Buying your first Airstream can be seriously overwhelming. It’s a big purchase and there’s so much to consider. If you don’t know where to begin, believe us, we’ve been there. Here’s a list of the top 8 things you should be looking for.
1. Solid Subfloor
Let’s start with one of the most important aspects of any RV/trailer – the subfloors. Subfloors are attached to the cross beams of the airstream body. They are the floors beneath the carpet or hardwood you see on top. Damage to the subfloors caused by water is a common problem.
There are three main areas that you will want to check thoroughly before purchasing
- the space around the front door and beneath all windows,
- the bathroom/shower,
- and all along the very front (tongue) and rear (bumper) walls of the airstream.
In our experience, that latter section has consistently shown to have water damage to the subfloor. This is mainly due to the way Airstreams are constructed. The outer aluminum shell is “tucked in” to a metal belt that is riveted right above the belly pan. Sunshine, rain, and time will eventually cause cracks to form in the caulking that once lined the top of the belt. When this occurs, water coming off the top of the shell runs down into the belt where it meets the subfloor. Check these areas, if you can, by stepping down along the edge, looking for sponginess or softness. Often areas that are covered (by a couch or bed) become the worst.
The bathroom is another area that we have encountered problems, specifically where the shower meets the outer floor. Again, test by poking around for soft spots. Make sure to step all the way into the shower. You’re not going to want to because it’s definitely going to seem super gross, but you’re an adult… do it anyway. Bounce a little while you’re in there. Check the corners and around the drain. Often the floor beneath the shower pan is compromised due to leaks, past or present.
Although damage to the subfloor is something you need to look out for, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. If you do discover sections of rot, there are solutions – none of them fun, but still solutions exist. Every trailer we have worked on initially had some extent of subfloor damage that was reconciled. Don’t panic.
2. Running Water and Using the Lights/Outlets
Each time we go to look at a new Airstream, we request ahead of time that the owners hook up water to the trailer and connect it to 110 power. We are snooty like that, and this is not the time to be low-maintenance and chill. Actually it should be easy to do (it’s a hose and an extension cord) so don’t feel too bad. Also, it might be a red flag if they are unwilling. We do this to try and gauge where our starting point would be. Once in the Airstream, flip the switch for the water pump and listen for it. Turn on the sinks and watch for any leaks along the pipes. Turn on the overhead lights to make sure the wiring for the DC 12volt lights is good. This DC system involves the battery and converter, so you are checking on those as well. Both are easily replaceable items.
I like to bring along my iPhone charger and plug in my phone to the various outlets as a test for the shore power wiring. A small light would also work.
Again, none of the things would necessarily disqualify a trailer from purchasing. However, they are good indicators of where you would be starting your renovation project.
3. Evidence of Pests
This part is fun. Put on your old hazmat suit and go hunting for poop. Roaches and mice specifically love to commandeer old trailers that sit unused. Look for droppings in the closet areas, cabinets, drawers – all the usual suspect areas for plague-carrying stowaways. HINT: Inside the oven and under the metal layer beneath the stovetop burners – which lifts up on Dometic models – are both fan-favorites for nests. While these things might seem insignificant, they could potentially be quite problematic. It’s good to know ahead of time. Rodents can chew through wiring and damage insulation, while a serious roach infestation (looking at you South Florida) can take months and hundreds of dollars to eradicate. Plus, I mean, it’s gross.
If pests are your only problem, consider yourself lucky, buy the trailer, and get your John Rambo on.
Looking for the right layout is very important to happy Airstream living, especially if you’re going to be full-timers. It influences what size bed you can have, how large the bathroom can be, and whether a living room even exists. For example, we knew we wanted a back bedroom. We also searched for a kitchen with a booth. These layout elements were important for the way we live. We knew what we wanted and we searched for that.
What do your needs look like? More living room space? Bigger kitchen? Larger shower? Know what things are important to you and, if possible, look for a layout that already fits those needs. Get as close as you can. There are many models out there, so if it doesn’t feel right, don’t worry.
