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How to Get the Best Price for Your Used RV in a Trade

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life. He shares his experiences along with valuable tips for RV owners.

If you've decided to trade in your RV, read this!

If you've decided to trade in your RV, read this!

Trading Your RV?

For the person who is totally unaware, the acronym RV is short for Recreational Vehicle. The RV that you drive can also be called either a motorhome or a coach.

The different design types of RVs are called Class A, Class C, and Class B or B+.

On the other hand, if is a towed RV then it will most likely be called a; tag-along, travel trailer, 5th wheel, or pop-up camper design.

But regardless of the design type, this article will provide you with a good perspective on the pitfalls ahead of you as you go through the process of relieving yourself of your RV.

What The RV Dealers Want You to Trade Up, not Sell

I myself, am on my sixth motorhome, and over the years I always did what the RV industry wanted me to do; I traded up!

You see, the RV industry including dealers and manufacturers survives on the premise that you will eventually want to trade up to a newer and better camper.

The manufacturers, dealers, service centers, and even your fellow campers; all expect you to trade up to a bigger, better, newer, and of course, more expensive RV.

And this premise of "newer is better" is the trap so many of my fellow RV owners fall into.

So, If trading up is what you really want to do, then here are a few of the things you need to know to get the most out of the deal you make when you do trade your RV.

This is a 1996 Pace Arrow Vision motorhome. It was a very nice high end motorhome when new and is many of them are still traveling on the roads of America.

This is a 1996 Pace Arrow Vision motorhome. It was a very nice high end motorhome when new and is many of them are still traveling on the roads of America.

Make a Good vs. Bad List First

Once you decide that you really are going to shop for a newer rig, you need to perform a thorough examination of your existing RV.

Get a pad of paper and start listing the GOOD things and BAD things about your RV as you walk around and examine its condition with a critical eye.

The exterior, as well as the interior of your RV, needs an honest evaluation of its physical and functional condition. You need this information because you need to use it in order to know your rig's real value.

Making this list may not be too difficult, because as the owner and after hopping around all of those campgrounds you've been to, you already know your RV pretty well.

You already know what looks good and what looks bad about your existing rig as well as what works properly and what has problems. You just need to sit down and put it all together in one place.

That will be your first list, your honest collection of what is truly "Good and Bad" about your RV.

As you make your checklist, include the status of the major items listed below. Of course, you should also add any other items you may think of if you feel they may affect your trade-in value.

