Tips for Buying an Old Motorhome – The Ultimate Guide
So you are thinking about buying an old motorhome. No doubt it’s the price that is one of the main attractions for getting an older motorhome. Some argue that the new ones just aren’t built to the same quality. Some say that the new motorhomes have too much technology in them making them difficult to fix both the habitation side and the engine.
Buying an old motorhome can seem daunting but with a bit of preparation, you can be quite savvy when choosing an old motorhome. This guide will be useful for the purchase of any second-hand motorhome and of particular use for those with little or no experience with motorhomes.
Although I have called it the ultimate guide, there is no way to cover every eventuality of buying a Classic Motorhome. There are so many things to look for that it would be impossible to cover everything. This guide is a place to start and covers all the things that we checked and many that we wished we had checked.
Have a read through this guide and you may feel more confident about taking on an older motorhome.
It’s not going to be an easy ride, there is a steep learning curve but if you are up for learning a lot and developing new skills then you are going to love having an old motorhome.
If you are not willing to learn a lot of new skills you will feel the financial pain as you will need to pay others for their skills.
Older motorhomes are prone to every fault you can think of and a lot more, way more! Problems you never even knew were problems.
For instance, the rubber around my windscreen is about two inches shorter than it should be – the rubber is at the end of its life and needs replaced. It lets water in but not at the two-inch gap, its further along The water travels along the seal and finds a new way in, an unexpected way.
It has taken me weeks to find where the water in the engine bay was coming from. But this problem will need to be dealt with before the windscreen is damaged. If the windscreen needs replaced I could be faced with a bill of about £2000.
That’s just one tiny problem that I will have to deal with. Fault finding will consume your every spare minute. You will become a fault finding machine.
But, before you get anywhere near that stage you will have to buy a motorhome probably with little or no experience. This makes things a little tricky. If you have no experience then how do you know if things are working properly or sounding the way they are meant to?
This is who this guide is for. It’s an attempt to prepare you for the purchase of your motorhome and avoid the mistakes we made when we bought ours.
The guide will be heavily slanted towards Hymers as this is what I own but most of the information will be relevant to any type of motorhome.
The questions asked in this guide are ones that I asked when purchasing my own Classic Motorhome and ones that I should have asked. Hopefully, this blog will help you avoid any expensive mistakes.
Where do you start?
The very first thing to do is look at the type of motorhome you would like. Do you want a class A, B or C motorhome? Do you want a coach built, A class or a campervan?
If you have no idea what I am talking about then have a look at the blog which explains the different types and classes of motorhomes.
Once you have the class of vehicle you would like you then have to decide on the make, we obviously settled on a Hymer but there are plenty of makes out there, some of them are even as good as a Hymer.
What you want to look for on your hunt is a good community around the make of vehicle you are looking for. Once you buy your old motorhome you will need support, whether that is just the ability to access information or being able to ask specific questions and get good answers to those questions.
This will be invaluable to you when you have to repair either the habitation side or the base vehicle. Some of these motorhomes are 30-40 years old but most of the parts for them are still available, you just have to know where to look and that’s where the community come in as when you are just starting out the chances are you won’t have a clue.
What type of vehicle do you like?
We liked the look of the old Hymers. They look a bit retro and they are built like tanks.
There are plenty of other makes to choose from. Try and see how the make of motorhome you are looking at fares over time. The quality will vary over the years and what looks like a good make now might not have been that great 10 or 20 years ago.
When some of the die-hard Classic Hymer fans say that they don’t build the new vans like they used to they are absolutely right.
One of the reasons for this is weight. All campervan and motorhome manufacturers are trying to keep the weights of their vehicles down under the 3500kg weight. The reason they are doing this is you need to sit another test for vehicles over 3500kg in order to drive them. If you passed your test before 1997 you would automatically have this on your licence.
So as the number of people who can drive the larger motorhomes on their basic licence drops so does the demand for the larger motorhomes. Thus, the demand is for the lighter ones you can drive without sitting another test.
The motorhome manufacturers are doing an amazing job at getting their motorhomes lighter and some have huge payloads (payload – is the amount of weight you can add with your own stuff) and still manage to be under 3500kg. This makes them attractive to new buyers.
