So I actually started writing this list for some friends that have gone to Canada and are searching for a camper right now. they needed a bit of advice on what to look for when buying a camper so that they don’t get a lemon.
The Previous Owner
One of the biggest things that people overlook with buying an old car is to actually look at the old owner. Do they look like they take care of their belongings? Are their other cars clean and well maintained, do they have a clean and maintained house? How do they talk about it and how much do they know about the vehicle? These are things you should ask yourself, the less they care and the less they know about it the more vigilant you should be about what you are buying.
If you are in a car yard or can’t see and talk to the old owner then you will need to go off what you can see. So does it look well kept, are the books included and are they filled out? Look past the cleaning affords of the car yard for scratches dents and other wear and tear marks on the vehicle. This can give you a good idea of the condition of the mechanicals too.
Most of the checks we will focus on here are about the technical aspects of buying a used RV or camper. The mechanical health of the vehicle is one of the most important things you should look for and I would suggest you should go for a camper with better mechanical condition than having some extra features you like.
Service History Book
If there is a service history book this is great. It will show you that it has been serviced regularly and this will tell you a lot about how healthy the engine is. If it has had the oil and filters replaced regularly then this is a great sign not just for the engine but for the whole vehicle as it shows that the previous owners took care of it.
Timing belt and major service
All vehicles have major services that will need to be completed at certain points in their life. For most vehicles it’s at 100 000 km, but some are 90 000kms and others can be as high as 120 000kms. So you need to make sure that if it is close to its major service that it has been done or you get a lower price as this is something you will need to pay for soon. Normally the most important part of this is the timing belt, this must be changed at the major service and is the hardest part of it, if the vehicle doesn’t have one then great, you don’t have to worry about it.
Note: consult the owners and service manuals for all information on when major services are and what is involved in changing them. If it’s close call a local repair shop to ask for a quote on the major service to help you with negotiation on price.
Have a look around the car check for any damage, small scratches or dents are ok, but anything that has broken the pain will cause rust to start overtime. Also look for bubbles in the pain anywhere, another sign of rust.
Oil leaks are something that can be easy or expensive to fix. If you suspect there is an oil leak then have it looked at by a mechanic. A leak from the top or front of the engine isn’t so bad but one from the back of the engine where the clutch is will cost a lot to have fixed as it requires removing the engine completely.
To look for an oil leak look all around the engine and look for anywhere on the engine that has wet oil. If it’s dusty and dirty that’s fine. But if you see oil and when you touch it there is wet oil on your finger (not just grime) then the engine is leaking oil. It’s not a big problem if it’s very slow but if there is a lot coming out then it will need to be fixed.
Another way you can check is by finding a “clean” parking space and just leaving the car running in the same place for about 15 mins. Then, move the car and look on the ground where the car was. If there is no oil on the ground after then your good. But if there is more than a few drops then it should be fixed. You could keep extra oil in the car and fill it up from time to time, but it’s a good idea to fix it.
Look under the car at the exhaust pipe and look for rust. Some rust on the surface is normal but any rust that looks like bubbles or holes in the exhaust will need to be fixed. Usually, once there are holes, it will be soon that you will need to change the exhaust pipe. Depending on where this is on the car this can be both expensive or cheap to do as the exhaust pipe is in sections, usually 2 – 3 and you should be able to just replace the part that is rusted.
Also look for any smoke when the engine is running, both when just idling and when driving, there should almost never be any kind of smoke coming out. The only time you may see some smoke is when putting your foot down on the accelerator very fast, you may see some black smoke. But most diesels filter this out. Any white or blue smoke is a big red flag and you should have it looked at by a trained mechanic.
So if it has disc brakes on all wheels this is relatively easy, you will just need to look at the brake discs and callipers. If the discs are smooth and flat, with no grooves then that’s good but if you see grooves then this could mean they need to be changed. Also, look at the brake pads if you can see them. They are inside the brake calliper that sits over the brake disc and the part you need to look for is where the shiny part of the disc touches the pad. If the brake pad is around 3-4 mm deep then they need to be changed. If they are more than this then you should be fine.
Drum brakes are a different matter, unfortunately,, if there are drum brakes then you will not be able to see if they are worn out or not as the drum needs to be removed to see this. If the vehicle has disc brakes and they need changing then it’s likely that the drums will need to be soon. If there is no history of them being changed and the car has done more than 100 000 km it’s possible they will need to be changed.
