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RULE #10:  Negotiating over the price of an RV is no picnic . . .

. . . unless the price is of no concern to you.

(This entry is continued from the previous page.)

If you want to strike the best deal you reasonably can reach, it's going to take a lot of work, stubbornness, and tenacity.

Jim and I knew most of these "rules of engagement" going into the RV purchase process. We didn't feel like we needed to buy a book to tell us how to find the right RV at the right price. We've bought enough cars, vans, trucks, and campers over the years to pretty well know the drill.

Despite all that, this has been the most difficult vehicle purchase either one of us has ever had in our entire lives. We weren't expecting that.

Late spring flowers above the Tongue River Canyon, Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming

Buying an RV should be a fun process for most people. Traveling and camping usually represent relaxation, escape from "the real world," adventure, good times around the camp fire. So how did it turn into so much work and stress for us by the time all the numbers were crunched?

The hunt was fun until we narrowed our search to one manufacturer and then had trouble finding the two or three specific models we were considering. The worst part was negotiating prices, however. This was difficult at every dealership where we talked money in Arizona and Texas this winter. We found it very different from our other vehicle purchases the past decade, including the HitchHiker 5th-wheel.

Just keep in mind that no matter how much the salesperson pretends to be your pal and says (s)he has the same goal as you -- finding the perfect RV for your needs and wants -- buying a new camper is usually an adversarial process to some extent.  The job of everyone at the dealership is to sell you an RV at the highest profit possible. The buyer's job is to get what (s)he considers "a good deal:"  the most camper for the least money.

Medicine Wheel, in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming

To really get an RV at the lowest possible price can become a negotiating nightmare. Most people apparently either don't want to go that route or thought they did but really paid too much. I read recently in an article by an RV industry insider that 80% of buyers don't get as good of a deal on their new campers as they think they did; they caved too soon in the negotiating process.

Did Jim and I fall into that trap, too, despite all of our due diligence and bull-headedness?

Perhaps. We think we're in that other 20% who drove a hard bargain, but we could be wrong. It's tougher to determine true value on a more scarce and complicated commodity like an RV than it is on most passenger vehicles. The more prices you get on comparable RVs, the better you'll know when you've found the lowest profit margin a dealer will tolerate.

We never gave any dealer our price range, only the quality, weight, and features we wanted. In fact, at the beginning of the whole process a couple of years ago we had no firm ceiling on price; we decided we'd pay what was required to get the right 5th-wheel for our lifestyle, then negotiated the price down as far as we could when we narrowed our choice to the brand and model we wanted.

RULE #11: Get the dealer's bottom line ASAP

One tactic that worked well for us when we bought our new Ram truck a year ago (and other vehicles previous to that) was asking for the dealer's best price right up front. We were clear with each salesperson that we would be comparing his/her price with other dealers who had nearly identical vehicles. We got very little run-around with this tactic when buying passenger vehicles.

It didn't work very well with any of the RV dealers where we asked for prices, however.

We didn't care if they inflated the value of the HitchHiker and took less off the MSRP of the new rig, or if they assigned a lower value to our old camper and took more off the top of the new one -- we tried our best to make each salesperson and manager understand that the only figure we were interested in was their FINAL, WALK-OUT-THE-DOOR PRICE, including all taxes and fees (based on our state of legal residence's sales tax and registration/title fees, not the higher Texas taxes and fees). And we let them know we were comparing them with the walk-out prices at other dealerships on the same or comparable models.

Not exactly apples to apples, but as close as you can get with an RV. There just aren't as many similar ones as there are with cars and trucks.

A marmot surveys Clear Lake in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado

We didn't want any of this "Let me see if my manager will let me take any more off this price" crap, going back and forth to wear us down. We hate that. We did our best to avoid that stupid game but it was futile. If we walked out after the first quote and refused to sit through another hour of their game, they'd call us later to give us a lower price but never -- until the last dealer, the one we purchased from -- did we hang around for that.

They blew it.

