Buying an RV Online – with an RV Buying Insider’s Perspective

The Internet changed the way we live, and the way we conduct business. I remember asking myself what this thing called “Amazon” was all about, and now the annual gross profit ranges around 115 Billion, that’s with a ‘B’. The Internet changed the way we work too. In 1999 I started a dotcom business (RV Education 101) that is now in it’s 21st year of successful online operation. We went from selling training videos on VHS tapes, to now offering content on an online platform the consumer can view on a smartphone whenever they want or need a refresher on how everything works on their RV.

I also remember working as an RV sales and F&I manager in the mid-90s, prior to the Internet boom. We made hard-calls to bring potential customers into our sales lot and sold RVs through one-on-one negotiations, haggling the selling price of the RV. Consumers were conditioned for this type of buying process through decades of purchasing cars and trucks from automobile dealerships. It was how we did business.

Now, in what seems like a blink of the eye, the Internet changed the way we do everything. Companies like Carvana made a strong presence, and through effective advertising campaigns started changing our way of thinking on how to buy an automobile.  Their tag line is, “sit back, relax and experience a whole new way to buy a car.” You can literally find the car you are searching for, take a virtual tour of the car, get a history report on the car, finance the car, buy the car and have it delivered to your home without getting off the couch. For old-school people, used to haggling and negotiating the price, it takes longer to accept changes like this, but change is going to happen and the Internet plays a major role in many changes happening today.

That brings me to Buying an RV Online

Buying an RV online

Our RV Buying Insider:

Note: While researching and writing this article, I was in contact with an individual who was actually going through the RV online buying process. When it applies, and for a real-world representation, I will include comments about his experiences throughout the RV online buying process. Let’s refer to him as our “RV Buying Insider.”

Auto manufacturers and dealerships are typically more advanced than RV manufacturers and dealers when it comes to satisfying today’s demanding buyers on what they expect, want and need from the auto manufacturer and dealer. The demand for instantaneous satisfaction is expected throughout the shopping and buying process, and in terms of good service after the sale.

The Internet is changing the good old days of loyal repeat customers going to the same dealership, to buy the same brand of vehicle. Today’s buyer shops online for the best price and best service, and if you can’t provide it they will find somebody who can.

Our RV Buying Insider said this about talking to multiple dealerships:

“I called phone numbers listed for internet RV dealers to connect with as many salespersons as possible. I talked with two, out of five or six calls placed. Most went to a voice mail, and my messages were not returned. I had conversations with sales people in various parts of the country to find not only pricing, but to learn more about different features of coaches I was considering from different perspectives. This was helpful information.”

Truth be known, most people are not comfortable haggling over the price for a car or RV. What they really want is the dealer to make a reasonable profit, but not take them to the cleaners.

So how do you go about buying an RV online? Where do you start?

Do your Research

Right now we are not concerned about local RV dealers, or where we should shop, the first step in the process is to do your research. In my opinion, the most important part of buying an RV online is through research. The only way you will come out on top in the RV buying process is if you are willing to do the necessary research.

Types of RVs

Learn the different types of RVs available to you

With that said, the first step is to research the various types of RVs and identify which type RV works best for you, based on your needs and how you plan to use it. To help you understand the different types of RVs there are read my article titled, RVing 101 Different Types of RVs

Now, think about how you plan to use the RV. Will you use it for one or two weeks of vacation and a few quick weekend trips, or are you going full-time and plan to live in the RV? Do you want to drive the RV or would you rather tow one? This is an most important step in the RV buying process, because if you select the wrong type of RV you will not enjoy using it.

Most RV owners go through a natural progression of RV ownership, until they find the type RV that really suits them. Even then, other factors can affect our decision on what the best type of RV for us is. For example, when you are raising children and you go camping a pop-up or travel trailer might fit the bill. But, years later when the children are grown a small motorhome designed for two people might work better.

Our current RV

We have personally owned every type of RV made with the exception of a toy hauler, but that falls into the family of travel trailers. We owned one pop up, one vintage travel trailer, two conventional travel trailers, one truck camper, two 5th wheel trailers (one is our destination camper set up permanently at the beach), one Type C motorhome and currently our Type A motorhome.

