BUYING the Perfect VINTAGE Airstream!
I titled this post 'BUYING the Perfect VINTAGE Airstream, but I'm going to let you in on a huge secret right off the bat. Ready for it? Ok, here is goes... There is NO perfect vintage, renovation project Airstream. You will be lucky to find a 'pretty good' vintage Airstream. Inevitably, you will have, at a minimum, sub floor damage from years of water leaks, most likely a major system that doesn't work, and likely corroded electrical system wires. I am not trying to scare you away from a renovation, but rather shift your mentality and approach it with realistic expectations and practical solutions.
With that said, there are definitely things which you need to be on the look out for when going to find that next renovation to minimize your impending stress levels and keep that budget on track! My wife and I have been through the process several times and while we have in no way mastered this task, here are the big tips we have learned.
1. Do NOT show up to see an Airstream unprepared.
You wouldn't buy a house without knowing a little something about the area in which you were looking or as the very least have a realtor guiding you, so don't show up to look at an Airstream without knowing a little bit about that year and model. For instance, prior to 1973, there are no gray water tanks in Airstreams. The water goes down the drain and right out on the ground. This could be a huge logistical pain in the ass since every state and national park, as well as every RV park does not allow the dumping of gray water on the ground. You will need to carry around an external waste container, fabricate a space for a gray water tank or remove the water system all-together. Do your research, know what you're showing up to buy.
2. Check comps for price comparisons before you arrive.
This is a difficult point that takes time to really master. Ideally, as your experience level grows, you will begin to have a general idea of how much it costs to repair every specific system, handle, pipe in the Airstream. Check websites like Craigslist or AirstreamClassifieds in order to see what other people have listed their comps for. Take your time, do your research, and know what the general value of a 100% working Airstream would cost and once the 'issues' have been identified, deduct from said cost.
3. Do NOT be afraid to ask questions.
At several showings I've been to, there seems to be two types of people trying to sell you their Airstream. You have the knowledgable owner, and you have the ignorant owner. The knowledgable owner has a clear understanding of their rig and how to operate everything in and on it. These are the sellers that you can really dive in and ask the pertinent questions regarding the state of the Airstream. On the other hand, the ignorant owner seems to have little to no knowledge of the Airstream and selling it for their eg. grandfather, brother, cousin. These can be legit sales, but be careful to verify the title as best as you can and negotiate harder. Even if the owner does not know the answer, ask if they can show you the major systems while you are there. Even better, ask them to have this ready for you when you arrive. Under no circumstance should you buy an Airstream without checking the water, LP and electrical system.
4. Check for rear frame sagging.
This is a quick, yet vitally important point. If you step on the rear bumper and it bends away from the shell, walk away. Vintage, rear-bath Airstreams are notorious for rear-frame separation. The tanks in RB (rear-bath) models sit directly under the bath and over time can bend and weaken the frame. Unless you are willing to undergo a huge frame restoration, just do yourself a favor and avoid these.
5. Check the Exterior.
This is the easiest aspect of the Airstream to assess so take your time and do it right. While not universally true, an upkept exterior usually means an upkept interior.
Shell: With any aluminum product several decades old, there will be a level of oxidation that has occurred. This does not structurally compromise the shell but can be a sore sight if it's bad. If you feel like stripping and polishing an airstream, BE PREPARED FOR HELL. While not an overly complicated task, it takes a large amount of time. It is estimated that a 30' Airstream will take 200 work hours to complete. If you are of significant means, you can pay someone else to do it roughly for $100-150/linear foot of trailer. For those budget renovators, that can be a nasty chunk of your budget. With that said, a polished Airstream can put a premium on your re-sale price. While dings, dents or bruises can be removed from a vintage Airstream shell, know that it isn't an overly complicated process, but requires tools many of us do not possess. A few dings do not deter me from a purchase, in fact, it adds to the allure, in many ways, of a vintage trailer. On the other hand, a major ding I can see in a picture will deter me from even seeing it in person.
