I can easily speak to this and have made several videos about it because all of my rigs have been secondhand. Two of them have even been vintage. My first rig was a 1983 Ford Brougham Fat Body Class B. I loved her and named her Fiona after a bad ass character on a TV episode. I was in the process of completely remodeling her when she had an electrical fire. Because of the work I had already done on her, I was still able to sell her for more than I paid — with full disclosure to the buyer, of course.
My next rig was a newer bumper pull trailer (vs. fifth wheel), a 2015 Spree Superlite 29 foot. I called her Super Spree. She turned out to be too much for me to handle and I prefer driving my rig rather than towing it.
In my latest book recently released, “How Being A Nomad Saved My Life,” I share how I came to live in my beloved camper van, Fancy Free. She was a 2005 E350 Cargo Van and I lived in her full-time on the road for five years starting in 2015. I sold her in 2020 to one of my best friends, Robert Witham, and she is still holding up well.
I now live in a vintage RV, and once again, I am remodeling this one head to toe. She is a 1984 Chevrolet Champion Class C with a C30 one ton chassis and a Flagship RV body. She is 23 feet long, 8 feet wide and 11 feet high. Her current weight is 11,000 pounds. I share that because you need to know those dimensions no matter what rig you buy. And, it is very easy to overbuild on a vintage model that was never meant to handle or carry things we take for granted in modern times.
She is one of the most famous RVs on the internet, having been featured on at least 4 major YT channels when she belonged to Tiki — Two Meander, Creativity RV, Enigmatic Nomadics and Cheap RV Living (in that order). And now, of course, she is routinely featured on my channel as I continue to share the progress of her maintenance, repairs and upgrades.
I call her Phoenyx because she rose from the desert floor after being declared DOA by FIVE different professional mechanics. Two friends of mine, both of whom are disabled, brought her back to life with sheer determination, skill and commitment. They worked all day from the desert floor, working with minimal tools and no fancy lifts, but they got her rolling again. When you buy a vintage RV, in the words of the late great Rosanna Rosanna Danna, Gilda Radner…
“It’s always something.”
Still, I prefer vintage rigs. Here is a partial list, in five different categories, of some of the things one needs to be aware of before buying a secondhand rig.
Older rigs may be less expensive up front, but that doesn’t mean they cost less. In a way, it is no different than when I owned my stix & brix. I had the expenses of buying my home, the closing costs, moving, buying essentials, and then after I moved in it felt like the bleeding was never going to stop. I had to replace the hot water heater, garbage disposal, and there were plumbing issues, and a major hail storm not long after I moved in. There are ongoing and hidden costs with buying anything, whether an RV or a house, let alone when it is older and/or secondhand.
ENGINE AND CHASSIS
In my first vintage rig, Fiona, I had replaced all the major components in the interior — the rooftop AC, refrigerator, stove and oven, water pump, and the fuse box. All that was left was the engine and then I was going to start on redecorating the inside. But before I got that far, as I mentioned, she had an electrical fire and I ended up selling her.
This time, I started with the engine and all the chassis components. So far, I have had to repair or replace the following (and this is a partial list): ball joints, u joints, carrier bearings, control arm bushing, shocks, brakes — front and rear, water pump (engine), steering gear box, full tune up (spark plugs, plug wires, distributor cap), front end alignment and carburetor service.
And, the cabin AC system (not the RV rooftop AC) was completely replaced, including having parts parts fabricated because they are no longer available. It seems like everyone wants to tell me that I should just go to salvage yards to find parts for my vintage RV. The problem with that is … they are salvage parts and they are old and they have been sitting for who knows how long. One can do that, but it doesn’t mean you are saving any money in the long run. I have also found, for me, that working with reputable businesses who are licensed and have referrals, also saves money in the long run.
When I bought Phoenyx, the previous owner had already started a fabulous interior rebuild and, in addition to the build, several things had already been upgraded – a new refrigerator, Nature Head toilet, water pump (RV), and a new kitchen sink, plus faucets for the sink and shower.
Other things to consider that may need replacing are any of your appliances, and possibly the wiring or a cabinet rebuild if the new ones don’t fit.
Speaking of wiring, be sure to check out the fuse box. I had replaced the one in Fiona (my class B), but then the wiring in one of the walls caught fire one night. I didn’t even have anything on. At the time, the fireman speculated that the new fuse box was probably too much for the old wiring. Something else to be aware of. And, sure enough, the fuse box in Phoenyx, my current rig, consists of glass fuses. All of that, at some point, will need to be replaced.
Speaking of electrical upgrades. Does the rig you are considering have enough outlets? If you are going to be boondocking, do you have a way of installing or accessing outlets connected to an inverter vs. being dependent on shore power?
If you are going to add solar, where will the wires run? Is the roof strong enough for solar? There are other options available — portable power stations, portable and flexible solar panels, etc., but you may need to know your power usage needs before buying a rig so that you know whether or not it is doable. (Power usage and solar installation is beyond the scope of this article.)
I personally do not like external generators — gas or diesel. I have a traumatic brain injury and cannot tolerate the noise of even the quietest models. But if you are going to use a generator, and are buying an older model rig, you can almost be certain that you will need to replace it — and probably the internal wiring to the power outlets as well.
Phoenyx does not have built-in outside storage like newer model RVs. The only built-in outside storage I have is where the generator used to be. Even if I were to put a generator in that compartment, it would not work. The wiring is no longer viable. Again, I will stress that just because you are possibly saving money up front with a low buy-in, depending on your needs, it doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed cost-savings in the long run.
