Here’s How to Buy a Quality RV for Under $15,000

A lot of people get defensive about their RV and the company who made it. I think it's great that people love their home on wheels but the quality standard across the board is sub-par at best. In almost every scenario, regardless of price point, new RVs make their way back to the dealership multiple times to "iron out the kinks." Well I disagree with the general consensus. I don't think new RVs should have a bunch of problems. I've also realized you don't have to spend $500,000 or more for quality. In fact, you can buy a quality RV for under $15,000!

The RV Quality Standard

Just browse a few RV owners groups on Facebook and you'll notice how low we've set the quality standard bar. RV owners have come to accept the fact that all RVs have problems. Actually, the quality of RVs, sadly enough, seems to be based on problems rather than reliability. 

 

"When your house bounces down the road on a regular basis, you have to expect problems." 

 

"They all have problems." 

"I've had many RVs and this one doesn't even come close to the amount of problems we had in our other ones."

 

These are all common responses I've heard on many occasions. Not only is it sad that we don't expect more, it's sad that we don't demand more.

Consumers drive the market and in the RV market, consumers have proven to manufacturers that they don't care about quality. We (consumers) would rather have a large RV than a quality RV. We'd rather have an RV that looks nice than an RV that's built well. When you demand more space at an affordable price, quality is the sacrifice. At this point, mediocrity is the gold standard. Until quality is a higher priority than space, we'll continue accepting problems as an industry norm. 

RV Construction

Google "RV Construction" and you'll find a bunch of YouTube ads by manufacturers. In those videos, you'll hear catch phrases like "superior wall construction," "exclusive roofing design, "50% stronger than our competitors," and "lighter, stronger material built to last." But their claims seem to contradict the reality - see owner forums. 

Most RVs built today have a steel chassis, aluminum main frame, 2x2 interior frame, and composite board walls and furniture. Because people want more space instead of a quality build, all materials are as light as possible with the exception of the steel chassis. When you demand more space but you have a limited budget, RV manufacturers have to produce something light enough for "average Joe's" truck to pull. 

The problem with light materials is that they aren't sturdy. Aluminum cars are safe because they crinkle on impact, which lessens the blow felt by anyone inside the vehicles. Aluminum is strong but the folding properties that make it an incredible material for some purposes make it a very poor material for other purposes. You wouldn't want to frame your house out of aluminum, for example. 

This is what a tree does to an aluminum frame. Best case scenario, your RV is totaled and you make it out alive. Worst case scenario...well, you don't make it out alive. In either case, you can kiss your RV goodbye. 

But it's not just the frame (or lack there of) that concerns me. Damp composite board is a lovely home for mold. It also swells more and at a much quicker rate than wood. RVs are notorious for being wet. Whether it's because of a spill, a leak, getting out of the shower, or simply because you've been in a humid area for an extended amount of time, you will likely have moisture issues in your RV if it's primarily built from composite board. 

Because of a leak we had in our washing machine's drain line due to improper installation, we had mold within the first 3 months of owning our RV. The dealership fixed the leak but didn't investigate mold issues. After 3 visits to the dealership to fix other leaks, I decided to check their work to make sure they were fixing everything right. That's when I found the mold, and it was growing rapidly just a few feet away from where my newborn daughter slept.

RV appliances, which are all made by the same 2 or 3 companies, are also poor quality. Many full-time RVers replace their brand new $1,200 RV fridge because over the years, these companies have built a reputation for manufacturing a fire hazard (composite board also burns like gas). I can go on but a simple YouTube search will show you just how fragile most RVs are. 

The Differences in a high-end RV

After living in an RV for a year and working as a campground host, I've seen my fair share of issues related to RVs. I've also determined that there are very few RVs that are built well enough to live in. There are a few, however, but they are about $500,000 more than the "average Joe" can afford.

To build an RV that the "average Joe" can afford, the cost of supplies used by manufacturers has to be on the low end. Steel framing is replaced by aluminum. 2x3 or 2x4 lumber for the interior walls are replaced by 2x2 lumber. Wood cabinetry is replaced by composite board. And every piece of hardware - screws, bolts, brackets, appliances, etc. - they're all on the cheap end. This is the quality you can expect in any RV with a price tag under 6 figures; some cheaply built RVs are well into 6 figures. 

But despite the poor quality of RVs that are out there, I'm absolutely in love with this lifestyle. So when we realized we got the short end of the deal with our RV, we started looking at other options. And we found a few manufacturers that actually built quality RVs. 

If you pay attention, you'll find a lot of older airstreams and VW buses/vans that are still on the road today. You'll also find quite a few class-A motor-coaches that were built in the early 90's. And of course, you'll find a lot of brand new rigs on the road today; all of them look nice but only a handful actually are. The amount of new(ish) rigs aren't found on the roads quite as often. There seems to be a point where quality was just thrown out the door. The modern style RVs built for the average Joe aren't common after a certain age; those, if they're still in one piece, are normally found in Bubba's backyard somewhere in rural America. 

I started looking at the characteristics of old RVs that were still on the road today compared to top of the line RVs that are built today. I narrowed it down to a handful of different manufacturers (old and new) that seemed to be quality builds: airstream, VW buses/vans, Prevost, and a few 90's model motorcoaches. And what I realized was that most of these rigs had one thing in common, they had steel framing to some degree. 

In some cases, they had steel ribs from front to back. In some cases, they had steel ribs in the front and back only. And in other cases, they had a combination of steel, aluminum, and wood framing. In addition to a solid shell frame, most quality manufacturers seemed to be more simple builds (Prevost, being the exception). In any case, steel framing to some extent seemed to be the baseline for quality. But if it's not affordable, none of this really matters.