We purchased some of these RVs to use for filming purposes and then to resell, but we used them during the time we owned them. Of all the types of RVs, a motorhome makes the most sense for us. Our current motorhome is 36-feet in length and we travel six to eight thousand miles a year in it. We have a couple extended RV trips planned that we just haven’t taken yet. Right now it is Dawn and I traveling with our two fairly large dogs. We can use the RV as an office, and we have plenty of room to move around inside. We tow a Jeep liberty behind the motorhome, so we have transportation after getting to our destination.

Toy Hauler or Sport Utility RV

Take your time and study all the all the different types of RVs. Try to imagine going on a trip in each type of RV there is. Don’t concern yourself with the length, or how many slide-outs it has, just concentrate on the type of RV it is and try to determine which type best fits you and your lifestyle right now.

Lance truck camper

We purchased a used Lance truck camper to film some product videos, and then took it on a trip from North Carolina to Colorado and back. At the time, we had three dogs. It was a fun trip that we will always remember, but Dawn later said, “the truck camper is your man cave, it is not great for traveling with three dogs and two adults.” She was absolutely right, if I was going on a fishing trip by myself or with a friend the truck camper would be perfect, but the model we had wasn’t designed for more than that. This is another reason why it’s important you select the right type of RV for you.

RV Manufacturers

When you are satisfied with your decision on the right type of RV, it’s time to research and learn more about RV manufacturers. I like to use an analogy comparing RVs to automobiles. When you purchase an RV, regardless if it’s a travel trailer, 5th wheel trailer or motorhome, you need to understand you have the option to buy a Chevrolet, a Buick, or a Cadillac. In other words, within each type of RV manufactured there are what I refer to as entry level, mid-line and high-end models of that type RV available. I always say, there is nothing wrong with buying a Chevy, but if you buy a Chevy don’t expect to get a Cadillac.

Lance truck camper construction

RV manufacturers use different quality components, construction materials and construction techniques when building RVs. For example, an entry level travel trailer might use wood framing with corrugated aluminum siding, whereas a mid-line RV would use aluminum framing with fiberglass exterior siding. The reason is, there are different RV buyers with different budgets that need to be considered by RV manufacturers. If you plan to purchase a travel trailer to use once a year on your two-week vacation, it would be ridiculous to buy an expensive high-end RV. It would be more practical in this example to buy the inexpensive wood framed travel trailer with corrugated aluminum exterior siding. The point is, at this juncture of the RV buying process give some serious thought to whether you want a Chevy, Buick or Cadillac.

A concern with RVs is quality. The RV industry struggled with this issue for many years. You might decide to purchase an entry level travel trailer, but that does not mean you don’t expect quality construction. Regardless if it is an entry level travel trailer or a high-end motorhome the quality of workmanship that goes into the RV should not be compromised. You can go here to read my article titled, how to know if you are buying a quality RV.

RV 101 Tip: Any RV manufacturer who is proud of the construction and quality of the RV will offer lots of information in brochures and on web sites. When selecting a manufacturer always look for information on how the RV is constructed.

With that out of the way, its time to look at some RV manufacturers. You can do all of this research online, and you can request brochures from the RV manufacturer. If you choose the latter, be prepared to hear from local RV dealers who sell the brand RV you requested information on. Years ago, there were lots of RV manufacturers to choose from, but unfortunately most of those manufacturers were purchased by two of the larger RV manufacturers in the industry, Thor and Forest River. The original names of the RVs live on, but the owners changed hands. I personally think you lose a degree of pride in ownership when the previous manufacturer was a family owned business for decades, and now it is more monopolized. Names like Jayco, Air Stream and Keystone still exist, but now fall under Thor or Forest River. There are a few independent RV manufacturers left like Winnebago and Lance, but for how long is anybody’s guess.

My recommendation is to enter the type of RV you are interested in into your Internet browser and see what RV manufacturers come up. You can research individual manufacturers online to help discover a brand name you are interested in, but keep in mind the discussion we had about Chevy’s and Buick’s. It can be dizzying when you see all the different RV brands and models available, but stay focused and you will eventually locate a brand name you are interested in.

