Buying a Camper - Gotta Move Fast, Gotta Be Fair

Updated: Mar 23

Whether you're buying a neighborhood eye sore or a lovingly renovated gem, one's thing is for sure - they are sought after.

Beginning the journey of finding and purchasing a vintage vehicle - of any type - is entering into a community of connoisseurs and dreamers. A place where the depreciated value is zero, but emotional value could be thousands. You are entering Nostalgialand - make sure your hitch is ready, 'cause it's a wild ride.

Having spent many hours scrolling through the hundreds of groups, Marketplace listings and classifieds, it's clear that value is in the perception of the buyer. An important point to understand is that most vintage campers (i.e. pre-1980) have depreciated to $0. The value is no longer in the thing itself, but rather as a collector's item. This essentially means it's worth whatever the collector is willing to pay. This is as much dictated by market demand as by the buyer's emotional connection to the thing.

That means when the market is hot, a seller can list the camper for whatever they think they can get. It also means the buyer can negotiate. Most Americans hate haggling. It's not a part of our culture. We prefer a more direct approach. A thing should costs what it costs. But without a little haggling, the market in antiques loses some of its excitement. First, let's talk about making a deal (no reference to any famous person's possible book title intended).

The Fair Negotiation

So, you're in the market for a camper, you'll most likely stumble across listings with these phrases "don't lowball me", "FIRM", "no low offers!". What this means is the seller has gotten flooded with messages offering at least 50% lower than the listed price. People consider themselves some kind of antique sharks and send out impersonal messages making these offers on the fly, hoping they'll find someone desperate enough to part with their camper for cheap.

When you see wording like this in the listing, the seller is already frustrated. Keep this is mind when reaching out. Be polite, be personal. Compliment them on their restoration and present a reasonable offer (not less than 30% lower than the asking price is a reasonable place to start, but be prepared to offer more). Use wording like, "would you consider?". Often a buyer will offer cash. Remember that an individual selling a camper will most likely only be dealing in cash, so this may not sway them. You may be in a better position if you have something to trade. It doesn't hurt to ask the seller if they'll accept a partial trade. Be ready to go up to their asking price for a highly desirable make and model - Shasta, Airstream, Scamp, etc.

Every negotiation is unique. In some cases it makes sense to be upfront about your top budget. Usually, this is because you think the seller may come down to meet it, or at least come close. In other cases, you may want to make an offer outright. Your reputation is on the line here, so it's best to make a well-researched offer. This means - inspect the camper in person (if possible), note what needs work. If you can't view the camper in person, ask the seller for specific images, how much labor and cost went into updates, and assess what it will take to get it on the road. Original working parts have value. Be sure to ask about original parts. Whatever you think a renovation will cost, double it.

Be honest about what the camper is worth to you and why. You may not be the right buyer for this camper. Some sellers are very attached to their DIY job and may not want to part with a camper for a fair price. Maybe they aren't ready to sell. Many negotiations will fail. Be prepared for disappointment, respect the seller, but stand your ground on budget. Campers are not cheap to rebuild and often what's listed as a minor repair will turn into hundreds/thousands of dollars and many sleepless hours on YouTube.

Move Fast

Fairly priced campers move fast. If you see something you want, reach out immediately with a personal message. Everybody (I mean every single person) hates the auto-reply messages. If you send me a "is this still available" on Facebook, I will delete it. Try something like the below instead.

-'Hi' insert name here...

I love your '66 Aristocrat. Great job on the paint.

Can it be towed? Does it have water damage?

A legit seller will do their best to provide all the info they have on the camper, as well as pics of damage.

After they send a response, you can consider making an offer or scheduling time to see the camper. Be warned, if you don't move fast, you will lose it. If you see something you want and it's not a quick drive, consider making a deposit and a firm appointment. The seller is under no obligation to hold that camper for you. Even with a deposit, it may get sold before you make it there. This is a nasty thing to do to a buyer, but it may happen. You'll have to decide if it's worth the risk. A seller that will respect your scheduled viewing time and not ask for a deposit is by far the best. But with more and more people using online marketplace, more and more small-time scam artists and dishonest, impolite/inexperienced buyers, you may find sellers are hesitant to set a future time without assurances from the buyer.

Ask the seller if they would be willing to write up a deposit invoice through Paypal. See the last section of this post for more info on why.

Before you start shopping, do these things:

1) Be prepared with your full budget in cash.

2) Make sure your tow hitch is ready.

3) Check the tow specs on your vehicle for weight recommendations.

4) Pick up some $20 magnetic brake lights.

5) Know where you can rent a utility trailer quick.

6) Have a place cleared out to store your camper.

7) Be ready to drop everything to go look at a camper.

8) Have a camper inspection buddy on hand. I usually look at campers with two to three people in tow. This is for safety. I would also recommend that sellers meet buyers with a buddy.

To Title or Not to Title, that is the Question

Getting a new or replacement title is a bureaucratic pain, but it's not impossible.* While every state is different, most that I researched have a pathway to titling a vehicle. Having a title is a major selling point for some buyers because everyone hates dealing with the paperwork and associated costs, but if you have the time, it's doable. You may pickup a great deal simply because you're the only buyer willing to go through the process of procuring a new title.

One thing is for sure, DO NOT purchase a camper that does not offer you at the very least a fully filled out bill of sale that the seller is willing to get notarized in the presence of a third party.

The rest is workable. Kentucky, where we are located, has one of the most annoying titling processes. It includes both a police and a fire marshal inspection.* The latter is required on any used camper purchased out of state titled or no.

Long story short, if time is money, factor the title into your offer. It's not a deal breaker, but your time may be worth more in the end.

*I've heard rumors that some states make titling next to impossible. Be sure to check your state's info before purchasing a camper without a title.