So, you’re shopping for RV’s and wondering why people choose one type of rig over another? Here’s why we choose a 5th-wheel trailer rather than a Class A “bus” or Class C motorhome.
Note that any unit with sleeping, eating, and bathroom facilities is considered an “RV” so this article uses the terms fifth-wheel and RV interchangeably.
A Confusing Market
The RV market has consists of powered RVs and towable RV’s of all shapes, sizes and price-points. Every unit has benefits and disadvantages. Finding the right RV is a puzzle that you need to work out for yourself based on:
- Your budget
- The makeup of the family living in the RV
- How you intend to travel
- Your comfort driving or towing different things
Our Intended Use
Our (initial) constraints were:
- A one-year trip around the USA
- A family of four with a teen and pre-teen
- Not moving every day
- Driving days consisting of 4 hours or less on the road
- A budget of roughly $30K
- Comfortable driving or towing just about anything
Our RV Requirements
We developed a rough set of requirements that would make an RV ideal:
- 30’ long or less to be as nimble as possible
- Permanent beds for everyone (that don’t have to be made up/down every night) - so “bunkhouse” models
- Separate bedroom for the kids and the parents.
- A slide-out in the living area
- A place for me to setup a desktop computer for work
Starting the Shopping Process
I grew up taking long vacations in Class A motorhomes. MsBoyink had camped often in a pop-up. I decided no matter what RV types we were familiar with we would start with a clean slate and see what options existed.
Our first step was to visit a large local RV dealer, outline our constraints and requirements, and see what they thought.
The dealer immediately steered us towards the longer, higher-end 5th wheel trailers. They toured us through some that were really nice - with 1.5 baths, dedicated kids rooms, and slide-outs popping out everywhere.
What scared us was the price points. These were expensive 5th wheels. With a rig in $30 - $50K range and a $15 - $25K truck to tow it with and it was more than we wanted to spend.
We kind of gave up on 5th wheels.
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I found that used Chevy Suburbans - gas or diesel - were affordable. Add a used travel trailer and I could see getting us on the road for the low $20K range total.
Class A Option
Driving a classic “Motorhome” had a sentimental “cool-factor” to it. Even though we were leaning towards a towable we still toured some Class A’s.
We quickly ruled them out:
- The price points were higher. We could buy a truck and trailer for just what the Class A would cost.
- The bunkhouse versions had the bunks on the side of the coach near the back. If everyone was in bed your toes would just about be touching. It wasn’t enough separation for us.
- We’d also need a car to tow behind (“toad”) to day-trip and explore in. This would mean we’d have two drivetrains to maintain.
- If there was an issue with the drivetrain of the RV we’d lose our “house” to a service shop.
- Finding a shop to work on the mechanicals of the RV would be harder than a standard pickup truck with a towable RV.
Class C Option
We also thought about a Class C motorhome. While new bunkhouse versions are available they are as expensive as a Class A bunkhouse.
We thought about a used one with a rear full bedroom. I could take out the queen bed and make bunks for the kids and also fit a desk in that space. MsBoyink and I would sleep in the bunk over the driver’s area.
Even with a reconfigured floorplan a Class C would have many of the the same disadvantages of a Class A (need a second car, higher maintenance costs, etc).
Back to Towables
We came back to towable RVs. We spent the winter months watching eBay auctions and Craigslist. We watched some sites selling repossessed units.
The search stagnated for about 6-8 weeks. Once spring hit the wanderlust started to kick in and we restarted the search.
We still hadn’t decided between a bumper-pull or a 5th wheel. We realized that after our initial exploration of the high-end 5th wheels we hadn’t been in any of the “mid-end” rigs.
We spent a full Saturday on the local dealer lots. After touring a couple of dozen trailers we decided the 5th Wheels suited us better.
Fifth Wheel Benefits
- They are taller - with more headroom for us taller folks in the living area
- They overlap the truck while in motion - so a 30’ trailer only extends past the truck 25’-26’. This makes a shorter combination overall
- Due to the front being “upstairs” they feel like they have more discreet living and bedroom areas
- Many people told us they were easier to hitch and unhitch and tow better (less susceptible to wind and sway)
- They are easier to maneuver and park due to the way they attach to the truck
- They can be pulled with a crew cab truck - so we travel in a safer environment than an RV manufactured mostly of furring strips and paneling (if you’ve ever seen an RV that’s been in an accident or flipped you know what I’m talking about)
- They allow for a choice of gas or diesel tow vehicles (diesel motorhomes are big $$)
- They allow a 4WD tow rig - for maneuvering in wet/muddy conditions. 4WD would also enable mild four-wheeling or back-country exploration once the trailer was unhooked.
We found a 5th-wheel floorplan that fit us and met our basic requirements - 2 bunks, single slide-outs and around 30’ long.
Now the decision was whether we should buy a new or used.
Buy New, Discounted for Cosmetic Damage?
The dealers had new units with light damage from a recent hail storm - but we found door latches coming off, missing spots in the cabinet veneer, the fresh water tank loose in the frame rails and the lower siding was thin and susceptible to damage.
Buy Used to Save Money?
We found 2-3 used trailers to look at within driving distance. They were not well maintained, dirty and with undisclosed damage.
I didn’t want to spend the time and money these trailers would require in repairs and updates to make them livable.
Back to new units.
We found a mid-end new 5th wheel on a dealer lot that had the floorplan we wanted. We headed up to view it - pretty sure we were going to commit (we were tired of shopping at this point).
On the way to the dealer we saw a used trailer for sale sitting next to the highway. We identified it as a bunkhouse model and a bit upscale with aluminum wheels and fiberglass sides.
We circled back, noted how clean it was, and called the owner. We made arrangements to view it then continued on to view the new trailer.
We sat in the new one, liked it, got a rough price on it, and headed back to the used one.
Once inside the used unit we found it had the same floorplan as the new one we had just visited.
The inside was clean and it had many extras.
The owner came down on his price, and threw in the hitch (a $900 value). Our first RV purchase years ago taught us to be cautious, so we told the seller we’d sleep on it then call him in the morning.
Making the Deal
Just as we wrapped up our conversation with the owner and walked out to our car, another couple stopped and was going through the trailer. We got in the car, looked at each other and asked ourselves what we were waiting for (it was the exact floorplan we wanted, very clean and well-kept, and thousands of dollars less than the new ones).
And - I’ll admit - the other couple looking at it made me nervous that if we waited we’d miss out. That had already happened to us earlier in the week.
We got back out and told the owner we’d buy it.
A handshake sealed the deal and a couple of days later our fifth-wheel trailer was in our driveway.
Read more about our first fifth-wheel RV.
What We Did Right
We did things mostly right.
We toured a lot of RV’s. We took notes while going through them. I used the audio recorder on my phone and recorded trailer model numbers and my impressions. I joked that by the time we bought a trailer I knew as much or more about them than most of the salespeople.
If you are buying your first RV it’s easy to think you need big. Salespeople that hear you want to live in it for a length of time will tell you so. Don’t listen to them - they just want a big commission.
While we bought a trailer based on being in it for a year we ended up in it for 2.5 years. We were totally comfortable in it.
Small means nimble. Easier to park. Easier to tow. Cheaper to buy and tow.
Trailer Before Truck
We bought the fifth-wheel first. This meant we knew exactly the requirements we had for a tow vehicle. Too often families have a vehicle and either have to try and fit a “home” to that or end up with a too-heavy trailer for their truck.
The Fifth Wheel we bought didn’t meet all of our requirements. I didn’t get a dedicated place to work. I settled for a laptop and a comfy chair and we made it work.