Air Stream forum

When you do find a brand you are interested in, I recommend you visit some RV forums listed under the brand name of the RV and read what other owners of that brand have to say. Don’t get hung up on topics like the dealer they purchased the RV from, concentrate on what is said about the quality of the RV under that brand name. Don’t be afraid to ask questions either, RV owners enjoy talking about their RVs.

Our RV Buying Insider, about communicating with multiple dealers :

I decided the coach and options I would order, and got a spec sheet from one of the dealers listing all features, both standard and optional, that are available for that unit. I checked each option I wanted on the spec sheet and scanned it to include with my emails requesting pricing. This was helpful in communicating with multiple dealers, local and national, and knowing each was talking about the exact same coach. One person’s “fully loaded” is different from another’s, and the spec sheet allows a comparison of apples to apples on price”. 

Your Budget

I mentioned your budget a moment ago. Budgets are important, just like when you buy a car or truck. For example, I finally had the opportunity to buy a diesel truck, which I wanted for many years, but was always outside my budget. When I looked at Ram trucks with Cummins diesel engines I of course wanted a 2500 Laramie model loaded with everything you could get. But in reality, I could afford a 2500 Outdoorsman model with a Cummins diesel, that had some of the features I wanted. You need to be realistic about your budget. When an RV is loaded with optional equipment the price can get very expensive, but if you take some of the options away you can still afford to buy the RV you want. I always tell people, if there is no money left in the budget to use the RV, why get one in the first place!

The RV Floorplan

RV floorplans

If you know the type and brand name you are interested in, I suggest looking through online brochures for a floorplan you are interested in. You know the type and brand RV you want; now how do you want the interior configured? RV floorplans come in all kinds of configurations. Do you want bunk beds? Do you want a front or rear bedroom, or maybe two bedrooms? Where do you want the kitchen, in the front, rear or middle of the camper? What kind of bathroom do you want, a side bathroom, a walk-through bathroom or maybe two bathrooms? RV Manufacturers offer all kinds of floorplans, but keep in mind there are size and weight constraints placed on RV manufacturers. Not everything will be perfect, but I guarantee there is a floorplan out there for you.

This would be a good time to start watching some of the virtual tours offered online for the specific brand and model RV you are interested in. These virtual tours can show you the interior floorplan, interior colors, wood treatment, the exterior of the RV and what standard equipment and optional equipment is on a particular RV.

RV 101 Tip: Weights are a major consideration, especially if you are buying a travel trailer or 5th wheel trailer. You need to be 100% sure the fully loaded tow vehicle can handle the fully loaded trailer’s weight. I highly recommend our trailer towing and 5th wheel towing online courses if you have any doubt or don’t know how to check all the weights involved with towing a trailer.

The RV Dealer

Next is the RV dealer. Believe it or not, there are still RV dealers around who are not good at using the Internet to their advantage. These are mostly the mom and pop dealerships who have been in business for years and do not deviate from what they know worked in the past, and still works for them today. Most of today’s RV dealerships do have an internet sales department, or an Internet sales manager position to handle online sales. But from my years of working at an RV dealership I will venture to say online sales at dealerships are limited by what the owner thinks about the World Wide Web in general. Some older dealership owners like I mentioned earlier do zero online sales, while others may have one person running the online sales for the dealership, and still others demand a significant percentage of sales from their Internet sales team each month. The point being, not every RV dealership has a prolific online sales department, but that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded as a dealer to purchase an RV from.

Something I think is important to understand when buying an RV online is territorial sales agreements. When an RV dealership agrees to carry a particular brand of RV, they want an agreement from the RV manufacturer that their territory is protected from other dealers in the same area selling the same brand of RV. It is usually based on a certain distance in a circumference from where the dealership is located.

So, after finding the perfect RV its time to find RV dealers who sell the RV you want. There are a couple ways to do this. You can search the Internet for RV dealers who sell the brand of RV you want, or you can drill down a bit further and search for dealers who have the specific model RV you are interested in, currently in stock and ready to sell.

I will caution you; the difficult part will be locating an RV with the same interior treatments, floorplan and features you are looking for. When RV dealers order stock units for their inventory they have the option to order a standard equipped model as designated by the manufacturer, or adding additional options to make the RV more attractive to the potential buyer. This of course increases the selling price.

