Not a week goes by that I don’t get an email or Facebook message asking for tips on buying a used pop up camper. I’ve been there before. I know how scary it can be to take the plunge into the world of pop up campers, especially it you’ve never owned one before. While I certainly don’t consider myself the definitive expert on the subject, I have learned a few things along the way that were helpful for us when we purchased our camper. I hope these tips will help you find the perfect camper for your family and your budget, too.
Determine How Much Camper Your Vehicle Can Tow
The first thing you’ll need to do before you even begin to look at pop up campers is determine which vehicle you’ll tow your camper with and just how much weight that vehicle can tow. Your vehicle’s tow ratings should be in your owner’s manual. Don’t guesstimate and don’t rely on answers from people on Facebook groups or even here on the blog. You’ll want to know exactly how much your specific vehicle can tow, and then you’ll want to make sure you are looking at pop up campers that are well below your vehicle’s max tow rating. You’ll need extra capacity for camping gear and passengers, right? 🙂
Decide What Features You Want in a Camper
Hold up! You’re not ready to hit Craigslist just yet! 😉 After you’ve determined how much you can tow, you still need to determine what features are “must haves” for your camper. Do you really need all the ammenities or are you more of a backwoods, dry camping kinda person? It’s important to know what you need in a camper. If hot water is a must for you, you probably shouldn’t be looking at campers with pump sinks. I always advise people to make a list of the things they really need, and to do that, you’ll have to ask yourself a few questions.
- Are you going to be camping as a family or bringing friends along? How old are your kids, and how many sleeping areas do you need? If this is a camper you hope to keep for awhile, then make sure your family can be comfortable in it now.
- Are you going to be camping in colder climates? Then you might want a furnace. We never thought it was a necessity for us, but after our first chilly trip to Yellowstone, we decided we couldn’t live without one. 🙂
- If you think you’ll be doing a lot of camping in warm areas, you may want to consider a camper with an A/C unit. This wasn’t a necessity for us, as we escape to cooler climates during the summer, but I’ve heard from many readers that won’t camp without their air conditioning.
- Will you be cooking inside or outside? If you will be cooking indoors, make sure you have enough space in your kitchen area to cook easily. If you plan on eating inside the camper, you’ll also benefit from having a dedicated dining table that won’t have to be converted to a sleeping space at night. If you plan on cooking and eating in the great outdoors, you might like a camper that has a removable stove and outdoor gas hookup.
- Do you need a potty in the camper? How about a shower? We use the campground bathrooms 90% of the time, but it is always nice to have an indoor potty for late night bathroom breaks.
- Where will you be camping? Do you prefer to stay in RV parks, more primitive sites without electrical or water hook ups, or a combination of both? If you are a primitive camper, but still would like access to running water at the sink, make sure your camper has a fresh water tank.
Of course, price should be a consideration as well. You can read more on that below. If the camper with all the amenities you like isn’t in your budget, though, remember… certain features, like a potty, don’t have to be built into the camper. If you fall in love with a camper, but it doesn’t have a feature you wanted, or the camper you love doesn’t fit your budget, consider how difficult it would be to add it yourself. That’s what Shannon did! Her camper didn’t have a potty, but she added it herself during her remodel. You can see her potty cabinet here. Storage shelving is also relatively easy to add to your camper. You can find our tutorial here. Once you have made your list of “must have” features, and you know how much your vehicle can tow, you are ready to start shopping.
What to Look for When Buying a Used Pop Up Camper
If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, I’m sure you’ve seen all the wonderful makeovers our readers have submitted. In fact, that’s probably why you are here in the first place. You’ve been bitten by the pop up camper bug, and you want to try a remodel of your own. That’s awesome! There are so many reasons why purchasing a used camper is a fantastic idea, not the least of which is that it can be extremely economical. We had cash in hand for our camper and were able to purchase it outright for what we’d saved. No payments necessary. After our remodel, we had all the amenities and comforts of a new camper, but without the hefty payment. We also didn’t have to worry about how much our camper would depreciate once we drove it off the lot. That meant we could save our extra money for fun activities while camping.