  1. Exterior paint. Does the exterior paint look bad or good or is it possibly in excellent condition?
  2. Exterior roof. If the roof is rubber, is it clean and white or is it stained, and does it have any cuts or patches in it? If the RV's roof is fiberglass or a composite, does it have cracks or other visible damage?
  3. Wheels. Are the wheels clean and shiny (if aluminum or chrome) or does any rust show (if they are painted)?
  4. Tires. Check the condition and the age of the tires. If they are over 5 years old or are damaged or worn you should expect to take a hit on your RV's trade-in value.
  5. Exterior windows. Are all of your windows in good condition, without stains, milky areas, or cracks? Have rocks caused pits or cracks in the windshield? Most RV windows are expensive to replace so you must know whether yours are OK.
  6. Engine compartment. Is the engine compartment clean, and more importantly, does it look neat, without any sloppy wiring or taped items? And is it grease- and oil-free? Spending $15 to $20 on a good pressure washing of the engine compartment as well as spraying some Armor-All on the top components can make things look a lot better to a buyer or dealer.
  7. Batteries. Are the Chassis and Coach batteries clean, and are the battery compartment, battery connections, and wiring nice and clean, with no oxidation showing or any patched-up wiring?
  8. Service compartment. Is the service compartment clean, with all hoses stored away neatly? And when you open the door do you smell sewage? This compartment really needs to look and smell good. Fix or tighten any leaky connections, clean the compartment, and if a smell persists, try placing one of those scented cakes that you find in people's bathrooms to override the remaining smell.
  9. Generator compartment. Is the generator compartment clean and neat? People do not want to see a generator with grease stains or with heavy layers of dust on everything. Thirty minutes with a medium-strength cleaner and a couple of rags will really make this area look great.
  10. Interior ceiling. Are there any signs of water leaks from the roof area? Stains or peeling wallpaper are your first indicators. Fix the leak first, and then fix the stains. Hopefully, the leak has only caused cosmetic damage, not physical damage.
  11. Interior walls. Are there any signs of water leaks along your walls? If so, fix the leaks and then the stains. And if you have sections of interior wall that have buckled or pulled away from the body, repair or replace them. Nobody is going to spend much for a rig with this kind of visible physical damage.
  12. Interior floor. If you have "soft spots" on your floor, then you probably have wood rot in the underlying sub-floor. If so, pull the carpet and replace the sub-flooring. It is not all that expensive to have this done by a professional.
  13. Interior cabinets. Check them for damage, swelling, and evidence of water leaks on the wall behind them, and repair any problems found. These areas must look pristine when examined by a potential buyer.
  14. Interior plumbing. Check your RV water inlet, water pump, water holding tank, water heater, sinks, showers, and faucets. Make sure that they all work flawlessly and that there are no drips or leaks.
  15. Interior electrical. Make sure all of your electrical appliances work properly, as well as all electrical receptacles and lighting.
  16. Driver's compartment. Everything in the driver's compartment must be in perfect working condition when a potential buyer sits down and examines his new cockpit: the seats and their controls, the cruise control, power mirrors, front AC, windshield wipers, rear cameras, interior display, and all of the control buttons must function flawlessly.
  17. Interior entertainment equipment. All satellite equipment, TVs, stereo, and CD/DVD players should be functional and you should have them ready to demonstrate.
  18. Interior furniture. Your bed, mattress, sofas, sleeper sofas, chairs, lounge chairs, and tables must be in good condition as well as clean and functional with very little sign of wear.
  19. Interior appliances. All of your interior appliances must be working properly and so clean that they shine: the gas range, the fridge, the oven, the microwave oven, and their accessories.
  20. AC and furnace. You absolutely must have these in perfect working condition. People do not want to deal with heating and cooling problems when they are traveling.
  21. Options. Many rigs today have other accessories installed that will be important to a buyer. These might include an aqua-hot furnace, electronic security systems, navigation systems, or a CB radio. All of these must be in good working condition and pushed as valuable additions to your rig.

If these or other items are not working properly when a potential buyer or a salesman examines your rig this can really hurt the deal.

For instance, if someone walks into a rig and turns on the front AC, and it does not run or isn't cooling well, they will assume that it is broken and they will want it repaired or even replaced.

If they find two or three "problems" like this, they will most likely try to get out of the deal and move on to something else that they can have more confidence in.

What to Fix Versus What to Leave

Before you move forward with your search for another rig, you need to sort out your newly compiled list and make honest and sometimes painful determinations. Break your "Bad" list down into three categories:

  • Category 1: Ask yourself, I can fix that myself because it's easy and cheap to do.
  • Category 2: These items need repairs that I can't do but I have a good service guy and he can fix these problems for me at a decent price that I can afford.
  • Category 3: These problems are complex ones or just expensive ones that I cannot fix myself and I need to accept the fact that I will probably take a hit on the total value of my RV in a trade.

Once you have gone through this process and done what you can to fix the important things you have designated as being Category-1 or Category-2 problems, then make a formal list of the remaining things that are either broken or have some sort of problem that you are probably going to show to the buyer or salesman.

That's right: you will have a better chance of closing a deal if you let them see that you are being honest with them and that you know there are some things that do need repair, than if you just tell them that "everything works great."

Rarely does anyone get away with trading in an RV with a major problem without the dealership finding that problem during the trading inspection process which always includes a thorough checkout by one of their in-house experts.

And, while you are worried over the hit you will take on the price, remember that almost every RV sales center has its own service center that can make a lot of these repairs much cheaper than you can.

They're usually set up to more easily fix many of the things that you can't or don't want to fix.

They might try to knock down their offering price for your rig, but just check the numbers and use the information you have in your dealings with them.

This is all part of the trading-and-negotiating game.

Determine Your Rig's REAL Value

Next, you need to determine the realistic value of your rig and of the rigs at your dealer's site that you might like.

So you need to go to the NADA website, and read how NADA, the National Automobile Dealers' Association, values vehicles and RVs, and check what the pricing numbers and vehicle conditions really mean.