RV 101 Tip: If you plan to shop a particular RV between different dealerships you need to make sure both RVs are comparable in standard and optional equipment. In other words, make sure it is apples to apples when shopping prices. When options are added to an RV the price can change significantly.

RV dealership

In past years, owning a successful RV dealership was based on repeat sales. When you sell a pop up to a young couple, you treated them right throughout the selling process in hopes when they upgraded to a new unit, they would return to buy it from you. This is quite literally how RV dealers survived and built a clientele list.  Something else that held true was getting preferred treatment after the sale because you purchased the RV from the same local dealer.

They did not, and do not look kindly upon people who live near them, but did not purchase the RV from them. This is a reality when you buy an RV online, especially when the transaction is based on buying at a lower price. It’s unfortunate, but some smaller RV dealers need to make more profit on the sale of an RV to pay their overhead costs and still be profitable. Other dealers, specializing in Internet sales don’t have the same overhead and can under cut another dealer’s pricing just to get a sale. Their sales are based on volume, not on the quality of service after the sale.

On the other hand, there other large RV dealers who have a big online presence in internet sales with a good reputation for service after the sale, but if you live 500 miles from their dealership chances are you won’t get the RV serviced by them.  As you can see, there are some major decisions that need to be made when buying an RV online.  

What our RV Buying Insider said about getting the best price:

I sent this email to five or six dealers, including one I had visited in person and subsequently asked a few questions via email, one I had talked with on the phone a many times and sent several email questions about features, and a few from the internet I had not had any prior contact with, but were within my driving range.

Dear …,

I will be ordering this fully loaded 2021 Class A coach, as shown in the attached spec sheet, with desired options checked on the sheet. Please send me a quote with your best price for this coach and your best estimate for when I could take delivery. Price will be an important factor in my decision, but not the only one. I am also asking for quotes from two other regional dealers within my driving range. Please also give the amount of down payment needed to initiate an order, and what types of payment are accepted for the down payment. I have arranged my own financing, so it would be a cash deal with a certified check on delivery .

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you,

This is where the power of the internet comes in

Lots of online sellers (selling in volume) will eliminate the haggling and negotiating and offer you “the best price” on any comparable RV you find. In other words, locate the RV you want online with the stipulation if you find a comparable RV at a lower price they will match or beat the price. The high-volume Internet sellers can add just enough profit to the invoice of the unit to stay profitable, with the end goal of beating all other dealer pricing to get your business.

You can email, text or talk to the Internet sales manager throughout the online sales process. Explain that you are looking for the best price they can offer on the RV you are interested in. Let them know you are not hesitant to compare the pricing with others, and although they want some type of commitment from you, they should offer their best price for the RV in question. Sometime the price is already advertised in the dealers online ads.

Here are the results of our RV Buying Insider’s negotiations:

Converting numbers to percent MSRP for simplicity, responses to my emails and other requests for prices gave asking prices ranging from a high of 92% MSRP for a 2020 coach that is  sitting in a lot in California (over 20 hours away from me) and is almost identical to the 2021 model I want, to a low of 70% MSRP to order a 2021 coach, with delivery in four months, from a dealer about a two-hour drive away. Another was for 78% MSRP to order a 2021 coach and about 1,000 miles away; another 2020 model had just sold over the weekend for 70% MSRP. The last offer was 72% MSRP to order from a dealer I had visited, and is about an hour away

It was interesting that the lowest offer (70% MSRP) came form a dealer who gave a quote over the phone of 80% MSRP the previous week, before I sent the email. In the meantime, I had scheduled to meet the salesman on Saturday to see his dealership as well as a used coach I had mild interest in; then canceled my appointment because I was instead going to look at a coach at a different dealer. This competing dealer had a coach with the same exterior as the one I thought I liked, although a different model, and I wanted to see the actual look of the paint and graphics. I informed the first salesman I was canceling my appointment with him to look at a competing dealer, which was true, and I also wanted to underscore that I was talking to multiple dealers. It surprised me that the offer went from 80% MSRP to 70% MSRP after that sequence of events. He might have thought he was in danger of losing the sale after I went to a different dealer after first scheduling a visit with him, and he wanted to pull me back in with a substantially lower price than he first mentioned on the phone. Very possibly the elusive “best price”.

