One of the most common questions I read in forums and groups is: “caravan, motorhome, or camper trailer?“ The question leaves me perplexed. Not perplexed as to the answer, but perplexed as to why people keep asking questions that there’s nothing like a definitive answer to. You know, I honestly believe that the purpose of the internet for some people, is accumulating the highest possible number of responses to their posts and kicking off the biggest blues!
Of course there are benefits to all modes of on the road living. Caravans give you the advantage of a separate vehicle to get around in. camper trailers have a weight and access advantage and motorhomes get you invites to a higher class of happy hour – 2L goon boxes instead of 4L. I’m kidding! Motorhomes give you the advantage of an all in one package. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. What might be an advantage for one person, might be a disadvantage for another.
For all intents and purposes, Campers Way is about low income living on the road , not just touring for a given period. I tend to look at topics from the point of view of living permanently on the road. Also, I might add, not everything I say is the bottom line. I merely proffer a personal opinion. There will always be exceptions to my personal rules and there will always be people who genuinely know more about the topics about which I proffer my knowledge and experience. It’s absolutely fantastic when such experts add value to a post by offering a little bit more. It’s also great when people offer their own experiences and tales of successful on the road living, that might be quite different to my own. What isn’t constructive as far as helping people to survive is concerned, are responses that contradict for the sake of contradiction and cast wild and vehement aspersions about being “wrong!” There’s no right and wrong. As John Lennon famously sang “Whatever get’s through the night. S’alright s’alright!”
So, caravans. As far as I see it, the best way to step away from the housing market and stay away from the edge, is by moving into a caravan. Just remember; this is all about living on the road not just touring for recreation. Here are my reasons.
- Most people already own a car. Admittedly most aren’t perfect tow vehicles, but that will be addressed in a future post.
Caravans provide a significantly more solid base for a home than camper trailers.
- You get a hell of a lot of caravan for your buck, compared to motorhomes, which generally enjoy better re-sale values. You can pick up a good caravan very cheaply. Even if it requires work to get it to a roadworthy state, the cost will be relatively low.
- Once parked, a tow vehicle becomes your everyday ride. Low income earners are generally unlikely to be able to afford to own, register, insure and maintain 2 vehicles and a T-bar / trailer to tow with. For some reason, some people have a sense of guilt about having a bit of dough and will swear that the motorhome towing a car combo, doesn’t cost any more money. It does. A lot. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want and can afford, but this is about surviving on as little money as possible.
- Caravans are cheap and easy to repair and maintain. Flash modern caravans, not so much, but solid older caravans yes! Many people would be surprised by how cheap trailer parts actually are.
- If your home is a caravan, you don’t temporarily lose your home when it’s essential to carry out necessary mechanical repairs that involve your vehicle being in a mechanical repairs workshop.
- It might be a little bit more expensive to register a caravan and vehicle than to register a motorhome, but that’s outweighed by the other savings. Caravan insurance is very inexpensive and some insurers offer attractive packages for car / caravan insurance. If you’re a pensioner, in some states (NSW for instance) pensioners get one free registration. That means that pensioners pay to register their caravan, but not their car. If a couple are both pensioners, the car can be registered in one name for free and the caravan in the other. That is totally legal.
- Whilst in transit. It’s not difficult to unhitch a caravan temporarily in a discreet location and go off to the shops in the car. That means easier access to car parks and narrow streets.
So, what do you look for when buying a cheap. entry level caravan?
What you buy is down to your budget. However, it’s absolutely vital to consider your ongoing financial situation. Even if you have enough money to purchase a fairly flash, all singing all dancing caravan at a reasonable second hand price, will you have the money in the future to maintain it, should anything go wrong with it? The more basic the caravan, the less it will cost to maintain and repair. Even quite modern caravans are reasonably simple, but some can get into big money when you’re talking independent suspension and highly complex electric brake systems.
This guide is essentially aimed at those who wish to purchase a good dooer upper.
