Thinking of buying a trailer? You’re not alone- RVing is getting more and more popular every year as people try to find new and fun ways to explore their own backyards. But the decision shouldn’t be taken lightly- an average 23-foot trailer off the lot costs about $23,000- and there’s a ton of different factors that will impact whether a particular model is right for you.
So here’s 8 things to consider when buying a trailer to make sure you’re getting the perfect adventure mobile to get you out on the road.
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Table of Contents
- What’s your budget for your trailer?
- How are you going to pay for your trailer?
- Do you have an appropriately powered tow vehicle?
- How do you plan to camp?
- How long will you be staying in your trailer?
- How many people and pets will be camping with you?
- Where will you be camping?
- What accessories or equipment do you need?
Before we dive in, I want to make clear that this article isn’t meant to tell you which trailer is right for you- the variety of RVs on the market is incomprehensibly huge, with equipment and specifications evolving all of the time. Add in the unique complexities of how each person plans to use their RV and suffice to say, I am not appropriately equipped to advise you on which trailer you should buy (and frankly, there’s few people out there who are appropriately equipped to provide that kind of guidance).
However, having purchased a trailer myself about a year ago and now having lived in it for months at a time, there are some things that I’m so glad I took into consideration before making my purchasing- and some other items I wish I had thought about more deeply.
Some of these considerations aren’t exactly groundbreaking news, but this post is meant to be a friendly reminder of issues you may have already had in mind- and, perhaps, some that you have not- when shopping for and ultimately buying a trailer to ensure that you have the right tools to make an educated decision for yourself.
With that, let’s get into it!
1. What’s your budget for your trailer?
How much you’re willing to spend is one of the single biggest considerations in making your purchase.
The cost of trailers can vary pretty significantly- you can find a rusted and gutted one for $500 on your local Craigslist, while a new, bougier camper with all of the bells and whistles can easily cost over $60,000. How much work are you willing to put into it?
If you want something that’s turnkey, you’ll likely be stuck paying the higher price of a new or gently used trailer. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to put some time and elbow grease into it (or pay someone else to do it for you), YouTube is full of examples of really cool and affordable renovations of vintage trailers. So if you’re handy and have a bunch of time on your hands, you could definitely save a pretty penny (and have something that’s custom built just for you!) by going the DIY approach.
Your budget should not just include the RV itself, but also all of the hidden costs involved with buying a trailer. I go into more detail about some of the unseen costs associated with purchasing a trailer in this post, but, if you’ve never owned an RV before, some things you may not have considered are:
Your tow vehicle:
Does your daily driver have adequate towing capacity and braking to both pull and stop the trailers you’re considering? Does it have a receiver hitch and necessary electrical connections (e.g., a 4-way flat or 7-way round socket) so that your vehicle’s towing-ready? If not, you may have to upgrade your vehicle, which can run you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to install the necessary parts on your tow vehicle to well over $41,000 (the average cost of a new SUV) for purchasing a new tow vehicle.
Tax and licensing fees:
Depending on where you live, you may have to pay up to 10% of your trailer’s cost as sales tax (like I did!).
While your auto insurance will cover your trailer while you’re driving, you need to get RV insurance for when it’s parked someplace, in case a piano falls from the sky on top of it or your campsite neighbor trips and falls in your trailer. Like all insurance policies, the cost of your policy will vary widely (ranging from $125 to $25,000 a year) on several factors, like your driving history, the cost of your rig, and whether you have experience towing a trailer.
Fun fact: you will need a surprising amount of accessories to get out on the road with your tiny home wheels. From tow mirrors to a coupler lock and surge protectors, there’s a ton of odds and ends that you need to keep you and your trailer safe while you’re using it. If you’re starting completely from scratch here, I’d recommend earmarking at least $700 on random accessories you’ll need for your new trailer.
Lots of neighborhoods have restrictions about parking trailers on the street or even in your driveway- so will you need to rent a storage facility? Costs will vary widely depending on your location and how large of a storage space you’ll need but you can expect to pay around $130 per month in most locations.
Are you handy and willing to do routine maintenance, like repacking wheel bearings (or do you, like me, have a conveniently handy husband)? Trailers, like any other piece of equipment, need to be regularly maintained so that they continue to work properly. Most routine maintenance is fairly straightforward and can be learned by watching a few YouTube videos, but if you’re not particularly mechanically inclined (hi, like me!) or prefer not to do it yourself, you’ll need to budget some money each year for a professional to do it for you.
With all of these mounting costs, you may be incentivized to choose a trailer on the cheaper side. But be careful- buying a cheaply built (and thus, lower quality trailer) can really cost you down the road. Many trailers that are on the cheaper side tend to not be sealed well, leading to water damage, wood rot, and mold. I’ve even read some reports of trailers literally falling apart at the seams as the new owners tow it from the lot for the first time.