Windows: Next, check the windows. After countless miles on backroads, highways and byways, rocks have a tendency to wreck havoc on the front windows. Again, while completely a fixable situation, window repairs come at a high cost financially or through labor. My advice, avoid Airstreams with window damage.
Doors/Compartments: Make sure you check the main door to ensure it opens and closes appropriately. If you are looking at an Airstream with a missing compartment door, they can be readily purchased online for a nice premium, but ensure the hinges/track is in good condition.
6. Check in Interior.
First thing to check when you show up, did the seller have the windows and door open. "Why's that?" you ask. It is a common technique to air out a musty old trailer before a buyer arrives. When you enter the trailer, take a deep breathe and if you are getting a musty smell, there is likely water damage. To me, this isn't necessarily a deal breaker, in fact, all three of my renovations have required sub-floor repair/replacement due to rotting from water leaks. Airstreams leak, it's kinda their thing. Give an Airstream several years or decades of neglect and you can bet your ass they have water damage. Unfortunately, since the trailer is still owned by another, you are limited to the extent of snooping under carpet or wood floors. A good method to check the structural integrity of the sub-floor is simply walk around and feel for sag or dips. They will feel very obvious when you find them. If they are around the edges, that is rather expected. If you find them in the dead center of a thoroughfare, thank them for their time and move along. The extent of the damage might be quite extensive in those cases.
Another big point I want to make in the section, check for all the hardware you have time to check. My first 2 renovations, I would see a missing knob or a broken flip-up dinette table and think 'no problem'. It wasn't until I was working on the trailer did I realize the implications of these small problems. After a while of googling, I cant find a matching knob, so now I need to buy an entire new set for the trailer ($$), the bathroom slider door guide is missing and no one sells them. I need to replace the door ($$$), the couch is broken and now I need find a unit to replace it with ($$$$). The little things add up, be mindful and negotiate your price accordingly.
7. Learn to negotiate a fair price for the product.
This is easier said than done. I am a horrible negotiator. It most likely stems from my non-confrontational nature, but luckily my wife is a fierce, money-saving warrior. We typically try to go to a potential sale together to avoid the personality deficits we each possess and create our 'Optimus Prime' Airstream buying unit. While I can talk shop and find the issues that will either make or break the sale, my wife has the ability to talk numbers, and, frustratingly so at times, not afraid to walk. The main point I want you to take away from this bullet is that each Airstream is a unique and antique item with its own set of pro's and con's. In order to properly negotiate a fair price, you need to identify these points, make a concise case for your offered price, and be prepared to walk if a sales price cannot be reached.
8. The Exchanging of Money
I'm sure there are many opinions on this point, but we will tell you our truth. We have exchanged cash and we have taken certified checks. In every case, it was a valid transaction and no scamming occurred (thank god). Whether we were buying or selling, by the time we had reached this point, we had made ourself comfortable with the other party, and through open communication, made the judgement that these people were legitimate and low-risk. If you are going to exchange a large amount of cash, we discourage this. We have handed over over 10K in cash before but looking back, we got lucky. Ideally, go to the bank, have the other party pull out a certified check in front of you at the teller and go directly to deposit at your bank. This is the safest and least risky method we have found. Being that the transaction occurs from an established entity and in public really solidified this method as our top choice.
In conclusion, knowledge is power in the vintage Airstream markets. There are a lot of overpriced and under quality Airstreams just waiting for the right sucker to come along. Don't be that person. On the other hand, if you are selling a shitty Airstream, don't be an asshole and rip someone off. Be good to each other.
'Beard' is an adventurous spirit who renovated his first Airstream in 2016 and has since renovated 2 more. He has a love for travel, science, music and his dogs. Beard is a drummer, Game of Thrones fanatic, Ph.D., outdoorsman, loving husband and neighbor.