If your rig of choice doesn’t have enough outside storage, are you going to have to add storage? There are many options — hitch hauls, swing aways, roof racks and a myriad of cargo storage boxes. Regardless, that is an additional cost that may need to be factored in.
The furnaces in both Fiona and Phoenyx were removed prior to me purchasing them. I personally do not feel safe using a vintage furnace so I would have removed them anyway. My heat source is now an Olympian Wave 3 Catalytic Heater on a swing arm. That way I can face it toward the front or back, depending on where I am.
Are you a techno buff or do you want access to the internet? How often? All the time or only when you are in town? Does the rig you are considering have ports or wiring for modern technology? If not, how are you going to charge your electronics and access the internet?
INTERIOR REPAIRS and REMODELING
Changing any of the above usually also means interior repairs or at minimum, interior remodeling.
Always check for leaks. Move furniture and cushions and check underneath windows, along the walls, and where walls and the ceilings meet the floor. Even then there is no guarantee that you won’t spring a leak. Our rigs, regardless of size and shape, are rolling down the road jostling things inside at something equivalent to mild earthquake disturbances.
In Fiona, I had tubing come apart on the RV side of the fresh water tank. Recently in Phoenyx, I had a plumbing leak in the shower wall. Part of the lines had to be replaced as well as the shower mixer. It would not have been a big deal but the old polybutylene lines are no longer made and the adapters to connect them to the newly sized plumbing lines were hard to find.
Likewise, my water heater recently stopped working. It was going to cost more to try and find old parts and replace them than it was to get a new water heater. I went with an “on demand” water heater aka an RV Instantaneous Gas Water Heater. It didn’t fit the old compartment and now I have a “patch” job on the side of my RV that is far less than optimal.
Likewise, my rooftop AC went out not long after I bought my rig. There were no available parts to be found anywhere for a repair so I had to replace it. The new one did not fit the current cut out — for the roof or my inlay board ceiling. That was an additional cost on the installation that I had not budgeted for.
EXTERIOR REPAIRS and PAINT/POLISH
Always looks for leaks. Sometimes they are easy to see, other times they are not. Stand next to your rig and look down the length of it. Do you see any ripples? Look for rust, especially along the roof line. Also, how much patch work has been done on the exterior of the rig you are considering? It may mean it’s been fixed or it could indicate an on-going issue.
Also, part of what makes all of the repairs and remodels worth it to me on Phoenyx is that she is fiberglass. There is no way I could afford a new 23 foot fiberglass rig so I’m willing to spend a little more on her than I normally would.
On my first long-haul trip, my windshield started leaking. It had been replaced many times without the old gaskets being removed. So much so, it was no longer able to seat correctly and was not staying in. I’m still having an issue with it. That’s another issue… when you get things repaired on the road, you can’t always go back to the shop that did the work. That can also lead to higher cost.
All of my windows need to be re-caulked. They have been sealed and re-sealed over the years and look junky. The good news is for me that they don’t leak. The bad news is that if something happens to them, they can no longer be replaced. That size is no longer made. Perhaps that is something I could find at a salvage yard, but there is no guarantee. So, they especially need to be well taken care of.
Before they can be re-caulked properly, the old “junk” will have to be removed – down to the metal — just like my cousin and I did for my windshield. In addition to that, the channels need to be replaced with new hair or felt piling. That will also help with the rattles I tolerate while driving, which in turn will help with insulation.
I am lucky to have two newer awnings over my windows, but I don’t have a porch awning. That could be considered cosmetic, but when you boondock in the desert in the winter, it also can help with insulation. Not only that, any shade you can provide helps the exterior paint and polish – similar to tire covers protecting tires.
Most secondhand rigs need a boost on their paint job. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a car, van, trailer, Class C, B or A. The paint on my poor rig was beginning to oxidize badly. It recently took me and four of my friends a total of 27 man-hours to deep cleanse, polish and wax her exterior back to life. The total cost on that because I bought all of the equipment and product needed, plus treated my friends to dinner and an overnight stay at an RV park, was approximately $300. It had to be done and I needed help. That kind of labor by myself would have put me in bed.
Phoenyx still needs a new paint job, but that will have to wait. Even if the exterior of your rig or potential rig is in good order, can you live with it like it is? Is it deteriorating and in need of immediate help like mine was? Or do you need to do some maintenance and repairs to make it livable? Regardless of where or how you like to camp, you don’t want the outside of your rig to say “homeless” or “caution.”
PERSONALIZATION and GETTING SET UP
I was fortunate to inherit a fabulously remodeled interior on Phoenyx, but my original vintage Class B, Fiona, had all her original colors and fabrics – brown and orange velour fabric on the furniture with green velour on the walls and ceiling. My advice is to always save the interior remodel and decorating for last when possible, so that you have money for the things that will keep your rig functional.
I realize that decor is cosmetic, but if you plan on changing it out, you need to be aware that even decor upgrades add up quickly. And as with all remodeling projects, when you start changing or moving things, you often find issues that were hidden.
Even when just moving in — and it doesn’t matter whether you’re moving into a camper van, RV, bumper pull trailer, a 5th wheel, a bus or a stix & brix — there are always expenses you had not counted on.
I hope this article of things I’ve learned helps you when considering an older, secondhand rig. I love my vintage RV and have found all of this to be worth it. Keep these five categories in mind and you should be okay. It’s a good life out here. It’s saved my life, and you’ve got this. My motto is KOKO! It’s even my personalized license plate. Keep on keeping on.
Debra Dickinson is a full-time nomad, author, and video creator. Debra has been traveling full-time since 2015 and enjoys life on the road with her constant companion, Bandit, a rescue dog. Her books, YouTube channel and contact information can be found on her website.
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