Now when I say “layout,” I am not implying that the layout cannot change… It can. By committing to the process, everything can change. You can gut it and start over if you want. We have switched things on both Airstreams; the Trade Wind specifically was changed dramatically, gutted to the skins. However, the more you change, the more money and time it takes. Go in with set priorities – things that have wiggle room, and things that cannot change.
5. Dents in the Shell/Condition of Belly Pan
This is an obvious one, but something that should be mentioned. Dents aren’t the end of the world and some are bound to happen. However, you should know the steps to getting them out. In most cases, it will take a special tool, creatively named a “dent puller,” to remove most dents larger than a fist. A pneumatic dent puller is the one we used. Airstreams made pre-1982 have a thinner grade of aluminum, causing them to dent easier. (We know this from a cute memory with our Trade Wind in what we now refer to as the “Tree-Lined Driveway Incident.”) This is bad and good news, because softer aluminum also means that the dents will bounce back out easier. Post-1982 Airstream aluminum, like our Excella, is the converse: harder to dent, harder to remove.
While you’re checking for dents, don’t forget to check the belly pan. The belly pan is a unique feature on Airstream-type trailers. It works to insulate the floor and plumbing, as well as helping with aerodynamics. This is an area that we would recommend inspecting. Do this by getting down onto your own belly pan and crawling on under there. Here you are looking for holes, rust, missing panels, etc. In some models the gas lines also run along the underside of the pan for a short distance. These copper lines should also be examined.
While most problems with the shell are fixable (some say mirror finishes are a minimum 200+ man-hours and hundreds of dollars, even when DIY), the condition and appearance of the exterior shell dramatically influence value, and should be taken into account before making a purchase.
6. Working Stabilizers (feet)
Not much to say here other than look for them, you want them. They’re on the belly pan and there should be four. On most models, look for the nickel-sized hexes sticking out. If possible, bring a socket set to raise and lower them, making sure they are still functioning. If broken or missing, these can be added later, but that’s a hassle I’m sure you would rather avoid.
7. Window Condition
Windows are important in any travel trailer, especially one’s with many curved windows like Airstreams. The curved windows mean in most cases they are expensive to replace. A single Airstream window can run you close to $500 to replace, and many times even more than that, depending on the model and window location. Make sure to inspect the Airstream for missing or damaged windows. Also, check to see if the window has been replaced along the way with a plexiglass/plastic replica. While you’re at it, be sure to inspect the area around missing or cracked windows to check for leaks or previous water damage.
The weight of an Airstream plays an incredibly crucial role, and it is important to know from the very beginning of your search. You need to know whether your vehicle can pull it. For most Airstream models, this is generally going to mean a large truck. Once in front of the actual Airstream, look for a gray, octagonal or oval badge usually on the right side (depending on model) just behind the tongue. This will tell you the weight of the vehicle dry, as well as the max amount the trailer can weigh when loaded. This latter number is called the GVWR – gross vehicle weight rating – and it will be shown on the badge. In my opinion, your tow vehicle should at least have a towing capacity of the Airstream’s GVWR.
There it is! This should provide you with enough information to get started.
This is in no way a comprehensive list. There is a myriad of things to look for, problems and areas to consider. This list is simply a tool to help create a starting point from which to work. These things are what we consider “the basics,” getting you on your way to living your Airstream dream. Remember, everything can be fixed.
If you get in over your head and need someone to run ideas by, we’ve been there, shoot us an email! We’d love to help, brainstorm solutions, or just get to know you and listen to your story. The Chrome Club isn’t always the easiest route, but believe us when we say, the changing views are worth every moment. Don’t worry. Do your research. Ask Questions. Comb through Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace at 2am. Get out there and make things happen. Why wait?
We’ll see you on the road,
Nate and Taylor
written by: Nate (@natelavender)