Since the pandemic started it has been hard to find good used Airstreams for sale, but they do turn up. When they do, wanna-be owners with stars in their eyes might rush to buy a little too quickly. It's easy to make an expensive mistake.
If you want to be a smart buyer, here are some key things to consider before you plunk down your cash for a used Airstream:
Think carefully about the floorplan
If this is your first travel trailer or motorhome, be careful about choosing a model or floor plan. While you can always trade in and buy a larger or smaller Airstream, you'll probably lose a lot of time waiting for the replacement.
Consider your travel style, what's most important to you inside the Airstream, what you bring, and your tow vehicle—in addition to your budget and what's available on the market. For more tips on choosing a trailer size, see this blog.
Know that body damage is a major detriment to value
Body damage is expensive to repair, so sometimes people cut corners by either not repairing it, or doing a bad job of it. A trailer with hail damage or dents will be severely reduced in value or even totaled, so look for un-repaired body damage and pay accordingly. An Airstream with a "salvage" title is not worth much.
Also, learn to spot the difference between a factory-installed bucked rivet and an Olympic rivet used for repairs. Any Olympic rivets on the outside of the Airstream indicate something was done. You'll want to ask what happened and perhaps get a professional opinion about the quality of the work.
Look for signs of hidden damage
A big killer of older Airstream trailers is floor rot, which typically happens when a rainwater leak drips on the wood subfloor (sometimes inside the walls, where you can't see it). Airstream went to a rot-proof type of subfloor starting with the 2021 model year, but any Airstream made earlier than 2021 is susceptible.
Permanent funky smells inside the trailer, and soft spots in the floor near the outside edges are both hints that water leaks may have occurred and caused some problems. In one 1970s trailer we reviewed, stained carpet was pretty clearly the result of water getting in.
We've got some tips on tracing leaks here, and you can also read more about floor rot in The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance.
Similarly, if the trailer is old or was stored outdoors for a long time, there's the possibility of severe rust on the frame, hidden by the bellypan. (Light surface rust isn't a concern.) This isn't something you can easily inspect for, so if there's doubt, get a professional opinion.
Is it a scam?
A screaming deal is always a scam. Nobody has to deep-discount an Airstream in order to sell it. You must inspect it in person or have someone you know and trust do it. Don't send a penny—even to an "escrow service"— until you've touched the Airstream.
Scams are extremely common. Read more about Airstream scams here.
Be careful about buying vintage Airstreams
Vintage Airstreams are awesome, but you need to understand what you're buying. Vintage requires special knowledge and care, and they commonly have big issues after four or five decades of travel and multiple owners.
I could write a book about how to understand and inspect vintage trailers—but I haven't yet, so in the meantime your best defense is to join the Vintage Airstream Club (an intra-club of the Airstream Club International) and get educated by experienced vintage owners before you go shopping.
In particular, keep in mind that appliances and axles that are decades old are way past their expected lifespan. Replacement parts get expensive, so insist that every major system and appliance be tested and proven working.
Look for owner modifications
Over the years people will modify their Airstreams to suit their needs better. Most of these mods are insignificant, but your Spidey sense should be tingling if major modifications have been done. "Major" means things like changing the floorplan, eliminating or adding appliances, re-plumbing or re-wiring, adding or deleting batteries or the spare tire, etc.
A friend we spoke with last fall was hoping to purchase a used Airstream that another friend had inherited. Photos showed that the previous owner had removed the water heater and replaced it with a residential one, and the standard Airstream door lock had been bypassed with a padlock. Both jobs had been done poorly. There were other indications of neglect and bad repairs, too. We told our friend to pass.
It's common to have to travel some distance to snag a good deal on an Airstream. If you're going to drive cross-country to fetch the Airstream, it might be a grand adventure, and not prohibitively expensive—but if you plan to have it shipped, be sure to get quotes before you settle on the deal. Shipping can easily add thousands of dollars to the bottom line.