When you go to a dealer, the first thing that they will do is walk over to their computer and print out the potential NADA values for your rig. So, it will help you in your negotiations if you already have a copy in your hands that you have read and understand, intimately.

That way they will have to deal with you on some kind of equal basis.

Using the NADA Site to Determine the Value of Your Rig

When you log onto the NADA site, go to the Consumer section. (The Business section is for dealers who have paid for their own special book of pricing; I'll explain that later).

On the Consumer page, you should select the RV tab at the top.

A window will pop up and you need to enter your Zip Code. Yep, they have different pricing for different parts of the country, on the exact same rigs. Go figure.

At this point on this page you can do several things:

  • You can select a type of RV (such as motorhome, pop-up, or whatever) and from there you can go deeper and check on the pricing of other RVs that you might be interested in buying or trading for.
  • Or, you can search for an RV by manufacturer's name, to get a quick check of values.

To do the latter, enter the manufacturer's name, and after the page updates, enter the specific model name, model number, and length of the RV.

You will go to another page that lists ALL of the particular options and accessories that were available on your rig when it was new. You need to go through this list carefully and select each and every one that exists on your rig. This list will be used to determine the five prices of your rig.

Once you enter the details you will be taken to the next page, the Pricing page, which gives you five important numbers that you need in your negotiations or your selling strategy:

  • Suggested List Price
  • Base Low Retail
  • Base High Retail
  • Accessory-Loaded Low Retail
  • Accessory-Loaded High Retail

(Yet a sixth number, Average Suggested Wholesale Price, will not appear on that page but is discussed in the next section.)

So what do these numbers mean?

Suggested List Price

This is like the MSRP value of your rig. No one uses this number in dealing, except really crooked dealers trying to take advantage of someone looking for an RV, and of course, uninformed rig owners, who use it as a bragging number.

You don't know how many times I have heard some RV owner brag, after a couple of beers, in front of friends who don't know any better, saying something like: "Hey, the list price on my rig is $150,000" (or whatever number they got from NADA at one time or another).

Base Low Retail

The next number you will see is the lowest, and it is the "Base Low Retail" price. You can find the exact definition of this price on the NADA site, but let's just say this is the Retail value of an RV in B=ad condition.

Base High Retail

The Base High Retail pricing is the expected base retail value of an RV if ot is in Very Good Condition

Then, as you look down the page, you will see the Accessory-Loaded Low Retail" and "Accessory-Loaded High Retail" pricing for your rig, showing the value of all of your accessories and options added to the base price.

What are these numbers for? How do you use them?

Well, theoretically, If you are trying to sell your rig yourself, you want to use the "high retail" price for your area and expect a potential buyer to offer you something a little lower . . .

Realistically, I suggest that you should start your negotiations expecting an offer for your RV to be at a price somewhere between the "Base Low Retail" and the "Base High Retail" price, depending on the condition of your rig.

If it has body damage, scratched-up paint, worn carpet, the ceiling and wallpaper show water damage, major appliances don't work, or it needs new tires, then you will need to adjust your pricing accordingly if you want to get a fast sale or trade.

Lately, many of the dealers tend to offer trade-in pricing that's even below the Low Retail price listed. This gives them a larger margin on what they pay for your RV and what they will be selling it for, once they clean it up.

So, in a sense, you are at their mercy if they have an RV you really want.

How Dealers Price Your RV

Now, let's talk about dealers and their "Little Brown Book." You see, every dealership in the country has joined and uses NADA.

By this you need to understand it is actually called the National Automobile Dealers Association—and the pricing is designed for them to make an assured profit on a rig, and still get it financed for resale.

So, when they open their little book, they will have another number listed for their rigs and for yours.

Wholesale Value

This is a mystery number, sometimes called "Wholesale" that only the dealers have access to. You see, there is no such thing as an official wholesale price, but this number exists, and it's the bottom number that the vehicle is worth to dealers (and to banks).

Average Suggested Wholesale Price

This is the price at which they really want to spend on your rig. You need to be aware of the existence of this number even if you can't get the actual number from your Dealer/Salesman.

At different times over the years, I have seen this "Wholesale" figure come out to around 10% to 20% below the "Low Retail" price.

The numbers change, not only due to the aging of the world's RVs but also due to the economy and to feedback NADA gets about what rigs are really selling for. They get new books with new pricing every month or so.

