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Good Bones vs. Bad News: How to Restore an Old Camper

Restoring a vintage camper is a lifelong dream for many RVers. And restoring an RV can indeed be a rewarding adventure. Here’s what you need to know about purchasing and restoring an older camper or motorhome.

What to Consider When Buying a Vintage Camper

Buying a vintage camper isn’t for everyone. You will likely spend a lot of time on DIY repairs or finding someone who can do much of the repair work for you. Finding parts can be complicated and often expensive, too. But if you have the time and inclination, restoring a vintage camper can be a smart investment. Here’s what to consider when buying one.

Type of Camper

Fortunately for most buyers, a travel trailer tends to have a long useful life. In contrast with motorhomes, a travel trailer only needs four wheels to hit the road. You avoid engine repair costs with a camper, which can be a large expense.

There are excellent deals to be had on used RVs for sale, however, and it’s not impossible to restore an older engine. Motorhomes often last for a couple hundred thousand miles with regular care and maintenance. Plus, in some cases, you can purchase a “shell” of an RV for a low price, then install a brand-new engine. Doing an engine overhaul can earn you another two hundred thousand miles on an older body.

Availability of Paperwork

Sometimes you can make an amazing find in an empty lot or field behind a business or home. In those cases, it’s uncommon for the seller to have paperwork on hand. Obtaining registration documents for an abandoned trailer or motorhome can be complicated and even expensive.

It may be easier to purchase a vintage camper from a reputable seller or at least a private owner who has the pink slip. Depending on the value of the vehicle, however, it might be worth the extra steps to receive new registration paperwork.

Depending on the state, you might need an inspection of your trailer, a weight slip, and even verification of your vehicle’s VIN to title a non-titled trailer. For RV insurance, some of the same considerations may apply.

Transportation Costs

For older campers that no longer run or require intense repairs to be roadworthy, you need to factor in transportation costs. Towing prices vary based on location and type of service, but many travel trailers will require flatbed towing accommodations. You should determine transportation costs before deciding on a suitable vintage purchase. Overall costs can potentially add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your bottom line.

Camper Condition

Not every vintage trailer is a wreck on the inside, but many have visible and invisible issues. Look carefully when touring a potential purchase. Pay close attention to factors such as:

● Water damage (past or current)

● Existing/ongoing leaks

● Signs of rodents/droppings

● Electrical issues (nonfunctioning appliances, lights, or outlets)

● Odd smells—anything from a propane leak to mildew to animal inhabitants can cause bad smells

● Structural condition—whether there are holes/soft spots in the floor, walls, or framing

Hidden camper damage can mean huge costs for renovation, so take your time checking for signs.

If you get an excellent deal on a vintage camper with one or more of the above issues, it might be worth the investment. Consider how much work you’re willing to do, however. Be realistic about the effort it will take to get a damaged RV back on the road.

How to Restore an Old Camper

Restoring an old camper can range from relatively simple repairs to a full overhaul of every interior feature. Camping trailers from past decades lack modern features and can be challenging to troubleshoot. However, there are a few main categories of restoration you need to consider.

Repairs (& Repair Costs)

If you plan to hire out the repair job, do your homework before signing any contracts. You may find a shop that can handle every part of the interior and exterior repair, or you may hire a professional for a specific task only.

The more you can do on your own, the cheaper your restoration project will be. If you lack the knowledge or expertise to do the repairs solo, however, it’s worth paying someone knowledgeable to handle them.

Painting

Painting is probably the cheapest of all vintage RV restoration costs. You only need to determine the type of paint necessary, purchase it, and tape off any paint-free areas before beginning. Interior paint is often similar to household paint, with options like high gloss, eggshell, matte, and others.

Exterior paint is a different scenario. Depending on the type of vehicle—motorhome versus travel trailer or popup—you may need an automotive-style paint job. While variation exists among pull trailers, most motorhomes use automotive paint and vinyl products.

A professional paint job in an automotive shop can cost you a few thousand dollars. Conversely, a DIY paint job can cost as little as a hundred dollars with only paint, brushes, and your labor as the investment.

Electrical Work

Unless you’re a licensed electrician, there are likely parts of the electrical in your camper you can’t work on. Safety is paramount with trailer and motorhome wiring; having a fire in your camper is dangerous and expensive to recover from.

Hiring an electrician can cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per hour, depending on the parameters of the job. Fees also depend on the electrician’s background and schedule, plus your location in relation to their shop or office. When it comes to how to restore an old camper, you may need an electrician with specific recreational vehicle expertise.

Flooring

Flooring is often the most intensive task in restoring an older camper. If a vintage camper has sustained water damage, you may need to replace the subflooring and even the framing underneath.

You should also keep in mind the relative cost of flooring materials versus the weight of the materials. A cheap flooring replacement may suit your budget. But adding extra weight to an RV isn’t always ideal. Especially if you need to undergo weighing to get your vintage RV registered, adding more weight than necessary could cost you.

Appliances

Many motorhomes use electricity for all the appliances, but many others use propane for power. For example, even modern RVs use propane-powered refrigerators.

When deciding how to restore an old camper, you need to look at the power source for each appliance. You might plan on replacing the wiring and setup for each appliance to convert to whatever power source you prefer. Or you might want to stick with the original appliance style and seek out vintage replacements.

Tips & Advice for Restoring an Old Camper

With so many variations in restoration practices and materials, it’s challenging to provide a step-by-step guide. That said, here are some top tips and advice for restoring an old camper.

Restore Indoors

Not every RV owner has garage space for wrenching on their rig. But with restoration projects, it’s ideal to work indoors. Because you can’t control the weather—even if the season you start working in is favorable—having a climate-controlled space is essential.

Recruit Friends to Save on Costs

Instead of paying a professional upwards of $100 per hour, consider asking friends to help. If you require manual labor, asking friends to assist is an excellent cost-saving technique. If it’s more nuanced work you require—such as wiring or plumbing—you still may have a friend who is knowledgeable enough to complete the project.

Go with What You Know

When it comes to replacing the interior on a vintage trailer, it makes sense to stick with what you know. If the existing trailer has a propane stove, it’s often simpler to replace the stove than convert to electric. The same goes for other appliances: if you can replace what isn’t working, that makes more financial sense than overhauling the entire system.