We often get asked what to look for when buying a vintage Airstream. We definitely aren’t experts but I thought I’d write about what we’ve learned. When we began our search for a vintage Airstream, we didn’t know what we were doing. At ALL. Neither of us had ever even been inside a camping trailer. We looked at our first Airstream and just kind of poked around, opened cabinets and pointed out dents on the shell to each other. After spending 7 months remodeling and getting to know every square inch of our Airstream, we now know all of the things we would have inspected in the beginning. If you plan to do a complete gutting and replace everything from the ground up, most of this won’t matter to you. But if you plan to do a partial gutting like we did or keep it old school, read on!
If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. When we first started looking for an Airstream, we were looking at all of the trailers with the cheapest price tag. I had read stories of people scoring these things for $1500 – 3500. When a cheap one would pop up on Craigslist or eBay we would jump on it. Often we weren’t fast enough but the few we did see in person were disappointing. They had major shell damage, soot covered walls, broken or missing windows, full of bugs, spongy floors, water streaks down the walls, missing sections of the belly pan, etc. And I’m sure there are nice Airstreams out there with cheap price tags. But we never found one.
We did have enough sense when we looked at vintage Airstreams to check out the subfloor. To us, replacing the subfloor wasn’t an option. We knew it was costly, time consuming and means gutting the entire trailer. I’ve seen numbers out there of $3000 – $5000 just for materials. And it involves either chiseling out the subfloor around the edges of the frame or lifting the entire frame. We didn’t have the time or know-how to attempt such a project. The places to look for subfloor damage is around the edge of the floor where the skin meets the floor, underneath windows and in areas where there is running water – the kitchen and the bathroom. Most vintage Airstreams have carpeting of some sort. In all of the trailers we looked at, we were able to gently peel back the carpeting from the wall and take a look at the subfloor. Don’t expect to see pristine, fresh colored wood. It’ll likely be discolored. However, brittle, chipping, dark wood is what you want to look for. And if it’s really bad, you’ll feel it under your feet without even looking at the subfloor. The floor will feel spongy and if it’s to that point, it’s time to replace. Another trick is to actually step inside the bathtub. Three of the four Airstreams we looked at had very spongy bathtubs which indicated floor rot underneath the tub. You can also spot likely water leaks from the outside of the trailer. If the trailer has been bumped around the banana wrap and the shell has separated from the trim between the shell and the banana wrap, it is very likely that water seeps in that opening every time it rains. Minor bumps are nothing to worry about and can simply be sealed off with sealant. Major bumps will likely need body work.
Another very expensive thing to replace on a vintage Airstream is the windows. Each of the three front windows average around $500 each for the cost of the window alone. That is if you can even find them. Check for cracks and any damage. If the model you are looking at has vista view windows (the long skinny windows near the ceiling), they are likely flaking. This is due to UV coating that has flaked over time and has become trapped in the double pane window. Legend has it, early Airstreams up to mid 75s have plexiglass interior panes rather than glass and are simple to remove and clean to make good as new. Our 75 has a glass interior pane and is a little more time intensive and tricky to fix. We haven’t fixed ours yet, but when we do, we will write all about it! Read about refinishing the window frames and screens here.
You have to be able to get your new Airstream home. Check the tires for any cracking and tread wear. If it has sat in the same spot for years, assume it has flat spots and you’ll need to buy new tires. Ours sat in the Florida sun for 7 years so we had to have new tires installed before hauling it home. Trailer tires are quite costly – we spent $650 on the tires including on-site install.
The Belly Pan
This is kind of an important one. The belly pan is an aerodynamic skin that protects the underside of the Airstream from rodents and pests and also protects the steel underside from the elements. If there are holes in the skin, you can probably assume that a critter has made a home somewhere in the trailer at some point in the trailer’s life. This could mean all sorts of droppings and carcasses hiding beneath the subfloor and behind the walls. If you find that the belly skin is compromised, I would prepare for a full gutting.
Check the frame for any obvious issues. I’ve even heard of Airstreams that had frames that were so twisted you could see with the naked eye. Be sure to check for any serious corrosion or damage where the tongue meets the frame. You can check to see how stable the body to frame connection is by standing on the back bumper. If there is movement, you know you have a problem.
An Airstream has two power sources – 110v and 12v. When an Airstream is plugged into shore power, it sends power to all of your 110v wall outlets and overhead AC unit. The inverter powers all of the interior 12v lights. We weren’t able to do any testing on our electrical when we bought our Airstream as it was at a storage facility. The most information we had about the electrical is that it “worked 7 years ago.” That isn’t the most comforting thing to hear. We did luck out and everything worked flawlessly. Be sure to hook up the tow cable to ensure all exterior lighting functions before leaving with your Airstream. It would be a good idea to have a backup blinker/brake light kit just in case. We do regret not running new wiring while we had the interior ripped apart. However, we haven’t had any real issues with the electrical as it is. Everything works and we’ve had no trouble running all of our appliances without tripping the breaker. I do recommend running your high draw water heater on a separate 110v line. More about that here.
Plumbing issues is also something you won’t likely discover until you delve into your vintage Airstream renovation. They are rather hard to spot unless the owner allows you to hook the trailer up to water and run all of the faucets, shower and flush the toilet and then inspect all of the lines. Most of our plumbing ended up being solid. Any leaks we found were due to the joints being loose. We tightened all of the copper pipe joints and redid most of the PVC. Some of the copper piping was re-plumbed ourselves with the help of Shark Bites. More about that here.
Ask about the wheel bearings, shocks, axles and brakes. Were they recently replaced? If they are original, you can assume they are shot. All of these things were old and needed replacing on ours but it was still sound enough to tow 500 miles home. A lot of the replacement parts for the job can be found here.
Partial Gutting Deal-Breakers
If you plan to do a partial gutting (no interior wall removal or major subfloor work), like the one we did on Mavis, here are some deal-breakers to look for:
Mold on the walls: This likely means there is also mold behind the walls that you couldn’t clean unless you took all of the interior walls down.
Soft floors: Replacing the sub floor is a big deal and means lifting the shell from the frame to do a proper job.
Belly pan breach: A breach in the covering on the underside of the Airstream pretty much guarantees that a critter is living or has lived in the walls.
These are the things that make us run from a vintage Airstream no matter if we plan to do a full or partial gut:
Major body damage: This can mean major surgery not only to the shell but also to the frame.
Broken windows: Replacement windows are costly and tricky to fix correctly. Unless you have access to a world-class glass repair shop, we don’t mess an Airstream with window damage.
Major belly pan breach: Not only does this mean the walls are likely a critter house, it can also indicate there would likely be extensive corrosion to the mechanical elements that the belly pan is meant to protect.