So be sure to read tons of user reviews and scour the internet for blog posts and YouTube videos for the model you’re considering purchasing- basically, you should become an expert on the trailer you have in mind before you pull the trigger.
Another point of consideration when you’re thinking about your budget- the potential resale value. Much like a car, a brand new trailer will immediately lose a significant chunk of its value the second you drive it off the lot. But not all trailers are created equal and some brands retain their value better than others.
If you’re not 100% sure you’ll be into RVing long-term or just generally want to protect your investment, you may want to focus your search on brands that generally maintain their resale value well, like Airstream, Scamp, Casita, or the manufacturer we purchased from, Safari Condo (at the time of writing this, their trailers are so in demand that used models can sometimes sell for more than the brand-new ones!).
When I was thinking about my budget for my husband, Justin’s and my RV purchase, I actually had originally saved up for doing a camper van conversion for no more than $35,000. After realistically considering the time and stress that would accompany a self-conversion and all of the other downsides of vanlife, I switched my tune and set my sights on a travel trailer instead.
And, even though I’m the biggest cheapskate in the world, between researching the cost of a new (to us) vehicle that was equipped to tow and purchasing a quality trailer that both was capable of being kept in our itty bitty driveway (fun fact: our trailer has a retractable roof!) and that had great resale value, I got comfortable with expanding our budget to about $50,000.
Obviously, you should only spend what you can comfortably afford, but be open-minded about what the right RV looks like for you, be sure to do your homework on the products you’re purchasing, and not make short-sighted decisions to save a few dollars here and there that may wind up costing you big down the road.
2. How are you going to pay for your trailer?
This question goes hand-in-hand with the consideration above, but do you have cash on hand to pay for your trailer? If not, you’ll obviously need to take out a loan to finance your purchase and make monthly payments until it’s officially all yours.
If you need to go this route, do you have other big (or more important) purchases, like a home, coming up? How’s your credit score? Having a lender pull your credit score will make it drop for several months, so depending on whether you have other important purchases coming up for which you’ll need to take out a loan, you may want to hold off on purchasing your trailer.
This article isn’t about financial advice, but I’d encourage you to be responsible about how you pay for your trailer- I’m in several Facebook groups, where I’ve seen people talk about purchasing their trailer using credit cards that they won’t be able to pay off. Even with a loan, it’s important to consider what kind of interest you’re getting. If you have a good credit score, you can snag an RV loan with a little over 4% interest rate, with rates creeping up to almost 12% for those with less than ideal credit.
When thinking about how buying a trailer will ultimately impact your bottom line, make sure to take these costs into account- for example, if you get an $18,000 loan over the course of 7 years with a modest 5% interest, you’ll be paying an additional $3,370 in interest alone. Unless you’re buying a trailer to live out of as an absolute necessity (which is a completely different topic), it may be worth saving up for a few extra years to make sure you can both get one that meets all of your needs and, after making your purchase, while still leaving you in a good financial spot.
3. Do you have an appropriately powered tow vehicle?
Unless you’re willing to buy a new tow vehicle (which will likely be way more expensive than the trailer in and of itself), you’ll need to buy a trailer that your current vehicle has the capacity to pull, and arguably more importantly, stop. This is super important- if you try to tow a trailer that’s heavier than your vehicle’s towing capacity, not only will it put too much strain on your transmission and cause damage to your vehicle, but it could also cause your automobile to fail while you’re driving it, leading to serious injury to yourself or others.
There are SO many factors to consider when making sure that your vehicle is set up to safely tow a travel trailer- you’ll need to understand your vehicle’s ratings for things like towing capacity, gross vehicle weight rating, and trailer tongue weight. There’s a LOT of confusing jargon to know- far too much to delve into for this post, but this article is super helpful in understanding it all.
From a high level, though, if you have a specific trailer in mind, you can usually look up its “dry weight”- this is how much the trailer weighs without any of the manufacturer- or dealer-added options, liquid in the tanks, or cargo. Therefore, your trailer is likely to weigh significantly more with all of the options and your extra gear added in.
Bottom line- you shouldn’t assume that your tow vehicle will work simply because your dream trailer’s dry weight is within its towing capacity and when in doubt, your vehicle’s towing capacity should comfortably exceed how much you think your fully-loaded trailer will weigh.
So, with that in mind, unless you use a heavy duty monster truck as a daily driver right now, you may be fairly limited in your options if you’re unwilling to upgrade your tow vehicle. For example, most mid-size SUVs only have a towing capacity of between 2500-3500 pounds, which will equip you to tow some lighter options, like pop-ups, teardrops, or specialty-lightweight trailers.
