Buying an RV can be overwhelming and for many people, it’s one of their largest purchases ever. There are so many choices and no one manufacturer or product is right for everyone.
We decided fairly early on that we wanted a Class B sprinter van RV. Here are the steps we followed in buying a sprinter van RV. Your process might be a little different, but my hope is that you will find this information useful.
Know your needs
Think about how you’re going to use your motorhome. Are you going to sell your house and go full-time? Are you sure? I’ve met more than a few full-timer’s who tried it for six months and then either went back to their community or settled down someplace else. And that 40 foot Class A that they bought? Too much RV and they ended up selling it for much less than they paid for it.
Also think about the number of people who are regularly going to use the RV. For us, it’s just the two of us with the occasional grand child. If you’re a solo, or a couple without kids, or a couple with one or more kids, your needs are going to be different. Note that I’ve put the emphasis on the number of people who are regularly going to use the RV. It makes no sense to buy an RV large enough for 4 people to sleep in if two of them are grand children who are going to be with you once a year. Put them in a tent, or if the weather is inclement, throw a pad down on the floor and let them sleep in the aisle or across the front seats.
RVreviews.net lists five scenarios for RV buyers: Camper or Weekender, Vacationer, RV Trekker or Boondocker, Working Solos, Snowbirds or Full-timer. I think that’s a good list, but I’d simplify it to three scenarios:
- Scenario 1 – weekend trips with the occasional 7-14 day vacation in the summer
- Scenario 2 – longer trips of a few months, but you still have a home base
- Scenario 3 – full-time living in the RV
For many years now, we’ve been enjoying scenario 1 in our 2006 TAB trailer. It has a queen size bed, a limited amount of storage and a kitchen with a small refrigerator, a sink and a two-burner propane stove. It doesn’t have a toilet or a shower. We generally stay in National or State Parks where they have toilets and most of the time they have showers as well. The TAB is about 15 feet long and weighs only about 1500 pounds. We tow it behind our four-cylinder Subaru Forrester.
We’re now looking to make longer trips as in scenario 2. We need a built in toilet and shower, as well as some more room. We’d also like to take a grandchild (or two) camping with us, so we need seat belts and sleeping space for at least 3. At the same time, we want to stay as small as we can. Many of the State parks that we like to camp in have length restrictions. Occasionally, we like to drive into smaller to medium size cities, and we’d like to park in a normal parking space wherever possible.
Bill Goldman, one of the RV bloggers I follow, wrote an excellent post based on survey data that he gathered about how people use their RVs and what size motor home they favor for different scenarios. Not surprisingly, the largest motorhomes (around 45 feet) were favored by full-timers, but perhaps surprisingly, those who were most likely to fall into scenario 2 (retirees or people that are not working) chose the smaller, up to 25 foot motorhomes. That made sense to us, and we decided we wanted a motorhome that was no longer than 25 feet.
We’d also like to get decent mileage, not only to save money, but to have a little less impact on the environment.
Here are a few other questions you should ask yourself if you are thinking about buying a sprinter van RV:
- Will you be doing any winter camping? If so, you may want to buy a sprinter van with extra insulation and heated holding tanks.
- Will you be doing much boondocking (camping without shore power and other connections). If so, you may want to buy a sprinter van RV with solar and/or an extra alternator, as well as larger fresh water and holding tanks.
- Which bed layout works best for you? We tried a sprinter van RV with a corner bed and quickly concluded we didn’t like it. We settled on the Twin bed design that makes into a King bed.
- If you’re married or traveling with a partner, do the two of you go to bed at the same time? My wife and I have different sleep schedules, so we wanted a second area of the motorhome where I could read late at night and where she could hang out in the morning before I get up.
- Build quality – all sprinter van RVs require maintenance and can develop problems. As you visit dealers or look at used Sprinter van RVs, try to assess the build quality. You may also want to browse the forums for brands and models that you’re considering to see what kinds of problems people are having and how often they report problems.
