Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walk-Away Signs For Trailer Shoppers

When it comes to buying a vintage travel trailer, we all start out as greenhorns. Typically, it's the low-priced trailers that first attract us. "Older Shasta, everything works, just needs TLC, $600 OBO."Sounds perfect, doesn't it?

Whoa. This is the most dangerous period of your Girl Camping life, because trust us--a $600 trailer (you were going to offer $500, right?) is almost always a $600 trailer for a reason. And it's one you want to walk away from, because it adds up to way more than the new-paint-and-curtains kind of TLC you most likely have in mind.

We're talking about water damage. The kind that's gone on for years and years, until it's rotted out the wooden framing, where you can't see it,  behind the trailer's metal skin.

Water-damage evidence is sometimes subtle. But when it's as blatant as the examples here, WALK AWAY. What's on the outside is your canary-in-a-coalmine clue to what's trapped inside and rotting the frame. Your only way to correct it is with a complete teardown and rebuild--surely not what you had in mind, because that would cost your $600 multiplied many, many times over. (We've seen someone spend $12K to 'rescue' a $600 trailer.)

From the Shasta trailer above:

This is the curb-side front corner.  It's rotted out (remember, there's wood under there) until the motion of travel sprung the metal trim. An attempt was made at some point to caulk up the edges, but at this point there's nothing left of the wood inside for the trim to screw back into. Walk away!

Here we have the curb side's upper right corner (and the left side looks the same). The sealant tape beneath the metal trim has dried up, cracked, fallen out in places, and allowed enough moisture into the seam to set up perfect conditions for mossy-looking mold. It's not just on the exterior, it's also feeding on the wood behind the seam.

Here's more of the same mossy, moldy gunk affecting the front window frame. You can scrub off what you can see on the outside, but remember, that metal window is set into a frame made of wood. See that double row of caulk atop the frame? All that did was seal the moisture already trapped behind the window frame. You know the advice--walk away!

Here's a close-up of the trim on the street-side rear seam. The sealant tape is so old, dried up, and shot that water has gotten into it. Now it's supporting its own life form. Yes, you can have the trim removed, new sealant tape applied, and the trim put back on. But do you really want to go there, knowing what's likely to have happened to the plywood behind the skin? Walk away, this is not your trailer.

We recommend that you take some time to read 'FAQs for Trailer Buyers,' by Robert Hessellman. He offers more good advice that's intended to save you the grief of a bad first buy.


  1. So true...great pointers...No one wants to spend forever working on repairs when they can be out Girl Camping!!! :)

  2. Not to take anything away from those who are handy Shopgirls and love a big, complicated challenge. We salute them!

    But, we also hope to save some $$ and big heartaches for those who may not know what they're getting into as they're out trailer shopping.

  3. I always tell friends who are on the 'hunt' for an old trailer to remember to use these 3 tools...
    #1, a flashlight, to snoop under the trailer, inside cupborads & behind knooks & cranies.
    #2, a screw driver to 'poke around' on the underside to check for woodrot.
    #3, your nose,,, sniff around for a musty, moldy odor..
    And never let your want over rule your common sence.
    Thanx for the tips on vintage trailer buying 101.
    Happy trails!

  4. also remember you are making a commitment, don't over commit to the work needing to be done. I don't mind tearing down a camper, I did on my first trailer, helped a friend do it on her trailer and I've just committed to doing a another one for personal use. It's in rough shape, but I knew going it I'm going to have to replace plywood and structural frames. It's all about what your 'willing' to do.

  5. Also get UNDER the trailer. Leaf springs cracked or broken? Frame bent or cracked? Coach separating from the frame?

    Pretty easy to spot!

  6. I find that flirting with the owner of the local RV store hasnt hurt me a bit! ;-)

  7. This advice has been given to me more than once. You can spend 5 grand and buy one that has been restored or buy one for 500.00 and spend 5 grand fixing it up your self.

  8. Thank you for the great article and very pertinent comments.
    Particular hats off to Katmom, Raz, and TK Davis. Hubby and I took a second look after the seller moved the unit from the side of the house in a treeline to the open drive. Took a screwdriver, flashlight, and re-checked the underbelly now that we could walk around the whole trailer. It was apprx 17' Shasta/Can ham type (no name we could find...hadnt yet gotten to the title part of the deal)super decent shape. We wanted a project not the full rebuild - which this turned out to be. Tempting as it was quite clean, no smell and was (first two guesses dont count) $500.

    This article prompted our second look we had made a verbal commitment.Good unit for someone, just more than we wanted to get into.

    Thank you- our search continues.

  9. Glad to have been of service! Good luck on your search, the right trailer for you is out there.

  10. My Mom had a little Scotty camper she practically lived in it during the summers. She paid $250 for it. Of course that was back in the 80's and it worked out good for her. As I have a 72 Skamper 28" Fifth wheel I am trying to unload for $1900. I was using it for a crafting room. Which was nice. It is a 3rd time handmedown in the family and as I am not really a camper I now know more what to check. I want to trade it for a pull behind. I don't have a pickup and don't really want one. It is an interesting process and like you said it is buyer beware.