The weight saving is done by using lighter, modern materials like plastics and light metals like aluminium for the interior fittings.
Our motorhome from the year 1990 is mostly wood inside. It is built very strong but you can see that it is very weighty when compared to newer motorhomes. The older Motorhomes have stood the test of time and still running almost 30 years later with very similar technology you would find in a modern Motorhome.
Do you even need a full-blown motorhome or could you get away with a camper van?
The cost difference between a campervan and motorhome is usually a lot. For the same price as a classic motorhome, you could pick up a decent and much more modern campervan. The amount of maintenance in term of the habitation side alone would be so much less in a campervan.
So, see if you really need to own a motorhome. If you can get away with something smaller then do it. A smaller van is cheaper to run and easier to manoeuvre and park. In some campervans, you can travel almost incognito, not possible in a motorhome.
It may even be worth hiring a campervan or a motorhome and see if you actually like the type of camping each vehicle offers and weigh up the pros and cons.
How many people will the van accommodate?
The number of people you will have in the van will be a crucial factor when deciding the size. A lot of campervans will only accommodate two people comfortably.
If you are a family of two adults and two children you will need a motorhome that can sleep four – a four berth. If you ever want to have visitors or maybe a friend staying over you will need a larger vehicle. Think carefully about this, if you have a larger motorhome and you are not using it to capacity then you are costing yourself money and a larger van can be more difficult to manoeuvre and more expensive to run. What you will have though, is a bit of extra space. That can be really worth it.
Just remember the more passengers you have the more travel seats you will require.
Make Sure there are Enough Travel Seats
Fitting seat belts in the accommodation area of a motorhome did not become mandatory until 2007. So, the chances are any vehicle manufactured before 2007 is not going to have seats with seat belts fitted. Some motorhomes do have seatbelts fitted, of course, but most of the motorhomes we saw didn’t.
This is crucial if you are planning to take children with you. Most older motorhomes will have some sort of lap belts fitted but I wasn’t happy with those. The lap belts fitted in ours don’t look particularly safe and have been retrofitted at some time in the past. So the adults are in the back and the child is up to the front with the driver and the three-point seat belt.
We are looking at ways to have seat belts in the rear but there is no easy or obvious solution for this in our motorhome – it’s a bit of a minefield. The best thing you can do is make sure the belts are fitted.
What sort of camping do you want to do?
If you are going to be on campsites all the time then you can get away with a smaller van. You might not even need a toilet as there will be good facilities on most campsites.
If you want to go more remote then a toilet may be useful. If you want more luxuries like being able to sit in comfortably if the weather turns bad then you may want a larger vehicle.
That is what made the motorhome more attractive to us. If space is a bit larger it protects your holiday from the weather, the rain won’t make the stay miserable. If you have a decent space you can still have fun when you are away inside the motorhome and can be a cosy experience.
What amount of travelling are you going to be doing?
When we were planning our purchase the main thing we wanted to do was go to Europe. So, the motorhome had to have enough space for us to be in there comfortably no matter what the weather.
Obviously, if it is dry and sunny you will be outside all the time but coming from Scotland we prepare for constant rain and any sun is a bonus. I think this has worked out well and we have a motorhome we can all fit in comfortable whatever the weather.
The van or motorhome needs to be comfortable while travelling. Ours is a monster but once on the open road, it is very easy to drive.
Do you need a toilet and washing facilities in your van?
This was one of the luxuries of the motorhome I dreaded. A toilet, a chemical toilet, a chemical toilet that would have to be emptied. Turns out it’s actually really useful to have in a motorhome. They are very easy to keep clean and empty so all is good. I have even used the shower when off campsites which is actually terrific.
The facilities are not like you would have in your home, your resources – specifically, water is very limited. Having the choice to use them is fantastic and for me, they were way better than anticipated- I had very low expectations.
Looking at a motorhome now I would take the toilet and washing facilities very seriously. They are very nice to have.
How much space do you actually need?
Our motorhome is around 6m long. It has a dining area and a rear lounge for sitting in. Sometimes we just sit in the dining area together, the four of us. It is a very comfortable space and you can do everything you would ever need to do in that space.
