Contacting the seller
Make sure of a few things before you head off down the road to go look at a trailer. When contacting the seller be sure to find out anything the ad did not include that you want to know. Even if it stated it in the ad I make sure I have them say it back to me either on the phone or by email. I make sure that anything that is questionable is addressed and there are no surprises. Here are a few questions to ask… Ask when the trailer was last used or towed. Ask if the electricity works including the brake, turn and indicator lights. Ask (if it is a large trailer) if the brakes were checked. Ask when the last set of tires were put on. Ask when the last time the bearings were repacked. Ask if it ready to be towed. Ask if about condition if they stated it in the ad. If they say everything is there, make sure. Ask if the title is clear. Sometimes sellers do not tell the truth or they are unaware of problems their trailer has. Having them tell you about the trailer on the phone or in the email will let you know how knowledgeable they are about their trailer.
Now you know how much a trailer you are looking for usually goes for. You have contacted the seller and have chosen to go look a trailer to buy. This is really where the question of “is this trailer worth it? Will be answered. You as the buyer have to assess the quality and condition of the trailer against the asking price. You can really go in two directions here. One would be a quick or casual inspection. This is setting up a time you can do a quick (but good) inspection of the trailer. You are not going to pick up the trailer that day but want to know if it is worth getting serious about and coming back later for recovery. The second is going to every inspection with your equipment ready to tow that day. More about towing the trailer
Once you have met and talked to the owner of the trailer you can ask anymore questions you have about it. Don’t be afraid to ask a ton of questions. If the seller doesn’t like to answer your questions you may be looking at the wrong trailer. The owner’s cooperation is one of the most helpful aspects to inspection. Most owners want to give you the dime tour of the trailer which is kind of them but not what we are there for. We want to get more into it then that. You know what you ultimately want to do with the trailer so your assessment is key.
Inspecting a potential trailer
Unless the owner is giving the trailer away or selling it VERY cheap, ask if they wouldn’t mind hooking it up to water and electricity if it is not already. You’ll see a lot of ads that say they don’t know if the appliances work or not. Most people try to be honest, so rather than lie they’d rather say they don’t know when all it would take is for them to connect the water and electric – so ask them to do it. If they won’t or can’t connect them it’s fair to say they don’t work and negotiate that into your offer.
When inspecting a vintage travel trailer for the first time, don’t go empty handed. Take with you a ladder, headlamp and/or flashlight, screwdriver, ice pick, electric outlet tester (small appliance like a hair dryer), camera and notepad (digital or old-fashioned paper & pen)
Pull some tools together from around the house. Some things I have in my tool kit:
- Electrical tester (this is the little two prong tester to see if the outlets are getting electricity)
- Extension cord (you may need bring electricity to the trailer)
- Adapter (this is the large three prong adapter used at the end of the exertion cord with the main electrical connector in the trailer
- Water hose (connecting to the water will let you see if there are any water leaks in the lines)
- Rubber gloves (just in case)
- BBQ lighter (if there is gas in the tanks you can check to see if the stove and oven work)
- 8’ ladder (to check the roof)
- Tape measure
- Screw driver (this is to give soft spots a poke to see how bad the dry rot is)
- Tarp – (something to lay on)
The most knowledgeable folks recommend that initially, it’s best to stay outside! Plan on spending up to a half an hour with the exterior inspection. A thorough outside investigation helps you stay realistic before stepping inside the trailer and subsequently falling in love with the interior cuteness or ‘potential.’