Otherwise, if you have your heart set on a larger or heavier model, you’ll likely need to upgrade your vehicle to something with a bit more towing capacity (which may materially impact how you think about Questions #1 and 2 above).
4. How do you plan to camp?
From my time out on the road and after meeting hundreds of RVers, I think this point is one that people underestimate the most before their purchase (myself included)- you have to get a trailer that suits your camping style.
For example, if you’re like me and prefer to camp at off-grid dispersed camping areas, there’s a ton of different specific characteristics you should look for: does it have high ground-clearance? How large are the holding tanks for fresh water and waste (the bigger, the better)? How will you get your power when you’re off-grid (i.e., do you need solar panels or would a generator work)? How will the trailer handle being on bumpy, potholed National Forest roads? How well-insulated is it and how will it respond to heat and cold?
On the other hand, if you plan to mainly stay at established campgrounds with hookups, you may have more flexible in what kind of amenities you need- for example, you may not need a toilet or an interior shower if you’re planning to exclusively stay at sites that offer bathrooms. While it’s much easier to navigate smaller trailers into funky off-grid camping sites, you probably won’t have as much of a challenge getting a larger one with slide-outs into most sites at established campgrounds.
I won’t go into the full story about how my husband and I purchased our trailer (if you’re interested, you can read about it here), but, to make a long story short, we originally placed an order for our model, a Safari Condo Alto, through an RV dealer in late 2020. Given the long waiting time for this model (at the time we placed our order, it was 15 months), we opted instead to snap up a used Alto for sale that we found on Facebook.
This used Alto camper has SO many more added upgrades than the order we originally placed, mostly because we tried to design the cheapest trailer possible with only the upgrades we deemed absolutely essential. And luckily, all of the features the previous owners selected make our trailer as well-suited for boondocking as it possibly could be- between the 220 watts of solar panels, an inverter for our larger electronic gadgets, double propane tanks, and caravan movers, our little Alto is a dispersed camping BEAST.
Between electricity, gas, water, sewer, and waste, we spend—at most—$50 a month on utilities which is almost one TENTH what we spent on the same utilities for our previous home in Seattle. Check out our video below to learn more.
That being said, it isn’t 100% perfect for the type of camping we do. We bought our trailer, in part, because of its big windows, which, while plenty dreamy, make heat mitigation without electrical hookups kind of a nightmare (which is a big issue, especially since we RV with our dogs). It also has somewhat low ground clearance, which has been a problem getting into bumpy or uneven campsites, and has pretty small holding tanks (16 gallon fresh water tank, a 12 gallon gray water tank, and a 12 gallon black water tank).
I honestly wish I had thought about these issues before purchasing it- while I doubt it would have changed my ultimate decision, I may have made room in my budget for purchasing a generator to run our air conditioner on particularly hot days, for example. And I shudder to think of how horrible our off-grid camping experience would have been if we had been stuck with the bare-minimum Alto we had originally ordered!
So, with that in mind, I’d encourage you to choose a trailer that will enable you to camp in every way you can reasonably imagine yourself doing. For example, even if you think you’ll generally stay at established campsites with bathrooms, you won’t be able to stay at Harvest Hosts, Boondockers Welcome, casino parking lots, or other kinds of offbeat camping experiences that require a self-contained RV if you don’t have a toilet- are you willing to give up those opportunities? Given that some teardrops are little more than a bed with a small outdoor kitchen in the back, can you imagine yourself wanting to go camping on a rainy or cold weekend if you’re going to need to stand outside while you’re making yourself coffee in the morning- or are you okay mostly just being a summer camper?
You don’t need to get a trailer that solves for every single camping edge-case you can possibly think of, but you also don’t want to impose unnecessary limitations on your RVing experience before you even get out on the road.
5. How long will you be staying in your trailer?
Whether you live in your trailer full time or go the weekend warrior route will impact which model is right for you. For example, if you’re living in it full-time or for extended periods of time, you’re going to need way more storage to keep all your worldly possessions as compared to someone who is just taking their trailer out for the weekend.
Beyond just your clothes and kitchen accouterments, do you have bulky equipment for outdoor adventure activities you need to store (for example, when we go RVing, we need enough space to bring our backpacking gear and inflatable kayak)?
When you’re thinking about buying a trailer, make sure there’s both enough storage space for all the things you’ll need and that it’s readily accessible- while our Alto has plenty of storage space for my husband and me to live in for months at a time, it’s inconveniently located underneath the seating area (making it challenging to access while the back of our trailer is set up in the bed configuration). While it’s not a big deal when we’re just out for weekend trips, it becomes much more annoying when we live in it for an extended period of time.
