vintage camper trailer restoration paneling

10 Things you need to know before you buy your first vintage camper

before you buy

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and mentioned something you were interested in and that person had that exact same thing you were wanting? Well, that's how my passion (obsession) for vintage campers began. I have been seeing all of these cute campers on Pinterest for several months.  I mentioned my findings to a friend and he said he knew of one that was available.  Within the week I was standing in a field looking at my first camper project.

If you in the market to purchase a vintage camper project download my free shopping checklist. I'll tell you the things to look for and what to ask a potential seller....and it free.  Click Here to download.

SHE IS BEAUTIFUL!!!  Ok...maybe this is the kind of love only a mother has.  To be honest she is in rough shape.  But she's FREE!!  And that's the perfect way to test your skills, right?

I spent a year restoring this 14-foot camper and have learned a lot. That's the whole point of a project like this. I get asked often about how much a vintage camper is worth in its unrestored state. And the answer I always give is, "What's it worth to you?"

This rotten 1956 Shasta was invaluable to me as a learning tool, but maybe you aren't looking for a complete "frame-up" restoration. (Yes, I took it down all the way to the bare metal trailer frame.)

See my post on Tips and tricks to dismantle your vintage camper.

Here are some things to look for when shopping for a vintage camper project. ( In no particular order)   Click Here to download my free vintage camper shopping checklist.

1. Does it have a title?
2. Consider the age of the camper.
3. Does it have character and desirability?
4. Size; How big will your project be?
5. Is it structurally sound? (framing)
6. Do the systems work? (Electric, Propane, Water)
7. Is it water tight?
8. What condition is the undercarriage in? (leaf springs, brakes, tires, bearings, tow-ability, etc.)
9. What condition is the exterior siding in?
10. How complete is it? (windows, appliances, light fixtures, hardware, cabinetry, etc.)


  • 1. Does it have a title?

    It's much easier to deal with a camper that has a clean title. I really don't like to deal with any other situation. Each state has its own set of rules when it comes to this so I have little advice except to do your research. I don't recommend staring any work on a camper unless you've secured the title in your name.

  • 2. Age of the camper

    This is a question of preference and opinion. There is some debate on how old a camper has to be in order to be considered "Vintage". Some enthusiast says 1973 is the cut-off while others will accept camper up until the late 1970s. If you plan on belonging to a specific vintage trailer club, then you might want to research their specific guidelines. Other than that, you should use your own judgment....If you like it, then age doesn't' matter.

  • 3. Does it have character and desirability? you like it? Many vintage camper models have a large following. There are websites and social media sites devoted to them. The more popular the make and model is, the more you can sell your restored camper for. But...sometimes that means you'll pay more for the unrestored camper as well. The important thing is to buy what you like, have a vision for the completed project and have fun with it.

  • 4. Size (How big is the camper/trailer?)

    Consider the scope of your potential project. I don't recommend starting off with a 24-foot aluminum camper that needs a complete frame-up restoration. You could get discouraged and overwhelmed before you even start. Start with a small, 14-16 foot trailer. Maybe consider one that doesn't have a bathroom so you don't have to deal with a black-water tank for your first project. Just a thought....

  • 5. Is it structurally sound?

    Look for bowing sides or sagging roof lines. This is a good indication that a piece of the framing has been compromised. Don't get me wrong, it can be fixed, just know that you'll be taking the aluminum siding off to access the damage. By the way, if the siding is off you might as well access the electrical and insulation. 🙂

  • 6. Do the systems work?

    Speaking of electrical..... Maybe you are very comfortable with this but I wasn't. I learned A LOT! If running or fixing electrical systems is your thing then you're my hero! Remember that most campers have 12v and 110 power along with a trailer tail light system. You'll need the tail/brake lights to work when towing your project home. (Or you can put your camper on an auto trailer.)
    Propane lines should be tested with leak detector fluid before using them long term.
    Water systems are fairly simple but I can tell you that I went to the hardware store more times when installing mine than any other thing. Typically a new faucet and/or pump may be required.

    Water pump and fuses. I'm going to need to upgrade that.

  • 7. Is it water tight?

    Most of them are NOT! If the wood paneling has watermarks, discoloration or delamination then it's been wet. This happens most frequently around the roof vent, windows and corners. The good news is the wood can be repaired. But first, you need to stop the leak.

  • 8. What conditon is the undercarriage in?

    Check for broken leaf springs. (Yep, you'll have to put your head under there and shine a flashlight on them.) Leaf-springs can be replaced but it's not something I'd like to tackle.
    The same goes for brakes. Lots of people do them but I'd probably take it to a repair shop.
    Most of the time tires will need to be replaced. Trailer tires are only good for 10 years regardless of their wear.
    Wheel bearings are easy to replace or repack. There are lots of YouTube videos on how to do this. Pretty simple.
    After you access the lights, tires, and brakes you'll have to decide if you can safely tow the camper to your project site. Maybe putting it on an auto trailer a better option.

  • 9. What condition is the exterior siding in?

    Check for dents, damage, and missing siding. You can still purchase siding for vintage campers and some repairs are possible. Bondo and a lot of sanding can make siding look better but holes WILL lead to water damage if you don't repair them.

  • 10. How complete is it?

    There are lots of sites that sell vintage trailer parts and appliances so it's possible to find replacements, but a complete camper will save you $$.

After you've examined the potential project it's important to think about how many of the above list items you are capable of doing yourself. I've learned a lot by reading, watching YouTube videos, and consulting with friends in the construction industry. You just have to be willing to learn and possibly fail a few times until you get it right...I know I did!

How much of the work can you do yourself? Parts and supplies add up quickly. Is this project for your own personal enjoyment or are your trying to sell it for a profit?

The bottom line is....What's it worth to you?

Remember that a free camper could cost your THOUSANDS of dollars!! ...and that's ok as long as you are aware of what you're getting into.

If you in the market to purchase a vintage camper project download my free shopping checklist. I'll tell you the things to look for and what to ask a potential seller....and it free.  Click Here to download.

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