The Clutch (drive it like a truck not a car)
If you are buying a manual van then you should be careful to make sure that the clutch is in decent condition. This is a very expensive item to replace and the life of the clutch is completely dependant on the habits of the driver. In a bigger vehicle using the clutch properly can mean the difference between never needing to change it or having to change it after 60 000 km.
The clutch should never be “ridden” when changing gears or taking off the clutch should be smoothly released to get the vehicle moving or change gears but never for more than a second or so at a time. Also when maneuvering at a slow speed like when parking and reversing you should try to release the clutch completely not slip the clutch a lot when moving slowly.
How to know if the clutch is worn out, there are 2 main ways you can tell this. The first one is the friction point of the clutch. Meaning where in the movement of the clutch pedal does it start and finish engaging. A new clutch will start to grab and move the vehicle very low down. Meaning as you start to release the pedal it will engage after only a little movement. The further you have to release the pedal before the clutch engages the more worn out it is. If you have to release almost all the way out before it starts to grab then the clutch is very worn and will need to be changed soon.
Finally, the other way is seeing when the vehicle is under a lot of load while driving up a hill or accelerating, get the engine to a point where it will be pulling its hardest, around the middle of its RPM range, 2500 for diesel or 3500 for petrol, then put your foot down all the way. The engine should accelerate the vehicle but the RPM should increase with the speed of the vehicle, if you see the engine RPM increase all of a sudden then the clutch is failing and needs to be changed.
Engine and Suspension Noises
You should drive any used vehicle before buying it. Driving it and listening to the sounds can tell you a lot about the health of the vehicle. Drive the vehicle without the owner if possible. Or if they are with you ask them to be quiet for a while as you drive and listen.
Starting the car, you may hear a few noises at the start before the oil moves through the engine but after about 10 seconds all most noises should stop and the engine should just sound normal, any squeak, whirring, or other noises should be investigated.
Drive with the windows down to hear noises better.
When driving slow, if you have space to do it try turning the car in very tight circles, both left and right, while listening for any clicking, whirring, or other noises. You should not hear any difference when turning the can on a complete steering lock left and right. If you do hear something then there is something wrong with the transmission, wheel bearings, driveshafts, final drive, suspension, or another drive component.
Now for when driving fast, the steering should be straight and the car should not pull significantly in one direction. A small pull to the outside of the road is ok, to the right for left-hand drive, to the left for right-hand drive, but this should only be subtle.
Finally, there should not be any significant noises from anywhere on the vehicle, you should hear the noise of the engine (simply louder than before but not changed and no new noises) and wind noise. Anything else should be investigated.
If you hear anything that you are not sure about, get it checked by a mechanic, before you commit to buy!
Tyers and Alignment
Obviously, there should be tread on the Tyers and they should be inflated. The other thing to check for is that the wear on the Tyers is even over the whole surface. If there is excessive wear on the inside, outside, middle or outer edges of the tyers then this could be an alignment issue and it will need to be corrected so that they don’t wear out too fast. Wear on the middle or on both outer edges means that the pressure is not correct.
Leaks and renovated interiors
One major thing you should look for is leaks. They can be subtle but once you know the signs you will be able to see them easily.
Look closely around windows and any fittings for signs of water ingress. color changes in the pain, bubbling of the wall material, streak marks, softness of the material are all signs of leaks.
Be wary of newly renovated old campers that cover the walls in paneling, this can be used to cover up leaks and other issues. We have some friends that suffered this terrible outcome. got a van with nice new white paneling in the interior only to find once it started raining that water was coming in everywhere in the van and the entire wooden frame of the camper was rotten and rusted.
Everything should work
Turn things on, run the fridge for a while to see that it gets cold. Turn on the water and check all the taps work and that that sinks drain properly, turn all the lights on. Just go around and make sure that all the pieces of the van are functioning as they should be. For anything that is not working you should get a discount and if its something major then maybe just walk away.
Don’t get too attached!!! You should do your best to look at each Camper, RV, or Van without emotion. Finding one that is just the right combination of features you like is great but it’s not great if you justify the water damage to yourself saying that it’s not that bad and that it won’t be too hard to fix.
Test drive it! Never, EVER, buy anything without test driving it first. You could get lucky but it’s possible that you can get something with issues even from a dealership.
Happy hunting, I hope this list has armed you with some new information on buying a camper that will serve you well for years to come.