The secondhand/refit option, a lot of the Recreationalists featured on this site fit into this category. It is probably the least expensive option, but it has lots of pitfalls. Are you buying somebody else’s mess? Have they been upfront with what’s actually been done… and this is what we are going to concentrate on this post.
At the risk of being indulgent, here’s real life examples that have happened to me.
It was time to upgrade our perfectly good Japanese imported Hi Ace 4wd Camper. We loved it, it did exactly what it was intended for. But, living in a harsh coastal environment it was getting harder to keep on top of the rust. It was old, a 1992, so things were simply wearing out. All the fau wood grain veneers were sun damaged. New house batteries, new cranking battery…then new alternator….then extensive rust work around the windscreen seal.
It was slow, on the flat it would cruise at 95km/h but you hit a hill and it would crawl at 60km/h. Which we were ok with, we’d always pull over, always use passing lanes. Other drivers would do crazy passing manoeuvres, which made for unpleasant and stressful drives. We started associating roadies with stress and driver fatigue.
Hindsight is 20/20… what we had was a well built camper. It was insulated, it had a good fridge, good sink/stovetop, good water system, good bed, good electrics, a decent awning and storage for surfboards and camera gear.
We started wandering back onto Trademe and adding campers to the watchlist. Then a DIY Ambulance conversion was listed, it appeared to be the perfect upgrade; double the cost of the Hi Ace at 40K… we dreamed a little, actually a lot. But we decided at 40k it was a little over valued. Then it got re-listed at 35K, we were sitting ducks. We were in Auckland, it was in Christchurch. Mistake number one. After many phone calls to the seller and so, so many annoying questions we committed unseen.
Despite being pretty seasoned campers, we’d fallen in love with the well styled photos in the listing. We did get the vendor to get it checked by a mechanic. And it did pass that. To be fair the mechanical side of the new camper was excellent.
We flew to Christchurch to pick it up from the owner. Alarm bells started ringing. I re-queried the self containment as advertised…I was fobbed off ‘yeah, yeah, look it’s got the sticker’. Not what I asked. The ‘sticker’ was a badly printed copy of the blue sticker off the internet. In fact there was no grey water tank at all. A hole drilled through the floor and a straight piece of PVC jammed through that hole from the sink.
We had rationalised prior to pick up that if the fit-out was absolute rubbish, at the price we paid it was worth it. On the fun, and it was really fun, drive back north we discovered some of the flaws. That’s OK, yep, it is what we thought, the build is pretty bad.
It looked good in Instagram posts though!
We soon unveiled was actually how bad the DIY fit out was. The framing for the bench seats and bed were made out of 20mm x 20mm deck railings, this was then covered by 6mm construction ply. In turn grey carpet had been glued onto the ply. All of this was screwed with 75mm zinc wood screws THROUGH the floor…as in there were multiple 20mm of screw points exposed under the vehicle. The grey carpet started peeling off on the drive north…I think it made it to Kaikoura. The hinged bench seat tops weren’t offset enough to lean back against the walls, so they’d fall back on you.
The much mentioned $2000 diesel heater had been installed with the fuel lines and exhaust upsidedown. The mentioned new stereo had been placed in a cupboard face which meant all the wires at the back were exposed to whatever was stored in that cupboard. I think it stopped working in Bulls. The mentioned $1500 fridge…all good, except it was mounted on sliders that were never intended for that load bearing. [The sliders broke under the strain within weeks.] And the kitchen unit doors wouldn’t shut because the fridge was 10mm too long. The $30 water pump shorted out draining our 30 litre fresh water while we were out for a walk.
The previous owners thought it would be cute to reinstate the Ambo flashing lights…which is illegal. We knew that, but temporally left them on because they weren’t actually wired in. What we didn’t know is that they had secured the new lights with those 75mm zinc screws. We found out in the first real storm. Water tracked through the screws and into the fibreglass body. In turn this shorted out the internal lights and soaked one of squabs….at 2am on a roadie.