And the last dealer's price was given under duress in a messy feud between two managers in the same multi-store dealership. I'm really surprised the "winner" finally caved in. We think we ended up with  the lowest possible price on our particular Cameo (maybe not!) but it came with a lot of stress while the competing managers duked it out.

RULE #12: Just because the RV industry is in dire straits doesn't mean you'll waltz out with a fantastic deal on a new 2010 model

You would think that RV dealers in this lousy economy would not only be practically giving away these babies, they'd also do anything in their power to not alienate serious buyers like us. We also tried to make it clear that we intended to buy a new fiver this winter. Even that didn't seem to help when we were crunching numbers.

The industry has been in even worse shape than the car and light truck industry in the last two years. RV manufacturers didn't get government bail outs and we never heard of any of them offering 0% interest on loans like we got on our Dodge Ram last February. (Why pay cash when you can get a 0% loan for four years AND another $1,000 discount for doing it?!)

Too bad we couldn't find another deal like that with an RV!

Clear Creek below Clear Lake in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado

It's not like most people need an RV; unlike a basic car you might truly need to get to your job if there is no other suitable, available transportation from your home, RVs are mostly a luxury item. The least expensive and the most expensive RVs are the ones that have been selling the best in the last two years. A higher percentage of models in the mid-range have been sitting on dealers' lots, unsold. Many RV manufacturers either went out of business entirely after 2008 or seriously cut back on production. They only began to see a faint light at the end of the tunnel recently and are starting to build more campers.

Even though all the manufacturers whose RVs we looked at this winter have been producing their 2010 fifth-wheel models since some time in the fall, we still saw a few 2008s on dealers' lots. There were some 2009s that were very tempting because their prices were significantly lower than the 2010 models that came in more recently.

RULE #13:  Consider a pre-owned RV or new 2008-9 . . .

. . . if you want the steepest discounts -- just like with passenger vehicles. Dealers are more anxious to get rid of those before the newest models, even though they make more profit on the new ones. Older ones take up valuable space and cost money each month they sit on the lot.

I wish I could give you examples of how much of a discount various dealers were willing to give us on the MSRPs of 5th-wheels we looked at but it's impossible to determine an accurate percentage because the value of our trade-in varied by several thousand dollars. Some dealers offered a bigger discount on the MSRP and a lower price for our trade-in because of its condition; others inflated the value of the trade-in to make us feel better and took less off the MSRP and other charges. We can definitely say the discount was higher on the 2009s than the 2010s.

(Side note: only two dealerships out of about a dozen that we asked to look over our HitchHiker so they could give us an informed trade-in quote gave it more than a cursory glance. And even though we asked each of them about extending the slides so they could better inspect the inside, only one wanted to see it open. He was the one who drove about twenty-five miles one way to our campground in Arizona to see it and was the most thorough.)

Saguaro cacti in McDowell Mountain Park near Phoenix, Arizona

In the end we had solid reasons for wanting a new 2010 unit (one was the Cameo Bigfoot option) and we knew we'd pay more for it than a new 2009. If the newest features aren't important to you and you can find a suitable new 2009 rig in 2010 (the selection is getting thinner by the day), go for it.

We know folks who've gotten real bargains when they've found a "cream puff" pre-owned motorhome or towable RV but they had to be really on the ball to make sure they weren't inheriting someone else's lemon. It's easier to thoroughly inspect (or hire a pro to inspect) a used passenger vehicle than a used RV because there's so much more to inspect on an RV. For example, hidden water leaks may have ruined some of the wood in the structure. Finding and repairing those can be a nightmare. And how would you have any clue how many miles have been put on a towable camper when there's no odometer?

It helps if the dealer offers a 90-day or one-year warranty on a pre-owned RV but you have to read all the fine print to understand what's covered and be able to trust the dealer to fix it -- and still be in business as long as the warranty lasts.

And an RV that's sold "as is?" Even as adept as Jim is at repairing things, we wouldn't touch one of those. We're getting too old for a wheeled or stationary "fixer-upper" to live in.

RULE #14: Be ready to walk if the deal isn't right for you

If you desperately need a new RV right now because you live in it and it just went up in flames or got totaled in a wreck, you're pretty much at the mercy of your insurance company and RV dealers.

