Buying An Old Motorhome – 13 things you must check on older RVs

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PAGE UPDATED: 20.02.2022

There are an increasing number of retro RVs on the roads these days but when it comes to buying an old motorhome it pays to do some research before spending your hard-earned cash.

On this page we’ll give you the lowdown on what to look out for when viewing and test-driving an old campervan or motorhome.

The knowledge we’re going to share here is based on our personal experiences. Five years ago our budget meant that our search for an RV was restricted to vehicles costing way less than £10,000. That meant buying something at least 15 – 20 years old.

If you’re in the same position and are looking for a good, cheaper campervan or RV read on to find out about all the pitfalls to avoid and download a free checklist…

buying an old motorhome - is it worth it?

Is it worth buying an old motorhome?

If your budget doesn’t stretch to the astronomical amount needed to buy a new motorhome, have no fear! There are loads of good, used models on the market. It just might take you a little while to find the right one.

To help you with your search we’re going to point out the many things you need to be aware of when it comes to buying an old motorhome. But first, let us clear up what we mean by ‘old’.

On our page about vintage vans and motorhomes we showcase vehicles made before the year 2000. We’re mostly going to stick with that definition here. So, when we talk of older motorhomes or campervans on this page we’ll be talking about vans that are over 20 years old.

The big question is, ‘What are the risks in buying an old motorhome?’ There certainly are some risks – just like when buying any used vehicle – but if you do the proper research and know what to avoid, you can lower these risks.

These are the things we want to point out in this article.

Rest assured, good, older campervans are out there but before you go looking, read the following list of the potential problems…

The 13 main problems you need to check before buying an older motorhome or campervan

Don’t have time to read all this now? Download a FREE CHECKLIST straight to your phone

Problem #1: Water ingress, damp, and rot

This is the big one to avoid at all costs – unless you’re prepared to fix it yourself or pay someone to do it for you. And the thing is, it’s not always obvious to spot.

Our van had just a couple of small, dark patches on the shower room walls. They were soft to the touch and we suspected rot, but not as bad as it turned out to be. (The seller had no idea of the extent of the problem).

With damp readings going off the scale (measured with a damp-meter that we’d advise you to get) we knew the van needed some major repairs. But with this knowledge we were able to negotiate a better deal and got £1500 off the asking price.

If we hadn’t used a damp meter we would have paid the full asking price and later a hefty repair bill.

The money we saved paid for the repair, including a new floor throughout as the rot had spread much further than anticipated.

damp meter for motorhomes
This Motorhome damp meter saved us £1500!

Searching for signs of water ingress…

So, when you’re viewing a van look for any dark patches in the loo/shower room, and around windows (especially underneath windows), on the ceiling (especially around skylights), up above the cab in the sleeping area, and in cupboards.

And on the outside, check the condition of the sealant, paying particular attention to the overcab area as this is a known weak spot on older RVs. It’s not always easy to climb up and look at the state of the roof but it’s a good idea to do so if you can.

N.B. water ingress can occur on any motorhome, regardless of age! We’ve heard stories of much newer vans with water ingress issues.

The thing is that you can usually smell damp or mould as soon as you enter the habitation area of the motorhome. Even if it’s not blatantly obvious, check and check again.

Yes, water ingress and damp can be fixed but, like we found out, it can be very expensive to put right.

Problem #2: Rust and corrosion

On an older motorhome there’s a good chance you’ll find some corrosion to the bodywork somewhere. Hobo Gav had to make a small repair to a rusted sill on our van during the first year we had it.

You’ll want to clamber underneath the vehicle and check the state of the chassis and exhaust. (We’ve just had a brand new exhaust fitted after getting fed up filling holes with Gun Gum!).

If you’re not sure what to check for underneath the vehicle, take a knowledgeable friend with you when viewing it. Rust on the chassis, or the sills and wheel arches could result in an MOT failure, requiring welding to put right.

But it’s not just the bodywork that can corrode on an older motorhome…

We’ve just had to have all the rear lights replaced as the electrical connections had rusted. (Our van is now 30 years old, so these lights have done pretty well!). And our water heater also had some corrosion due to limescale.

There’s something else on older motorhomes that can wear out…

Problem #3: Brittle plastics

When a motorhome gets to 20 or more years old, you’ll notice some of the plastic parts become brittle. This is far more than a mere cosmetic problem…

The first plastic problem we encountered was a leaking water pipe. When we turned our taps off, the water pump would continue making a noise every so often as if it was still pumping water through the system. Sure enough, one of the old plastic pipes had become brittle and cracked, resulting in a leak. The shower tray had to come out and the pipe replaced.