The rear lounge sometimes feels like having a spare room in the motorhome, a room that doesn’t get used very often.
Where it does come into its own is when the weather is miserable and we can spread out. Games can be played in the dining area and reading in the rear lounge or vice versa. It can feel spare but when we use it the motorhome feels very spacious. I know if it wasn’t there we wouldn’t miss it but it is a great space to have.
You have to weigh up space with being able to drive and park. Ours has a 2m overhang from the rear wheels, it’s tricky to reverse and is too long for a car parking space unless you can get the overhang over the pavement.
What would be the prefered layout?
Think about what you would really want from your travels and try to imagine how you would use your motorhome. Take your time and have a look at all the different layouts, there are quite a few.
We went to see some motorhome sales and sat in dozens of different types of motorhomes and different layouts. We managed to narrow it down to a couple. A motorhome with bunk beds or with a rear lounge. Fortunately, Hymer does both and the rear lounge type came up first, the Hymers with the bunk beds are pretty rare now.
Can You Actually Drive Your Choice Motorhome?
I mentioned above about the manufacturers bringing their vehicles below the 3500kg weight limit. Before you buy a massive motorhome, make sure you can legally drive it with your licence or be aware that you will have to sit another test to get your C1. The C1 part of your licence will allow you to drive vehicles up to 7500 kg.
If you passed your test before 1997 you will have C1 on your licence already – just double check.
Choose the Base Vehicle
Just when you thought you were finished. You have chosen the make, you have chosen the layout, now you have to choose the base vehicle.
What I mean by base vehicle is you can buy a Hymer but the Hymer you buy will have a particular base vehicle.
Hymer uses Mercedes and Fiat as base vehicles. These seem to be the main ones but they also use Renault, Citroen and Ford. Each make of vehicle is different and have different problems that you need to watch out for.
By that, I mean you want to choose a base vehicle that you can still get parts for. Fiat and Mercedes seemed to be the best vehicles for this but after owning a Hymer and talking to others, parts seem readily available for all the base vehicles. I would still double check that before I bought one
These are all important questions and answering them honestly could save you a lot of money and will help you hone into the motorhome that you need to start your adventures.
Start with a type of motorhome, layout, see what you can get within your budget.
The Hunt For Your Motorhome
Where do you look for an old motorhome?
In the Uk, we used Gumtree, eBay, Preloved and other internet sites. Since purchasing ours we found a great site for finding old Hymers called Classic Hymers.
This is a huge resource for anyone looking for an old Hyner and I would recommend becoming a member of their Facebook page.
There will be sites similar to this for all sorts of makes. Just search them down and ask about on the various motorhome forums that are on the internet. Someone will be able to point you in the right direction.
What to look for in an Ad
There should be plenty of photos on the advert. There is nothing worse than seeing a nice motorhome and there are only one or two pictures up. Be suspicious if that is the case.
Look for a good in-depth description. If the owner seems to know what he is talking about then there is a good chance they know their vehicle.
Sometimes you may have to travel a fair distance to see the motorhome so a good description and good photos are crucial otherwise you will just be wasting your time.
From the description, you should be able to build a collection of good questions to ask the owner.
Once you are confident the motorhome is the ideal one for you it’s time to get on the phone and speak to the owner.
What to ask on the phone
A lot of the information may already be on the advert but there is no harm in asking a few more questions.
A conversation on the phone should be enough to determine if the seller is passionate about the motorhome.
If it is someone selling the motorhome on behalf of the owner then alarm bells should be ringing. This will mean you won’t get the information you need for making an informed purchase.
Does the motorhome have a current habitation check? A habitation check will check the electrical, gas and water systems and make sure they are safe. Some do not include damp checks so just make sure you know what it’s covering. A habitation check is useful but is a very basic check of the motorhome. Do not assume that all the gas appliances and electrical items are working because the owner has had a habitation check done.
Does it have a complete service history? – The more history the better. On the fiats, the timing belt needs to be changed regularly and its good to see a history of that. Ours was a bit patchy but most of the major repairs were there in the history.
Don’t forget to ask the usual questions like mileage, length of MOT. A lot of this should be in the advert, just compile a list before you phone.
