Part 1: Advice for Buying your first vintage camper

Buying your first vintage camper project (and most of them are projects!) can be really fun and exciting, but it can also be a little stressful. There are so many variables, and for a lot of people it is a big investment. The next two posts, Part 1 and Part 2 of “Advice for Buying Your First Vintage Camper”, are meant to de-mystify the searching for and purchasing of that big vintage chunk of aluminum for first timers.

I learned to start small...

I want to give other people looking to purchase and restore, re-do, fix up, or completely green-ify and convert campers a resource or a “buying guide” for picking out your first camper project. Here is my advice for what to look for and what to watch out for when buying a vintage camper. In Part 1 of this post, I’m going to talk about the preliminary search for your camper. Part 2 will detail what to look for specifically when you are physically checking out the camper for the first time. Often times, first time buyers of vintage campers find something that looks really good on the surface, but has underlying problems that can get in the way of completing the project. Depending on your skills, different campers are going to be more or less difficult to fix. That is not to say that anything is impossible for anyone, of any skill level! I love using vintage campers because the systems are simple, and the small scale means even if you have to replace ALL the plumbing (or anything else) that’s really no big deal. You know when you look at a schematic or a diagram, and it’s just a couple of inches of line between the fuses and switches in the picture? Well, that’s basically a scale diagram when you’re talking about campers.

And I’ll just say, when I got my first camper, I knew NOTHING about construction or restoration on that scale. I’d barely lifted a hammer until then. I ended up finding a LOT more that needed to be replaced than I had originally thought, and I ended up re-building the entire back half of the camper and replacing the undercarriage. There are so many resources out there to help you get your vintage camper structurally sound and safe (consider me one of them! Feel free to ask me questions). So although you should pick a camper that is realistically doable for you and your time/skills, anything is possible.

Mariah's First Camper: The 1959 Beemer that started it all.

*As a note: this “buyer’s guide” applies to camper TRAILERS, not Class C or Class A motorhomes or anything else with an engine. I’m talking about what to look for in the body of a camper trailer, not what to look for under the hood of a Class C. Of course, these tips can be helpful when looking at those types of RVs, but you’ll have to factor in the engine, too.*

So when you’re looking for a camper, there are a few things to consider. Of course, you want to figure out what age, style, condition, and price you are looking for. You can spend maybe $1200 on something that tows well and is in decent fixable shape – you won’t have to put as much $ into the project compared to if you bought a junker for $500 that needs a complete overhaul from the carriage up. But that’s a trade-off, so figure out what kind of condition you are looking for within you’re price range.
Do you like a particular era? 1950’s? 1970’s? Or maybe a style stands out to you: silver bullet type, bunk-over-tongue shape (like The COMET), or a canned ham? My suggestion: see what’s out there before deciding you must have a particular year and model/make (unless you have unlimited funds to transport the camper of your dreams to you). Most likely the camper of your dreams is out there, but it may be half-way across the country and it’s expensive to have them towed and expensive to drive that far to pick it up. So I suggest seeing what’s out there before deciding exactly what you want. I always wanted an Airfloat (extremely rare, round portal windows, totally glamorous – see above) and still do, but the campers I end up with just keep falling into my lap and then I fall in love with them. So be open-minded. Check craigslist in your area, check Ebay, check TinCanTourists. Drive around!! Some of the best vintage campers are NOT online because it’s still in the hands of the original owner and he doesn’t know how to use craigslist or a digital camera. I’ve seen wonderful campers on the side of the road, so just keep your eyes peeled. I really think that when you find the right camper for you, you will know.
Another tip for searching for your vintage camper project, which may seem counter-intuitive: If you see a craiglist ad for a camper with no picture, it can be the same deal as the guy who doesn’t put his trailer online. Maybe he doesn’t know what he has, maybe he doesn’t have a digital camera – but those listings can lead you to the best camper treasures (sometimes). I’m not saying take advantage of these guys, just know that checking out a camper for sale by someone with no digital camera and no email can mean you found something very classic, and is worth checking out!

Another thing to consider when searching online for campers: “Vintage” is a buzz-word, meaning that it has cache right now and can be used to describe something old and make it sound fancy. On that note, search for “old campers” instead of “vintage campers” when looking on craigslist or Ebay. You might find something from the era that you like, that IS totally vintage, but just doesn’t use that word. Most likely someone trying to sell something that they categorize as “old” will be less $ than the same thing that someone is selling as “Vintage”.

Okay, are you ready to start searching? Any questions? Please contact me!

Part 2 of this post, where I go into detail (with lots of pictures!!) about what to look for and what to avoid when you are actually looking at and “inspecting” a potential camper project, will be posted tomorrow, so keep reading!

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