Do you prefer a sleek and sexy A-Line, a practical and spacious over-cab or a cool camper? Choosing a motorhome or campervan is one of the biggest buying decisions you’ll ever make. Read our guide to make sure that when you choose a motorhome or van, it’s the perfect motorhome for you!
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Thinking of Buying a Motorhome or Campervan?
Ask These Twelve Questions...
If you are buying your first motorhome, probably the first thing to understand is why you want to own a motorhome. Then consider the following questions;
- Is the motorhome for an annual holiday?
- Is it for more regular trips away?
- Are you planning on full-timing?
- Will you be using the motorhome in the UK or in Europe? Or further afield?
- Will you be a summer or winter motorhomer? Or both?
- Are you a solo traveller, a family or couple?
- Are you happy being outside even when its raining or do you prefer your home comforts?
- Are you a wild camper at heart or do you prefer thestability of being on a site?
- Which is more important? The road trip of the being there?
- Are you in the market for a new or used motorhome?
- Do you have a C1 license to drive a motorhome over 3,500kg?
- What is your budget? Think carefully about this and then stick to it! There is more information about costs later in the post.
Types of Motorhome & Campervan Explained
A camper van or pop up camper is essentially a panel van that has been converted to accommodate living space, often based on the Fiat, Ford Transit or Volkswagen. My sons see this as a way cooler vehicle than a motorhome! It is this type of vehicle (bought or self-built) that inspires millions of #vanlife images on Instagram! If you are interested in a self-build panel van conversion then check out VanDog Traveller who has provides advice on this topic.
A motorhome, often called a recreational vehicle (RV) in the States and a camping-car in Europe, is traditionally a coach-built vehicle that offers a caravan-type living area built onto a base vehicle chassis.
The term ‘coach-built’ simply means the coach-builder, the motorhome manufacturer, takes the chassis of a suitable vehicle and coach-builds the living area onto it. The difference between a low-profile motorhome and an over-cab motorhome is at the front. An over-cab motorhome features a bulbous front that hangs over the cab while a low profile does not.
There are a number of advantages of choosing a coach-built motorhome over a panel van conversion. For a start, the square body shape allows for better use of the interior space, while the construction of the side and floor panels allows for better insulation. BUT a campervan offers more flexibility in terms of where and how you travel because of it’s smaller size and being easier to park; it could also be used as a day or commuting vehicle and therefore save on the cost of also owing a car.
Choosing a Campervan
A campervan is a panel van that has been converted to include living space. Some will have a pop-top like the one pictured below and others will be high-top models with a fixed roof. What’ the best campervan to buy? There are many different types of campervans on the market so start with a clear idea of what you want and need.
Depending on the specification you choose, you will have all the equipment you would also find on a motorhome, but waaay less space. If you’re using the van for summer holidays or touring and want to live outdoors (and who doesn’t?) then this might be a good solution but do consider configuration and space carefully.
Campervans can seem expensive when compared to motorhomes; this is because it’s less time consuming to purpose-build the habitation area of a motorhome onto a chassis than it is to convert a panel van.
Low Profile Motorhomes
Low-profile motorhomes vary in length from around 5.5 metres to over 8m. Widths also vary from around 2.1 metres to up to 2.49m, so opt for a slimline model — under 2.25m wide — if you intend to explore narrow rural roads.
The sleek design of a low-profile makes it more aerodynamic and so offers better fuel economy. Low-profile models tend to be lighter than over-cabs, too, meaning that they are better suited to a licence-friendly 3,500kg weight limited chassis. You can read more about motorhome weights here.
What About an Over-Cab Motorhome?
The obvious attraction of an over-cab motorhome is the permanent double bed space in the over-cab section. While headroom can be tight for adults and ladders might be off-putting, this space makes a great den and sleeping quarters for children.
Unlike a drop-down bed in a low-profile, it leaves the lounge area undisturbed, so mum and dad can chill, too. You will though lose the seating provided by the driver and passenger seats as these will not be accessible from the habitation area.
Unsurprisingly, over-cabs are popular with young families, but with overall heights often stretching over 3 metres, these vehicles are not erodynamic. Opt for a modern 150bhp engine, at least or if you can afford it something with a bit more oomph!
Who Wants an A Class Motorhome?
The ultimate in luxury motorhomes, A-classes start with a chassis-cowl, which has no external bodywork from the base vehicle, although the dashboard will still be familiar, and all the exterior bodywork is manufactured by the motorhome company. Our American friends would call this an ‘integral’ motorhome.
