How do you find an old but non-crappy travel trailer?

Updated Oct 12 2015
By: dwstuckeCC BY 2.0
My fiance and I are getting married in August, and we are really excited about our idea of living in a travel trailer. I lived with my large family in an RV for several years, so I am familiar with how to make a home out of a small space, BUT we are unsure where to begin. I don't really know much about how to find a good trailer that won't crap out on us in a year! We are looking for ideas on travel trailers (even DIYers!) that are under $6000.

How do you know if a trailer is junk or not? I've seen some that look nice, but it's not like a car where you can look under the hood. It's like buying a tiny house! I've been hunting all over the internet, and I am overwhelmed by all the information, and I have no idea where to start! Are there any other trailer folks who have any advice for us?
-Kristi


We've got an archive of posts about long-term living in RVs and travel trailers, but have no guidance for how to find a good one. Homies, any advice for Kristi?

  1. We were given a pretty trashed Airstream trailer by some relatives who had abandoned it years ago. Luckily they are awesome and pretty infinitely fixable depending on how much work you want to do. And they can be pretty cheap if in need of refurbishing. My family has used it as a temporary living arrangement many times, and now my husband and toddler and I are about to. It should be totally gutted someday but we just redid the plumbing for $300 and did a bunch of surface wiring (hidden in conduits) because the original wiring is dangerous. A few coats of paint and other cosmetic upgrades and it's ready to go. I would say functioning electrical, plumbing, and the right size and layout are most important (and what vehicle you will use to tow). Lots of great travel trailer communities online, and folks are obsessed with their old Airstream. Good luck!

    • I second the Airstream recommendation. Airstreams (and similar styles) are about the only campers that reliably hold their value. Conventional straight-sided and flat-roofed campers lose value rapidly because they ALL leak at the seams eventually. Airstreams are more expensive, but find one that needs work and you should be able to get a good deal.

  2. the most important suggestion i was given regarding shopping for a used camper: push on every panel. if it's squishy, walk away from that camper. that means water got in at some point, and you absolutely want structural integrity if you're going to be living in it! we walked away from about a dozen different campers thanks to this tip.

    also, make sure there's some sort of exhaust fan. campers aren't built for long-term living situations and aren't as good at ventilation as a house would be. since humans aspirate a significant amount of water every day, you want to make sure that moisture has somewhere to go.

    do you have a tow vehicle? if not, now's the time to buy it. figure out what size camper you think you'll want, and buy a truck to handle the weight (plus the weight of all your stuff, and you, and your husband, and any pets you might have, and all your stuff).

    • As far as we could tell, almost every camper has had a leak (unless it's an Airstream or similar metal round-topped camper). Squishy walls can be ripped out an replaced, and it doesn't cost a lot…just a crow bar, some elbow grease, and lumber. We ended up replacing the floor and 3 walls of our camper's bedroom with 2×2's, foam board insulation, luon plywood, and fresh paint.

  3. Make sure the refrigerator works! If it doesn't, it can be expensive to replace. That and watch for any water spots. If you live in a place that's dry in the summer like we do, the squishy walls may dry out, but the water spots are also a good indicator. If your patient, you should be able to find something nice in your budget, my dad paid less than $2000 when he bought his 5th wheel, he was just patient and waited for the right one to come along.

    • Seconding this. We got a camper for a dollar, but now we're looking at minimum $500-600 to replace the fridge. Yikes!

      • We purchased a new fridge for our camper we were redoing at Brands Mart. It was a regular fridge just a small one. Bigger than a dorm one but not as big as a home. With a little tweaking it fit right into the hole. Cheap!

    • I'm curious about this expensive fridge thing, is it the size or something else that makes it so expensive to replace? We replaced the one in our Airstream with a regular mini fridge for like $100.

      • I don't know if this is the only reason they're expensive, but…
        Many RV fridges accept multiple power sources (120V, 12V, even LP gas) whereas your household fridge is only going to accept 120V mains power. So to use a normal fridge you'd have to invert the 12V to 120V, which is less energy efficient.

      • You can use a regular mini-fridge, but then you need a dedicated hook up to get it to work as well as modifying the trailer itself to get it to fit. There are special fridges for rvs/trailers that will work on propane for when you are in the middle of nowhere/traveling – and that is where they can get pricey…

      • I lived in a 1974 camper for two summers during college internships, and the fridge was bad in it. I think the replacement cost is a combination of the strange amperage (is that a word), and the fact that most camper fridges are designed to work on electricity AND propane. We just ripped the broken one out and shoved a mini-fridge in it's place and cut a nice wood frame to go around it so that it looked OK (with a secret removable panel to make a handy hiding place for my pistol). Unless you plan on being without electricity, replacing the original electric/gas fridge with a similar one isn't worth it.

