In my eyes there are three main online markets to find a vintage trailer: EBay, Craigslist, and Vintage Trailer Listings. Lets look at each one…
1: EBAY: My gut reaction to someone buying their first trailer on EBay would be DON'T. My opinion is that there are too many pitfalls when basically buying a trailer sight unseen. A non experienced buyer would be quick to buy a trailer that is spruced up to look good in photos. Unless you have permission to view the trailer IN PERSON before the auction ends I would not buy it. It is tempting. I will admit. I have almost bought a Astrodome of EBay myself. The only factor that kept me interested is the seller took pictures of EVERYTHING and sent them to me in high resolution. I'm glad I didn't get it. I'm sure I would have been disappointed in the long run by surprises.
Another way around not being able to view a trailer yourself is have someone knowledgeable in vintage trailers go look if they are closer. Some pay folks to do this service for them. The “inspector” can report back to the potential buyer the condition of the trailer so they can bid with confidence. This of course takes some logistics to make it all work. Best to find one you can view in the flesh yourself without bidding on it.
One good thing about eBay is the ability to track the going prices for certain trailers. You have the opportunity to watch many trailers in “my eBay” to see how much they started at and how much it ended for. If enough information is provided, you will have a decent ball park value of trailer “X” in condition “Y”. You can watch quite a few trailers pass by in a 6 month period of time on EBay. You will get a good feel for how much a trailer can go for in certain condition in certain parts of the country. If a trailer happens to have a bidding war start by two sellers the price may inflate above the normal value of that trailer. Sometimes EBay in general has inflated prices.
2: CRAIGSLIST: Probably the best source for vintage trailers. There are many trailers listed in populated areas for sale there. You will find the gambit of prices and conditions. One negative is for some reason people on Craigslist do not post enough information or photographs. I am not sure why. It just seems that way. You look at as many Craigslist ads as I have and you will see what I am talking about. If you can get past that you will be in luck.
Another downfall of Craigslist is not being able to “track” how much a trailer finally sells for. I used to copy the URL addresses of any trailers that I was interested in and email them to myself. That way if I wanted to find out if that one Shasta sold I would click on the link to view the ad. One can assume that if the posting has been deleted that it has sold. However I have contacted several sellers that forget to remove the posting after selling the trailer. A major frustration. However it is the best place to find “good deals” or trailers less than the going rate. You have to be quick though.
3: VINTAGE TRAILER LISTINGS: There are quite a few online listings on the web. Groups such as the Tin Can Tourists have online classifieds. Brand specific forums such as the Vintage Shasta Trailer Forum or Airforums.com will post trailers for sale in their special sections. Such online listings can have their advantages. One being that many of the trailers listed on these sites are posted by vintage trailer enthusiasts rather than by Joe Blow that found a trailer in his field and now wants to sell it. This can make the price a bit higher because the seller actually knows what they have into it and what it is worth. They have done the research. This is not to say that you can't get a trailer for a fair deal. Just be willing to pay full price.
Another advantage is that most site's members tend to “watchdog” the sellers on the site. If someone is being dishonest they will be caught quicker than somewhere like Craigslist.
The old fashion way… There is also the option of finding a trailer with a for sale sign on it, hearing about one for sale by word of mouth, or the newspaper classifieds. If you have done research about the going prices then these are also options to finding a trailer. Sometimes the leg work is just easier when finding one online.
Make sure of a few things before you head off down the road to go look at a trailer. When contacting the seller be sure to find out anything the ad did not include that you want to know. Even if it stated it in the ad I make sure I have them say it back to me either on the phone or by email. I make sure that anything that is questionable is addressed and there are no surprises. Here are a few questions to ask…
Ask when the trailer was last used or towed. Ask if the electricity works including the brake, turn and indicator lights. Ask (if it is a large trailer) if the brakes were checked. Ask when the last set of tires were put on. Ask when the last time the bearings were repacked. Ask if it ready to be towed. Ask if about condition if they stated it in the ad. If they say everything is there, make sure. Ask if the title is clear.
Sometimes sellers do not tell the truth or they are unaware of problems their trailer has. Having them tell you about the trailer on the phone or in the email will let you know how knowledgeable they are about their trailer.
Now you know how much a trailer you are looking for usually goes for. You have contacted the seller and have chosen to go look a trailer to buy. This is really where the question of “is this trailer worth it? Will be answered. You as the buyer have to assess the quality and condition of the trailer against the asking price.
You can really go in two directions here. One would be a quick or casual inspection. This is setting up a time you can do a quick (but good) inspection of the trailer. You are not going to pick up the trailer that day but want to know if it is worth getting serious about and coming back later for recovery.
The second is going to every inspection with your equipment ready to tow that day. More about towing the trailer home http://tincantourists.com/wiki/doku.php?id=towing_a_vintage_trailer_-_what_everyone_needs_to_know
Once you have met and talked to the owner of the trailer you can ask anymore questions you have about it. Don't be afraid to ask a ton of questions. If the seller doesn't like to answer your questions you may be looking at the wrong trailer. The owner's cooperation is one of the most helpful aspects to inspection. Most owners want to give you the dime tour of the trailer which is kind of them but not what we are there for. We want to get more into it then that. You know what you ultimately want to do with the trailer so your assessment is key.