The first step in buying a low cost caravan for the purpose of travelling and living in, is to decide on a budget. Once you have decided on a firm figure, add up the following:
- The cost of new rims and light truck tyres.
- The cost of a new set of bearings.
- The cost of a new set of brake backing plates with shoe assemblies.
- The cost of a tilt tray to a repairer that can fit those items.
- The cost of the work.
You’re not going to get much change out of $2,000, so start looking for a caravan that’s advertised at $2,000 under your budget. If you happen to find something that’s roadworthy and registered within your budget, you’re laughing. However, if a seller cannot easily demonstrate that those items are in full working order. Don’t take the risk.
You will generally find that as far as a cheap older caravan goes, those items will not be in sufficient working order. The good news is, you can find reasonably good older vans for between $3,000 and $5,000, so by following this advice, you should be safely on the road for between $5K and $7K. That’s a cheap home, albeit a “renovator’s dream!”
A lot of ads state that the price is negotiable and others state that the price is non negotiable. If a price is listed as not neg. there are 3 likely scenarios: 1) The Caravan is in excellent condition and the price is extremely fair – “Oh look kiddies, there’s Peppa Pig in the ABC chopper.” 2) They aren’t that keen on selling it and are fishing for the best price. 3) They’re bullshitting!
You need to look at every seller as a Bangkok copy watch salesman. You have to act as if despite having to board a flight in 4 hours and thus your time being precious, you know that it looks fuck all like a real Rolex and it’ll stop working as soon as you’ve shown it to your mates in the pub back home, for laugh!
A lot of older caravans have been providing shade for weeds for many years. It’s often a case that they go on the market when the owner needs quick cash. That’s probably not so in the case of a van that’s been loved and maintained, but anything that’s a little shabby, tends to elicit a sense of being very negotiable. Despite the silly prices being put on “vintage” caravans (particularly Viscounts) these days, the reality is that a lot of people are fishing. Market values are finite. If it costs you more money to get it into a decent condition, than it’s actual market value after restoration, it’s simply not worth the asking price.
You also have to be aware of you limitations in regards to carrying out repairs and refurbishments. If you feel that your skills are very limited, start developing some. Otherwise there’s no point in buying a cheap older caravan. It will cost you more to get the work done by a professional than it would cost you to buy something in full working order. Another important consideration is that if your caravan is going to be your home, you probably want it to feel somewhat personalised in terms of it’s interior design. You won’t get that unless you do it yourself.
The finer points of establishing whether or not a caravan is a heap of shit!
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a complete piece of shit, just as long as you’re aware that it is and you are prepared for a significant workload. In the meantime there are several things you can look for in order to greatly reduce that effort:
- Ask for the caravan to be parked on a hard, dry, level surface for inspection.
- Check that the caravan itself sits level. That’s your primary suspension check.
- Inspect leaf type suspension for cracks in the leaves, deep corrosion, worn eye mounts on either end, worn bushes in the case of tandem axle or “rocker roller” systems. Carefully check the U-bolts that hold the axles to the suspension, for warping and corrosion. If it’s IRS (Independent Rubber Suspension) check the rubber for wear. They are easy to replace. I suggest learning a little more about suspension from the “web of all knowledge” prior to inspection. There’s not a great deal to it. Also bear in mind that suspension is not insanely expensive for simple caravans, so even if it does require work or replacement, it could be a good bargaining chip.
- Check the chassis and draw bar thoroughly for cracks and deep corrosion. In my personal opinion, chassis are a game changer. Unless you or a mate are highly experienced at welding and fish plating to an automotive engineering standard or you have a lot of dough to spend, walk away from a cracked or corroded chassis or draw bar. It’s not worth your while.
- Take a trolley jack with you. If you are intending towing it away, a quick check of the hubs drums and brakes is necessary. Jack up each wheel individually until it’s off the ground and see how well it spins freely. Hold each wheel firmly with you left and right hands respectively and shake them in a forward / backward motion. If there’s significant wobble, you’re up for new bearings. You’ll be up for new bearings regardless, but demonstrating as much to the seller won’t hurt your cause and it’ll let you know how likely it is that you’ll tow it away on the day.