- Cost – this is important for almost everyone, but the emphasis put on cost may be different for different people. For some, it might be paramount and they have to stick to a fixed budget. Others will accept higher costs to get higher quality.
- Resale value – although many people buy a sprinter van with the idea that they’ll own it for many years, many times that’s not the case. Check out pricing for a slightly used version of your favorite Sprinter van RV if you’re buying new, or if you’re buying used, for a unit that is 1-3 years older than one that is in your price range. You can find average retail prices at NADA guides.
Finally, I’d suggest you make a list of the qualities that are important to you when buying a sprinter van RV and divide them into must have’s, prefer to have’s and nice to have’s. Keep this list handy as you evaluate each sprinter van RV that you’re considering.
If you are looking at sprinter van RVs, I’d recommend that you purchase the Sprinter Van Buyer’s Guide by Greg Keith. Greg’s guide provides a comprehensive list of manufacturers and models built on the Sprinter platform, and for each model he provides information about the company, links to video walkthroughs, reviews, any recent recalls or defects and specifications. It’s a great place to start.
RVreviews.net also has a review guide for motorhomes that includes reviews of sprinter van RVs. I didn’t find this guide as useful and given the cost I can’t recommend it. However, I did find their model specific reports useful once we had settled on a specific manufacturer and model. It included company history, an assessment of it’s intended use (weekends, multi-week vacations, snowbird use for 3-6 months and full-time), ratings on the following: dimensions: quality of construction, reliability, carrying capacity, drivability, customer satisfaction, style and resale value, as well as a depreciation chart. They also list the RV dealer’s invoice for a new model or the true wholesale value for a used model, which may help you in price negotiations.
After you’ve reviewed one of the guides above and perhaps narrowed your choices, take a look at the manufacturer’s sites. I found it helpful to review the manufacturer videos, which gave you some sense of both the outside and inside of their vans. A few of the salespeople in these videos, particularly Dean Corrigal of Leisure Travel Vans, are very entertaining.
You may also find some helpful third-party videos. I viewed many of the videos on The Fit RV site. The couple that run the site, James and Stefany, are charming. Their reviews tend to be upbeat and emphasize the positives of the RV that they’re reviewing, so pay close attention when they say they don’t like something; it’s almost always going to be a major drawback.
I’d also recommend that you check out the forums for models that you’re considering. Here is the link for the general sprinter van forum and here is a list of the manufacturer specific forums. One observation I had when visiting these forums was that certain forums seemed to have a lot more activity than others. If you’re the type of person who wants to connect with others who own a similar RV, whether to get help or get ideas for improvements or modifications, you may want to choose a model with an active forum.
Lastly, I’d recommend that you check out some of the Facebook groups. Here is the link for the general Sprinter Van Owners Facebook group. You may also find a Facebook group for your particular manufacturer. For example, here’s a link for Leisure Travel Van Enthusiasts Facebook group. Some manufacturers also have regional owners groups.
Used or New?
The easy answer to this is used. Like most automobiles, RVs depreciate and they depreciate the most during the first year. Unlike most automobiles, RVs, particularly those with a diesel engine, can last for 300,000 miles or more. There are also several more factors that make buying a used RV attractive.
In my experience, and from what I can glean from various RV forums, initial quality control for RVs is not quite as high as initial quality control for automobiles. It’s not uncommon for someone taking delivery of an RV in a distant city to experience problems on their initial shakedown trip home. When you buy a used RV, most if not all of those problems should have been discovered and fixed.
In some cases, a used RV may be better than when it was new. Many RV enthusiasts, particularly those who can do some of the work themselves, make improvements to the RV beyond what’s available from the manufacturer. For example, as of this writing, relatively few manufacturers offer lithium ion batteries as an option, but many enthusiasts upgrade their rigs with these lighter and more powerful batteries. Other popular after-market upgrades include improved shocks, sway bars, electronics, wifi boosters, and cellular boosters.
Another factor that favors buying a used RV is the availability of lightly used RVs at attractive prices. Many people romanticize the RV lifestyle, buy more rig than they really need, use it less than they thought they would and then sell it without putting that much mileage on it. Their loss can be your gain.