Unless the owner is giving the trailer away or selling it VERY cheap, ask if they wouldn’t mind hooking it up to water and electricity if it is not already.
You’ll see a lot of ads that say they don’t know if the appliances work or not. Most people try to be honest, so rather than lie they’d rather say they don’t know when all it would take is for them to connect the water and electric – so ask them to do it.
If they won’t or can’t connect them it’s fair to say they don’t work and negotiate that into your offer.
Pull some tools together from around the house. Some things I have in my tool kit:
Once they are willing for you to look around start with a walk around of the exterior. Start at the door and walk all the way around the trailer. Note any major dents, dings, cuts or scrapes in the body. Look for any patch panels or fresh paint. Note any equipment is missing such as drip rails, lights, badges, or window parts. If you come up to something like an access panel see if the owner will open it. If it can not be opened then you will only have the word of the owner on it's condition. Look at the roof if possible to see if there is the black tar sealant or other later repairs to the roof or exterior seams. If you come to something like the water fill cap or electrical outlet see if it will open easily by hand. Take note of the coupler and “pig tail” electrical connection. See if they are worn or corroded and would effect towing. Go back to where you started and get down and look at the tire area. Look at the tires to see if there are any dry rot or flat spots. Look at the wheel well to see if there is any damage. Repeat this on the other side when you are done. Also look under the trailer. Actually get down on the ground so you can see. Look at the frame rails and for any patches to the floor. Look at the axles and springs. Make sure there is nothing odd or out of place.
Go back inside and start with the front and work your way back. Look at each window to see if there are any missing pieces or parts. You will see the panel damage under each window which will be a indication of how much it will need to be addressed later. If there is a lot of panel damage in one area, follow the damage down to the floor to see if leaking water has made the floor soft. Feel the panel to see if it is damp to the touch. Open all cabinets, drawers, or panels you can. Operate all of the windows to see if they work well. Note if there is any locations where pests (bugs/mice) may have nested at one time. If the owner has stated the appliances work fine, ask if they can be turned on to check for yourself. If they say no, then again, you must take their word for it. Ask if the trailer can be plugged in to see if the interior electrical and lighting works.
In short, if you can open it, do it. If you can feel it, do that too. If you can smell it… You get the picture.
This is your time. Make the most of it. If you are shy about doing these things in someone else trailer you may want to bring someone that isn't. This is your hard earned money. You might as well spend it on something you can work with.
Take stock of any special features that model of trailer had. What was original to the trailer that you will need if you are doing a restoration. Shastas of the late 50's to early 60's for instance had the “S” magazine rack, boomerang drawer pulls, “flower” light globe, fiberglass sconces, collapsible canvas bunk, large mirror, Bargman “wedding cake” tail lights, green Shasta factory data plate, Trail-lite license plate light, Wooden tapered table leg, and of course the aluminum wings. MOST of these features were in Shasta models of that time period but some were not. It is good to know what could be in the Shasta you are going to see so that you know if they are missing or not.
This is where the condition of the trailer you determined earlier do-able or desirable comes into play. If you want your trailer to be a restoration make sure it has the qualities to become that. If you just want a shell to become your blank canvas see if it falls into that area also.
Before looking at trailers I started pricing restoration supplies. I didn't know every seal and material's exact cost but had a good indication as to how much each trailer was going to cost me to restore. We will get more into that in the Restoration Process but I kept a tally in my head while doing the resto. Slowly adding up the cost of a new window, the cost of new plywood, the cost of a new floor.. Ect. If by the end of the inspection you have lost track then it is probably more than it is worth. I would take that resto tally and add it to the cost of the asking price. I would then have a idea of how much I could reasonably ask the seller to lower the asking price so I could meet my budget. If that new price would have been unreasonable it was time to move on.
Sometimes you need to know when to walk away. Even if you drove 4 hours round trip to look at a trailer it may be best to walk away. We once did just that. I had gotten pretty good info and pictures (or so I thought) from the seller. The price seemed reasonable if it was all true. It was not. There were horrible amateur repairs everywhere. I found a mouse's nest by the wheel well. More water damage then I knew about. The overall condition was not as great as it was made out to be. The amount I estimated to repair it all surpassed what I could have talked them down to. It was time to walk away. It is sometimes very disappointing. Remember…There are more out there.
There is no blue book for vintage trailers. There is no limit to the number of trailers that you inspect. The more the better. No one should ever buy the first car they test drive and they shouldn't' marry the first girl they kiss. You will get frustrated and you will think that you will never find a trailer. Frustration can lead to pulling the trigger and settling on something that you really don’t want and that is never a good thing. There is no rush. It isn't a race. Allocate yourself plenty of time to research and find a good trailer long before you want to use it. Take it one thing at a time.
Again…The only real value is YOUR assessment of the value.
More often than not the title has been misplaced. That’s just the way it is. In most states, you’ll just have to file for a lost title and you are good to go. Remember to get a bill of sale; you may be able to download one from the DMV in your state. As an extra precaution, you may want to take down the seller’s driver’s license number for your records.
Be very careful. There should be a registration on EVERY vehicle in the U.S.A. Call your DMV title bureau prior to purchase to find out what you may have to do to replace a title in your state. Sometimes it can be costly and time consuming. Especially if you want to camp.
For Airstreams - the here is a great resource: http://www.vintageairstream.com/rr_topics_pricevscondition.html