Recently, we noticed cracks in the sink (in the shower room) and the shower tray itself so have had these both replaced. This is just another thing to look for when viewing an older motorhome so get down on your hands and knees and check the state of the shower tray. If it’s badly cracked you won’t be able to use the shower otherwise water will get into the wooden frame underneath.

And then there are the plastic ‘double-glazed’ hab windows to check. These can develop cracks due to age (or they can simply get damaged). Either way, finding replacement windows for older motorhomes is not always easy. When we bought our van it had a piece of perspex where the loo window should have been. We eventually sourced a window with the right dimensions off a scrapped Peugeot motorhome.

Problem #4: Difficulty sourcing spare parts

But it’s not just windows that might be difficult to get for old vans…

One of our newsletter subscribers asked our advice about an old American RV he wanted to go see. He’d found it advertised on Ebay and sure enough, the photos looked pretty good. It might have needed some TLC but who wouldn’t want to go road-tripping in one of these…

should I buy an old motorhome? Picture shows a 1986 American Winnebago
1986 Winnebago – pictured at Felixstowe in Suffolk

But then we got talking about the serious business of spare parts, especially mechanical parts. Where would you get parts for a vehicle that was built in the U.S. in the 1980s?

Unless you’re willing to spend a fortune having parts custom made (or if you can make them yourself), our advise is to go for a motorhome where spare parts are more easily sourced.

That’s one of the reasons we went for our VW Cree; it’s built on the VW T4 chassis and is still easy to get parts for.

That being said, if your dream is to own a real classic RV, like the Winnebago above, and you’re confident you can get (or make) the parts it will need, then take a leap of faith and go for it. But it is a risk and one we weren’t willing to take ourselves.

Not to mention the fact that with those big American RVs you’ll be lucky if you get 15 miles to the gallon. With the current cost of fuel in the UK, a long road trip would cost a fortune.

This leads nicely into our next point…

Problem #5: The cost of repairs

We bought our 1992 VW for £6000 but have spent as much again over the last 5 years on repairs, upgrades, and additions. This is the thing with buying an old motorhome: it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll find one that doesn’t require any work at all.

You’ve got to factor this into your budget. It’s no good blowing all your money buying the van only to find that a few weeks or months down the line you’ve got a major repair to do.

As well as fixing the water ingress issue (mentioned above) we’ve had these jobs done on our motorhome…

  • New laminate flooring throughout (as the old floor had delaminated)
  • New shower tray and bathroom sink
  • Solar panel fitted to roof (see the German one we bought here)
  • New leisure battery
  • Water heater replaced
  • Reconditioned gear box (ours leaked oil just before we were due to go to Scotland and get married!)
  • Brand new and complete exhaust system
  • Rear suspension upgraded
  • All rear lights replaced
  • New driveshaft, CV joints and bushes
  • Re-wiring of immobiliser and alarm when it became faulty
  • Rear suspension again!

Problem #6: High mileage

We got lucky with our van in one respect: it had only done 58,000 miles when we bought it back in 2017. (T4 engines are known to do in excess of 250,000).

But it’s more likely that if you’re going for an older van it will have higher mileage on the clock. Of course, this isn’t always a problem if the motorhome has been well-looked after and regularly serviced.

The other thing is that older vans with unusually low mileage might not be a good thing…

Why is the mileage low? Doesn’t the owner like driving it? Has the van been sitting idle on a driveway for years?

Point is, low mileage isn’t always a positive thing. Yes, we say go for a van with fewer miles if possible but don’t worry too much if the mileage is high. If the van has been well-maintained and serviced, the engine should be good for several more years yet.

The best motorhomes to go for are the ones that have been used regularly and looked after properly (which means, regular servicing).

Problem #7: Slow going uphill

If you’re buying an ‘elder of the tribe’, one of the first things you’ll notice on the road is loss of power going uphill. This really perturbed us to begin with; it’s quite nerve-wracking trying to overtake something only to lose speed and have to pull back into the slow lane.

With experience, you soon get used to it and learn when it’s safe (or unsafe) to overtake.

