Restoring vintage trailers can be a rewarding dream or an expensive catastrophe. If you have the urge to fix up a classic trailer, don’t do anything until you read these buying tips from vintage trailer restoration aficionado April Wantiez.
They’re cute, but what does it really take to restore a vintage trailer?
Do you have what it takes to rebuild a trailer that was made long before you were born? For April, there’s no doubt about it: she loves restoring vintage trailers because it’s her way of paying homage to the handcrafted RVs of an uncomplicated era.
“They’re simple, charming, and built to last. Every one of them comes with at least a story or two!” she explains. This real estate agent from Fort Collins, Colorado loves giving life back to old RVs and digging out their stories. “It’s sort of like granting the ‘old horse put out to pasture’, an agile, pretty and worthy existence again,” she says.
This old horse has a new life!
“Some of the wood and craftsmanship in certain trailers is amazing,” she adds. But she also warns: don’t fall into the trap of buying something just because you think it could be cool.
To avoid losing your shirt, April advises learning all you can about vintage trailer inspections before approaching a sale and tackling a restoration project. In addition to the factors April discussed in our previous DIY RV article, here are some major features that she says can make or break a project:
The electrical system
Don’t make an offer until you test the electrical system. “I try and plug the trailer in to see if the inside sockets (if there are any), lamps and lights work,” says April.
If something major is wrong, it could be buried inside the trailer’s walls or ceilings and that makes things tricky and expensive to repair. “You have limited access unless you want to pull interior wood panels or exterior aluminum skin panels off. This can be very costly and a huge chore,” she advises.
Figure on spending about $1,500 to rewire an entire interior electrical problem if you can’t do it yourself. Without that kind of cash it’s best to avoid restoring a vintage trailer needing this kind of TLC. Of course minor electrical problems might just require some good handy work.
This could get really messy—and expensive!
Besides the interior wiring, another major consideration is the trailer’s electric braking system. April always wants to know for sure if the braking system works. If not, she might still consider making an offer because she has a half-ton pickup that can handle towing up and down the mountains of her home state of Colorado.
But anyone with a smaller tow vehicle may want to reconsider. “If somebody is ‘pushing’ the tow limit on their vehicle’s tow capacity, trailer brakes are a pretty substantial safety need, especially if you will be navigating hills,” she explains.
Vintage trailer propane lines can be a mess and expensive to repair, says April. If you intend to use propane for heating or refrigeration, you’ll want to do a “suds test” and check every appliance before making an offer. If the trailer fails the suds test, workarounds do exist. Consider using a small propane “Buddy Heater” or small electric heater to stay warm.
For refrigeration, you can convert or replace the old unit with an icebox or if it’s in your budget, a brand new electric model. April also pointed out that many vintage trailers still have original propane tanks. These are illegal to have refilled, dangerous, and should be replaced with the new style tanks and valves.
April likes to keep things simple and now avoids old trailers with intricate plumbing. The complexity of indoor toilets, sinks, and showers just means more money and skills are required to complete the project (plus messy). April sticks to campgrounds with hookups—she says, “All I search for these days is a place to put a portable potty and a means to refrigerate some food and beverages.”
Working appliances make life in the great outdoors more enjoyable. Before making an offer on a trailer, April will do her best to test every appliance, and it’s a bonus if the appliances actually work.
If appliances need repainting you can expect to pay upwards of $300 for a professional powder coating on any refrigerator or stove.
Being thrifty, April won’t spend that kind of money just because she hates the colors. “Some people look for a trailer based on the color of appliances,” she says. “I couldn’t care less, I know I can decorate around it.”
You can always use an icebox instead of a fridge. Learn how to convert it here.
Some appliances are more complicated and expensive to repair than others, like refrigerators. Trailers with an icebox in need of repair are much easier and cheaper to deal with than those with a two-way (electric and propane) or three-way (electric, propane and 12-volt) refrigerator.
Sometimes refrigeration units can be impossible to fix and if you need to pull it out, “One needs to consider that a replacement might need to be trimmed out with wood,” says April.
When thinking about the look and feel of a vintage trailer, April says, “I consider the style and year of the trailer. If it’s a classic 50-60’s with great wood interior and original interiors and appliances, I try and keep it as original as possible. I might ‘funk it up’ with pillows, curtains and décor. But I try and never get rid of original items.”
When restoring a vintage trailer, some interior elements will need repairing. For example, if you don’t have sewing skills, replacing beat up foam cushions can run upward of $500.
Flooring is usually easier to tackle because it’s easy enough to put a new layer over the old one. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a trailer with original vinyl composition tile (VCT) flooring in good condition.
If so, that will add value to the trailer. If the old VCT flooring is shot, she suggests you don’t rip it out or you might fill your lungs with asbestos. Instead, spend the money on new flooring underlayment and just go over it.
When choosing a vintage trailer restoration project, most people don’t consider the little details that make vintage trailers so charming.
Believe it or not, one small item that can make or break a deal for April is the trailer’s doorhandles. One common vintage trailer doorhandle is also one of the trickiest and most expensive to replace. Known as a “Bargman L66A,” this door handle is out of production and remanufactured replacement parts are unavailable.
Replacement can run $300 or more if you can find one. “They’re larger and rectangular so a regular round door handle does not cover them,” April says. “Usually the keys are missing as well and it can be hard to find a locksmith that can work on them.” To get around this problem, April has purchased a vintage trailer just for its parts.
If you’re willing to do this, restoring vintage trailers might be for you!
A tiny house on wheels seems like a simple way to live in the great outdoors, but as April’s buying experience shows, restoring a vintage trailer isn’t quite so easy.
Before you dive into the world of trailer restoration, inspect every inch of your potential unit carefully or you might spend so much money on the project that you don’t have any left for traveling.
If you have any questions regarding owning your first vintage trailer, please feel free to reach out to her anytime.