RV Life

Buying Our First Camper

January 10, 2016

In her offseason last winter, Mandy and I traveled around the Southeast USA for two and a half months. We lived in a pop up camper with us and our two dogs, Foxey and Luna. We never had any problems with squeezing ourselves into a pop up camper while working (mostly) full time on our laptops. We never argued, except when backing up our camper. That little guy liked to wiggle around.

After those couple months, we were hooked. We needed to get on the road full time. To do that, we wanted a bigger rig so we could bring our cat, Nimbus, along for the ride. Around the middle of 2015, we seriously started talking about whether we are going on the road.

Also around that time, we decided to move from our first apartment together to a new place in the trendy yuppie neighborhood of Shadyside in Pittsburgh. That ended up being a great apartment for us, but the rent ($$$$$) is what made us fully take the jump into living in an RV full time. Why spend $1,400 a month on an apartment when we could own a decent used camper for $10,000.

We made the decision to move into a camper. Yikes. We were scared. Where do we even start?

Luckily enough, I’m a huge nerd and love researching big purchases. I immediately started to peruse the world of used campers, but we had a few decisions to make.

What size?

We initially considered getting a tiny camper that our Ford Explorer could tow, something like the Starcraft AR-ONE 15RB. We saw one in person and it would’ve been a bit cramped for two adults, two dogs, and a cat.

We readjusted our sights on a larger camper. Somethings not too small, or not too big. Somethings just right. A 25 foot length seemed perfect for us. To do that, we needed to decide whether to keep our Ford Explorer (tows 3,500 pounds) or upgrade to a pickup truck.

I really wanted a truck and Mandy really wanted a bigger camper. So we bought a truck.

Travel trailer or fifth wheel

The next decision was what kind of camper to get. We’re tall and we loved the space of the fifth wheels. Some of the newer models are just plain huge, but the fivers seemed to command a bit higher price.

What really set us straight on getting a fifth wheel was straightforward. We’re new to towing something big behind our car, so we wanted something manageable for newbies. A conversation with Mandy’s grandmother about her experience with a fifth wheel all but convinced us. All signs pointed to a fifth wheel. Bigger space, easier to tow than a similarly sized travel trailer, but it all came at a higher price.


Our goal with our camper purchase was not to go further into debt than we already were. The idea was to set us up to pay off our student loan debt, not dig ourselves deeper. We had to pay cash for our camper. Debt was not an option.

We saved up over the course of 6 months and were on track to have $10,000 saved up by January of 2015, when we were planning on pulling the trigger. With a firm budget in mind, we started searching. We set up alerts on RVTrader and Craigslist all around the country.

We sat around watching the email alerts for anything good. We got close to driving out to look at a few, but nothing really stuck out to us.

In mid-November (a bit ahead of schedule), we found a solid fifth wheel that needed a bit of love with the exact floorplan we wanted. Structurally, it was great, but the inside was a bit “pre-owned.”

Oh, and it had a beautifully large slide out. The slider and huge windows were what made us sign on the dotted line.


Meet Keystone (and me and Mandy). She’s our 2002 Keystone Cougar 276 weighing in at 8,300 pounds fully loaded. This was our first home. And we paid cash. Sweet!

This isn't our exact floorplan, but it's pretty close. The main difference is our toilet and shower are in the same room and we have a bigger wardrobe closet. All the better to hold all of Mandy's clothes.

This isn’t our exact floorplan, but it’s pretty close. The main difference is our toilet and shower are in the same room and we have a bigger wardrobe closet. All the better to hold all of Mandy’s clothes.

She’s a real beauty in terms of the floor plan, but I’m a bit biased.

The real shocker was the price. Keystone rang up at $4,911. We bought her from Camping World of Buffalo and they couldn’t have been more helpful through the whole process, especially Sarah and Bill. We ended up paying an extra $750 to have her cleaned and detailed. The crew there did a stellar job fixing all of the little things and resealing her.

All told, we were out the door for under $6,000, way under budget. That gave us room to put even more money into fixing her up and making it our own.

Inside Keystone when we first bought her

The decor really wasn’t that bad. I actually liked it more than most of the newer RVs coming out!

But there’s still work to be done. Mandy’s wheels were turning as soon as we pulled off the lot.

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  • Reply Lynn Grogan February 22, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Hey All! I’m loving your blog so far. We’re in the market for a 5th Wheel and you got a GREAT price! Wow! Were there any surprises after you started renovating? I guess for that price I would expect a little water damage or maybe delamination outside, but I haven’t seen anything in your pictures. We’re terrified of buying a lemon and then having to deal with it on the road. Thanks for your help! Lynn

    • Reply Kevin February 22, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks Lynn! It was a great price, but it had a few minor issues. Overall, we got a great deal, but if we were doing it again, we’d probably spring for a slightly newer fifth wheel. In the 5-7 year old range instead of 15.

      There was some water damage on ours near the front cap, but that leak was easy to patch up. On the outside area near the front cap, there is some minor delamination. It’s about 3 feet by 6 feet. We’re actually working on repairing that this week. Pictures coming soon 🙂

      Good luck with finding your perfect fifth wheel!

  • Reply Lynn Grogan April 9, 2016 at 2:15 am

    Arg… We just discovered some delam in the RV we just bought… Same spot as you actually. Sigh. I swear we checked the outer walls a dozen times, so I’m not sure how we missed this. I’m looking forward to your post on fixing that spot!

  • Reply Victoria July 23, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Hey, guys! I was wondering if the question of towable vs. motorized RV ever came up? What made you go with a towable trailer?

    • Reply Mandy Holesh August 6, 2017 at 8:44 pm

      We wanted the flexibility of being able to leave our home and drive into town. Also, we wanted a cheap and old home without crazy engine rebuilds or lots of time at dealerships. Trucks are a lot easier to fix than waiting to get into an RV dealership for maintenance. But there is no right or wrong way!

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