Otherwise, take your time to find the right rig at the right price. Always remember that you are in control of the buying process. Vote with your feet and your wallet.

Since Jim and I weren't desperate and we wanted to get as good of a deal as we possibly could, we approached this purchase in a hard-nosed manner -- probably more ruthless than the average RV buyer. We were armed with more and more information as the hunt ensued, we had time to compare many models and dealers, and we were pretty flexible regarding most features on our new fiver.

Information, time, flexibility: those are handy tools for an RV buyer to have. Tenacity's good, too!

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when buying a new RV (or passenger vehicle or stick-built house) is to fall so hopelessly in love with one particular vehicle or house that you will buy it at any cost. I guess that's fine if you have unlimited funds but for most of us, it's a recipe for financial distress.

Sunset over McDowell Mountain Park near Phoenix, Arizona

Jim and I were prepared, even with the coach we did buy, to walk away from the dealership if the price wasn't what we wanted or the terms changed unexpectedly. Because of the complications that arose between the two managers who fought over our business, we weren't sure until the day we signed the final papers and moved our stuff from the HitchHiker to the Cameo that the deal was final. In fact, we are still concerned that something may go wrong and we won't sleep soundly until we've got both the registration and title in our hands.

We figured we could find that particular model with most of the features we wanted somewhere, some day. I think that's true for 99.9% of the other RVs, passenger vehicles, and houses out there. If you're flexible and have the time, you'll find what you want at the price you want if it's at all reasonable.

RULE #15: Something missing on your potential new RV? Ask for it.

Dealers are sometimes more willing to throw in something extra than to take more money off the bottom line. Examples of offers we either received at various dealerships or have heard about others getting were to upgrade an old 5th-wheel hitch, swap tires to a different brand, change out the mattress, or put in a microwave/convection oven instead of the microwave in the coach -- at no extra cost, to "sweeten" the deal.

Cache Valley, Utah near Logan

If you find an RV you really want but it's missing a feature you also really want, and the price is very good, see if the dealer will throw it in at no extra cost.

Then make sure they don't make up for it somewhere else, like a hidden fee. (I'm not paranoid, just wary.)

RULE #16: Be prepared at the "closing"

I swear I've been to closings for stick-built houses that had less paperwork than this RV transaction did!

Jim and I did our best to learn what forms we'd be signing and exactly what costs would be levied before we signed the purchase agreement on our Cameo. We asked the manager lots of questions before agreeing to the price. We did online research to determine the fees our state of legal residence would charge for sales tax, registration, and title work, then confirmed it with our liaison at the mailing service we use in that state. The liaison did a good job for us when we bought the Dodge Ram last year, and she's been indispensable during this transaction, too. (The mailing service charges a very reasonable $25 fee to take all the paperwork to the county in person, quickly obtain our registration and title paperwork, and handle any subsequent snafus.)

The dealer did stick exactly to the purchase form we'd signed three days earlier and filled out all the paperwork correctly for our state of legal residence. Somehow we ended up with a Texas vehicle inspection sticker but there was no additional charge for it; we don't have inspections in our county of residence.

Mama buffalo with her baby at Custer State Park, South Dakota

We also took with us a short list of things we had asked the dealer to repair before we picked up the Cameo, a long list of questions re: the operation of all the systems and appliances (a capable young woman did a great job of showing us how everything works), and a list of "hidden" things we might forget to take from our old camper when we moved into the new one (afternoon of closing, on the dealer's lot -- they parked the old and new fivers door-to-door to make it easier for us).

RULE #17: Go through all the RV information you get within a few days of purchase

Our Cameo came with a loose-leaf notebook and thick expanding file of manufacturers' warranties and information. It took a while to read everything and to make sure we sent in all the individual warranties for the various systems, appliances, and electronics.

Whew! Tedious, a bit overwhelming, but necessary. Jim did as many of the warranties as possible online and I filled in the other cards to be mailed.