Once they are willing for you to look around start with a walk around of the exterior. Start at the door and walk all the way around the trailer. Note any major dents, dings, cuts or scrapes in the body. Look for any patch panels or fresh paint. Note any equipment is missing such as drip rails, lights, badges, or window parts. If you come up to something like an access panel see if the owner will open it. If it can not be opened then you will only have the word of the owner on it’s condition. Look at the roof if possible to see if there is the black tar sealant or other later repairs to the roof or exterior seams. If you come to something like the water fill cap or electrical outlet see if it will open easily by hand. Take note of the coupler and “pig tail” electrical connection. See if they are worn or corroded and would effect towing. Go back to where you started and get down and look at the tire area. Look at the tires to see if there are any dry rot or flat spots. Look at the wheel well to see if there is any damage. Repeat this on the other side when you are done. Also look under the trailer. Actually get down on the ground so you can see. Look at the frame rails and for any patches to the floor. Look at the axles and springs. Make sure there is nothing odd or out of place. Here’s where some of those tools come into play. Climb up the ladder to inspect the roof – how is the roof firmness, seal job, paint condition, and status of areas around the vents?Then, stand up to walk all around the trailer, opening each cargo door. Closely look at the bottom and walls where they meet. You don’t want to see water stains or feel softness! What about a rock guard? (The adjustable cover over the front window). My friend who owns at least five vintage beauties, says It’s okay without one, but the glass can cost a lot to replace if a rock hits it going down the road. Next, look underneath the trailer. Get down on your hands and knees – even strap that headlamp on then lay on your back and scoot underneath the trailer to check the under carriage. Literally poke the underside. Is it soft anywhere? Is there rot around the wheel wells? My friend recommends to pay close attention to the underside skin….is it intact and without holes? How does the axle look? Does it show signs of stress? Remember to inspect the under chassis and then the drawbar that attaches it to your vehicle. Is it solid? Replacing metal structures can add another $1000! At each of these areas – top, bottom & sides – snap pictures and start a list of everything that needs to be fixed, repaired, or updated.
Don’t stop and go ga-ga over the adorable appliances, fixtures, or layout! With camera in hand and notepad nearby, open every cupboard and storage compartment to find current or past damage from water leaks. Use the flashlight or headlamp to look inside and check for softness or water stains or other types of damage – especially where the bottoms & tops meet the sides. Pull back all cushions and do the same with carpeting, floor rugs, or window curtains. Some folks take along a moisture meter to really scrutinize the water issue.
My friend suggests jumping up and down on several areas of the floor to make sure there are no soft spots! Put that ice pick to use. Anywhere water damage is apparent, nicely stick the ice pick through the wall, preferably at a seam, to see if the wood below is soft. If the floor is rotted, it really can’t be properly repaired without removing the trailer frame –which probably isn’t worth the trouble!
Focus on every inch of the ceiling, from where it joins the walls to the areas around vents. Don’t be afraid to touch and push! Open and close every window, noting any difficulties or missing pieces. Sit inside the trailer and face the door after you’ve firmly closed it. Are there any gaps around the frame? Check the electricity and if at all possible, plug in the trailer to an outlet to ensure the interior lights work. Plug that small appliance you brought with you into every outlet.
If any of the above scrutiny reveals problems that need fixing, another $1,000+ can disappear from your bank account – seems like everything adds up quickly, from flooring, curtains, upholstery to window glass, etc. Keep using your camera and adding items to the ‘negotiation’ list!
Go back inside and start with the front and work your way back. Look at each window to see if there are any missing pieces or parts. You will see the panel damage under each window which will be a indication of how much it will need to be addressed later. If there is a lot of panel damage in one area, follow the damage down to the floor to see if leaking water has made the floor soft. Feel the panel to see if it is damp to the touch. Open all cabinets, drawers, or panels you can. Operate all of the windows to see if they work well. Note if there is any locations where pests (bugs/mice) may have nested at one time. If the owner has stated the appliances work fine, ask if they can be turned on to check for yourself. If they say no, then again, you must take their word for it. Ask if the trailer can be plugged in to see if the interior electrical and lighting works.
In short, if you can open it, do it. If you can feel it, do that too. If you can smell it… You get the picture.
This is your time. Make the most of it. If you are shy about doing these things in someone else trailer you may want to bring someone that isn’t. This is your hard earned money. You might as well spend it on something you can work with.
Take stock of any special features that model of trailer had. What was original to the trailer that you will need if you are doing a restoration. Shastas of the late 50’s to early 60’s for instance had the “S” magazine rack, boomerang drawer pulls, “flower” light globe, fiberglass sconces, collapsible canvas bunk, large mirror, Bargman “wedding cake” tail lights, green Shasta factory data plate, Trail-lite license plate light, Wooden tapered table leg, and of course the aluminum wings. MOST of these features were in Shasta models of that time period but some were not. It is good to know what could be in the Shasta you are going to see so that you know if they are missing or not.
This is where the condition of the trailer you determined earlier do-able or desirable comes into play. If you want your trailer to be a restoration make sure it has the qualities to become that. If you just want a shell to become your blank canvas see if it falls into that area also.