- With the braked wheels off the ground, spin each wheel and get some one else to push on the brake lever at the master cylinder on the draw bar. Being brakes, the wheel should stop spinning upon activation. Fairly simple with hydraulic or cabled override breaks. With electric brakes you would need to hook up to a car with an electric brake controller and get someone to depress the brake while you spin. Unless the brakes are fairly new, you’ll need to replace them anyway. It’s much safer. Also bear in mind that old shoes will not be asbestos free. Checking them at the time of inspection is more about whether you can save the cost of a tilt tray and be able to say “these brakes are fucked mate! You’ll have to drop the price.”
- It’s a good idea to remove each wheel and check for damage to the axle stubs. It’s a little tricky without undoing the castle nuts and removing the hubs, but it might be worth your while. On the other hand, you could check for obvious bows and check the axle fully after purchasing the van. Chances are they’ll be OK, but I’m of the school of thought that replacing axles on an old caravan is a medium term default, especially if they’re the older hollow type. Again new axles are an investment in your safety. They sound like a major component, but in relative terms they really aren’t that expensive.
- The actuator is a sprung mechanism that has the tow hitch attached at one end and moves backwards and forwards with the motion of the vehicle, allowing the lever that activates the brakes to have pressure applied to it and to be released accordingly. The actuator shaft should be checked for sufficient grease and significant surface corrosion that might lead to it being seized. It has to move for the brakes to work.
- Signal and clearance lights obviously have to work if you intend towing a caravan away. It can take a very long time to isolate and fix a very simple problem. It’s probably a good to take a towing board with you. You can waste an awful lot of time attempting to make the lights work as required by law.
- Tyres and rims aren’t worth keeping. If the caravan is fit to be towed, tow it straight to a tyre supplier. Tread means nothing. Tyres that have been in the one position for a long time with weight on them will be egged. They will also be prone to cracking and perishing. Don’t risk your life for the sake of a set of tyres. Make sure they’re in your budget. A lot of older rims are also a bit of a liability. Corrosion causes them to be uneven and incapable of forming a good bead with the tyre. You risk slow leaks and blowouts. You can get around the issue by putting tubes in tubeless tyres, but at as little as $50 per new rim, is it really worth it. Be prepared to get rid of existing rims and tyres.
That takes care of basic road worthiness issues but there’s a whole lot more to consider inside:
- Leaks – leaks are never impossible to fix. They can be tricky to isolate, but they can always be fixed with the right materials and some basic skills. What you are looking for is rot. Everything is replaceable, but some jobs are harder than others. Rot can be especially problematic around front and rear windows. Sills and structural timbers can end up being like sponge as a result of years of leaking. They’re usually quite easy to re-build after leaks have been dealt with. There’s usually only a small area of wall skin around large windows. Sometimes it can be saved, sometimes re-made. When buying a caravan check around sills for sponginess and look for significant staining on wall and roof skins, particularly around hatches. If roof and wall skins are just stained but still firm, they can be treated and painted. If they’re rotten, replacing them can be a major job.
- Structural water damage. Structural water damage in a timber framed van can be pretty catastrophic. You can’t exactly pull wall skins off upon inspection, but you can sight the caravan along it’s length from outside and check for warping and outward bulging. If anything is noticeable, you’re in for trouble. If you want a full restoration project and you have the time and money to spend, go for it. If you want something to live in for fiscal reasons, walk away. Warped walls are like cracked chassis. There shouldn’t be much of a problem with aluminium framed caravans, that’s why even very old Viscounts are so popular. Whilst warping isn’t as common in composite caravan walls, problems can occur, particularly around kitchens. Timber kitchen units can get wet as a result of being insufficiently sealed. They can swell and cause the composite wall to bow outward. Keep a look out for that. Some composite vans have a structural timber frame along the bottom edge of the side walls. This can prove problematic around the water hose attachment. Hose fittings invariably leak and years of water spraying up onto that structural timber can cause it to rot. Especially around wheel arches.
