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Buying a used travel trailer or fifthwheel

Buying a used travel trailer or fifth wheel can be a tricky process.  The following is a list of things you need to look for, in priority order.

1.  Can your truck pull the trailer in terms of weight?

New or used, your first attention must be to a trailer's weight versus the vehicle you plan to tow with.  If you already have the tow vehicle, you are constrained by its safe towing capability. If you plan to purchase a vehicle for towing, you need to consider the budget for the vehicle and how much capacity you can buy within that budget

Use the trailer's gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) from the DOT plate on the trailer which is usually on the side wall on the driver's side at the front.   The trucks tow ratings can be found in the Trailer Life tables by clicking HERE.  Provide a safety factor by discounting the ratings 10% to allow for things like truck passengers or cargo.

If your tow vehicle is powered by a gasoline engine bump that safety factor up to  20% if you plan on towing in the Mountain or Pacific West.  Normally aspirated engines lose 3% of rated HP for each 1,000 feet above sea level.  For example, an engine operated at Flagstaff, AZ has only 79% of its rated HP unless it is super/turbo-charge.  Gasoline engines rarely are supercharged.  Modern diesels are always turbo-charged and can ignore the 20%.

Do not trust a salesman when he assures you your vehicle will tow the trailer OK - they always say that and almost never actually check the specs for your vehicle.  On this item you need to do your own research.

2.   Problems with roof, frame, and of siding.

OK, now inspect the RV itself.

First look for any signs of water leaks, inside and out.  Look for signs of leakage or water damage in the interior including soft spots in the floor and water stains on the walls.  Check the loose or rippled wallpaper or paneling, especially below windows and near the floor (water runs down inside the walls) and for stains on the ceiling.

Look for delamination of sidewalls.  Look at the trailer front on to see that it sits squarely on its chassis frame – no leaning.

3.  Floorplan.

An obvious factor to be considered is floor plan - the trailer has to be one you can like and will be sufficient for your needs.  That's a hard question for your first RV, since you don't really know what your needs will be, but try to imagine it.  Do you need a roomy bathroom or will a cubby hole do?  (Sit on the throne to see if workable for you in terms of space and knee room.)  Is a long, hot shower a necessity of life?  Will you be cooking outside on a grill or mostly in the galley?  Where will your dishes and pot & pans go?  How many cabinets and drawers will each of you need for clothing, shoes, and such.  What about recreational gear, e.g. lawn chairs, bikes, golf clubs, fishing tackle or whatever?

There are two primary uses for a trailer, or any RV for that matter.   One is vacation use:  several times a year with no more than a month or so.  The trailer is a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach.  It will not be your new home.   For this purpose, the trailer can be lighter and smaller as you will not be spending much time in it.  Another use is full time use:  you intend to use the things for months and months at a stretch or to replace a home of bricks and sticks.   Such trailers need more space, more storage, and heavier more durable construction.

Full timing may include cold weather use.   These trailers need enclosed and heated underbellies, double, thermal pane windows, and heavy insulation.

4.  Age of tires.

Trailer tires last 5 – 7 years.  By 7 years they are dangerous. Check the tires. Condition means almost nothing, so learn to read the DOT tire date codes (see the RV Forum.Net Glossary under tires) to see how old they are. A tire over 6 years old is nearing the end of its useful life, even if never driven a single mile.  You will need to replace the tires by early in their 6th year of life, so figure that into your purchase costs if the trailer is more than a few years old.

5.  Operation of appliances.

If a private sale have the seller cool down the refrigerator on gas operation.  Check temps.  The main compartment should be between 38 to 42°F.

Hook the trailer to 120VAC.  Try the microwave, boil a cup of water.   Run all the plumbing including the water pump, flush the john.   Check the convenience outlets with a 3-light circuit tester.   Light the stove, the water heater, and turn on the furnace.    Raise and lower awnings if any.  Run the A/C.   Check to see that the fridge has switched to 120VAC operation and is maintaining temperatures.

If buying from a dealer, get a written guarantee on a company form for all these items.

6.   Holding Tanks.

If the gray and black tanks are empty try the knife valves on the gray and black water tank.  Knife valves may work hard but they should work.  If the tanks are not empty, one should wonder why they are not.  Ask that they be empty when you return.

7.   Batteries.

Trailer house batteries are a safety item -- they power your trailer emergency brake.   They should be true deep cycle batteries not automobile starting batteries or marine dual purpose units.  They should be replaced after 5 years of use.   Look for corrosion at the terminals.  Check electrolyte levels in an unsealed unit.  Check charge levels. (see the charge level voltage chart in our Library.)  If the battery voltage is under 12.0V it is half discharged and is a dubious unit.  Under 11.5V it is dead.

Check the operation of the emergency brake.  Pull the brake pin and listen for the brakes to operate.  Replace the pin when done.  Failure to operate raises a serious question about brake operation in general.

8.   Propane Tanks.

Propane tanks last 12 years based on the DOT cert date stamped on the tank.  Dealers will not refill an outdated tank.  It must be recertified by a distributor or replaced.


Items number 1 and 2 above are deal breakers.  Do not buy an overweight, water-damaged, or structurally unsound trailer.   An inoperative fridge is close to one, those rascals are expensive!

Other problems are price considerations.  Be advised tho that In spite of all precautions, you should plan on spending about $1000 fixing and tarting up any used unit.

If you are buying a travel trailer over 3500 lbs, you will need a class IV or V receiver on your tow vehicle and a weight distributing hitch system with anti-sway control.   If anyone says you do not, that is the first sign that they are a liar.   Working with a dealer, have him include the unit in the price workup as it will be a drive away requirement.  I recommend Reese Dual Cam or Equal-i-zer as both have built in sway control.  I would recommend Hensley Arrow but it is pricey.

There are lots of excellent used trailers available, so don't get stampeded on the first one that looks good to you but maybe isn't quite perfect or quite the price you can afford. Salesmen are good at convincing you "this one won't stay on the lot long", so resist the pressure and shop around.

AND FINALLY, never trust anything an RV salesman tells you.  All assurances should be in writing and on corporate letterhead or form.

© 2009 C. Lundquist and G. Brinck