Then I started looking at Prevost RVs. These are $1,000,000+ RVs. How can any RV be worth 1 million dollars? I was more so intrigued by the fact that there is a market for an RV at that price point. So, I researched how they were built. 

Prevost is essentially a custom built shuttle bus turned into an RV. So they have the reliability, durability, and safety standards of a bus, but they customize the interior with gold, diamonds, and $100 bills (I'm exaggerating, except for the gold part). Until recently, Prevost RVs didn't even have slides. They were simple, solid, and custom built for each customer.

A bus, huh?

A quality RV for the "average Joe"

We've always liked renovated school buses but we never really gave it serious thought until we realized how poor the construction of most RVs were. But when we started comparing the basic construction of quality rigs to the construction of a school bus, we realized we found our solution.

School buses have a heavy duty steel chassis, steel ribbed framing every 2.5 ft down the entire length of the bus, and many of them have diesel engines that will run 500,000 miles without a problem. Diesel or not, every school bus engine is built to carry a lot of weight. 

After a bit of research, I remembered that a campground neighbor worked in receiving for the public school system. Apparently, schools normally service their buses monthly and according to my friend, they're probably the safest vehicle on the road.

In fact, he said that one of the testing requirements for school buses is to drop them off of a cliff! Buses are supposed to keep the same shape under extreme stress. The seats absorb the bodily impact in a collision. The bus as a whole is supposed to be structurally sound after an accident of any kind. 

I was sold on the idea of a bus. At this point, it seemed like the only feasible way to buy a quality built RV at a reasonable price. But how much did they cost?

I realized that there is virtually no demand for used school buses. And because school systems buy a new fleet of school buses every so often, there was a TON of supply. Once the school system retires a fleet (usually based on time, not wear), they sell them for next to nothing at auction. Many of those who buy at auction often buy in bulk and then sell them to charities who ship them over seas. Regardless, it was pretty obvious after a few google searches that you can pick up a used school bus in great condition anywhere in the country for somewhere between $3,000 and $10,000.

We bought our bus on ebay for $3,000. It has 89,000 miles on it and very little body damage. All in all, it's in excellent condition. Given the fact that school buses are the perfect shell for an RV and it comes with the highest safety standards, it's a bargain anyone can find with relative ease.

Remember that picture of the travel trailer and tree?

Yeah...a quality frame is important.

But this isn't an article to promote buses. Any used RV with steel ribs will suffice. And you can find used RVs with a steel frame for next to nothing if you do some digging. Airstreams, VW buses/vans, school buses, trolly's, shuttle buses, whatever! Quality RVs have a quality structure, and you can find and build quality for a fraction of what you'd spend on a brand new RV.

Don't think you can renovate your own RV? You can. We knew very little about this kind of work when we started. We're simply researching as we go. It's surprisingly simple and the best part is, once it's complete, you'll know everything about troubleshooting and fixing your RV. You'll also rest easy knowing your family lives in a tank! 

So far, we've spent about $5,000 and we're done with most of the heavy lifting. The next piece of the puzzle is electrical. We'll spend about $4,000 on solar system so we can be completely self-sustainable. All in, we'll spend no more than $15,000. Our house will literally be made of steel. We'll have 2x3 wall studs, high quality plywood floors and walls, custom built cabinetry, and we'll have all the all electrical and plumbing you'd find in a typical RV. Plus, we'll be completely self-sustainable, which means we'll be able to take our house anywhere! 

Resources are out there. Quality RVs are few and far between for those on a budget. If you're willing to do it yourself, you'll save a ton of money, you'll learn a lot, and you'll know for a fact that your RV is a structurally sound home for you and your family to live in. 

Click here to check out some of the buses that are selling on eBay right now.

  • Sam McClyde

    I
    agree with everything you say in your article. I was a RV tech for years
    and decided to take a early retirement just to get away from these new
    RV’s. How do you tell somebody that just paid 6 figures that they bought
    a shinny pile of crap? The owners pacify
    each other by saying that they are all the same. Constant warranty
    repairs, the tech can only put what is there back to factory specs. It
    breaks again. Then owners say techs are incompetent. I own a bus
    conversion and I am a full timer. A person that does not do their own
    conversion could by a used bus and pay to have it converted to an RV for
    less than they pay for a factory built RV. And have a lot better
    camper.

    • Derek Cobia

      Thanks for reposting this here. Expert opinions carry a lot of weight. Hopefully, your insights will help a few people who read this article.

    • Edward David Nicholson

      Can you get insurance for your converted bus? If so, who?

  • Kevin Brock

    This is an eye opener! I was thinking aluminum construction was the way to go. Do you expect less issues with leaks and seals in your bus?

    • Derek Cobia

      I counted over 350 rivets that attach the roof directly to the steel frame. There are more seams in a bus but there is also less flex. I also think the curved roof will help – less potential sag and no corners. That said, I think a bus can leak very easily just because of all the seams. However, you can almost guarantee that it’s not a structural issue (if it is, it’s rust – big deal). If it’s maintained (poly or seal tape) and monitored as it should be, I do expect less leaks.

  • Fascinating post, Derek. Personally, I don’t know if I have the desire to spend all that time learning how to refurbish a bus into an RV. Do you know of any quality travel trailers out there right now?

  • Edward David Nicholson

    Do RV parks accepted converted school buses?

  • Edward David Nicholson

    Can you haul an SUV behind a converted school bus?

  • Edward David Nicholson

    great website and post, by the way!