RULE #18: Think long and hard before buying an extended service contract or obtaining financing from the dealer

To the distress of our dealer, we did neither.

Extended service warranties are usually a source of high profit for any business, whether you're talking about a vehicle, an appliance, or an electronic item. Jim and I believe that most extended warranties  are 1) over-priced, 2) over-rated, and/or 3) potentially risky (if the company goes out of business) -- especially extended service contracts that cost as much as the ones for RVs cost.

Incoming storm approaches an abandoned mine near Leadville, Colorado

The dealer from whom we purchased our Cameo began negotiations on a "platinum" policy for five years at $3,400. We gasped, looked at each other, and clearly said no. She eventually came down to $1,995, which we still considered too high. We knew she was still making some profit and we knew  we could get one cheaper, if we decided to get one later, by eliminating the middle(wo)man.

We asked her for the 50-page coverage booklet that explained all the details and read it thoroughly before closing on the camper. We reiterated at the closing that we didn't want it now. She let us keep the booklet, leaving the door open in case we came back to get it from her. The coverage is pretty good so it's handy to have the details in hand to compare with other policies.

After researching some other companies online we've found the same or better coverage for less money AND saved the 3% our state would have taxed us on the extended warranty if we'd gotten it at the time we bought the Cameo. What's with that?? I'm glad our gal at the mailing service told us about that little twist! State tax was charged on the negotiated price of the coach minus trade-in plus the $50 documentary fee. Taxing the doc fee seemed weird, too, but that was our state's policy, not the dealer or state of Texas. We didn't squawk since it amounted to only $1.50.

Despite the excellent two/five-year warranty on the Cameo, and the separate, concurrent warranties on some of its pieces, we will probably buy an extended service warranty on the whole camper for five or seven years from the date of purchase.

We won't be buying it from the dealer, however. We can get a better deal online but need to do more research first. We consider it an insurance policy, realizing we may not get our money back. It will give us peace of mind because there are so many expensive things that can go wrong with all the electronics and mechanical systems on the Cameo after their warranties expire in two or five years.

Sunrise colors the eastern flank of Mt. Massive near Leadville, Colorado.

About financing . . .

The best way to buy a new RV or any other non-essential item, of course, is with cash (or 0% financing!). There are some sound reasons to finance part of the purchase, however, including keeping savings in an investment that has the potential for more gain than the interest will cost you on a loan.

If you decide to finance part of a new RV, put as much cash (including your trade-in) into the deal as possible. Like any other vehicle, RVs take a big hit the minute you drive them off the lot. You don't want to find yourself upside down in a loan if it's destroyed in the first year or two. Do not think of an RV as an investment!! It's not. (Heck, even stick-built houses haven't been "investments" lately.)

You'll almost always get a better interest rate on an RV loan through your own credit union or bank than you will get from the bank(s) the dealer works with. The dealer is the middleman for the bank; it's an additional layer of profit that the buyer ends up paying.

P.S.:  Credit unions almost always have better terms on every service than banks, and nowadays almost anyone can join a credit union.

RULE #19: Note any warranty issues and take care of them promptly

You don't really know your RV until you've taken it out for its first spin. That's also when you start finding loose screws and odd noises and other (hopefully, minor) things that don't work as they should.

Keep a list of what's wrong and how it was resolved. If you can fix problems yourself, fine, but it's still good to have dates and details in case any of them get worse and you need warranty work done by the dealer or factory.

View of San Francisco Bay in California from the Headlands

Jim has been reading several RV forums and Carriage lists (one is specifically for Cameo owners) for several weeks to learn about problems owners have experienced even with brand new rigs. He's been going over our coach with a fine-tooth comb to see if we have any of those potential problems.

If you want to keep your RV in tiptop shape, you've got to be very vigilant at all stages of the game -- before AND after purchase. The same applies to passenger vehicles and houses.

RULE #20: Enjoy your new RV!!

You spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get your new RV. Now go enjoy it! That's what we plan to do.

An egret stalks its next meal at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas.

Next entry: enough about RVs. Let's get back to traveling and running and walking!

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil