
The Case For Older Motorhomes
I know having a new RV is sexy. It looks cool. But, these older motorhomes are great in many ways.
A lot of it is financial. It isn’t nearly as expensive as many people think to have a nice motorhome and be out enjoying it. I’ve had people in campgrounds (with tents) just casually guess that I spent well over a hundred grand on my RV. I get a little laugh out of it. These things don’t have to cost as much as people think. Buying a 20-year old motorhome isn’t like buying a 20-year old car. The considerations shouldn’t be the same.
There’s also this…
At this time, a 20-year old RV is a 1996 model. Well, they had nice RVs back in 1996. An RV that would have been a luxurious expensive purchase in 1996 can now be had for pennies on the dollar.
Even with my Coachman, my parents told me that my RV was much nicer than anything they ever owned! And that’s just life. Remember, those $250K rigs you see out there now that look brand new… some day they will be 20 years old, too.
So, what I’m saying is…
These rigs still have life left in them, especially if they were cared for. There’s no reason to be scared of an older motorhome. You can get some really nice RVs for a lot less money than you might think.
Just buy smart – and don’t be afraid to have to deal with a few things as they come up.
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