Things I wish I knew before buying a secondhand RV to travel with

Nichole S. Gehr

I’m 24 and I just bought a secondhand RV for $1,500 that I plan to renovate.  Using Facebook Marketplace and playing around with my zip code helped me find better options. I wish I’d known to research towing companies and I wish I had inspected my vehicle.  Visit Insider’s homepage […]

  • I’m 24 and I just bought a secondhand RV for $1,500 that I plan to renovate. 
  • Using Facebook Marketplace and playing around with my zip code helped me find better options.
  • I wish I’d known to research towing companies and I wish I had inspected my vehicle. 
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

With states reopening and COVID-19 vaccines becoming available to more people, I decided to invest my stimulus check into my dream lifestyle of traveling on the road full-time. 

I haven’t renovated an RV before, but I come from a road-tripping family and have already visited 48 states without ever flying on a plane, so I was pretty excited about my plan. 

So far, I’ve purchased a vintage 1980s Terry Taurus travel trailer to renovate into my own home on wheels.

Read on to see what surprised me the most on my journey from finding the trailer to towing it home.

My budget was quickly humbled after I learned everything extra comes at a cost or is misleading

Originally, I was fixated on having a fancy Airstream, the most recent model Winnebago, or a decked-out Mercedes Sprinter van. I quickly realized these glamorous TikTok-worthy vehicles came with $80,000 or six-figure price tags. 

I pushed aside my pride and accepted that my price range fell more in the free to $2,000 range.

I found dozens of “incredible” deals while I searched, but most of them weren’t as they seemed. There was a woman in Ohio who tried to sell me a fake Airstream and a man in Connecticut who tried to convince me to buy his “brand-new” bus that actually had 250,000 miles and a half-working engine.

Fortunately, with a ton of patience and common sense (especially from those around me), I found the best strategy was to wait for a deal that felt right. 

1980s Owner Photos(2)

Old photos of the trailer I bought.

Kelly Moedt for Insider


Changing a few keywords and zip codes helped me search even smarter

After perusing eBay and Craigslist without much luck, I took to Facebook Marketplace. For the next month, it became my best friend. 

I was surprised to find how tweaking a few words per search could change all of the results. I alternated between keywords like “recreation vehicle,” “camper van,” “travel trailer,” “vintage camper,” and “vintage travel trailer.” I often found the most affordable and unique renovation options came when I added the term “vintage.”

On Facebook Marketplace, I also played around with my zip code after realizing that, since I live along the coast, half of my search radius was including the ocean. Moving my zip code a bit west increased my search results tenfold. 

I realized that I wanted to look for a sale that came with title and registration paperwork

Once I found my Terry travel trailer, I researched other people who had renovated them. I found a number of travelers who had flipped this type of trailer, and one couple even did so for profit.

I now knew that if my plans suddenly changed I could potentially profit from my renovation. Having proof of purchase and ownership would give me peace of mind and I knew it would come in handy someday, whether I sold my trailer or not.

Most sellers specified paperwork available, although some I had to make sure to ask. In my sale, I was lucky the owner was able to give me all of the paperwork.

Paperwork

I wanted my purchase to come with important paperwork.

Kelly Moedt for Insider


Many sellers aren’t great at communication and I had to be pretty persistent 

I found myself having to ask very detailed, specific questions about van length, condition, movability, and location.

I spent a lot of time worrying about having the sale canceled because I would be perceived as too pushy and annoying. 

Communication with the seller during my purchase took about a month of slow back and forth messages about price negotiations, times for viewing the trailer, and pickup details.

Even though my seller was pretty upfront about my trailer’s issues, I wish I’d inspected it myself 

The seller was pretty clear in their listing that there were a few major and minor structural and cosmetic details that I would need to work on, but they didn’t note everything. 

Since communication was a struggle and I really wanted the trailer, I offered to take it with no prior walkthrough.

This quick decision meant I didn’t notice the rotting subfloor issues, roof leaks, and torn paneling that I’ll have to fix down the line. 

But since I skipped the walkthrough, I was able to negotiate and get the trailer for $1,500 — $500 less than the original asking price. 

Kelly's trailer

The trailer had a few issues below the surface.

Kelly Moedt for Insider


I never expected getting my trailer home would be the most difficult part of my purchase

In my excitement, I overlooked a very important detail: Travel trailers require towing.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to find rental companies that offer towing services. After many searches through Penske, Enterprise, and my phone contacts for anyone with a truck, I settled on U-Haul being the best option for me.

Unfortunately, like many rental places, my local U-Haul required drivers be at least 25 to tow personal trailers with their trucks. At 24, I was one year short. 

After a momentary defeat, my parents came to help me get the trailer home.

Dirty Exterior

Getting the trailer home was really tough.

Kelly Moedt for Insider


 … I also didn’t realize how much preparation you need to tow a trailer 

As I had not inspected the trailer prior to picking it up, I didn’t know the type of hitch size or if its brake lights and turn signals worked. Fortunately, everything worked fine and we got the trailer attached to the U-Haul. 

Things were OK for about five minutes until we got to the first major interstate. 

As we picked up speed. the trailer began fishtailing — swerving from side-to-side — all over the road. I didn’t realize it then, but this was happening because there was an uneven weight distribution inside of the trailer.

Fortunately, my mom and I were behind the trailer in a second car and we were able to alert my father and turn our flashers on to let others know to keep their distance from us. We were on high alert and kept updating my dad whenever the trailer began to sway.

A 90-minute trip turned into a panicked two-hour drive home.

Interior

The trailer has a long way to go.

Kelly Moedt for Insider


It also took me a lot longer than I expected to get started on my renovations 

I spent the first 10 minutes inside my new trailer ripping through every drawer, cabinet, and crevice deciding what could be saved and what had to go.

I also started taking everything out so I could have a blank canvas to work with. Unfortunately, that led to uncovering new problems — broken kitchen cabinets, ripped wall panels, rotted subflooring, and damaged sheet metal — all of which will need to be fixed or replaced.

My schedule also got pushed back since I live in New Jersey and this year’s winter-storm season hit the Northeast pretty hard. Me trying to scrub the aluminum exterior with soap and water in 20 degrees Fahrenheit must’ve been a sight to see for the neighbors.

As eager as I was to start working, waiting until the snow melted and temperatures rose has proven to be the best decision. Progress has finally started to take place and I’m prepared to put in some blood, sweat, and tears into a renovation I could make my home.

Follow along to see the full renovation process and where my trailer takes me next.

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