Buying a used camper trailer
If you know what to look for, you could save yourself thousands on a second-hand camper trailer.
Do you have enough knowledge to save yourself wads of cash on your next camper trailer purchase? Buying a second-hand camper can be a fantastic way to save tens of thousands on the price of a brand new, similarly-specced model. But it’s also fraught with danger, with the uninitiated at risk of investing in a money pit that’ll cry for cash for years to come, or going through all the hassle of hunting around for the perfect camper, getting it up to speed and then finding that a brand new one with a lengthy warranty costs just a few hundred more.
You wouldn’t head off to cross the Simpson Desert completely unprepared with just the hope that it turns out all right, so why would you make one of the biggest investments of your life without knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into?
We take a closer look at common issues you’ll find in second-hand campers, legal issues that can pop up, and how to save yourself cold hard cash with a few simple fixes.
IS IT UP FOR THE JOB?
Buying any 4WD accessory is normally a pretty exciting time. It’s not like sinking $5000 into the back garden; $5000 worth of 4WD accessories means more fun, more capability and, in the case of camper trailers, more adventure. Unfortunately, this means our judgement can get clouded and, before we know it, we’re swiping the credit card for a Suzuki Sierra with all the fruit, despite having a family of six, all because we liked the look of it and it was cheap. But look at it this way – a $500 Ferrari that never sees the road and costs you hundreds of thousands in repairs isn’t a bargain. Likewise, a camper trailer that won’t do what you need will never be cheap enough, no matter what the purchase price is.
Step one of buying a used camper trailer is exactly the same as buying a brand new one. Work out exactly what you want out of a trailer before you start drooling over pull-out kitchens and LED lighting. Do you need a lightweight trailer or will your situation allow for a heavier unit? Do you need large undercover areas or quick setup times? Will your trailer need its own storage systems and fridge or can you make do with the setup in your 4WD?
Only once you’ve asked yourself these questions can you really begin looking at what’s going to suit your needs and budget. There’s no point ponying up the big bucks for a trailer with all the bells and whistles when your 4WD already has them, or a whiz-bang hardfloor that’s only big enough for half the family.
IS IT COMPLETE?
So you’ve narrowed down the list of thousands of possible camper combinations to something that will actually suit your needs and budget and you’re off to look at what will hopefully be your home away from home. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and picture yourself kicking back on Fraser Island admiring the shiny new paint, but there’s a few major points you’ll need to check off the list first.
The most obvious area where parts go missing from is the outside. Rain covers and storage covers often get thrown in the bin if the owner doesn’t use them, so it pays to double check and even ask about them, as they might be tucked away in a long-forgotten box. Manufacturers have been loading up campers with external accessories for years so look around the outside for empty bolt holes or marks where an accessory may have been fitted in the past. An enterprising seller may have removed the jerry can holders, gas bottle holders, or even the water tank to fit in a new build. If they’re important to you, make sure they’re there when the trailer changes hands.
If you’re interested in the camper, it’s worth getting the owner to set it up with you. This will give you the chance to ensure all the setup components are there like poles, pole holders, peg storage, tie downs, annexes and awnings. With the trailer set up, have a thorough look inside for missing components. Some camper trailers come with extra cushions to build seating areas as well as meal tables and LED lighting throughout.
IS IT MECHANICALLY SOUND?
Inspecting any second-hand item for purchase can be a daunting prospect. With even second-hand trailers costing the equivalent of a few years’ worth of savings for many people, the risks of getting it wrong are very real. In a perfect world, you’d leave a deposit on the trailer before having it inspected by a qualified trailer repairer, but the world isn’t always perfect and sometimes we need to roll up our sleeves and figure things out ourselves.
While it might seem overwhelming at first, it’s relatively straightforward to check for a camper trailer’s roadworthiness. At the top of the checklist, purely for difficulty to repair, is rust. Unfortunately, due to the nature of most 4WD destinations, salt water ingress is a common occurrence in camper trailers. Given enough time, this can cause chassis and body corrosion that will eat a trailer from the inside out and cost more than the trailer is worth in repairs alone.
From here, the checklist gets much smaller. Does the trailer track straight, are the wheels centred in the wheel arches, are they straight up and down or suffering from excessive camber or toe? Do the tyres have plenty of tread and is it worn evenly? Any of these can be symptoms of bent or damaged suspension components or excessively worn wheel bearings.
With an overall visual inspection done, it’s time to climb underneath with a torch to inspect the suspension bushes and mounts. Heavier trailers require stronger mounts and more robust bushes so if a 2t trailer is held together with a couple of pieces of 2mm thick sheet, now is the time to run. While you’re there look for excessive wear or cracking in the bushes. Fitment of a few grease nipples and stout suspension mounts is always a bonus.
Once you’re confident the trailer isn’t one corrugation away from total failure, hitch it up to the owner’s vehicle and run through the electrical system. Check all the lights and indicators function as necessary, the electrical outlets have power running to them, and that trailer-mounted batteries are receiving a charge.
PRICING UP A RETROFIT
So you’ve found the trailer of your dreams, it fits the budget, is all legal, and it’s all there. The only problem is the tent itself is full of mould and half the fittings are rusted and missing. Now this sounds like an absolute deal breaker but it may be an opportunity for you to save yourself a fortune. Before turning tail and running, take a list of everything that’s missing or damaged and do a little bit of shopping around. You might be surprised at how cheap some things can be to completely replace, which gives you a large window to talk the owner down.
For example, a full-size softfloor tent can be picked up brand new for around $2000, although this can vary significantly depending on the model or brand. If you’re getting the trailer for $3000 below market value because of a damaged tent, that could be $1000 in your pocket for a few hours’ worth of work. Hardfloor tents can be even cheaper again, starting from $1500. Believe it or not, replacing a tent requires little more than a few hand tools and a moderate level of skill, as long as you go for a like-for-like replacement. It’s best to purchase through the trailer’s manufacturer to ensure an accurate fit.
Closely inspect the tent around the main pole as that’s normally the first place to be damaged.
Make a list of all the little odds and ends that may need replacing too, plastic clips, pole ends, water pumps and jockey wheels can all be replaced for peanuts if you know where to look.
- The rear hitch is often used in recovery despite rarely being rated, look for obvious signs of abuse
- Inspect for torn or stretched canvas near the poles or fixings
- Greaseable bushes and adjustable suspension is a good sign of a quality suspension setup
- Even and consistent tyre wear is a good sign the suspension is in reasonable condition
- A non-functioning tap can suggest a serious issue
- Check any external fittings are well protected and won’t be ripped off by the next stray branch
- Are all the major external accessories present or will they need to be replaced?
- Don’t forget the basics. Is the fridge big enough for your family?
Check out the full feature in issue #103 August 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.