Thinking about buying a "project" Airstream? Think again

From time to time we get emails from people who are thinking about buying a used Airstream. This is actually a great idea right now, since waiting times for new Airstreams are still very long, and there are more lightly-used Airstreams on the market than we've seen in many years. Buy carefully, and you can do quite well. (Just be careful about scams.)

However, it's an entirely different situation if you are looking at an Airstream project—meaning an Airstream that needs a ton of work. Usually these are vintage trailers (more than 25 years old) that pop up on Craigslist and eBay for what seems like cheap money.

For example, one day someone asked us for an opinion on a 1960s trailer that was listed for $4,500 on Craigslist. The prospective buyer knew nothing about Airstreams except that "they’re cool"—and that was the first problem. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first vintage Airstream because it was cool too. The "cool factor" is a legitimate reason that a lot of people choose Airstream in the first place. But you have to make an effort to know what you're buying.

In my case, I took a lot of time to learn about vintage Airstreams, shopped as carefully as I could, and eventually bought from a reputable person. Even with that care, I ended up with a 1968 Caravel that needed a lot more work than I had been led to believe by the seller.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly wasn’t an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. After 15 years of ownership and extensive renovations, I was glad to just get my investment back out of it.

The person who wanted to buy the $4,500 Airstream from Craigslist had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines. This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too. The photo at the top of this blog is one of those.

Definition of “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. It's closer to being scrap metal than to being a working travel trailer. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old or "rare" Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to flat-bed it to your workshop, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow. Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills and tools—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.

$50,000-100,000 would disappear easily. At the end, you'd have a trailer that might be worth as much as you'd dumped into it—if you don't account for your time.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of a former Airstream. That’s the power of imagination triumphing over good sense. 

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So we have posted this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a minor project, fine, but try to appreciate the potential costs and skills required to complete it.

And in any case, never buy a "scrap metal" Airstream. When you see an Airstream with no windows, or with missing roof vents and globs of silicone, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

The floor will be rotten. The frame will probably be rusted. The furniture will require rebuilding, and most appliances will be dead. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors, windows, and furniture. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable. Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. Yes, there are good ones on the market. Just this past weekend friends of ours bought a 2018 23 foot Flying Cloud at a local dealership; it's gorgeous and ready to roll.

Pre-owned Airstreams really aren’t rare. If you're looking for something used, something good is out there for you – and you'll be happier without the painful learning experience of buying a junker.

4 comments

valentine Christmann

valentine Christmann

i agree you get what you pay for and buy the best you can find Ican afford. In arizona I have been given spartans and airstreams to remove them from properties The spartans I tent and the airstreams isell to upgraders in caifornia where prices are crazy Val

Linda Brewer

Linda Brewer

When we decided we needed something just a tad bigger than our perfectly maintained and upgraded 2015 23’ FC, we sold it ($44K) & bought a perfectly maintained 2014 25’ FC ($44K) and upgraded it ($40K). Of course we did this through Vinnie whose work is the best.

James Crow

James Crow

I thought again and did it anyway. Now I’m the proud owner of a restored vintage (1963) Globetrotter. I spent a year on this FUN project taking it apart and putting it back together, I did it all and learned a lot. Now I enjoy my trailer that I know inside and out, I enjoy the compliments and camaraderie with other vintage project owners much more than the snobbery of Airstream owners who just wrote a check. And without a doubt I can recover my expense in today’s market. So there…

Rod Lano

Rod Lano

Good article
I just bought a 1981 Excella 31 foot
Sat in a barn for a long time
Nice really smells bad
So I am having it stripped clean and starting from scratch
Excited to get started

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