So you have seen the ad for your favourite motorhome and it’s the very layout required. Phone the seller and get as much information as you can. If you are satisfied that the seller is genuine then arrange a visit to see the motorhome.
Viewing an Old Motorhome
Arrange the visit
Arrange to see your potential motorhome and really listen to what the owner is saying. Is he enthusiastic about the motorhome? Does he know a lot about the motorhome? Is it his pride and joy?
You can tell a lot just from what someone is saying to you. Most people won’t outright lie but they won’t be telling you all the bad bits so you need to track that information down yourself.
When we were buying ours the previous owner told us he never used the gas fire or the gas water heater or the gas fridge. He was always on a campsite and never needed to. There were quite a lot of things he did not use so couldn’t guarantee that they were working.
If the owner is telling you similar things then alarm bells should be ringing. It means that the gas side of the motorhome has not been used for years and will need a good service, or worse some of the gas appliances will need to be replaced – they are all expensive to replace.
What to Take when Viewing Motorhome
When viewing the motorhome there are a few things that would be good to take with you.
A checklist – Is always good to have and work your way through it. If you don’t have a list you will end up forgetting something.
A damp meter – These are cheap and although not incredibly accurate will give you an idea if there are any problems. Ask the owner if its ok to check before you start stabbing their motorhome with your damp meter. I used this one, it’s cheap and cheerful and gives you an idea if there are any problems.
If there is a recent habitation check then you should be fine and not need to probe your meter in many places. The chances are they will have a better damp meter than yours so should be more accurate.
What to look for before you even start
When you arrive just have a look at the motorhome and how it’s sitting.
- If it’s on flat ground does it look level when looking at it from the front?
- Does it look level when looking side on?
- Does it look like it’s sinking at the rear
Just doing this will tell you a lot about the suspension. It should look all nice and level. Any leans and there may be problems with the suspension and sinking at the rear can mean the springs are going.
Is the motorhome connected to electrical hook up? If it is there may be issues with the habitation battery. This was the case with ours.
Are the windows all open? If the windows are all open there could be problems with damp. Open windows will clear out the musty smell that goes with damp.
Check the bodywork
The bodywork on a motorhome is nothing like a car. They are usually made from GRP – fibreglass or they will have an aluminium outer skin.
They are pretty much corrosion proof and if they are well looked after should last for many years. There are a few things that you need to look out for.
Look for any dents and dings in the bodywork, especially around the rear. These big machines are difficult to manoeuvre and sometimes you can hit things. Make sure you look up as well – tree branches, among other things, can create gouges in the outer skin.
Look out for stickers on the body that look new. A multitude of damage has been covered by a large sticker with the Hymer logo. The Hymers do have a few stickers on the bodywork so just watch out for any extra ones in unusual places, there may be damage underneath.
Although aluminium is quite unreactive and lasts for many years it can corrode. It’s not as obvious as rust on steel so can be a bit more difficult to spot. The corrosion looks like pitting or there may be small holes or cracking. If the aluminium is fully exposed there may be a white powder on the surface.
Worth looking out for as this is tricky to fix and can be costly.
Examine the habitation area
Have a look at the general condition. An old motorhome is not going to have the flashy interior of a new motorhome so you have to see through the brown colours of the 1980s/90s. It should look well cared for. You will be able to tell if it has been neglected.
The cushions should be in one piece.
- Try the locker doors – all of them. Make sure the catches all work – new ones are difficult to find.
- Check in all the lockers for any obvious signs of damp
- Check around all the windows for damp
Damp in a motorhome can occur anywhere. The weak points are the holes made in the outer skin so check
- The hatches, vents and skylights in the roof
- Any Aerials, satellite dishes, solar panels
- Any doors or lockers
- Any strapping on the outside and around the roof
- Bike racks
- Aftermarket reversing cameras
- Additional exterior lights.
- Front windows
- Windscreen rubber
Basically, you want to check all the holes ever made in the outside whether during manufacture or by any previous owner. If you can see damp there is a good chance that the problem is larger than you think. Water will travel in unexpected ways.
There is not a lot you can do with the electrics before you buy but you can have a look at the leisure battery and if it looks quite neat you probably have a good system. If it looks like a rats nest of cable then you will probably have a bit of work on your hands to sort out whatever has been added in over the years.
