Buying a Camper - Gotta Move Fast, Gotta Be Fair
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
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.
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.
What is Professionalism?
Okay, so after sitting with this for a few days, we realized we didn't talk much about recognizing a legit seller OR about where we find the campers.
Finding the campers is a treasure hunt, but where you start is pretty straightforward. Affordable project campers are typically listed online by individuals through Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist with the former being more popular in recent years. You will find a few on eBay as well, but be ready to bid to the highest possible value.
We recommend joining a number of groups related to campers. Groups that require a survey to join, and have an active admin, are best. Members of these groups will also be able to help you out with valuation, repair advice, and general questions as you gain experience within the camper community.
The best place to find a camper is on a neighbor's property. However, there is a lot of luck involved with this route. In our case, we have a specific timeframe for finding and rehabbing a camper. We can't afford to drive around the countryside in hopes of stumbling across a neglected camper. And to be honest, we would prefer one that we cannot see, i.e. kept in a barn.
Here is the catch about online platforms with little moderation - they are full of garbage. This can be frustrating if you're not used to dealing with people online. But be patient and smart. You will be rewarded. Look for the following behaviors in sellers:
1) They provide a thorough description.
2) They list all the damage and provide images referencing this damage.
3) They state they have a title (ask for a picture of the title section with make/model) OR they state they will sign a bill of sale (often people won't think about signing in front of a notary, ask them about this step - as stated above.)
4) They are happy to answer ALL your questions.
5) They provide you with an alternative means of contact - typically a phone number where you can reach them.
6) They are willing to arrange a video call or send a video tour where they mention your name and show their face.
7) If you do not feel safe traveling with their asking price in cash, they are willing to work with you by arranging an alternative means of payment. I prefer being invoiced through PayPal.
*My husband sells refurbished vintage cameras through Facebook Marketplace. He always creates a Paypal invoice for his customers. This is because Paypal has buyer friendly policies when using their service in exchange for goods and services. If the buyer encounters a problem with the seller, the buyer can get their money back in most cases. It also allows them to choose their payment method. He does this for the sake of his customers at his own risk - this is key to understanding good selling practices.
Let's unpack that a little. I recently had a discussion with my husband about the definition of professionalism. What does it mean to behave professionally? It's tricky to determine because it often depends on what who you ask. But there are some basic behaviors that everyone using online marketplaces can agree on.
1) Treat your potential buyers how you would like to be treated.
2) Attempt to anticipate their needs and answer their concerns before they even ask the question.
3) Provide as many assurances as you can.
4) Practice basic polite behaviors such as, use their first name to greet them, 'please' and 'thank you' go a long way, respond to each message to your best ability.
5) Be willing to take on a little risk to assure your buyers' comfort and security. In my husband's case, he uses a professional invoice through Paypal knowing that his buyers may try to claim their money back. My husband has never had a buyer ask for money back and he is a top rated seller in a number of groups.
Here are a couple of specific examples:
- We asked for info on a vintage camper listed in good condition. Both myself and my biz partner sent messages to the seller with different questions. My question was about the title. Her question was asking for the location. The seller responded to her question with an address and ignored my question.
My business partner and I are women. We're tough. We build stuff. But we're not beasts. We don't mind paying for a camper in cash and not shy about haggling with someone who has overvalued their camper. However, if you ask us to "just come out and look" with a load of cash, in an unfamiliar area, we will not do it because we don't feel safe. I expect a seller with integrity to recognize this safety issue without me having to point it out and provide as many assurances as possible. In most cases, I would recruit my husband and whoever else is free to come with us in any case.
I will not waste my time on a seller who doesn't acknowledge basic safety issues. Nor should you.
- A rare vintage camper was listed on Facebook Marketplace with an unusually low price. This alone is suspicious, but considering someone had covered it in camo paint and gutted the interior, believable. However, there was another glaring red flag, the description - "don't ask me a bunch of questions, just come out to see it."
A vintage camper is a big purchase. Not only because of price, but because of the time and labor associated with rehabbing one. I would not waste an ounce of gasoline to look at any product that a seller with an attitude like the above.
Again, treat your buyers how you would like to be treated by a professional company. You cannot control how they behave, but you can control how you behave. Having integrity when dealing with the public and money is rewarding... always, all the time. Full stop.
A Camper-ing We Go
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*I'll put together a whole article on this process with all the contact info and links you need for our local supporters.