The last reason for buying used: lead time. At least one manufacturer that I know of today has a lead time on new orders of almost 11 months. If you can wait that long, fine. But if you want something sooner, the used market may be your best bet.
In my mind, there are only a few reasons to buy new. First, if the current model year has a feature that you absolutely must have and it can’t easily be added after-market. Second, if you are financing the purchase, there are usually more options and slightly better terms when purchasing new rather than used.
I don’t buy the reasoning that you just have to get your RV in a certain color with your choice of cabinetry. If that’s your reasoning, fine, but that’s expensive interior decorating.
If you do decide to buy a used RV, I recommend Bill Meyers ebook Buying a Used Motorhome. It costs only $3.99 and Bill provides some invaluable advice, including a checklist for inspecting a used RV and some hints on how to negotiate the purchase of a used RV.
In addition to used Sprinter van RVs available at dealers, the best source for buying a used RV for sale by owner is RVTrader. The second best source is RVT.com, although I find that this site is dominated by ads from dealers. You can also sometimes find used RVs for sale by owner on Craigslist, although many of these are also advertised in RVTrader and a few of them are scams. If you live on the East coast, a lot of RVs get bought and sold in Florida, and there is a Facebook group for RVs, Campers & Trailers for sale in Florida.
Rent before you buy
I’d encourage anyone who is thinking about purchasing an RV Sprinter Van to rent before you buy, whether you’re buying new or used. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work for us by renting a Sprinter Van. For example, we rented an RV with a corner bed and found out that this kind of layout doesn’t work for us. We thought we had to have a separate toilet room and shower (in other words, not a wet bath), but we found that we didn’t actually use the shower in the RV that often because showers were available in nearly all of the campgrounds where we stayed when we rented.
Some dealers and an increasing number of independent companies rent RVs. There are even AirBNB-style web sites that connect RV owners with renters, serving as a middleman in the transaction. Here are a few examples of companies that provide rentals:
rvshare.com – these guys have the most options in cities where I searched. I haven’t personally used them so I can’t vouch for them.
Outdoorsy – these guys have fewer options than Rvshare.com, but they do offer $1M insurance protecting both the owner and renter.
Luxe RV Rental – we rented from these guys and although we did have some issues, the owner did everything he could to try to make things right and seems committed to improvement
Mercedes Sprinter RV – 21 locations, most in airports, in 11 Western states. Formerly Roadtrek rental, so you can guess which brand they rent.
Southern California Sprinter RV Rentals – Pleasure Way, Roadtrek, Winnebago Navion and a few others
Advanced RV – One of the Sprinter Van RVs we considered; they also rent a couple of their units out in Ohio and Southern California. They’ll also apply 30% of your rental fees towards a purchase.
BlissRV – Leisure Travel Free Spirit and Serenity models
American RV – Coachmen Galleria rental
If you do decide to rent, make sure you understand the complete costs. Most of these rental agencies charge extra for providing bedding, camp chairs, kitchen equipment, etc. They also charge if you don’t bring it back freshly clean from the car wash or without the black and grey tanks dumped. Some charge more for weekends than weekdays. Some charge for insurance, some include it. Some have roadside assistance, others make you buy a policy. Do not think that renting an RV is as easy as renting a car – it’s not.
Finding a good dealer is almost as important as finding the right RV for your needs. Not only do you want to find one that is going answer your questions and deal with you fairly, but you want a dealer that is going to provide good service after the sale. Ultimately, the manufacturer should stand behind the product, and you should be able to get service from your local dealer, whether or not they sold you the motorhome. But the timeliness of your service may be greater if you get service from the same dealer that sold you the RV.
Start by asking for recommendations from other people who have purchased a Sprinter van. Make sure you get multiple opinions on each dealer and find out the specifics about why someone liked or didn’t like a particular dealer. Some people are unrealistic in their expectations or perhaps they encountered a salesperson who didn’t last very long at the dealer.
