how to buy an airstream

Q: We are Airstream novices. We are just starting to look at trailers. What should we know?

A: If this will be your only RV, I can’t stress the importance enough that you consider one in good condition, and as ready to roll as possible. Nothing is more disheartening than the seemingly never-ending work to be done on an older poor condition trailer – and in the meantime the seasons go by without you and your family out enjoying camping and traveling. If there is one major cause of unfinished trailers being sold because the owner loses interest, it is this. It is advisable to get a newer trailer to tinker with and maintain, and then after you are comfortable with RV’ing and Airstreams, then get your “dream restoration” Airstream. It is also a way to become familiar with your likes and needs before embarking on a major project. This way there will be no regrets and compromises.

Q: How do you decide what size and era of trailer to look for?

A: Think through how you plan to use the trailer. How many people, what length of trips, where do you plan to go? Are you interested in vintage era (nostalgia) camping? Do you love restoring and fixing things? What size and quality tow vehicle are you willing to purchase? Will the trailer be just parked, or will you travel?

Then ask yourself, what is the smallest trailer that will fit my needs? What is the largest trailer I will be able to tow? What is the largest trailer that will go where I want to go? (many campground sites and mountain roads will limit the max length).

Look at trailers until your objectives are clear. Get the right trailer for your needs and wants, don’t grab at the first one to come along. It makes no sense to try and modify something into something it can never be. If you truly want a custom made interior, it makes no financial sense to buy a good condition trailer and throw out the interior. If you really like the looks of oak wood, don’t buy a mahogany interior and spend years trying to lighten the wood. If you have a large family, truly consider a larger trailer, even if “Bambi’s are cute”. You can always get another trailer later as your needs change.

Q: The model names are all so confusing. How do I find the one I’m looking for when buying a vintage Airstream?

A: Model names mean very little in an Airstream. Until 1964, there were many model names for the same trailer, even with the same layouts. Since Airstreams were custom to begin with, and over the years many have been remodeled, setting out to find a certain “model” will be virtually impossible. Think more along the lines of length, much like Avions and Argosys did. Where you start having better luck is in 1965 and later, where Airstream settles down into 6 standard lengths and model names. Even then, with custom orders, you are going to find a wide range of layouts and options in the same model and length.

Q: Why can’t I find a late 1960′s-1980′s Airstream with a rear bedroom? The kids or guests have to go through the back sleeping area to get to the bathroom!

A: Airstream was marketed to older affluent couples starting about then, and these buyers showed a preference to larger bathrooms, something not available with a center bath. Be it for mobility, or whatever reason, Airstream responded. A few were made with a center bath, and a have a “B” in the serial number, but are rare. The less expensive Argosy, targeted towards families, has more models with a center bath.

Q: What should we pay?

A: Value is very subjective, and will vary greatly by condition, location, model and time of year. I’ve created a section that discusses condition vs price, and includes a price guide. It is a fact though, a more expensive but better condition trailer will be the better value and cheaper in the end. Repairs and parts, even if you do much of the labor, will get expensive very quickly. It is not uncommon to spend $8,000-$12,000 to get an Airstream that hasn’t been used in a while up to a reliable travel ready condition. A full restoration or renovation can run about $12,000 to $18,000, more if you pay someone else to do it. When this surprises people, I ask them: if you were to come across a 1955 Chevy pickup sitting in a field, or even an old barn, would you expect it to haul it home and then start driving it across country after you clean it up some? Heck no, and an old trailer is no different. Every mechanical part, every gasket, every bit of that car will be suspect, as will a similar vintage era trailer.

This can be analogous across the decades. You can probably find a 1980′s car that can be fixed up rather easily, a 1970′s car and you are looking at a lot of worn out stuff, a 1960′s car would need a ton of money to get road worthy, and a 1950′s car would require a ground up restoration just to be usable. Ditto for the same age trailers.

Q: Say an old Airstream is in “average” condition. What does that mean?

  1. The shell should have no more than a few small shallow dents or light hail damage, no scores or scrapes running down the sides. It need not be polished.
  2. The interior should be 90% original.
  3. The major appliances such as water heater and refrigerator work, otherwise a reduction is in order. It is OK to ask the owner to demonstrate that the plumbing does not leak and that the refrigerator will make ice cubes.
  4. Solid tires with no checking.
  5. The floor should be solid throughout.
  6. The trailer has been used regularly, and has been annually maintained.

A trailer that has been sitting unused for awhile will not be considered “average”, no matter what the seller tries to tell you.

Q: We have just purchased a used trailer. What is first and most important?

A: After phoning your insurance agent and changing the title with the Motor Vehicle Dept. drive it to a dealer and ask them to inspect the brakes and wheels. While you’re at it, you might ask them to inspect and fix any gas appliances. Make sure your vehicle’s tow rating and hitch are suitable for the trailer.

Q: How do you import An Airstream “Caravan” into Europe?

A: Unless you can find a US RV dealer that specializes exporting, your best bet is to go through one of the organizations in Europe designed to address Airstream caravan importing and the necessary conversions and laws. Fractional ownership is also a good idea to share costs.:

Q: Where do you find Airstreams for sale?

A: Your cheapest bet will always be coming across one parked alongside the road for sale by owner – or their heirs/executor. Next is the friend of a friend network. After that is the local papers. finally there is the internet. Here you would find more selection, but also more competition, and expect to pay higher overall prices and transportation costs that sometimes can be equal to the cost of the trailer itself. I have a listing of “For Sale” websites here .


Category: Taxes

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