Either way, have a look and you can decide if you want to take it on.
Make sure all the electrical items are working and ask to have the motorhome connected to the mains so you can check out the 240v side of the motorhome electrical system.
The gas appliances should all be working. If they have been looked after they should work perfectly no matter what their age.
If for whatever reason you cannot see them working then assume that they are not working and there will be some hefty repair bill.
The gas appliances in most motorhomes are not cheap. The parts for them are not cheap either.
When we bought ours the owner claimed he had never used the gas appliances. He had owned the motorhome for about two years so we had to assume that the appliances didn’t work. Even if they did, that’s two years they have been sitting and not getting used. That meant the gas appliances would require a full service and that would have to be paid for.
Check the skylights and windows
Always check around the windows, skylights and vents for damp.
Use your hands and check around the bottom of the windows and at the corners. It should all feel nice and dry. If you have a damp meter the windows, skylights and vents are the places to check.
Once you have checked the inside pop out and check the outside. Go up on the roof and check out the vents and skylight, make sure they are in good condition. The main skylight is the one to look for, this is a pricey replacement. Check for any cracking, holes or poor repairs. Make sure you can open it as well.
At the time of writing a new skylight is in the £400 to £600 price range and then you have to fit it or pay someone to fit it for you.
Make sure all the windows, vents, skylights work and open. Make sure that the blinds and flyscreens work, these are surprisingly expensive to replace.
Check the windows at the catches as they are prone to cracking in those areas. Make sure you can see through the windows and there is no moisture trapped in the double glazing.
Don’t forget to check the front windows – the glass ones for any damp. These are prone, in the Hymer, to let water in.
Check Out The Window Blinds and Nets
In the Hymer, all the windows, except for the main cabin overhead skylight, have blinds and mosquito net. Even the vents have them. Check them out and make sure that they are all working. Look for any traces of water or dampness – this may indicate a leaking window.
If any are not working they can sometimes be repaired and replacement can be costly.
I had to repair a few of our window blinds and it does take quite a bit of time to do that.
Check the seals
Check all the door seals and locker seals, make sure they are still working and the areas around the door and locker openings are nice and dry. The brush seals should look nice and even all the way around.
Have a look at the windscreen
The windscreen seals can fail and create problems. The seals shrink a bit and leave a gap at the bottom. If you can see a gap there is a good chance the seal is not keeping out the water and is creating all sorts of damage inside.
The usual form of damage is rot of the parcel shelf, you should be able to see this in the engine bay and look up. If it’s raining there may be splashes of water on the engine or the spare tyre, this can be coming from the windscreen so look out for that.
Look for any milkyness along the bottom edge of the windscreen – the windscreen should be completely clear. Any milkyness shows that the windscreen is delaminating from the edge sitting in water.
Look for any obvious cracks or stone chips.
A new screen for a Hymer is somewhere around the £2000 so worth bearing in mind.
Check Any Exterior Additions
Have a look at anything attached to the exterior such as bike racks, ladders, awning, lights, vents.
They should all be tight fitting and properly sealed. Look where they are fitted and have a look inside to see if there is any damp.
Any hole in the motorhome is a potential place for damp. Damp can be a bit of a problem if its gone unnoticed.
Make sure Everything Works
Once you have had a decent look about and you think this motorhome may be the one have a play about with everything in there. I would not object if you were a serious buyer and I was selling my motorhome.
- Pull down the over cab bed,
- swivel the seats around,
- make up a bed, make sure all the parts are there
- make sure the taps work,
- test the flush on the toilet,
- open the windows,
- Make sure the control panel is working correctly
Just have a good look about and test as much as you can.
Now that you have had a decent look at the habitation side of the motorhome it’s now time to have a look at the mechanical parts of the motorhome.
Examine the mechanical side
The Mechanics are very important unless you are just looking for a shed with wheels. There is a lot to consider and it’s a good idea to have some basic knowledge of the base vehicle that the motorhome is running on.
It’s worth doing a bit of research on the base vehicle of the motorhome you are going to see. They each have their problems that you want to watch out for.
