Planning to Buy an RV, Campervan, or Overland Vehicle? Some things to Consider Before Buying

This blog is part one of a two part series discussing renting vs. buying an RV, campervan, or other overland vehicle. In this post, we’ll break down some important considerations in the decision to rent or buy an adventure home on wheels. Part two will delve further into these considerations and the benefits of renting before buying as part of a “try before you buy” strategy to building your ideal adventure rig.

rent vs buy rv or campervan

Planning on buying an RV, campervan, Jeep camper, or other adventure rig? Even for those planning full-time vanlife or life on the road in another adventure vehicle, renting before you buy is a smart way to avoid the pitfalls of investing in something that isn’t the perfect fit for your travel or lifestyle goals. Below you will find my story of life on the road and some considerations to make when it comes to the decision to rent vs. buy. For those that plan to buy, in part two of this series, we’ll cover additional considerations and the benefits of renting a vehicle (or several) before buying.

Living on the Road

In the winter of 2018, my husband and I hit the road in our Jeep Wrangler Camper, chasing the sun to the southwest U.S. and Baja from January through April. We had a full rooftop replacement with an integrated clamshell tent, an easy kitchen set-up and awning off the back of the Jeep, and other special features to make living from our Jeep Wrangler as practical as possible— with exterior solutions for trash and showers, interior solutions for increased storage, and a dual battery set-up and flexible solar panel to power our fridge, integrated tent lighting, chargers, and other gadgets. We were set for adventure.

While our four-month journey in our Jeep camper was absolutely amazing, we also learned a lot. Like… while Jeeps are great for heading off the beaten path, they don’t exactly have any interior standing or living space. We, of course, knew this before setting out – but knowing something and living it are two different things. Man, it would be nice to be able to stand up when you are changing your clothes! 

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Less a fault of the Jeep and more the will of geography, we also very quickly came to the realization that just because it’s warm during the day in many areas of the southwestern U.S, as soon as the sun goes down… it’s quite cold in the desert. Oh – and we did mention that we were traveling in the winter, right? So, the sun was going down quite early. Once it was dark and cold, there was nowhere to retreat to but our tent topper. And, while climbing into the tent before 6pm is conducive to grabbing those early bird dinner-specials and getting LOADS of sleep, having an interior space with comfy seating, a table, and some nice bright lighting would have been really nice for working on our computers, playing cards, eating inside when it was cold out… and generally just extending our ability to do most things after dark. 

So, what did we learn? The Jeep is AWESOME for really adventuring into those harder to reach places… anywhere where you require four-wheel drive and high clearance… it’s super. It’s also nice and compact, and – since it was also a day-driver for us in our “normal” lives back home, it was an obvious adventure-mobile choice. It was GREAT for weekend to weeks-long travels. 

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BUT… living out of it long term? For months on end? Not as cozy. Having more interior living space, the ability to cook inside when cold/dark, and a bed that we didn’t have to set up every night, would have been awesome things for our longer travels. In short: if we were living from the vehicle for very extended periods of time – or even full-time – we’d probably be much happier overall with some sort of campervan. 

There are pros and cons to every vehicle – trade-offs you’ll make between driving abilities and living comfort – and it’s a great idea to get a really firm grasp on these differences and features before you commit to the purchase of an expensive travel/adventure rig. While we already owned our Jeep, we still put a decent chunk of change into building it out for life on the road. For those that are interested in buying an RV, camper van, Jeep camper, or other adventure/expedition vehicle, renting before you buy is a great way to test different vehicles, getting a feel for both travel/driving capability and livability. 

Things to Think About: Renting vs. Buying 

A lot of people have it in their mind from the get-go… they want their own rig. And this is fine, but before you go down the purchase path, take some time to consider your commitment level, cost factors, and travel goals. With the considerations below, you may find that renting vehicles for your adventures is the better and more cost-effective option for your travel goals. Or, you may find that for the amount of use and type of travel you’re interested in, it makes more sense to buy. Below are some considerations to keep in mind in your decision to rent vs. buy. 

1. What is your commitment level? 

How often will you use the vehicle? Do you plan on living in the vehicle full time? Using it for very long/extended trips? Using it for a couple of one-to-two week trips plus a handful of weekends each year? Exactly how much use will the vehicle get?

If you are planning on living in the vehicle for an extended amount of time, is this something you have done before? It might be worth trying out for some shorter trips before you fully commit.

