Should you buy that “vintage” RV?


By Steve Savage, Mobility RV Service

We used to just call old RVs “old.” Now we call them “vintage.” What’s changed? Whether perusing Craigslist or eBay, it is hard to miss advertisements for “vintage” RVs. A few have been returned to their original state, some have been completely redone to the current owner’s taste, and a good many have been stripped out inside and offered for sale.

Now, as you probably realize, the problem in calling something “vintage” is, by definition, that label is supposed to signify something of “especially high quality.” I would contend, if one were using that term correctly, there are no “vintage” RVs. Unique, fun-to-look-at, interesting perhaps, but vintage — hardly. Truth be known, old RVs are simply old — and rare, simply because most fell apart long ago.

So, if it is not higher quality driving up the price of old RVs, what is it? My thought is the current interest in old RVs is propelled upward, not by knowledgeable buyers but by a fond longing in a broad segment of populace for simpler times past. Everything, including RVs, used to seem simpler. What we now see is a good many folks buying old, usually smaller and poorly equipped RVs, as a response to what is often a lifestyle that seems to spin out of control.

I am reflecting on this issue because I am now routinely receiving requests to rebuild old RVs. Often these requests are for very substantial repairs, for example entire sidewalls, on wood-framed trailers that were outdated when they were manufactured. Most often the interiors have been stripped, the seller having done the easy part, and who is now looking for a buyer inexperienced enough to underestimate the amount of time and work that is required for a quality renovation. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, “There’s an old RV buyer born every minute.”

Perhaps you are reading this because you are considering the purchase of an old RV someone is calling “vintage” and trying to decide if it is a good investment. If so, here is my position. The overwhelming majority of old trailers are in no way special, and up until this notion of vintage came along, they were essentially unsalable. Now folks are dragging them out of fields where they have sat for decades and putting a price tag on them.

If you are considering the purchase of one of these “vintage” RVs often advertised in need of “TLC,” approach this buy with extreme caution. In my opinion, you are likely to dramatically underestimate what it takes to bring an old trailer up to usable standards, and there are dozens of stripped-out shells now taking up space on Craigslist and eBay. These all started out as the dream for someone else who quickly discovered that stripping out a trailer is a simple task — putting it back together is quite another project. I routinely tell folks if you want me to do the work, it will take several thousand dollars and a great deal of time. And when I am done, you will have put more money into your project than you will ever realize on the resale.

So, how about doing the work yourself, and instead of returning it to its former glory, you just focus on making it “cute”? You will also find examples of this approach on the Internet, quite often posted for months, looking for a new home. The problem with this approach is that personal taste is just that, personal, and it varies greatly. So finding a buyer who shares your idea of cute is not always easy. Cute also does not increase value beyond making something simply usable. It has no classic value!

That leaves the truly rare — trailers from decades past that are complete and original; surely they are worth more money. Yes, they are more highly valued and some might at least be considered “antique.” They also cost a good deal more and trade in a much narrower segment of the market. If you just have to have an old trailer, this is where I would suggest you target your search.

Whenever anything old reaches a point where prices start to escalate, the pool of potential buyers also tends to shrink accordingly, and selling prices are artificially maintained and subject to rapid fluctuations. At the same time, the number of things similar to the original multiplies as sellers jump on the band wagon. That being said, if you just have to have a true classic, buy one! If you simply want something that mimics a classic, go for it, but understand putting a great deal of money or time into it with the hopes of making a profit down the road may be an illusion.

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