The next 6 months were spent undoing things. In a strange way, it was totally enjoyable, knowing that things were getting done better. We got self containment. We did a ton of electrical and storage upgrades, added an awning, rust and weather proofing. But the cost of getting back to square one meant going forward was going to put us well into the over capitalised area. I’d say we spent 10k, and then sold it on for what we had bought it for.
We could have got involved in a legal tussle with the previous owners, but we didn’t go down that road. At worst, they stitched us up, doing a dodgey, incompetent fit out and then blatantly embellishing the listing. At the very least they lied about self containment. But we really believe they thought they had done a pretty good DIY fit out.
Gluton For Punishment
We bought another secondhand camper. It was a professionally fitted out camper, it was tired and old and needed some TLC. Again we ran the gambit of buying unseen, online. It was in Dunedin. This time the old boy who had owned it had done some amazing modifications and upgrades that were ommitted from the listing. When it arrived in Auckland we realised it had a water heater, new gas heater, two new house batteries, new solar system and new squabbing.
But we still had bought it intending to upgrade it. So far, I’d estimate 600 hours have been spent completely stripping it back to the interior of the door and wall panels. Cleaning out 25 years of road dust, insulating, making new door and wall panels. Inventing new slat systems for the top and bottom beds. Completely overhauling and simplifying the house electrics [thanks Kent!].
Replacing the tired old MDF cabinetry for easier access birch marine ply storage. Removing the old smoke stained grey roof liner carpet for new lighter, more insulative liner. New curtains and new squab covers. And finally adding grey and fresh water tanks underfloor so it’s self containment can be done.
Why oh why do all this? Although I swear and curse all the way through the processes, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction. My time would be better spent earning money and then paying a professional to do the work. There is no doubt it would be done faster and probably better. I’ve learnt so much. I’ve acquired new skills. I know how everything in the camper works for when it decides not to. Man hours spent aside, we have a camper that does the stuff one double the cost would do. We simply don’t want to spend 80k on a camper….just yet.
Even in the unlikelihood of the cards falling your way, a domestic airfare is far far cheaper than buying somebody else’s bad work.
Check for construction methods and even the fixings. Does the electrical work look tidy and professional. Open up cabinets, be the annoying pre purchaser. Don’t be rushed, you are not there to make friends, you are there to strike a fair deal.
Not exactly what you want? Very few campers are perfect. But can you visualise what it will take to make it good. Do your research to figure out what that will cost.
If it sells it sells, don’t be pressured into a bidding war. Be Ok to walk away and wait for another camper.
Do you have the time? You’re running away with the dream of fitting out a camper, do you actually have the spare time every evening, every weekend. Most self builds on Recreational Society state they have spent between 6 months to 2 years working every spare moment. It’s a massive commitment.
Do you have a place to do the work? If you’re living in an apartment; are you prepared to rent a space to do the work? Are you trying to do a conversion in a driveway, where are all the painted or varnished panels and cabinets going to dry?
Do you have the right tools? Yes you can knock out some cabinets with a circular saw and an impact driver but man, having a router, a mitre saw, table saw, and a linsher are game changing. Do you need to factor in buying a whole bunch of power tools?
As mentioned above our rebuild has taken 600 hours. That’s working slowly, making mistakes, changing plans and redoing. Professional motorhome and caravan repairers bill at about $100.00 per hour. Which would make our rebuild 60K. Of course that’s ridiculous, but even if a professional worked twice or three times faster, you’re well into the 10’s of thousands.
During our rebuild we got quotes from repairers and converters for some of the modifications. One being fitting the large back window and replacing the roof liner. One of the quotes came in at $6,000. This included the purchase of the window, instal and stripping the old liner out, etc. Heavy! In the end, we sourced the window from RV World. We removed the roof old liner, got Daves Motorhome Repairs to fit the window. Then got the local car upholsters to fit the new thermal roof liner at a total cost of $1900.00 …. $4000.00 difference. Shop around, get quotes, do the basic labour yourself.
Have you got a story about fitting out your camper? Well here’s the place to share it, email firstname.lastname@example.org