If you are planning to use the vehicle only part-time for shorter adventures, take a look at your calendar and consider just how often you think you’ll use it. Is it worth buying or does it make more sense to rent for your trips?

Speaking of costs… 

2. What are the costs?

Purchasing an RV, campervan, or other travel vehicle is a major investment. Some costs that you will want to consider when buying:

  • The vehicle itself. This can vary widely depending on the vehicle and also whether you plan to buy new or used.

  • Build-out and modifications. This can also vary wildly depending on how many vehicle build modifications or special features you plan to include in your build. For example, building a tiny home inside of a van will come with a price tag, a price tag that will grow exponentially if you plan on having someone else do the customization and install. As a general rule of thumb, having the interior of a vehicle custom-built typically costs at least twice the amount of the material costs.  

  • Registration and insurance. How will these costs stack up to how often you actually use the vehicle? Are you paying high-dollar registration and insurance fees for a vehicle that spends most of its time sitting in your driveway or in storage? One benefit of renting is that you only pay insurance while you use the vehicle, and even then some rental agencies have policies that allow you to use your own vehicle insurance.

  • Storage. Many adventure and travel vehicles, vans, and RVs are on the larger side or too tall to fit in a standard size garage. Do you have space to store your vehicle? And – if not – what are the storage costs?

  • Maintenance. When you own the vehicle, you are in charge of all the maintenance. Gear heads may love this aspect and do much of the work themselves, which will save a lot of money. For those that are less mechanically inclined, how will the costs of both parts and labor stack up over the years? While there are some standard maintenance costs – oil changes, new tires, etc. – other costs will vary depending on what type of travel you are doing and how hard this is on the vehicle.

  • Other. Let’s just throw in a catch-all category here called “other.” Just like owning a home, with a vehicle that is built for anywhere from a weekend to full-time living, you will find that there is always something else you need. From travel supplies to personalization, miscellaneous expenses can add up.

In short, you will need to consider the costs of VEHICLE + BUILD OUT + REGISTRATION + INSURANCE + STORAGE + MAINTENANCE + ETC.  Will the amount of time that you use the vehicle justify these costs? If you think you will only take a couple short trips a year, it may make more sense to rent. If you travel more frequently, full-time, or over terrain that requires very specialized modifications, expertise, and insurance, then it may make more sense to buy.

3. Where do you want to travel?

  • What type of travel are you planning?

What is your travel style? If you are interested in very extreme off-road travel, you may be more limited on rental options, but this will depend on where you are heading and what your travel goals are. For example, in certain regions throughout the western U.S., there are many options for renting off-road vehicles. If you go to Moab, you will find the main street lined with off-road vehicle rental options. In other areas, you may have difficulty finding a rental with a rental agreement that will cover extreme off-road adventures. Determine your favored travel style, travel location, trip length, and how frequently you will embark on adventures over challenging terrain to decide whether it makes more sense to rent or buy for these types of expeditions.

  • Do you plan on staying within the country or traveling internationally? 

If you are planning international travel with a rig, there are several considerations to make. Will your entire journey, from doorstep to adventure and home again, be over land? Or is there an ocean between your vehicle and where you want to travel? If your desired travel area is across the pond in one direction or the other, what are the costs of shipping and importing your vehicle into another country? Is it better to rent or buy in the region you will be traveling? What are the logistics and fees associated with each border crossing?

  • How varied are your adventure plans? 

Are the landscapes and climate zones you want to visit as varied as the appropriate vehicles for adventures in each of these regions or seasons? It may make more sense to rent the appropriate vehicle for each of your varied trips rather than own only one travel vehicle that may not be suitable for the many different types of travels and adventures you have in mind.

Hopefully this has provided some food for thought as you consider the pros and cons of renting vs. buying your own adventure home on wheels.  Your research should also include getting out into the community of adventurers that best fits your lifestyle to talk to people about their rigs. What do they like about their small RV, campervan. Jeep camper, etc? What do they wish was different? Having these conversations can new questions you may have never considered.

Even if you decide to buy, renting before buying is part of a sound strategy to test different vehicles and determine build-out considerations. Stay tuned for part two of this blog series, where we’ll cover the benefits of renting vs. buying and a checklist of considerations to make as you plan your dream adventure vehicle!

Learn More About Renting vs. Buying: Why You Should Rent an RV or Campervan Before you Buy