The two dealers closest to where I live were also the ones with the two lowest offers (70% and 72% of MSRP), so I zeroed in on them. I assumed the 72% MSRP offer would at least match the 70% MSRP, and maybe beat it. I used email to relay the lower offer to save the time of a phone call, because I was multitasking with some work-related issues. To my surprise, the 72% offer was reduced only slightly to leave it $2,500 higher than the 70% MSRP offer. No bidding war as I had hoped. I presumed that was about as low as they would be willing to go. I accepted the 70% MSRP offer after getting it in writing. The offer was initially left on my voice mail, and I did not want to give a down payment until the offer was in writing. In retrospect, I could have, without naming numbers, told him I had similar offers from him and his nearby competitor, and needed to weigh the pros and cons of each deal and dealership overnight. Could he sweeten his deal at all before I sit down to mull it over? That would have given me the chance to find out if he would go any lower without lying to him by saying I had an equal or lower offer in hand, which I would not have felt right about doing. The deal is done, and I’ll never know.

Other Considerations

When you buy a new RV, the selling dealer is required to complete a pre-delivery inspection or PDI on the unit prior to you taking delivery. They go down a list checking the operation of everything on the RV and repairing any problems they discover along the way. I would caution you in the case of some high-volume internet sales operations the quality of the PDI could be questionable. Anything they do to the RV that costs money would affect the selling price of the RV, so I would venture to say their costs are kept to a minimum, including performing a quality PDI. And if they deliver the unit to you, there is still the cost of getting all the proper hitch and towing components required to safely tow the RV if it is a trailer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are other more reputable high-volume internet operations who do a proper PDI on the RV, and still sell the RV to you at a price that can’t be beat. It’s your job to find who these more reputable dealers are.

RV 101 Tip: Search the name and location of a dealership and if there is negative content about the dealer it will be posted online.

Something else you must consider is making arrangements to have the unit delivered, or you have the option to drive or fly to the location (depending on whether it’s a motorized or towable RV), to pick the unit up.

Financing the RV

Financing can be arranged through most selling dealers, or through other lending institutions, and the loan paperwork can be completed electronically or in person. It will be on you to research what the current RV interest rates are, and if you have above average credit to make sure you get the best rate possible. There are RV specialty lenders who are competitive with interest rates and want your business. But keep in mind, some RV dealers can make more profit on the back end of a sale then they made on the selling price of the RV. This includes things like interest rates, service contracts, tire protection plans, paint protection plans and more.

Here is what our RV Buying Insider said about financing:

 “I went to my bank and found I could get financing by securing a loan against another investment account I have with their bank. This loan has no down payment and an interest rate about half that quoted by dealer-arranged financing.

Ultimately buying your RV online is a decision you need to make. A savvy RV buyer can use the power of the Internet to their advantage to get a good price whether through online sales or an RV dealer closer to home who is willing to work with you on the price of the RV. Try to determine if saving money on the purchase of the RV will pay of in the long run of overall RV ownership.

Final thoughts from our RV Buying Insider about buying online:

Overall, the internet and email saved me an enormous amount of time to gather information about motorhomes and what the market was doing, as well as streamlining the time needed for final negotiations. In the end though, the two best offers came from the two dealers nearest my home, who were also the ones I had spent the most time talking and emailing with. That’s a little counter-intuitive, as one might think responding to a random spec sheet request from a stranger might garner lower prices since the salesperson has not invested any time on the deal, and might want the chance to make a quick deal with a serious buyer. I think it says the human element is still pretty important in making a deal. Although I have talked extensively with the salesman, I have not yet actually been to the dealer I placed my order with, and most likely won’t go there until I take delivery of the RV. Between talking with the knowledgeable salesman, the extensive content of their website and the ability to get information on the manufacturer’s website, I feel fully comfortable going to this dealer sight unseen to pick up a six-figure purchase. 

To learn more about buying an RV, check out our online video course titled, How to Buy the Right RV, and Save Thousands

Happy Camping,

Mark J. Polk

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