- Cupboards and drawers are generally pretty easy to fix up. The trickiest part is attempting to restore or replace original timber-look laminates. They have invariably been discontinued. Some of those laminates are indeed very decorative, particularly in 50’s and 60’s vans. To be brutally honest, most laminates post the early 70’s are as ugly as a hat full of arseholes. Originality is one thing, but what’s the point if it looks like shit! The same goes for cupboard doors and drawer fronts. There’s a lot of laminated chipboard out there. Vast chipboard and plastic wood forests were torn down in the 1970’s in order to make Australian caravans fucking ugly. The argument for chipboard was and sadly still is that it’s light. But seriously! Replacing doors and drawers with quality 10mm plywood is not going to add that much to the overall AGM. Doors can easily be re-made and there are very effective methods for painting laminates, which will be a separate post. I wouldn’t let dodgy cupboards put you off a cheap caravan.
- Gas. It’s not going to cost a fortune to get some gas plumbing done if required. It’s not worth letting gas problems cloud your judgement too much. Check the gas regulations in the state in which you are registering the caravan and have fittings for fridges and stoves / cookers checked by a licensed gas fitter, even if they are working. Some states require a certificate anyway. The good thing about LPG is that if there is a problem that could cause you trouble inside the caravan, you’ll smell it. The most dangerous area is around gas fridge hatches, on the outer wall. There’s a live flame in the back of a gas fridge. There may be a leak around that area that you can’t necessarily smell whilst inside the van. It could still cause a dangerous ignition from the fridge. If a caravan has a gas fridge, it’s a good idea to fit a gas bottle (take a 4.5kg with you) to the van, open it up and check for a gas odour around the open fridge hatch.
- 240v electricity on the other hand is a more serious issue. Test the lights and power points upon inspection. If they work, that’s great, but be prepared to replace the power points in due course. If supply is not reaching the lights or the power points, there’s the potential for some very expensive problems. In many vans, the sides have to be removed and replaced with new ones, in order to fix up wiring issues. There are ways of getting supply to a particular point and then running leads discretely via cupboards and trunking in order to avoid major work, but it’s all a little messy. You really do want a caravan with supply to all lights and power points. no matter what work is undertaken on 240v electricity in a caravan, it Must be undertaken by a licensed electrician.
- 12v supply isn’t such a big problem. The worst case scenario is no supply to the ceiling lights, If that’s the case, it’s unlikely that it’s worth bothering to undergo major work to re-run supply to them. It’s easy to run a new 12v system from the house battery. It can run through cupboards in flexible conduit and even through the floor and under the caravan where necessary. If the ceiling lights remain dead, they can easily be replaced by wall or cupboard mounted lights with discreet wires.
What we have here is nothing like a caravan buying bible. There are a few pointers based upon my experience of purchasing vintage caravans. I’ve never bought a caravan that was built any later than 1976, so my experience is fairly limited. In saying that, Australian caravan design never changed a great deal until the mid 80s, so this advice covers a broad period. In fact many of my points apply to some fairly late model caravans.
Australian caravans from the 1970’s, arguably represent the most bang for buck when it comes to structural sturdiness. Franklins, Viscounts, Millards, Chesneys and a number of others were built like tanks in terms of their chassis and suspension. There are many caravan experts who argue that rocker roller suspension systems from that era, were the best ever to be fitted to Australian caravans. Mine is 42 years old, has it’s original leaves and bushes and is as solid as a rock, so I’m inclined to believe it.
There’s a hell of a lot of caravan to be bought for well under $10k, when you’re talking about vintage vans. We bought ours for $7,000 in very good roadworthy condition. We’ve spent about another $12k on it in 3 years. That’s a fair bit of dough, but we could never get anything like what we have, for under $40k. It’s literally fitted out to our own specification.
Over the next week or so, I’ll put up a few posts with details and photographs of specific aspects of our own project.