Dealers use this wholesale figure as the base value for calculating their profit on RVs they own themselves, and for calculating their profit on a traded-in RV.

For instance, if the "Wholesale" number for a dealer's rig is $40,000, and the salesman's boss has told him that they always get a margin of at least 25%, then he is going to start on you, the buyer, with a number far in excess of $50,000--that is, far in excess of $40,000 plus 25%.

After that, he might possibly let you work him on down to wholesale-plus-25% as his "rock bottom" number on his rig.

You see, if they are asking somewhere below the high retail price for their rig, which they usually do, and if they offer somewhere at or below the low retail price for yours—after they have knocked it for every scratch and mile it has on it—then they are in a guaranteed profit position. Often a very large profit position.

Then if he offers you something in between Wholesale and Low Retail for yours and you actually accept, he is in Fat City. He still has his margin on his rig, and a guaranteed margin on yours when he resells it. He ends up with a win-win situation anyway.

Another note here for you. If a salesman realizes that you have done your homework, even on their unit, they will quickly let you know that they will do the trade either way that you want, with or without options and accessories added. But the numbers will be stacked the same way on their rig and your rig.

Just remember, if you opt to do the trade "with options" there is a sales tax involved. But dealers do tend to prefer this level of pricing because they usually already have banks that will provide financing for the higher price.

And, yes, they do get a kickback from the financing bank.

Now, remember, they will start somewhere in the range of the numbers that you see on NADA, not their special little "Wholesale" number that is even lower.

Your RV or Camper Trading Strategy

Your challenge is to catch the dealer at some disadvantage that will force them to eat a little into their pricing. Here are some hints that might help you:

  1. Whatever their offer, insult them with a counter-offer for your rig's pricing (or theirs) that cuts deeply into their visible margin.
  2. Mention, of course, that you know that they have less than their asking price in their unit.
  3. Argue with any reduction they try to take on your rig. Give a little speech about how great your rig is, and all of the things that you have done to maintain it or even improve it. Sell your rig to the salesman. Remember, often they already have a potential customer for your rig, and you are giving them extra information to make another potential sale if this one goes through with you.
  4. Pick on their rig. Inspect it inside and out and look for any and all problems that might exist. Also, if you have done your research, talk a little with them about the reputation of the manufacturer, and any design problems that you have heard of from fellow campers, and on the web.
  5. Do not try to trade your rig in during their peak sales season; if they are not hungry then try to time a deal on a rig so that you might close on the last day of the month. Yes, they do have monthly quotas, and if business is not good that month, you can get a little better deal.
  6. Walk in with a fantastic credit score! And tell them up front what it is. Then they know that you can close on the deal if financing is needed. Also, mention up front that you have enough put away that you can put whatever you want down on a rig if you really like one and you get a good price. They love that, and you told them without them having to ask.
  7. If you see a rig that you like while looking around the dealer's lot, pick it out, along with at least two similar units. At the end of the day, go through your three favorites, take pictures with your camera or smartphone, and write down all of the pertinent information about each one, to remind yourself later of all of the details about the rigs.
  8. Then, just tell them that you have to go home and check out the pricing and reputations of the three units, be firm, and leave. An honest dealer will understand and leave you alone. Often, this will force them into guessing which one you really like, and possibly making you another lower offer so you don't leave the dealership.

You see, lots of people get cold feet and never come back the next day, and the salesman ends up losing the deal; so they want to keep you there and close, now.

Making Your Offer

At the end of the day, after talking to the salesman, his boss, and whoever else that they will bring in to get you to sign a deal, walk away anyway!

Never close a deal on a rig the first day.

You really do need to let the numbers get cold. Go home, open a bottle of wine, pour yourself and your spouse a glass, and sit down and knock that rig around.

Pick apart what you didn't like, and discuss the things you really liked. You need to tell each other that you are going to have to live with your choice and ask yourself, over and over, if it is the right rig for you for the next few years.

Then? Well, then you put everything away; the brochures, the NADA pricing, the loan and payment calculations, everything, and get a good night's rest.

When you get up in the morning, you and your spouse should sit down over your morning coffee, talk it over again, and do one of three things.

