Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Vintage Trailers: Some Qs to Ask Before You Buy One

So you're smitten by the idea of owning a vintage camping trailer and starting the hunt to find one. What do you need to know?

Before you start thinking about brands and styles and sizes (oh my!), you need to know how much trailer your intended tow vehicle can handle. The average American vehicle has a 3.0-liter engine, is made of lightweight parts, and is designed for fuel efficiency--not for towing anything resembling the weight and length of the trailer shown above.

Many a novice trailer buyer has been seduced by a larger trailer (with potty!) and/or a low price, only to find that her mini SUV or garage-sized sedan doesn't have a prayer of being able to pull it, stop it, or handle it safely in adverse weather/road conditions.

How do you know what your proposed tow rig can pull? Recommended: Drive your vehicle to a U-Haul center that rents trailers, and ask one of the experts whose job it is to match renter vehicles to loaded moving trailers. You'll get a good idea of trailer sizes, lengths, and loaded weights that'll work with what you have.

You may find that your current vehicle won't be safe with anything but the smallest, lightest trailer--or with any trailer at all. Ignore this advice at your peril!

Now, let's assume you've either narrowed your search criteria to what you can tow safely, or that you've upgraded to a heavier-duty tow vehicle.

Your next question-to-self should be, "How much repair/restoration am I willing and able to take on, and at what price?" There's a saying worth paying attention to: "You can pay now, or you can pay later." A $500 "Needs TLC" trailer can easily add up to being a $5,000 expenditure, or more, before you can hook up and go have fun with it.

And if it's going to take a year or better to make that happen--then maybe you're better off saving money for that extra year and buying something that's already been rehabbed and is ready to roll.

What you see above is a 1950s trailer that had to be taken down to the bed for a complete rebuild.

This, dear friends, is a PROJECT. One that can take years, cost a small fortune, and ruin a marriage if you're not careful. The initial low purchase price of a complete fixer-upper will mean nothing if the trailer gets torn apart and never put back together because you can't afford the time and money. (On the other hand, if something this monumental floats your boat, you'll find no shortage of nearly-gone trailers just waiting for you to find them and drag them home.)

Next Q: What's your intent for your would-be trailer once you have one? Do you intend to take trips with it--or simply set it up in your yard for you and the grandkids to enjoy?

This question is more important than you might realize, because not all vintage trailers remain road-worthy enough for extensive travel. (Just ask the owners whose trailers don't pull straight, or that have disintegrated while going down the road.)

If your intent is to paint and decorate a darling little backyard playhouse, then that old, cheap-or-free trailer out in the neighbor's weeds might be just your ticket.

On the other hand, if you want to travel with your trailer, that neglected oldie might not be so golden in terms of your expected reality.

If you have other questions about vintage-trailer shopping, post them here. We'll do our best to get you the answers that will help.


  1. interesting ideas I had not thought of (except the money pit part) Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much for posting this!

  3. My pleasure--glad to know someone is finding it helpful!

  4. Very comprehensive, excellent advice. Thank you!

  5. Good advice!! I was one of the lucky ones....I bought mine about 10 years ago and it is beautiful!!!

  6. Spot ON! and may I add, don't let the "want" of a vintage trailer take over your 'common sence'!
    oh & bring a flash light for seaching around under the trailer as well as inside cabinets etc... & a Phillips type screw driver to poke around on the wood to search for wood rote... and best of all...your 'Nose" sniff, sniff & sniff around for a moldy mildewy smell!
    Oh the things we learn when buying our 1st trailer! lol!
    Happy Trails!

  7. Because we always gut and take down to the axle I most times think all I am buying is the axle and the title. On my blog I try to emphasize the total re-hab and what most trailers look like under the skin...which is not good. It takes a lot more work and money than most people know..good post

  8. Hi, Miss Sheryl, love your blog, and your trailers too! Thanks for your comment, and I hope to see one of your rehabbed trailers in person sometime. Cheers--

  9. I wish someone could just find it and check it all out for me, then tell me to go get it.... I am so 1)starstuck and 2)intimidated....

  10. Where are you located, Sandee? Do you have a purchase-price budget in mind? Maybe we can help!

    1. I am in northern calif. (Sacramento area)... I feel in love with the look of a Shasta...but have looked at a couple Aristocrats too. Doesn't need a bathroom in it. I am a single mom, with would love for it to have two sleeping areas and the hanging cot...but open. Looking at $2 to $7K My dad is retired construction worker, so we plan to "redecorate" and fix together...but don't want a total restoration...

      I just have no one to go look with me..and I get starry eyed. LOL ...

    2. I should add, the camper is more for me. lol. My boys are happy in a tent. and I want to use it as a studio in my backyard...for scrapbooking and sewing...when we are not camping. :) So cuteness potential is a big factor...{grin}

  11. Here's a tip: Don't get in a hurry. Give yourself a few months to go out and kick some tires--the more trailers you go look at, the more you will have something to compare to.

    Don't buy anything with water damage that you can see on the inside. By the time water has worked its way to the inside, it will have gotten into the wooden framing that you can't see behind the walls, and there is likely to be extensive rot--impossible to fix unless you're willing to do a complete rebuild after gutting the whole thing. If a trailer smells heavily musty to you, that's a sure sign of interior rot underway.

    Be wary of buying a low-priced trailer on craigslist or ebay. They are almost always low priced for a reason--e.g., so much repair needed that the seller just wants to dump it on someone unsuspecting.

    Avoid buying something that doesn't have a clear title--one the seller will show you. (Don't take his word for it.) Getting a new title could be impossible, or highly aggravating at best.

    Ask the seller to plug the trailer into the exterior power outlet, to see if everything electric will work, and to show you how everything works (stove, for instance). Have him hook it up and take it for a drive, and so you can tell if the lights work. If he won't/can't, I would be leery of buying if I were in a novice's shoes--there's another trailer out there that's better.

  12. Thanks for all the info! I love your blog...

  13. I enjoy reading your blog also; the information that you share is really great for me as a first time trailer pulling campting girl!

  14. I just acquired a "vintage" trailer by purchasing the property upon which it was left. It needs a good pressure wash on the outside and heaven knows what on the inside. I am sure there's mildew. I didn't venture too far in on first many cob webs, but it didn't look good. Where does one start?

  15. Start by getting yourself a good respirator! Mold, mildew, rodent droppings, and years of dust will not be kind to your lungs. Be super-cautious with a pressure washer, as it can drive water into the exterior seams. Clean out the interior to see what you really have. Then go from there.