Avoiding a Lemon

When you're shopping for a used RV, there are several things that you really need to be aware of and should make sure that you put under the microscope when you’re shopping. With the exception of the Class B that has the solid roof of a van, every other type of RV from travel trailer to Class A has the potential for water leaks.

Some time ago, a smart person came up with the idea for a rubber roof. It must have been a smart person because this concept has been a guaranteed moneymaker ever since. The product is EPDM, short for Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (M-class) rubber. RV manufacturers use it to coat the roof and are sold on the idea that it is the all climate, all weather, all around perfect RV roof sealant.
The stuff is so touchy the manufacturers warn you that even a tree branch scraping across the top of your RV is enough to cause damage. It’s not available at Walmart or Home Depot, it's exclusive to RV supply stores like Camping World and it isn't cheap. You apply it like paint and then seal the edges with a caulk-like product called Dicor. A small hole or a tear in the surface will allow water to seep in when it rains and cause damage that you may not see straight away.

The industry standard recommendation is that you do at least an annual inspection and a touch up of any exposed surfaces that you may find. A lot of RV repair shops will say to check it twice a year just to be safe. The point is, not a lot of people are that diligent and that is why you need to be. Climb up on the roof and check it out thoroughly. Don't be quick about it because many RVs have had their roofs painted (over the rubber sealing compound) and it may not be immediately obvious if it's a small split or something worse.

Occasionally you’ll come across a fiberglass roof but they were rare in their day and almost impossible to find now. They are solid and minor damage is easily repairable with a fiberglass patch kit from the hardware store. As they age, cracks can form from weather exposure and general wear and tear. Check them in the same way as you would a rubber roof, especially around the edges.

For this and many other reasons, you should never inspect or purchase an RV outside of daylight hours. Blown light bulbs or a screw missing here and there are minor issues that can be easily fixed once you get it home but the big things like water damage are not so cheaply repaired.

Always check every appliance for operation on both electric and propane. Don't take the sales person's word for it, check it yourself and make sure that it’s right. If it's a car lot and they tell you it's just out of propane then be hard about, ask them nicely to put some in for you so you can check the appliances. If they push back and you're really interested in the RV then while you're taking a test drive, stop at the local ACE Hardware or U-Haul place and put a couple of bucks in yourself. Onboard RV tanks can hold quite a bit but unlike barbecue bottles sold by the pound and weighed, bulk propane is by the gallon. Because they meter it through a gauge, you can go to any place that sells it in bulk and buy one gallon or ten. It usually costs about the same as the stuff you put in your car. Sometimes the attendant will say that they need to fill the whole tank in one go but if you explain the situation they will usually give in and sell you a smaller quantity. It may be inconvenient but it's better than letting an obstinate sales person and five bucks worth of propane get in the way of a good deal.

If the appliances check out then go through it as you would any used car. Pull the dipstick, inspect the fluids and generally just walk around and kick a tire or two. If the oil is black and dirty with a smell like gasoline then it’s been a while since the last oil change, certainly longer than recommended. An oil change is the most basic maintenance on any vehicle and if the previous owner neglected the engine like that then it’s probably a safe bet that they didn’t do much else. It shouldn’t necessarily deter you from a great deal but it is something to be aware of when looking around for an RV.

If its a later model (1996-) then invest in a scan to to read the computer. They are reasonably priced and very easy to use. A lot of sketchy sellers will disable the check engine or other warning lights to hide a problem. This tool will tell you the truth. It's a tool you will use often if you do any work on your own vehicles.

If the oil is clean, make a point to check the filter and see if it looks new. An old filter would suggest that the oil wasn’t changed but topped up over a period. In that case, check for leaks and if you can’t find any then a reasonable assumption would be that the engine is burning oil. If it’s not obvious when you start the vehicle, it’s possible that an unscrupulous seller has been using one of the many additives available that can temporarily mask a smoking exhaust.
The other thing that should be on your list to check thoroughly is the transmission fluid. It should be red and smell, as you would expect it to smell. If it smells like burnt toast then it too has seen many more miles than it probably should have since its last service. Once again, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker but something to file away in the back of your mind as you consider the price and condition of the RV that you may be about to purchase.

If you do buy it then make it a point to change out the oil and filter as soon as you can. Do the transmission at the same time. Don’t buy into the hype that it’s all too complicated, an automatic transmission service is well within the scope of the home mechanic. Pick up a transmission service kit at any auto parts store and then find the instructions for your vehicle online, or if you have one, in the maintenance section of the shop manual.

After you've kicked the tires and made up your mind that you have a reasonable deal then overlook the minor trim issues and anything else that’s easily fixable and just go for it.

Buying an RV (or a car for that matter) is like just like going to a flea market or a yard sale. If you find a good deal then just remember that you're not the only one who can find it. Once you hesitate and go around the corner, there's a good chance that when you come back, it will be gone.
Remember that nothing is perfect and there is always going to be a compromise between good, better and best, depending largely on your budget. Shop smartly, go with your instincts and prepare to have fun!