Before looking at trailers I started pricing restoration supplies. I didn’t know every seal and material’s exact cost but had a good indication as to how much each trailer was going to cost me to restore. We will get more into that in the Restoration Process but I kept a tally in my head while doing the resto. Slowly adding up the cost of a new window, the cost of new plywood, the cost of a new floor.. Etc. If by the end of the inspection you have lost track then it is probably more than it is worth. I would take that resto tally and add it to the cost of the asking price. I would then have a idea of how much I could reasonably ask the seller to lower the asking price so I could meet my budget. If that new price would have been unreasonable it was time to move on. What Else? Weight – Many vintage trailers – the ‘canned ham’ types especially – are petite and thus aren’t so heavy that they can’t be easily towed with a small SUV vehicle. Pay attention to this detail. Read your vehicle’s manual to understand the maximum weight it can pull. Remember that when you own the trailer and fill it with all your ‘stuff’, the weight increases. Otherwise, you may end up buying an inexpensive vintage trailer, and a very expensive tow vehicle! Keys – are there working keys to the door, and all the cargo doors? Propane tank – It should be updated as the older ones can no longer be filled, so those old tanks need to be replaced. Can you tell if the propane tank hoses are in good condition, or are they cracked and dry? After buying the trailer but before using any gas appliances, ensure gas fittings and connections are checked by someone licensed in this area. Jacks – are they provided with the trailer, and do they work? Spare tire – Is it there? Is it a decent one that could be used if required? Does it have a wheel? Tires: Rubber deteriorates rather quickly in the elements, especially if the trailer has been sitting for awhile, so inspect tires and ask about the trailer’s recent use. Inquire when the bearings were last packed. (Tires and bearings can be worth about $200-$250). Some people even jack up the trailer to remove the tires and take them to a local tire dealer for inspection! Old Construction – vehicles built over 30 years ago may contain substances such as leaded paint and flooring, stove/fridge back boards and even some interior panels may contain asbestos. Pay attention! Wear gloves and masks when removing or restoring some of the older material. Safety chains – are they present? In good usable condition? Stove – does it work? Lights – brakes, marker lights and turn signals should all be tested. Finally….. the Selling Price – What price should you pay for a vintage trailer? The answer certainly depends on the condition. If the price tag is over $1,500, it better be ’campable’ as is and ready to roll! When the asking price is over $1,500 and the trailer is structurally solid and all systems work, the additional money should take into account your happiness regarding bathroom/no bathroom, desirability of make and model, refrigerator vs ice box, attractive floor plan and how much cosmetic work is potentially needed. On the other hand, expect to pay between $1,200 to $1,500 for something roadworthy and functional inside. Some people say that if the title is good, but there is lots of damage, a price of $500 is fair for a good title and trailer frame.
Sometimes you need to know when to walk away. Even if you drove 4 hours round trip to look at a trailer it may be best to walk away. We once did just that. I had gotten pretty good info and pictures (or so I thought) from the seller. The price seemed reasonable if it was all true. It was not. There were horrible amateur repairs everywhere. I found a mouse’s nest by the wheel well. More water damage then I knew about. The overall condition was not as great as it was made out to be. The amount I estimated to repair it all surpassed what I could have talked them down to. It was time to walk away. It is sometimes very disappointing. Remember…There are more out there.
There is no blue book for vintage trailers. There is no limit to the number of trailers that you inspect. The more the better. No one should ever buy the first car they test drive and they shouldn’t’ marry the first girl they kiss. You will get frustrated and you will think that you will never find a trailer. Frustration can lead to pulling the trigger and settling on something that you really don’t want and that is never a good thing. There is no rush. It isn’t a race. Allocate yourself plenty of time to research and find a good trailer long before you want to use it. Take it one thing at a time.
Again…The only real value is YOUR assessment of the value.
Make sure it’s legal
More often than not the title has been misplaced. That’s just the way it is. In most states, you’ll just have to file for a lost title and you are good to go. Remember to get a bill of sale; you may be able to download one from the DMV in your state. As an extra precaution, you may want to take down the seller’s driver’s license number for your records.
Be very careful. There should be a registration on EVERY vehicle in the U.S.A. Call your DMV title bureau prior to purchase to find out what you may have to do to replace a title in your state. Sometimes it can be costly and time consuming. Especially if you want to camp.
For Airstreams – the here is a great resource: http://www.vintageairstream.com/rr_topics_pricevscondition.html