First, know what type of RV you're in the market for
There are at least nine different classifications of RVs, and even the choice of which to set your eye on can be overwhelming.
Camping World, one of the US's largest RV retailers helmed by Marcus Lemonis of "Shark Tank" fame, suggests one simple question to get started with the shopping process: "Deciding on a type of RV can easily be narrowed down just by choosing if you would like to drive the vehicle (Class-B, Class-C, Class-A, or Class-AD), or tow the vehicle (pop-up, travel trailer, or fifth wheel)," the company says on its blog.
"From there, you can narrow it down again by deciding on how much space you will need within the unit to be comfortable," says Camping World. "There are quite a few options when it comes to the general layout of RV interiors. Depending on how you will be using the RV when you travel, certain floor plans may be a better fit than others."
Know what the RV is worth
Whether it's new or used, any RV has a value. Like cars, the value of a new RV can drop considerably when it leaves the dealer's lot.
By his calculations, a new camper or motorhome is going to lose 21% of its value the instant it's no longer considered new. After five years, the RV's worth will "plateau," Harmer says, depending on its wear and tear.
Regardless of if you plan to buy a new or used RV, be sure to check sites like RV Trader for prices of similar models to get a feel for the market.
Do a close inspection of the RV
Go over every inch of the RV — inside and out — for potential problems, the RV rental platform RVShare says on its blog.
Everything from bathroom fixtures to cabinets and plumbing can contain headache-inducing problems down the road. What's more, they can be indicative of even more serious, and sometimes invisible, problems.
Here's what to keep a look out for:
Beyond being a health risk in its own right, mold can be a sign of issues beneath the surface.
"Even if there's no visible water damage in the usual spots like floors and ceilings, mold on the interior of an RV is usually a good indication of leaks or other water problems," RVShare says.
"Check the corners of the ceilings and floors, look up and down the walls, and especially check the corners and caulk in the bathroom around the fixtures. Also, open up cabinets and closets and shine a flashlight to see if there's any mold growing. You'll often smell it, but if the closets or cabinets feel especially warm (warmer than the rest of the RV), there's a good chance that there's mold growing in there."
If water has seeped below the floor lining, it may be hard to see the underlying damage.
"As silly as it sounds, jump up and down in a few spots, especially around the kitchen and bathroom where water is used the most," says RVShare. "The floors should all feel stable and sturdy; too much give could indicate rotting."
Open all of the exterior panels to check for corrosion and rust. Give the walls a push, too.
"There shouldn't be too much give to them," RVShare says of the exterior walls. Everything should feel sturdy.
Check the tires
Don't forget to check the tires, as a blowout in an RV can be even more catastrophic than in a passenger car.
"Even RV tires with near perfect tread can lead to blowouts," Progressive insurance suggests. "This is one of those instances where age trumps appearance so do yourself a favor and check the age of the tires on the RV you're looking at, even if it's brand new.
"The general rule of thumb is to consider replacing your RV tires at or around 5 years of age," the company says.
To check the tire age, look for the DOT label on the sidewall. The four number code following that will contain the week and year that the tire was made. 4813, for example, would indicate the 48th week — sometime in November — of 2013.
Know the RV's history
Just like on a used car, you can use an RV's vehicle identification number, or VIN, to see its history.
"Depending on the vehicle's history and the data available, the report may include information on whether the vehicle has ever been damaged, rebuilt or stolen, as well as the manufacturer's specifications and recall notices," suggests AARP.
Take it for a test drive
If you're able, a test drive is one of the best ways to get an overall feel for the RV.
"Ask to test-drive the vehicle with the seller onboard to answer any questions, and let the seller do part of the driving as well, so you can see how the RV rides as a passenger," AARP says.
"Look for noises or other problems that you might not be aware of while you're behind the wheel. Test-drive the vehicle on different roadways, particularly at top speeds on an open highway, and find an empty parking lot to see how it backs up and handles in tight situations."
If you're not buying your RV from a dealer, be on the lookout for potential scams by sellers.
"Consider it a red flag if an owner is asking you to wire them money or pay via check," Jon Gray, CEO of RVShare, told Business Insider.
… and don't forget insurance
Depending on your state, RV insurance is likely required for a motor home of self-propelled RV,just as it is for your automobile.
"On a towable RV, such as a 5th wheel, camper or travel trailer, the liability extends from the tow vehicle," says Nationwide insurance.
"It's important to have sufficient coverage to protect your assets in a serious accident or lawsuit. Without enough liability coverage, you risk going into debt or losing the things you've worked hard for – your home, car, RV, personal possessions and life savings."