There’s a saying among people who drive recreational vehicles: The first RV is the wrong one.

“I don’t know anyone who’s been in RVing for awhile that’s still in their first RV. You just know you’re going to trade it in,” says Joe Kieva, author and publisher of RV Know How, an RV information site for consumers.

“You learn what you like and don’t like by owning one and driving it. The only way to learn is hands-on.”

Starting off with a used RV can make that lesson a lot less painful to your pocketbook. Why spend a fortune on what amounts to your learning rig?

Avoid the big hit
By buying a used RV, you let the first owner take the big depreciation hit. The savings can be substantial. An RV loses 40 percent of its value in its first year alone.

Bob Gummersall, chief technical officer at RVers Online, did a study complete with spreadsheets detailing the costs of owning a 3-year-old RV vs. the costs of owning a new RV.

It wasn’t even close. Buying a 3-year-old RV cuts ownership costs in half. That’s in half.

And get this — a well-maintained RV that’s a couple years old may actually need less repair work than a new RV.

Folks may like to think that they can drive a new RV off the lot and hit the road for a long adventure. But chances are they won’t get very far.

“You’ve got to expect when you drive it off the dealer lot that you’re going to have a list of things that need to be fixed before you get it home,” Gummersall says.

It’s not unusual for a brand-new RV to spend 20 days in the repair shop in its first year.

“By year two, most of these problems are fixed,” Gummersall says.

RVs take time to prime
So, strange as it may seem, an RV that’s been broken in and well-maintained for a couple of years may be an easier ride than a brand new one.

“The 4-year-old motor home is probably more operable than it was new,” Gummersall says.

There’s also a good chance that a 4-year-old RV won’t be loaded down with a bunch of miles. Most RVers drive just 3,000 to 5,000 miles a year. Lots of people change RVs every three or four years.

“People get into them and they’re always looking for a better deal — something better than what they have,” says Paul Snapp, vice president of sales for RVSearch.com.

So low-mileage, used RVs are definitely out there. Tracking down a good one takes some work.

“You really have to do your homework if you’re looking at used RVs,” Kieva says. “Everybody is looking, and when they come across a good one, it moves quickly.”

First things first — financing
Be sure to get your financing all squared away before jumping into the big RV search. Banks, credit unions and independent finance companies all offer RV financing. A list of RV financing companies is available on the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association Web site.

— Updated: April 5, 2006

Financing can also be arranged at RV dealerships. As with autos, you want to have a financing deal in place before shopping for your vehicle. That way the dealer will have to beat the interest rate on the loan to get your business.

Once you’ve taken care of the financing you’re ready to begin your vehicle search. You might want to start by checking out what’s available from RV dealerships in your area and from ads in the local paper. You never know what you might find.

Don’t forget to hop online. The Internet is a great resource for first-time RV shoppers. You can track down all kinds of pricing information, and you may even locate the vehicle you’re looking for.

RV pricing data from 1986 to 2003 can be found on nadaguides.com. Pricing guides are also available from Woodall’s, Kelley Blue Book and RV Buyers Guide.

You can surf RV dealer sites to compare deals as well as sites with classified ads such as RVTraderOnline, RV USA.com and RVSearch.com.

“It certainly saves a lot of shoe leather,” Kieva says.

Make yourself at home
Finding a good, used RV is half the job. You’ll want to give the rig a test drive and a thorough walk-through.

Lie on the bed. Try out the stove. Go in the bathroom, and see if the door closes when there’s a person inside.

Bring an experienced RVer along with you. Someone who’s been driving an RV for a few years will know what questions to ask and may be able to point out trouble spots.

Gummersall offers detailed instructions of what to look for when selecting an RV in an article for RVers Online.

Be sure to ask to see the owner’s service records.

“If he’s willing to show that to you, chances are there’s nothing hidden,” Gummersall says.

It’s also important to have the rig checked out by an RV mechanic who will make a list of any needed repairs and their estimated costs.

“It will cost you a couple hundred dollars but it’s worth it,” Kieva says.

The repair list for a used RV may be lengthy one. There could be a couple dozen little things that need to be fixed.

“It could be cosmetic,” Gummersall says. “It could be a little water stain next to the window.”

Whether you’re buying from a private party or from a dealer, it’s a good idea to stay overnight in an RV before making a purchase. Try out everything. Ask yourself if this is some place you can picture yourself living for weeks at a time?

As Kieva says, “Try it on and see if it fits.”

— Updated: April 5, 2006