How to buy a vintage caravan (Part 1)

This is a two part series in how to buy a vintage caravan.  There is so much to consider and think about before buying one for sale.  It’s not just the cute size and fabulous shape that should have you handing over the money.

PART 1 is a basic introduction, and how to check internally for woodrot!
There’s another link to PART 2 at the bottom.

When on the hunt for my perfect caravan, I went and viewed so many vans.  I  travelled all over the state, so got quite a lot of experience in what to look out for when searching for a great van.

I learned quickly to look beyond ‘cuteness’ and to get real.  How it looks may be the first thing that makes you go to look at it, but should be the last thing that finalises your decision when purchasing.

Trish Hunter Caravan - First photo shoot at pretty hill

I’ve bought two vintage caravans in my time and I was lucky to have some great advice before I went hunting.   The advice saved me from buying a complete wreck.

Well… I did buy one disaster, so I’ll start with that tip first.

1.  Inspect

Always inspect the caravan yourself and bring along a friend or family member.

My first vintage caravan was a fibreglass Quest purchased from a caravan dealer interstate.  I found it listed on their website, called with my thorough list of questions, and I was blatantly lied to on every single one.   I payed a courier to truck it down, and when it arrived it was a wreck.  I sold it on for less than half of what I paid because the money I would have had to put into it was more than it was unfathomable. There were literally holes in the fiberglass, rot, broken and missing windows, the door didn’t shut, oh lordy, it was a disaster.

That was an expensive mistake! So yes, definitely inspect inspect inspect.

Now, say you’ve gone to check out your first or twentieth caravan, how on earth do you know what to look for.  How do you know if it’s a good witch or a bad witch?

The vintage caravan forum’s definition of a vintage caravan is anything 1970 or earlier.  Anything from 1970 – 79 is considered a classic.  Either way, they’re at a minimum 30 years old.

That’s 30 years of often being stored outside in all kinds of weather, being well loved by family’s, and just being… well… old.  So there’s bound to be flaws.

2.  Write a plan and list

When going out to look, first write a plan.  Write a list of questions to ask, and be sure to bring a pen to actually write them down. Also pack a torch, a camera, and give yourself time.  Most importantly, bring along a friend or family member because you’ll be surprised what they pickup that you miss.  Everyone’s different and notices different things.  You will often be so excited that you’ll go blind to all the flaws and just buy it on the spot.  Have a friend there to calm you down and point out the things you may have missed.

 3.  Ask ask ask and listen too!

Ask the owner as much as you can about the history of the caravan. What they know may be some indication of its history, how its been treated in the past, whether it be ‘We found it sitting out in a paddock in the country’ (Get out of there) or ‘its had one owner who built it in 1956 and it was their pride and joy’

My vintage caravan shop

4.  Use your Senses

Now is time to look.  And please oh please take your time.  No matter how rushed you’re made to feel, it’s important to take your time.
First impressions are super important. If you get a bad vibe from the get-go it’s usually a good indicator of the rest.

If the initial look of the caravan doesn’t look like it’s falling apart and you actually get to step foot in the van, use your nose.  Smell.  There is a difference between ‘musty caravan smell’ and ‘mildue’ and people often assume it’s the same thing.  ‘Oh no don’t worry about that, all caravans smell like this’.  No they don’t.  If it smells funky, it probably means water has leaked in somewhere and gone moldy. This is bad news for caravans as the water rots away the timber (called woodrot) and basically can make the van fall apart.  Restoring woodrot is horrible.  If it’s major damage, you basically pull the whole van apart right down to the frame, and sometimes if it’s a timber frame, you have to replace that too.  You might as well have built a new caravan from scratch.

Woodrot however, can be tricky to spot.  It’s not always visible, it can be sitting behind a pretty painted wall. That’s why you have to use all your senses firstly the nose.

I bought my vintage caravan for $6000 on eBay. There was no milduey smell, it was clean as a whistle, it was well cared for, it was aluminium not wooden, it looked perfect.  It wasn’t until we started pulling it apart that the problems started to appear.  And as soon as you found one problem, you’d have to pull it apart even more and you’d find another, and it continued like that.  My caravan’s door frame was rotten, so we had to pull apart the inside and completely replace that to make it solid.  Especially as it was being turned into a shop and thousands of people would be pulling on that door frame to get in the van.
The other place I had wood rot was exactly where I’m mentioning now, under the seats at the front of the caravan.  I saw nothing wrong when I inspected it, but when I started to take the chairs out, the problems unfolded.  The whole front and back of the van had to be re-lined in marine ply so it was waterproof for many more years.

5.  Look for water

Open up those top cupboards that you keep your crockery in, and feeling the bottom shelf.  Water often gets in there through damaged seals and can begin to rot all the cupboards and walls.

Look at all the corners where water could get in, draw the curtains and look at the seals around the window, are there water marks? (This is where the torch is handy!)

Look at the skylight seals, any water marks there?
Lift up the kitchen bench storage and smell.  Use your torch and really look and feel inside.  Is it damp?

Look and feel the general walls, is paint flaking or bulging? Do the walls feel weak or still strong?
I once visited a van out in the country and when I went to feel the wall, my whole finger went straight through! It was like soft butter!!  I left immediately.

If the inside walls are rotten, I couldn’t even imagine the frame inside.

Jam and Cream Cafe in Heidleberg with a vintage caravan

6.  General appearence

Is the caravan generally clean? Well maintained?  Look inside the fridge and oven, is it sparkling or grotty? Check the condition of the carpet/lino is it dirty, lifting up, torn? Maybe the van mightn’t have been very well cared for which could be an indication on the way the rest of the van may be treated.  It’s the little things like that that people forget to coverup on their mad dash to clean it up for sale.

If you’re free from woodrot it’s a miracle and you’re super lucky.  But don’t say no to every van because of a little rot.  Just know where to look, how to look, and what your budget and skill is for repair, because no matter what you see, there is bound to be more surprises and you can’t leave it as it’ll just get worse and possibly be dangerous.

That’s part one all about wood rot!

Part two includes a checklist of things to inspect and much more!
For part two click here.


Trish Hunter
Trish Hunter - Founder of The Vintage Post, mid-century design collector, passionate about history, dog lover, excessive !!! user and smiler.
Trish Hunter


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Comments (4)

  1. Hi trish
    Just found your website. Got an old caravan 1987 not quite vintage. Please can you advise the best way to paint the exterior of van.
    Thanks for your help

    • Ooh that’s a great question! I didn’t end up painting mine, but used professional stickers! You know the ones that are on the sides of busses (usually with advertising) Well I got my non-printed design cut out and professionally attached and looked just the same as painting but was cleaner, more professional and easier!
      I hope that helps.

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