  4. While I have never purchased a camper trailer there is still some 'under the hood' looking I have done with boat trailers. Check the chassies and load bearing car attachements for rust/ cracks. Breaking the whole backbone to your trailer when you are halfway from buttfk to nowhere is not fun. Check the springs, make sure you would be able to repair/ change if they broke on the road. Try to get a trailer with decent tyres and rims or find out before you buy how much it will cost for new ones.

  5. My husband and I bought a camper to live in last summer after we got married while house shopping. We bought a 1996 30' Dutchman for $1500, fixed it up, and then lived in it for 6 months and 14 days (up through mid November in MAINE). It looked a bit like this: http://www.travelizmo.com/archives/dutchmen-30s-dsl-travel-railer-2007.jpg

    It was pretty crappy when we bought it, which we knew. The entire bedroom was pretty rotten, and we ended up ripping out most of the studs and the floor (chainsaw!) before replacing it with all fresh wood and new flooring/paint. There was also rotten flooring and studs underneath the kitchen area. We replaced a lot of wood, redid the flooring throughout, and squirted a lot of caulking around the roof seams (this was the summer when I saw my husband's Home Depot shopping list and learned that he didn't know the correct way to spell "caulk"), removed most of the windows to replaced the foam rubber gaskets around all of them, and generally dumped a lot of time and money into the thing. In the end, it wasn't TOO bad…probably put $1000 into it in materials, so we had a $2500 camper to live in for the summer, which we then resold this spring for $3500.

    My advice: DON'T buy a flat-top type camper like we did. As far as we can tell, they ALL have leaks. A small leak might not seem bad, but the damage is usually far worse underneath once you start investigating. One problem we learned was that most campers are built like this: take a flat frame, place a waterproof membrane tarp thing over it, build the floor and walls on top of that, fold the edges of the membrane up and staple it to the outside of the wall studs, and then put the metal sheathing on the outside of the camper. What does this mean? It means that when you DO inevitably get a leak, it runs down the inside of the walls, and instead of running out the bottom, it instead runs inside that membrane and just pools there….rotting your floorboards. Ours actually had standing water inside that membrane. I would not recommend investing in one of these conventionally built campers with the flat roof like we bought.

    SO, I strongly advise you to invest in an Airstream or similar round-topped metal camper (like this: http://www.viewrvs.com/travel-trailer/airstream/1988/1988_excella_29_a01.jpg) if you're looking for a fixer upper, especially if you want one that will LAST. They're far less likely to have leaks. Since you'd probably end up gutting out a fixer upper camper anyway, might as well have one that has a good shell. Airstreams are more expensive (expecially restored ones) than flat-topped campers of the same age/size, but that's because they do hold their value much better for the aforementioned reasons (did I mention fewer leaks??). Check on Craigslist, get the word out to friends and family, and don't be shy about stopping to inquire about a camper you just happen to see in someone's back yard as you drive by. A lot of people have campers just sitting in their back yard that never get used, and might be willing to get rid of it for a reasonable price. You can get an Airstream style camper for under $6000, but it will need work. But AGAIN, these hold their value far more than conventional travel trailers, and if you fix one up nice you're sure to recuperate your money when you decide to sell it.

  6. Try checking out Boler campers. They are entirely fibreglass, so they don't have many of the usual problems other old campers do (rust, leaks, etc). They are highly sought after for their great condition despite being old. And being fibreglass means that they are really light – can often be towed by a regular car.

  7. Hi! My husband and I have lived in a 1975 Airstream Ambassador 28' for 5+ years, so I may be a bit biased when I wholeheartedly agree with the Airstream recommendations above. My advice: do your research. Go to a dealer or an RV show in your area and look at some trailers, get an idea of the size of trailer you want, the type of floorplan you're looking for, what's going to work best for you. If there is an Airstream dealer nearby, many of the current floorplans are based on the vintage trailers, so while you may not be purchasing a $40k trailer, you can get a good idea of the feel of the space. Are you willing to start from scratch (i.e. a gutted trailer) or do you want everything in place with only cosmetic updates needed? In general, Airstreams have fantastic design layouts, maximizing storage and efficiency of space (there is more closet space in here than most apartments I've lived in!), so dropping in pre-made wood cabinets from Home Depot not only adds more weight, it reduces the original storage capacity of an already tight space. So, my recommendation would be, that unless you and your husband are design wizards adept at carpentry, plumbing, and electrical wiring, find something that's at least repairable and not a blank slate. Do you already own a tow vehicle? If so, this may place limits on the size and weight of trailer you can tow. Also, THEY ALL LEAK, Airstreams included. The benefit of the Airstream is that it has aluminum frame construction, so the rust and rotting problems associated with the leaks are localized to the floor (wood) and floor frame (steel). Because of the way they're built, it's difficult to replace the wooden subfloor of an airstream, but it is possible, and there are resources to guide you through it (see below). How mechanically inclined and handy are you? How much work are you and your husband willing to do to fix up a trailer, and do you have time and a place to work on it? Or are you looking for a "move in ready" home? Yes, you can find a vintage Airstream in your price range, but it may not be in the best condition. With some luck, you should be able to find something that's both livable and towable and meets your basic needs.

