What You Need to Know When You Buy a Vintage RV

Classic campers are trendy and cool again—if you know how to shop for them.

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Glamp or Camp, Retro Style

Whether you want to hit the open road or glamp in your own backyard, a vintage RV makes a great escape. You can find these trendy travelers in cool shapes (think canned hams and teardrops) and fun colors (pink or turquoise). But retro RVs often need upgrades and repairs.Home improvement and design author Chris Peterson covers what you should know before you open your wallet in his book, Camper Rehab: A Guide to Buying, Repairing and Upgrading Your Travel Trailer. He's a veteran DIY-er who can help you spot a deal breaker or turn an old-school camper into the getaway of your dreams.

Consider the Interior Space

When you’re in the market for a camper, Peterson says, “Be most critical of the sleeping quarters and bathroom. Try out both, and realize that those are the least flexible parts of the floor plan.” A straight-shot layout, with beds at both ends of the camper, is pretty common. A few other features to look for: enough cabinets, closets and other storage spaces for your must-haves.

Check the Skin

When you walk around the exterior of your potential purchase, check its "skin," or siding, Peterson says. “Although fixing exterior surfaces is a reasonable DIY task, look out for dents or unusual cracks that could point to rough treatment or structural failure." You'll find two basic types of materials used for camper sidings: aluminum or synthetic. (Pop-ups typically have fabric sides.) Different materials have their pros and cons, but their most important function is to keep the trailer dry, so water won’t seep in and cause rotting, mold and other problems.

Examine the Brakes

Now it’s time to look underneath that vintage camper. Check the brakes and the brake system, or have a professional do it, and examine the tires for signs of excessive wear and age, like cracks and worn treads. If you’re shopping for a camper or pop-up you're going to tow, be sure the tow frame and suspension are in good shape. Don’t forget to examine the jacks and levelers, which keep your RV stable, level and comfortable to move around in when it’s parked.

Test the Heating and Cooling

There are other systems you'll want to check out, too, including the camper's heating, cooling and plumbing. Don't overlook appliances. A refrigerator can take up to six hours to cool to an optimal temperature, Peterson says, so ask the owner to turn it on before you arrive (bring a thermometer to check it, if the fridge doesn’t have one). If the RV has an oven and stovetop, give those a whirl. Older trailers probably won’t have entertainment systems, but if they do, make sure they're working. Before you make an offer, consider how much you'll have to pay for repairs or replacements.

Avoid Deal-Breakers

Some issues should be deal-breakers, Peterson says, when you're shopping around. Avoid campers with “extensive mold, surfaces that are warm or hot to the touch, significant water stains or other obvious signs of water leakage and damage.” Water stains, for example, can hide rotting, mold and mildew behind walls and ceilings and under floors. Buyer, beware.

Decorate and Accessorize

Once you’re confident your dream camper is a good deal, you can move on to the fun stuff: personalizing and decorating it. Peterson says stenciling is an easy, low-cost way to dress up the interior. Window treatments—especially if you make your own—add color while providing privacy and a bit of insulation from the sun and cold weather. Battery-operated lamps add ambiance.

Add a Fabulous Floor

RV floors can take a beating, leaving them looking rough and worn out. Even if a floor is in good condition, you may want to upgrade to a surface that’s easier to clean or simply more modern-looking. Try flexible laminate strips, Peterson says, or rubber garage floor tiles that interlock. They’re easy to install and relatively inexpensive. Carpet is a popular choice and feels good under bare feet, but it traps dirt and can be a chore to maintain. Peterson suggests using lineoleum tiles, sold as "Marmoleum." They come in a variety of colors and patterns and aren't difficult to install.

Personalize with Fun Accents

Fun touches make your camper feel like home. Add wallpaper in a pretty pattern (just use a thick vinyl that’s flexible enough to hold up to the movement of the walls, and one that can withstand the moisture that comes from cooking and showering). Put on a party vibe with strings of lights, hung inside or out. If you change your lighting, be sure to choose fixtures designed for campers. If you’re wiring in new fixtures, Peterson recommends going to an RV professional.

Brighten and Lighten

White paint, Peterson says, can freshen up your camper’s interior and make it feel more spacious. Or go bold, and paint one interior wall red, purple or bright yellow; you can repaint quickly and easily if you change your mind. Furnishings can add comfort and style to old-school RVs. Reupholster a built-in couch and sew matching pillows, or tuck in a new oveseat. For a touch of luxury, install a wine rack or wall-mounted rack to hold pretty glasses.

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