No motorhomes are built for speed – even the new ones – but the older models will certainly struggle up some of the bigger hills. We’ve found out that any road with an incline of more than 20% should be avoided otherwise there’s a chance we’d come to a grinding holt. Yes, it happened!

Our old VW only has 78 bhp which is fine on the flat but as soon as a hill appears we have to change down through the gears – or go a different way.

This is one of the reasons we always check a road atlas when planning major road trips; it tells you where the steep inclines are so you can take an alternative route if need be.

Winnat's Pass in the Peak District. Unsuitable for going uphill in an old motorhome
Winnat’s Pass in the Peak District – not suitable going up in an old motorhome (but we did it anyway – just!) Read the full story here

Problem #8: Outdated technology, appliances, and safety devices

Our old van still had its original Sony radio-cassette player when we bought it. We’ve since replaced it with a more modern CD/bluetooth, USB unit (which, to be quite honest, is too complicated!)

The fact is that in all old motorhomes the technology and appliances will be showing their age. Some people prefer to keep original fixtures and fittings (we’ve still got the radio in a drawer just in case we decide to go retro) whilst many folks prefer modern upgrades.

The interior lighting in old RVs is quite dim and uses a lot of battery power. For this reason it makes sense to replace the lighting with LED bulbs which are brighter and much more economical (and eco-friendly).

Same goes for the van’s headlights. Until you get used to it, driving an older campervan in the dark requires much more concentration. The lights are little better than a couple of torches! These can also be replaced with brighter, LED versions but might be hard to source on some retro vehicles.

And when it comes to things like gas safety, some older motorhomes (ours included) don’t have an automatic shut-off device on the gas hobs. Most newer vans (those after 2000) will have gas safety devices fitted as standard.

If you are conscious of your carbon footprint, you need to ask yourself how eco-friendly your motorhome is. Our blog post may have pleasantly surprising news!

ESSENTIAL SAFETY TIP: If you’re viewing an older RV ask the seller when the van last had a proper ‘hab’ check. These are carried out by qualified pros who check the safety of all appliances and for damp/water ingress issues.

Problem #9: No rear seatbelts

Talking of safety devices, you’ll find that many of the older motorhomes aren’t fitted with any seatbelts in the habitation area. This isn’t a problem if it’s just the two of you up front in the cab. But if you’re travelling as a group or family you’ll want everyone to feel safe when on the road.

Our VW Cree has 2 lap-belts fitted in the hab area (properly secured to the chassis). These obviously aren’t as good as 3-point belts but it’s better than none at all.

So, make sure you ask the seller how many rear seat belts are in the vehicle. This is actually a good question that will gauge how well the seller knows the van; he or she should be able to tell you straight away.

If they don’t know, what else don’t they know about the vehicle?

Problem #10: Tatty upholstery

If a motorhome has been looked after the upholstery should still be in good condition, no matter the age of the vehicle. Of course, an older RV will show some signs of wear and tear but the good thing is that the seating inside the van can easily be re-upholstered.

That being said, this can be a costly exercise. We considered making some new curtains but the cost of the material would have been close to £500! And re-upholstering the seating really needs a professional to do the job properly.

Another thing about retro RVs – even right up into the 1990s – are the rather garish interiors. Bright, flowery seating is not to everyone’s taste and can look a bit outdated. You could always put throws over anything you don’t like.

Also check for signs of cigarette burns and dirt on the seating. (It would seem that our sofa bed’s upholstery had never been cleaned when we bought the van: plumes of dust rose like smoke when we slapped the seat! It was hastily removed and soaked back home in the bath.)

Problem #11: Unusual quirks

Another thing with older motorhomes are unusual, quirky features. Of course, this needn’t be a problem and can be part of the van’s appeal and character.

There’s a good chance that any older RV will have been messed about with at some point in its history. DIY enthusiasts might have made some interior changes that didn’t turn out according to plan.

For example, the 3-way fridge on our van doesn’t work (as it should) on the 12V battery when we’re driving. Someone must have cut the wiring for some reason.

Recently, when our immobiliser was stuck in the ‘on’ position and we couldn’t start the engine, we found out that the whole set-up was a home-made bodge-job. We had to re-jig the wiring (with the help of our good friend, Dom) to get the van started again.

These little quirks are all part of a van’s life story but they leave many unanswered questions. Why doesn’t that work? Who on earth did that?

An HPI check won’t tell you anything about many of the changes that might have been made to an older motorhome.