Craigslist is a great place to search for a used camper. That’s where we purchased ours. It may take you awhile to come across the right camper for your family, but be patient. It took us nearly a year to find our Santa Fe, and we looked at a lot of campers during that year. We were beginning to get discouraged, thinking we’d never find a pop up to fit our needs. The day I told Mr. TypeTwoFun I thought we’d need to increase our budget in order to find a camper, our Santa Fe hit Craigslist for $1500 UNDER our original budget. I’m so glad we were patient enough to wait it out for the right camper. 🙂
If you’re purchasing a camper with the intention of giving it a little remodel like we did, you may think you don’t need to be picky about the condition of the trailer. While it is true that you don’t need to be concerned about the cosmetic things like cushions and curtains, you will want to purchase a camper that is structurally sound. This will ensure that the little camper you’ve put so much work into lasts you for several seasons of camping. There is nothing worse than purchasing a camper intending to change a few cosmetic issues, only to find out you have a rotted subfloor that needs replacing. That’s why it is so important that you carefully inspect the camper before you buy it.
Major things that will cost a substantial amount of money to fix are:
- Irreparably worn or damaged canvas
- A leaking or rotted roof
- Soft spots in the floor or roof
- Sagging or cracking roof
- Broken or damaged lift system
- Bent frame
Remember, you can fix just about any issue you may come across. If you don’t believe me, check out Robert’s Pop Up Camper Makeover here. It all comes down to how much time and money you are willing to put into the project. If you are only looking to update a few cosmetic things, though, it’s extra important that you do you homework and know what you are getting into before you purchase anything.
You should have the seller go through a complete setup and take-down with you. The seller should demonstrate that all the amenities–like the hot water heater, furnace, A/C unit–work properly. Always ask how the trailer has been stored, how long it has been unused, whether there have ever been any leaks in the roof or plumbing, etc. Find out how the wheel bearings have been maintained and if they were ever repacked. Have the tires been replaced? If the camper has trailer brakes, when were they last checked? Bringing a checklist along with you is a good way to make sure you cover all the important bases before you pull the trigger on your purchase. Need a checklist? We’ve got one you can download here:
Make sure you test everything out yourself. As terrible as this sounds, you can’t always completely trust the seller. They may be unaware of items that need addressing, or they may just intentionally mislead you about things. When we purchased our Santa Fe, we were told that the original sellers rarely used the water tank because they always camped with hookups. They told us the water tank was “probably” in great shape, though, because it had been rarely used. When we got our camper home, we discovered the tank had a large hole in it which was not visible from the outside. Had we filled the tank with water, we would have discovered it. The sellers also told us the stabilizer jacks were all “probably” in good condition, but they didn’t have time to put them down for us. When we got home, sure enough–one of the stabilizer jacks was broken and needed to be replaced. At that point, whenever we remembered the seller saying something was “probably” just fine, we knew it wasn’t. Sure enough, we had a missing battery, a ripped section of canvas, a sticky door lock, and several undisclosed roof cracks under the awning when we starting checking more closely. We got an amazing deal on our camper, so I don’t feel cheated at all, but the lesson here is to check everything out for yourself and don’t take the seller’s word at face value.
How Much Should I Pay?
Price is such a hard thing to gauge when buying a used pop up camper. It can vary greatly depending on the area and time of year. Generally, you’ll find better deals on pop up campers once the camping season is over. Fall and winter are great times to shop for a camper. You can get a general idea of just how much a prospective camper is worth by checking the NADA Guides, which is a good place to research camper prices and values. I’ve found that in my area, though, the NADA Guides are always a little low. If you spend a little bit of time on Craigslist, you’ll get a better idea of what the actual prices in your area are. Unless you come across a fantastic deal, don’t purchase the first camper you look at. Take some time to look at campers and get a feel for amenities and condition versus asking price. You might just change a few things on your “must-haves” list once you’ve done a little more research.I’ve found that you can usually find a smaller camper with the basics for around $1500 or under, depending on the area. Jess lives in Utah and purchased her 1996 Coleman camper for $500. You can see her story and more pictures of her camper here. Elisa spent $1500 on her 1991 Starcraft Nova in California (you can read all about that here). While not set in stone, these examples should give you a general idea of what you should expect to pay for a camper. Generally, a larger camper with a slide-out or bathroom (like Tracy’s here) will run you several thousand dollars more, and a newer camper will cost significantly more. You should definitely take price into consideration when deciding on amenities.
That about sums it up. You should have a pretty good idea of what to look for when buying a used pop up camper. If you are still hungry for more information, remember to check out PopUpPortal.com for more great tips. Anything I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments section below.