1. Call the salesman, and just tell him bluntly that you and your wife have decided to keep your old rig for another year. Thank him kindly, and hang up as soon as you can, to cut off the ongoing sales drivel. You have made up your mind, and you can move on. Or:

2. Call the salesman and tell him, firmly that you really don't want to trade for that particular rig right now, and although your wife loves the rig, it isn't quite what you want.Thank him for his time, and see how he responds after you have planted that "maybe" seed in his head. Often you will get a call back that day or the next with yet another offer. Or:

3. Call the salesman and tell him that you will see him later, but before you come over, he needs to sharpen his pencil a little and drop his price a little more. I have gotten another last-minute $500 to $2000 doing this. If he says NO, hang up, and if you really liked the unit, call him back several days later, and tell him you have found a couple of other units, and you just wanted to give him another chance to make the sale with you. You just might get a lower offer.

And, finally, if it is the right rig for you and it is at the right price, then just go on in and do it!

Closing the Deal

If you finally get to that point where you are sitting there ready for the financing and such, you need to do a few more things:

  1. Make the salesman give you a list, in writing and signed, that details each and everything that they, the dealership, have agreed to fix, at their cost, as part of the deal.
  2. Make the salesman give you another list, in writing and signed also, that details each and everything that they have quoted and agreed to fix for you at your expense.
  3. Make the salesman give you yet another paper detailing their warranty of the rig, even if it is only for 30 days, that details what they will pay for and what you will pay for. There should be mention of parts, labor, and who pays each, as well as any extended warranty on their work.
  4. Get out your numbers and his numbers and make sure that is what you are going to see when they take you to the Finance Guy.
  5. Tell him, the salesman, that you were promised a specific finance rate, and you will walk if the finance guy tries to get even 1/8 of a point higher.
  6. Often they will give you some story about such things as banks are having hard times, your credit wasn't good enough for the rate you were promised, or some such other tale. If he tries this on you, walk! They are, in all probability, working you for the extra point of financing interest.
  7. So, if they try to work more money out of you, just thank him, walk out, then go tell the salesman, and walk out. You will probably be stopped before you get to the parking lot to come back and "let's work this out, I think I can fix it!"
  8. You already have auto insurance, you don't need whatever brand they will try to sell you. Be firm!
  9. But you do need an extended warranty. Every RV owner has heard the stories about the fridge, the air Conditioner, the transmission, even, that went bad two months after they bought that used rig, and the repair cost more than the extended warranty that you were offered. If you don't have one, get one; if you already have one, push them to handle the transfer of your existing warranty before you close the deal.
  10. And, finally, count your fingers after you shake the finance guy's hand!

Getting the Repair Work Done

SO, you have walked out, with new debt, and a pile of papers in your arm.

You got a promise that the rig would be all ready for you to pick up in, let's say, five days.

You go back to your old RV and wait five days, right?

No, You go over and see if the new rig has moved at all every day.

And, if it isn't in a service bay, then call the salesman, immediately. Act dumb! Ask stupid questions! But, let him know that you want that rig ready on or before the fifth day. Hell, tell him that you have reservations at a campground three states away, if you have to. But instill a sense of urgency in them any way that you can.

Otherwise, you will show up on the fifth day, and get the famous run-around. They will feed you a story: the part didn't come in, the wrong part was ordered, the part was back-ordered, etc.

The real story is that almost all RV service centers are understaffed and the technicians and mechanics are overworked. You can almost plan on the job being done late.

That is unless you get to know the salesman and the service manager intimately. You will probably have to get them to dread your next phone call, NICELY!

There is an art to pushing a service shop and still being a nice person. Learn how! If you do, your rig will get fixed on time, and fixed properly.

And, seeing as how you are going to be there talking and telling jokes to the service manager and some of his techs, it will definitely not hurt if you show up with a pizza or two around lunchtime. Pizza greases a lot of wheels in a service shop.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: If we are driving 1 1/2 hours to look at a used RV at a dealership that we really like, should we take our present RV to get a trade-in value?

Answer: Well, there are several perspectives on doing this. Personally, I carry a lot of pictures of my unit, inside and outside. GOOD Pictures! Then I would go on the NADA or BlueBook site and look up what my RV is worth High Retail, and Low retail.

Then when you get there they can make a trade offer based on what you show them and tell them.

Another theory is; that the dealer will feel he has you and will not make as good an offer, and just do the little things to get you to accept a deal, often not the best deal.