Your Guide to Buying an RV Fixer-Upper

Sep 19, 2022 | Maintenance & Mods

Your Guide to Buying an RV Fixer-Upper

Are you a DIYer looking to renovate an RV? Here’s what you should know before searching for the perfect fixer-upper.

By Renee Tilby

Photo: Renee Tilby

Do pictures of perfectly renovated RVs on your social media feeds have you wanting to tackle a renovation of your own? Choosing an RV to renovate can be overwhelming, but we’ve got you covered. Renee Tilby has purchased more than 25 RVs to fix up and flip over the past 7 years. Here she shares her best tips on what to look for when buying a used RV fixer-upper.

What Level of Renovation Are You Wanting To Do?

The first step when buying an RV for renovation is to have clarity about your budget and the level of work you want to put in. A 20-year-old RV might be the perfect buying price but will need a full (and costly) renovation, while a 5-year-old rig might be more of an upfront investment, but requires less renovation time and cost.

Related Should You Buy a New or Used RV?

If you want to do a partial renovation, look at rigs with countertops, flooring, and cabinets in good condition and in your preferred color and finish. You don’t have to do a full renovation to make a massive impact. Purposely designing around existing finishes often makes them look brand new, saving you time and money. 

Related How to Modify, Decorate, and Upgrade Your RV Interior

a bright RV bedroom with a large bed and window, and a shower area in the background
Photo: Renee Tilby

What Are Your Needs?

There’s a plethora of sizes, shapes, and layouts of RVs, so your next step is to decide what the finished RV will be used for. Do you want a backyard Airbnb to rent out? A roomy home-on-wheels for a family? A glamping adventure-mobile?

Starting with the end in mind will ensure you easily hit your goals and don’t create extra work in your RV renovation.

If you need a rig with more sleeping space, bunkhouses or toy haulers are good options to consider. Want something small that you can haul with any vehicle? Teardrop trailers, pop-ups, or an ultra-light trailer might best suit your needs. Need a dedicated workspace? Look at mid-bunks, toy haulers, or bunkroom layouts that can be converted to a workspace.

Related 8 Ways to Transform Your RV Workspace

Price

Once you have an idea of your needs, the next step is to figure out how that aligns with your budget. Since you’re planning on renovating, the purchase price is only a portion of your entire budget and you don’t want to blow the budget right out of the gate. We create a cost ledger for each of our renovations and the purchase price (including retrieval costs like gas, hotels, etc.) is always at the very top.

Age

With RVs, older isn’t always bad and newer isn’t always better. The same goes for price. Don’t assume that a newer, more expensive rig is always going to be the better option. We prefer RVs from the mid-2000s for renovations, since they’re well-built,  cost less, any manufacturing issues have been resolved, and it’s usually time to replace most of the finishes.

On the other hand, a newer rig usually gives you a better chance of keeping some of the existing finishes and having to replace fewer items due to age. 

Related 7 Lessons Learned From Our RV Remodel

Weight

Every RV has a dry weight, which tells you how much the RV weighs without cargo and full tanks. It also has a GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), which is the maximum weight the RV is engineered to haul with full tanks full, cargo, and any added renovations. 

After you buy your RV, fill your tanks and add cargo weight, then take the rig to a weigh station. Subtract the weight from the GVWR, and that number will give you a general idea of how much weight you can safely add during your renovation. Keep in mind that a lot of older RV furniture and finishes are heavy, giving you a bit more room to add on to your weight. 

an RV living room and kitchen with green cabinets and a grey couch
Photo: Renee Tilby

Consider the Quality of Existing Finishes

When you’re looking at potential RVs to renovate, there are a few things you’ll want to look out for before purchasing.  

Cabinets

Many RV cabinets aren’t made of real wood. Instead they’re built using lightweight particle board that doesn’t withstand regular use as well as wood or even plywood. Particle board also swells when exposed to standing water, making it difficult to paint if this is the case. 

Replacing cabinet boxes, or even just parts of RV cabinetry, can cause project delays. Real wood cabinets are ideal candidates for repainting, but you can successfully repaint wrapped particle boards, as long as they’re in decent condition to start. You’re more likely to find real wood cabinets in older and higher-end rigs.

Related How to Install a Peel-and-Stick Backsplash in Your RV

Shower Surrounds

When looking at candidates for renovation, it’s ideal to find rigs with shower surrounds that aren’t discolored and in good condition. Replacing shower surrounds can be a big and costly project, so if it isn’t one you want to take on, then be sure to find an RV with a shower you can work with as-is.

Related Everything You Need to Know About RV Showers

Countertops

Epoxying over existing countertops is a (fairly) low-cost option for an RV renovation. If you plan on taking the epoxy route or want to keep the existing countertops, closely inspect them. Many laminate countertops with heavy use or water exposure will sometimes start to separate, making them unworthy candidates for an epoxy job.

a person sits cross legged on the floor of an RV holding a drill
Photo: Renee Tilby

Flooring

Flooring takes up a large portion of your renovation time and budget, so consider buying an RV with usable flooring. However, flooring also makes a big impact, so you may want to invest your time and money.  This comes down to your preference and original RV renovation goals.

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Check for Water Damage

Water damage can put a massive damper on any RV renovation. When looking at RV renovation candidates, keep a close eye out for signs of water damage. These include an overall musty smell, soft spots around windows and wall edges, squishy flooring, rusting screw ends, and visible water spots on the paint. An RV with any water damage can be a huge undertaking, so be sure to pay a price that reflects that risk or choose another option. 

a person builds a wooden shelf in an RV
Photo: Renee Tilby

Inspect All Systems

RV renovations are enough work as it is. Don’t add any surprise work by not fully inspecting all electrical, plumbing, appliances, A/C, and heating units. If you aren’t confident in doing this inspection yourself, pay for an RV inspection. It’s well worth the peace of mind knowing exactly what you’re buying, instead of dealing with a laundry list of issues down the line.

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Renee Tilby

Renee and her family of seven live full-time in their RV. They've been on the road for more than 4 years, renovating RVs and the occasional home along the way. They love to find hidden gems everywhere they go and consider nature the absolute best place to do that.

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