Problem #12: sagging rear suspension

We could have added this to the section on quirks but a ‘sagging rear end’ deserves its own paragraph!

The thing is that the rear suspension on older motorhomes is prone to drop. With so much weight to carry (on coach-built motorhomes) the springs tend to weaken with age and the whole body can gradually get closer to the ground.

We experienced this problem ourselves and had spring assistors fitted. You can see this is in the two pictures below. One picture shows the van looking like it’s full of builder’s sand, and the other shows it nice and level – just how it should be…

Old rear springs = sagging rear suspension
How the van should look – Our VW Cree with the right springs

Some people think this ‘lowdown’ look is really cool but it can cause a nuisance such as when going over speed bumps. And more than once we’ve caught the corner-stabilisers whilst driving over uneven ground, such as in country car parks.

Not to mention the overhang issue; before fitting spring assistors we once caught the bumper on the road when entering a sloping pub car park.

We considered fitting air suspension but this was out of our budget range. However, we eventually had to do something about it!

It came as a shock when we realised that what we thought of as an annoying quirk was potentially dangerous! If the springs are not coping with the weight of the van, it can cause poor traction, handling and balance problems. Having researched poor suspension, we put it right. Find out how we solved the problem of our overweight motorhome in our blog post.

Problem #13: No warranty (when buying from a private seller)

And finally, something to bear in mind if you’re buying an old motorhome from a private seller. You won’t get a warranty like you would from a motorhome dealer. This is a risk you have to take when buying private.

The thing is that the price of used motorhomes on dealers’ forecourts are up to 25% higher than the vehicle’s true value. Is it really worth paying that much extra for a 3 or 6 month warranty?

If you’ve made all the checks we suggest on this page, you should be in a better position to take a bit of a gamble. And it will be a gamble; it always is when it comes to buying used vehicles, especially from private sellers.

This is where knowledge, intuition, and trust come into it. With a little experience, you can usually tell a genuinely good motorhome from a dud one (and an honest, genuine seller from a scammer).

So, is it worth buying an old motorhome? Our verdict…

Our experience tells us that, yes, it is worth buying an old motorhome – if you know about the potential pitfalls. You also need to be prepared to spend a bit on repairs, upgrades and any alterations you want to make (or do the jobs yourself).

Don’t just base your decision on exterior looks; you’ve got to look beneath the surface. A beautiful-looking RV might hide a plethora of problems that could cost a small fortune to put right.

As we said earlier, we bought our 1992 VW Autotrail for £6000 but have spent as much again on repairs and additions. But we’ve met people over the last five years who bought their vans (and kitted them out) for much less.

We truly believe that there are loads of great, older (and inexpensive) RVs out there. Bide your time, do the research, and always view and test-drive any vehicle before making an offer.

By working your way through the points we’ve made on this page you should feel more confident about buying an old motorhome – and haggling for a better price!


Let us know your thoughts (and fears) about buying an old motorhome

We hope you’ve found this page useful and enjoyable to read. Do you have any fears about buying an old motorhome that we haven’t addressed? Do you already own an old motorhome and have had problems other than the ones we’ve listed here?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

And please check out Hobo Trudi’s Blog Post about motorhome ownership: the good, the bad, and the expensive where she tells the story of our latest motorhome breakdown!

If you’re looking for a motorhome it pays to do the right research. Our new ebook walks you through 4 essential steps…

How to find your perfect motorhome ebook

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7 thoughts on “Buying An Old Motorhome – 13 things you must check on older RVs

  1. Will Phillips says:

    Hi, Thanks for much for this. Its a really helpful list.
    We are looking at buying a 1995 Fleetwood Coronado. I have seen it once, and plan to test drive it in a few days time. Seller tells us he has had no major issues in the 5 years he has had it (who to trust?) – it has passed MOT recently. It seems to be in good condition but obviously worry about it breaking down (we were planning a 2 months european trip at the end of the summer). WE have also read that there is a known issue with thos emodels re: the handbrake? Does £10500 seem like a reasonable price for that? (I know without seeing it it is impossible to tell!).
    Thanks again,
    Will

    • motorhomehobos says:

      Hi Will, glad you found the article helpful.
      The Fleetwood Coronado looks like a fantastic RV but, as with anything of that age, proper viewing and test driving is crucial – something we highlight in our ebook

      Yes, there does seem to be quite a bit of info online about handbrake issues so this will be the thing you must discuss with the seller and test when you drive it. You don’t want the van rolling down a mountain on your European trip!