The advantages are obvious. More space in the cab, usually a drop-down bed that lowers over the cab seats (without interrupting the lounge, as in a low-profile) and fully insulated bodywork right up to the windscreen. If you’re thinking of heading to the Alps next winter, choose an A-class motorhome; when you get to the mountains, you’ll enjoy a widescreen view of the scenery.
This panoramic view is also great when driving, although the impression of extra width can be a little daunting at first. Bus-type (top-hung) mirrors found on A-classes are useful when manoeuvring too.
How Much Does it All Cost?
Motorhome travel is not cheap. You can spend anything for a few thousand pounds to over £100k to buy a campervan or motorhome. The best motorhomes in the luxury market can cost upwards of £250k! Some food for thought before you buy a motorhome;
- Make and country of manufacture make a difference i.e. German motorhomes are more costly than UK manufactured models but are recognised as having a superior build quality.
- The best motorhome brands will hold their value in the second-hand market.
- A good German or French used motorhome will cost more than standard new UK motorhome.
- Buying a used motorhome privately or through a dealer? Read about the differences here.
- Is it cheaper to buy a motorhome in Europe? Buying a motorhome in France of Germany may get you a lower price, but beware of the exchange rate and typically high mileage on foreign vehicles.
- What about motorhome insurance? Anything over £60k in value will push up the price significantly, as will full-timing. You can reduce costs by joining clubs, for example the Camping and Caravan Club motorhome insurance will be cheaper if you are a member. Campervan insurance though is generally more affordable.
- From 1st September 2019 the VED (vehicle excise duty) for some motorhomes changed. This change effectively means a large increase in VED for new motorhomes costing more than £40K, so something you might want to take into consideration when choosing a motorhome. Check the new rates here. Update March 2020 – this has now been rescinded and will not be applied.
- The cost of running a motorhome, service and maintenance also need to be considered along with the efficiency of your chosen model and MPG achieved.
- Thinking of finance? Then calculate in interest rates as well, they can be high.
When's the Best Time to Buy?
People often ask us when they should buy a motorhome. If you are buying new then start talking with your dealer in October or November the year before you want your new van. You may also be able to pick up a pre-specified model on special offer after the Caravan, Camping & Motorhome Show at the NEC in February.
The best month to buy a used motorhome is October/November; people start to sell as the season comes to an end.
All motorhomes have a quoted maximum weight, as well as a mass in running order figure. The first is the maximum the vehicle can weigh and still be legal on the road – this includes the weight of the motorhome with all your holiday kit and passengers on board.
Just to confuse us, there’s more than one term for this: GVW (gross vehicle weight), MAW (maximum authorised weight), maximum authorised mass (MAM), and maximum total permitted laden mass (MTPLM). Read our easy guide motorhome weight guide for more information.
MRO (mass in running order) or unladen weight is the weight of the motorhome before it has been loaded with all your holiday gear, and the payload is calculated by deducting the MRO from the maximum weight figure. So, a motorhome with a maximum weight of 3,500kg and an MRO of 3,000kg would have a payload of 500kg.
However, people, awnings, satellite TV systems, even engine and transmission upgrades will eat into the payload figure. Then there’s all your camping kit, like tools, clothes, food and drink. Think carefully about this when choosing your motorhome, our easy guide explains how to calculate your payload simply.
Motorhome Axle Weights
The next thing to consider is axle weights, as this is all about correct load distribution. Somewhere on the motorhome you’ll find a weight rating plate (usually inside the driver’s door or under the bonnet), which gives this important information. On the plate, you’ll find the maximum vehicle weight, the gross train weight (the total maximum legal weight of the motorhome and a loaded trailer), and also figures for the maximum weight for the front and rear axles, respectively.
If you already have a motorhome and want to check you’re within your weight limits, an easy solution is to head to your nearest public weighbridge and get your fully loaded motorhome weighed. You should get the axle weights done, too, and you’ll usually receive a printout for your reference.
Motorhome Driving Licence Requirements
Depends how old you are! The type of driving licence you have will affect the maximum weight and type of motorhome you’re able to drive.
If you passed your car driving test on or after January 1, 1997, you are limited to driving a vehicle of no more than 3,500kg maximum weight. If you passed your test before that date you can drive a vehicle that weighs up to 7,500kg.
However, once you reach the age of 70, you will only be licensed to drive vehicles up to 3,500kg unless you apply to the DVLA to keep your entitlement (and undergo regular medical checks). Do this and you can retain your 7.5-tonne entitlement in three-year chunks, repeating the application process after the end of each.
Motorhome Layouts Explained
Aside from the type and size of motorhome best suited to your needs and driving capabilities, choosing the best motorhome layout is one of the most important decisions you need to make. Think of it as you would when buying a house; how much space do you need in each area?