    Here are some resources that may be helpful in your search:

    Wally Byam Caravan Club International http://www.wbcci.org/join Wally Byam started the Airstream company, and famously lead caravans of Airstreams across the globe, most notably the Cape Town to Cairo caravan in 1959. This link will bring you to the membership page with a map of different regions, find your local region and local club units and visit their webpages, too. If they're having a rally in your area, try to make arrangements to visit, rallies will frequently have an open house where they invite the public to tour all the different Airstreams. Even if they don't have a public open house, people love to show off and talk about their Airstreams, especially if they know you're in the market for one they'll be happy to help. Another benefit of making local club contacts is that many Airstream aficionados would be willing to help you inspect a trailer you're interested in buying, they can give you and unbiased, third party opinion of the condition of the trailer and any work it may need.

    The Vintage Airstream Club http://vintageairstreamclub.com/ An intra-club of the WBCCI, any Airstream over 25 years old is considered vintage. Again, the VAC holds rallies around the country, but this group focuses on the older Airstreams, and contacts here may be more knowledgable about the type of trailer you're looking for. Also, they host discussion forums and a classifieds section on their website.

    http://www.airforums.com/ Online forum dedicated to Airstream trailers and RVs. Vast knowledge of everything Airstream related. Threads that may be of interest to you: Airstreams on eBay- listing of eBay finds, good place to ask questions about trailers you may find on eBay; Full-timing- information from other member who live full time in their Airstreams; also maybe look over some of the repair and restoration threads to get an idea of the work that goes into keeping these trailers on the road (keep in mind that some folks can go way overboard in keeping their trailers "original" and others do completely gut them and make them totally new, but there can be a happy medium). This is another place you can find Airstreamers in your community who may be willing to help you inspect a trailer. Also, I seem to remember there being a thread for people looking at trailers across the country finding volunteers to inspect them, but I cant actually find it.

    The Vintage Airstream Podcast http://www.thevap.com/ A group of guys, one of whom restores Airstreams professionally, that answer listener questions about anything vintage Airstream related. Look through the archives to find topics you're interested in, I know there are some specifically about finding and inspecting trailers. Plus, they can be pretty entertaining.

    Vintage Airstream Photo Archives http://vintageairstream.com/photo-archives Incredible archive of every Airstream model dating back to the 30s, many include floorplan options so it's worth taking some time to browse through and get an idea of what you like, or what you don't like.

    We've bought two Airstreams, one found on craigslist, the other on eBay, but there are tons of other websites dedicated to listing Airstreams and other vintage trailers for sale, these are just a few:
    http://www.airstreamclassifieds.com/
    http://airstreamguy.com/
    http://classified.airstreamlife.com/
    http://www.tincantourists.com/classified/
    Also, http://www.vintagetrailersupply.com/ is a good resource for finding replacement parts if you do end up doing some work on your trailer. Happy hunting!

  8. I am not an expert. I have owned and operated an RV park for 16 years or so, plus owned RV's since I was 16. This does not make me an expert by any stretch, however, I would like to weigh in. You already have received some very good tips and things to look for, OR look out for. If I were looking for a beginner RV I would buy an Avion. It is such a great trailer for the money, and will last a few lifetimes if taken care of. The Silver Avions are my favorite, great bones, excellent towability, many parts still available and chances of it leaking are less than a "box" trailer. I have owned several and currently have a 1988 34 ft. in great condition.. you just cannot beat them in my humble opinion. Good luck with your search.

  9. I am hoping to find a smaller airstream and make "some" repairs. I will also need to purchase a tow vehicle. I would prefer an older van. Is this even possible for under $15,000? I would appreciate any suggestions.
    My goal is to travel to Seattle and back to South Carolina at my leisure. My two daughter's live in these two states, and I want to spend time with both of them for prolonged periods of time.

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