When you do get a positive recommendation in regards to a particular dealer, also get the name of the salesperson. I’ve found that an introduction to a particular salesperson from one of their happy customers can help to build a good relationship with the salesperson.
As you’re interviewing dealers, ask them what services they provide after you agree on a price and sign the contract. Their answer should include at least the following:
- The dealer should perform a pre-delivery inspection of the unit before you take delivery. Ask them if they have an inspection check list and if you can have a copy. If they won’t share the check list, ask them what’s on it, write everything down, show it to them, and then ask them if you have it right. This may help you if you have some initial issues.
- The dealer should be willing to walk through the use of every system on the RV. Particularly if you’re not experienced with Sprinter Van RVs, you’ll want to take advantage of this education. One tip: when your dealer runs through the use of certain systems, particularly things like emptying and filling the tanks, winterizing the unit or anything else that you might not do on a regular basis, film the operation using your smart phone. Six months later, when you winterize your rig for the first time, you’ll be glad to have that video.
- If you take delivery of an RV at a dealer that is more than an hour’s drive from your home, tell the dealer that you are going to camp nearby for a “shakedown” cruise, testing all of the systems. If you discover a problem, make sure that they’ll give you priority service to fix any issues that you discovered and by implication, they failed to find in the pre-delivery inspection.
The best way to negotiate a good deal is to go in to the negotiation with as much information as you can and to genuinely be willing to walk away from a deal that doesn’t work for you.
If you are buying a used Sprinter Van RV, check out average prices in the aforementioned NADA Guides. You should also print out flyers for similar RVs listed on either RVTrader or RVT.com. Be aware that the prices listed on these sites are asking prices, and the actual sale price may be 5-10% lower.
If you are buying a new Sprinter Van RV, the dealer invoice information provided by RVReviews.net in their model specific reports may help you in negotiations. Sometimes people will share their experiences and the prices they were able to negotiate in the forums, but be wary of deals that are too good to be true. Most people like to think that they could have negotiated a better deal than they really did, and they may not be providing accurate information.
I know of at least one buyer of a new Sprinter Van RV who sent out emails to multiple dealerships around the country, specifying exactly the model and the options that he was looking for, telling him that he was definitely going to buy within the next 30 days, and asked them to provide their best price.
Bill Meyers ebook Buying a Used Motorhome describes his method for negotiating a deal. It is aimed at negotiating with owners of used motorhomes, but it can easily be applied to negotiation with a dealer.
It might also help to go to the negotiation with a friend who agrees to be your advisor in the negotiation. Choose someone who you think has good negotiation skills. Because they’re not emotionally involved in the purchase, they are much more likely to be realistic about the negotiation and point out when you’re either letting your excitement about owning the vehicle is preventing you from negotiating a good price or when you are walking away from a fair deal.
I’m usually not a big fan of extended warranties. By their nature, the insurance companies and dealers that sell them have to take in more money than they pay out in repairs, and in some cases, they take in much more money. So in the aggregate, they are money losing bets.
However, the RV industry has very funny economics when it comes to warranties, especially compared to the warranties on new cars. Your latest car probably came with a 3-5 year bumper-to-bumper warranty and a powertrain warranty ranging from 5-10 years. Most RV manufacturers offer only a 1 or 2 year warranty (Roadtrek is the exception, with a 6 year warranty). And that’s on a vehicle that sells for several times what you probably paid for your last new car.
An extended warranty may also be available on that used RV you just bought, particularly if it’s still under the manufacturer’s warranty.
If you do decide to get an extended warranty, you might consider buying one from a specialized RV insurance broker. Dealers typically mark up extended warranties by 25%-100% and they have little incentive to shop around for the best deal. Insurance brokers, on the other hand, represent multiple insurance companies, and they are generally knowledgeable about the different coverages and finding a deal that best fits your needs. They also have an incentive to do well by you, as you’re more likely to recommend them to others, and they grow their business through referrals.
Here are three extended warranty brokers:
I hope this information helps. If you have additional tips or feedback, please let me know in the comments or contact me directly here.