Berths and Beds
Berths and beds are often the defining factor when choosing a motorhome layout. How many people will need to sleep and / or travel in your motorhome? Do you want a double, twin or French bed (where a corner is cut away to accommodate a shower or loo)? This is less of an issue in a campervan where the choice is pretty minimal.
If you are looking for a large garage, then a fixed twin will be the best configuration as they can be sited higher to allow for garage space underneath. Many have steps to help you get in and an infill to make one large double bed.
Some layouts require you to make up your bed every night…it’s novel at first but quickly becomes a pain in the arse! A fixed bed means you don’t need to do this. Traverse beds mean you sleep side to side i.e head to one side, feet to the other and if you have to get up in the night, one of you has to climb over the other. Again, not ideal if you need an old people’s pee every night and you’re away for months on end!
If you go for a two berth, consider what happens if one of you is sick; we have been in this position and been so grateful for the extra drop-down bed. Make sure whichever bed you choose is long enough, sound obvious, but you don’t want to have to put your feet into the shower enclosure every night!
Travel seats for all occupants also need to be considered. We’d recommend crash-tested three-point seat belts for all. If you need six of these, then two will be in the cab and the other four will have to be located in the lounge, meaning that the lounge is likely to have to consist of a dinette-style with two belted seats facing the rear and two facing forwards. If you only need two, your lounge choice is much more flexible. Bizarrely, some motorhomes have more beds than seat-belts, so this is worth checking as well.
Kitchen & Dining
When it comes to the kitchen, ask what you will really need; if full-timing this is likely to be more than you would require for a two week holiday. Preperation space is usually at a premium, so look for clever solutions like pull-out worktops and sink covers which will give you more room. Campervans sometimes have kitchen spaces which extend outside and so require the main door to be open when cooking.
Consider how many people need to sit at the table at meal-times or will you be aiming to eat outside? If you have swivel seats, this will provide you with more dining capacity.
All motorhomes come with a fridge or fridge freezer combo (although unlike a home freezer, motorhome freezers are only designed to store already frozen food). This will run from your 12v battery when travelling and either gas or electric when on EHU. Fridges generally do not run from your leisure battery as they would drain it in a few hours. You can read more about motorhome electrics here.
With bathrooms, what are you likely to use? Just a portable toilet for midnight emergencies, or are you going to need a complete bathroom with fixed cassette toilet, basin and separate shower? Most campsites have excellent facilities these days so, unless you plan to wild camp, do you really need an all-singing all-dancing bathroom?
Try doing a Google search for ‘motorhome floor plans’ to get an idea of what is available and what you like. The questions we asked at the start of the article should help you puzzle all of this out when it comes to the crunch and you have to choose a motorhome layout.
Try Before You Buy!
Before you even think about choosing, let alone buying anything, take the following steps;
- If at all possible, rent a motorhome for a weekend, even better for a week or two if you can manage it. Understand how the space works and what’s important to and for you.
- Visit loads of showrooms, second hand dealers and shows. Stand, sit and lie down in every motorhome you enter even if it doesn’t interest you. There may be elements of this one and that one, that combined would make the right motorhome choice.
- Test drive a motorhome in the same category that you are thinking of buying. Are you comfortable driving such a large vehicle?
- Once inside, close the door and move around. Imagine it’s raining, where do you hand your wet coats and out your wet shoes? How confining does it feel with the door shut? Could you live with that for a rainy week away?
- When you’re in each motorhome, actively look around to understand what extras and options are being displayed. If you wanted an oven, say, where would it go? How about that TV you fancy, would it protrude into the space? Can you watch it from the most comfy spot?
- If you are intending to carry a scooter or e-bikes in your garage, make absolutely sure that it/they will fit, that the garage floor is strong enough and you have enough weight allowance in your rear axle and overall.
- Look closely at storage, including the garage. Take measurements if necessary to ensure that everything you want to take will fit in, remembering the weight limit and distribution of kit of course.
As tempting as it may be, do not commit the first time you have viewed a particular motorhome. Yes, you may well be in love but go home, sleep on it and ask all the questions you need to feel comfortable. This is a massive and expensive purchase, getting it right first time is the only way.
Use our buying a used motorhome checklist to help you on the day you view. It’s got a comprehensive list of everything you should be looking at, and a handy list of important points to remember. You need to be a subscriber to access this and other free resources. You can subscribe here.
Good luck with your buying your motorhome. Here’s to a long and happy journey!
Why not check out our motorhome advice page and resources for more practical campervan advice, motorhome tips and information.