      Breakdowns can happen even with newer vans and as long as you’ve got cover, don’t worry too much about it.

      As regards the price, it sounds about right. Remember, RV prices have risen across the board over the last couple of years. But, as you say, without seeing it and inspecting it fully (inside and out) I can’t really say. I’m sure you’ve already done research online and found out the prices of other, similar (or exact) models. Then you’ve got something to barter with when you put your offer in.

      The main things to check out for are all the things we point out in this article (including water ingress) and, obviously, the potential handbrake issue.

      Give it a good test drive. If it feels great to drive and it handles well (and it feels like your dream RV) then go for it. But if it’s no fun out on the open road, walk away. Nobody wants an RV that doesn’t handle well.

      Good luck on the test drive and let us know how you get on. Who knows, if you become the proud owners of that Fleetwood you may want to send us a picture or two for our vintage vans gallery

  2. Lorraine Harris says:

    Hi we are looking at getting a compass Calypso 1993 302. The trade price is 13995 which we think is abit expensive any advice would be appreciated.
    Thanks

    • motorhomehobos says:

      Hi Lorraine. The VW Compass Calypso is a great campervan and they hold their prices well. Although the one you’ve been looking at is almost 30 years old, RV prices – old and new – have risen sharply since the pandemic. Pre-Covid, you probably could have bought the van for around 10-12K.
      Of course, other factors are: condition, service history, mileage, whether all the appliances work properly, whether the van has had a hab check, full MOT etc.
      And bear in mind that a van from a dealer will cost up to 25% more than it would from a private seller. Is the dealer offering you a warranty with that sale price?
      Thing is, you’ve got to barter! Do some research online to find out the prices of other Calypso’s. However, there aren’t many for sale as people tend to hold onto them…
      I recently saw a 2003 model on Autotrader for £19,950 (See if it’s still for sale here)
      And on Ebay a P reg (96/97) Calypso was up for £16,950. (see here)
      So, with that in mind – and if the one you’ve been looking at is in really good condition – I’d say £13,995 is about right for a 1993 model in the current climate. But, as I said, always barter!
      To help you check everything properly (and perhaps get hundreds off the cost of the van, like when we bought our VW Cree) consider getting yourself a copy of our latest ebook: How to Find Your Perfect Motorhome
      There’s far more info in the book than we can write in this short reply.
      Hope that helps anyway and good luck, Lorraine. Let us know how it goes and if you do go on to buy it send us a picture for our Vintage Vans gallery! We’d love to include a Calypso in our VW T4 section.

      • Lorraine Harris says:

        Hi
        Thank you for your reply.
        We have had a look on line regarding any information but cannot find much on this model.
        We will let you know the outcome.

  3. steve says:

    1989 Ford Transit coach build. Took a chance last year and bought a motor home locally off ebay. Biggest problem was finding a workshop that was big enough and tall enough to get it on the lift. 2.5 ford diesel rear crankshaft oilseal leak.Took 3 weeks to get fixed as they could only order parts using the reg number, and in its previous life it was a 2 litre petrol.As the gearbox was off I was allowed to go under with a torch and get the part no off the ford oil seal. Presented the garage with a new seal the next day !! While the van was there had a new clutch,timing belt and water pump.
    We then did a forty mile trip to a camp site just to try the van out. Everything worked inside the van,even the fridge…So 80 mile round trip. Steering was awful and it wallowed about even on a straight road. Rear springs were week so I fitted Dunlop air assist. The kit came with a compressor and gauges and everything else needed. I fitted the air assist suspension with the van on the ground .What a difference, the grill pan would stay in the grill even on roundabouts ! New front tyres and tracking done, it now goes where you point it !! Then engine oil leak AGAIN…Bit clonky underneath, so propshaft fully refurbished,cured that. The chap that made and fitted the s/s exhaust sent me to a mechanic 15 miles away. Now no oil leaks and a mechanic I can trust !!
    To sum up. We now have a 5 berth, u shaped lounge motor home for less than
    10 grand including purchase price.Now need the time to use her.(beattie)

    • motorhomehobos says:

      Thank you for your story! We feel your pain and hope that you have many trouble-free miles ahead of you. Finding a trustworthy mechanic is getting more difficult isn’t it. Older vehicles need someone who understands the technology of their time, and someone with the patience to source the correct spares.

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