Additionally, will you be working remotely from your trailer? If so, if you can, try recreating what your work set-up would be like in the trailer you’re thinking of purchasing to see whether it will be comfortable to sit in for hours and hours every day. Justin and I purchased ours sight-unseen and have discovered firsthand that, while it’s a perfect fit for us in a number of ways, we haven’t quite figured out a comfortable seating solution while working in it.
Think of the ways you’ll use your camper beyond just a place to rest your weary head between your outdoor adventures- and make sure it will actually work for you for all of those purposes!
6. How many people and pets will be camping with you?
Are you planning on camping solo, so you can get away with a small amount of storage and a twin bed, or do you ever want to bring friends or family along? What about pets- do you have an energetic dog that needs a bit of space to stretch its legs?
I’m definitely a proponent for small trailers, but that’s not the right decision for everyone. For example, we bought our 17-foot trailer that comfortably sleeps three from a couple, who originally planned to mostly camp by themselves. Less than a year after purchasing the trailer, though, they found themselves bringing their two granddaughters along for more and more trips. Because they wanted all the family time they could get, they sold it to us so they could get a bigger one to go on adventures more comfortably with their grandkids.
Initially buying a slightly larger trailer that can accommodate the people you think may be joining you on your camping adventures may cost you a bit more upfront, but I bet it will be way cheaper (and less stressful) in the long run than having to sell and replace your trailer with one better suited for your needs.
7. Where will you be camping?
Most campers can be used year round, but the right trailer for you might look quite different depending on whether you live in Florida or Quebec. Since most people primarily camp in the summertime, evaluate how the model you’re considering responds to heat- for example, if summertime temperatures in your area reaches the mid- to high-80s and your trailer tends to heat up quite a bit in the sun (mine gets at least ten degrees warmer than the outside temperature on sunny days), it’s going to be an uncomfortable home during those warmer days, to say the least.
If you plan on camping in the wintertime and live in a climate that experiences freezing weather, you’ll either need to be okay camping in a winterized RV (i.e., where you replace any water in your pressurized water systems with antifreeze so that your pipes won’t freeze, meaning you won’t have access to water to wash your dishes or flush your toilet) or alternatively, look into buying a four-season trailer, with a heated and enclosed basement to keep your water systems from freezing in cold weather.
There’s no standard definition for a four-season RV in the industry, but a true four-season trailer will prepare you well for both the heat and the cold- they tend to come with better insulation, double-paned windows, and reinforced ducting for your heating and cooling system to mitigate inefficiencies.
So if you’re going to be full-timing and want to camp in a variety of different weather conditions, a four-season trailer, like the Outdoors RV Mountain Series and the Northern Lite Boreal, may be the right solution for you.
8. What accessories or equipment do you need?
Before owning a trailer, I didn’t realize how physically demanding hitching, unhitching, and setting up camp can be- between cranking the tongue jack, kneeling on the ground to hitch up the trailer, and a zillion other odds and ends that are necessary for using it out in the wild, it’s actually quite a work out!
There are some after-market items you can buy that may help you with the physical aspects of RVing if you have some physical limitations, like an electric tongue jack or even auto-leveling systems, but there are other aspects, like how you get in and out of your trailer or its bed configuration, that may be harder to adapt. So if you have any pre-existing injuries or conditions, I’d strongly advise interacting with an in person model of the trailer you’re interested in, and don’t be shy about testing out all the ways you’ll be using it- get in the shower (clothed, that is- let’s not get arrested!), lay on the bed, get up close and personal with it!
I’d also recommend diving deep into user reviews for the model you’re interested in purchasing and seeing whether any particular features keep coming up as “need-to-have’s.”
For example, when researching our model, all of the owners we met online told us we “needed” the caravan movers, an add-on feature which allows you to move our trailer around while it’s unhooked from a tow vehicle, essentially with a remote control. And while it sounded super cool and all, we couldn’t justify the $3,000 price tag that came with this upgrade and ordered our initial trailer without it.
Fast-forward to us picking up our used trailer, which came with caravan movers, and I am now firmly in the “need-to-have’s” camp- given how we unhitch our trailer in a narrow and hilly city street and navigate it into our even narrower driveway, I literally don’t know if it would have been possible with the original solution we had planned on using, the Trailer Valet, given the incredibly steep incline of our street.
All that is to say, get to know your potential future trailer’s community and evaluate the knowledge they’ve gained- only you can make the decision of what makes sense for you, but their experience with the trailer in question is a truly invaluable resource.
I hope this article got your trailer-purchasing wheels a-turning and that this helps narrow down which of the thousands of models that are out there is the right adventure mobile for you. Did I miss any considerations that were imperative in making your decision? Let me know in the comments below!
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