Ours is a Fiat so will base this around the Fiat base vehicle. There will be some similarities with the other vehicles but worth doing some research.
A classic motorhome is an old beast and the metal parts are prone to rot. Hymer had one of the best underseal materials available but after nearly three decades and thousands of miles, they may need attention.
The rust-prone areas are underneath the motorhome. The base vehicle chassis is what you are looking at for any signs of rust.
Have a look underneath. Lucky there is good ground clearance and you can get a good look. With a good torch, you should be able to spot any problem areas.
Look out for any bubbling and obvious damage. These old machines could have taken a pounding over the years.
Look at the rear springs and where they join the motorhome.
Check out the structure at the very back, on ours this seems more prone to wear and rust.
Tyres are an easy one to miss. Most motorhomes don’t do a large number of miles so the tyres can look brand new. The tread will look lovely and you will be satisfied that at least the tyres are in good condition. The thing is those tyres may be more than ten years old. After about 5 years the rubber begins to weaken and should really be replaced.
There is a way you can check the age of the motorhome tyres. This is especially useful if the motorhome you are looking at has six tyres.
So check the ages of the tyres as well as the tread and look for any cracking in the tyre walls.
You do not want a tyre to go when you are driving a motorhome.
In the Fiat model of the Hymer and a lot of other motorhomes, the rear suspension will be supported by leaf springs. These are quite easy to tell if they are on the way out. If they are smiling, that is, turned up at the sides then they are in good condition. If the ends are turned down then they are probably needing to be changed.
There are a couple of caveats to that. Our motorhome is the 644 and has a large overhang at the rear. We have just had new, uprated springs fitted. They are six-leaf instead of the usual four-leaf. When the motorhome is empty the springs sit almost flat, when loaded they have a very slight downturn.
Since the new springs were fitted the handling has improved massively. It sits much steadier on the road and when we go round a roundabout it doesn’t feel like the motorhome will tip over.
Make sure the springs look in good condition and have a slight upturn on them, these will be in the region of £600 to have replaced.
Any air suspension
As well as the springs the motorhome you are looking at there may be air suspension. Air suspension is there to assist the springs. The motorhome suspension is under a serious load that never really gets any less. As motorhomes are built on van chassis such as the Fiat Ducato which are designed to hold heavy loads but not for the full life of the van the suspension can suffer. Air assisted suspension can take a bit of the load off the springs and improve the ride of the motorhome.
When you look under the motorhome any air suspension will be next to the springs. We have it on ours but both the airbags are burst. Costs about £300 just for the kit – will be more if you want them fitted.
The test drive is very important. The owner may not want to give you a test drive, especially if you have never driven one of these vehicles before.
If you do manage to get a test drive there are a few checks that you can do even with very limited mechanical knowledge. If you know a mechanic that would be willing to help you this would be a good time to bring him or her to go over your chosen motorhome.
Check the dashboard lights are working and going out when they should be.
When you start the engine it should not sound laboured – ours starts almost instantaneously as soon as the key is turned.
Check the engine temperature to see if the engine has been run and warmed up before you got there.
Check for smoke. These are old engines so you will get some smoke but it should disappear after about 10 minutes. If it doesn’t then you may want to get a second opinion on the state of the engine.
Gear linkages – if you have to guess where the gears are the gear linkages may need to be looked at. Even a 27-year-old vehicle should have a nice tight feeling gear selections. Ours was abysmal. It felt like I was using ‘the force’ to find the gears. Once we had the engine work done the gear selection was amazing and I realised that the gear selection in an older vehicle didn’t have to be guesswork.
Make sure the clutch is good – lift the clutch and if it wants to stall clutch should be fine. If the clutch is fully up and the engine is still running the clutch is on it way out and won’t last much longer.
These are just a few mechanical tests. There are many more you can perform. If you’re not confident around an engine do what we did not do and take a mechanic with you to examine the engine and base vehicle for you. This could save you a fortune.
Have a think about it.
Take your time. For most people, it is a large expense. The initial money you pay for the vehicle will not be the total amount. There will be other expenses. Make sure you understand what expenses you will be facing when you buy the vehicle.
Try not to get too emotionally involved with the motorhome. See it as a business transaction – this will help you walk away if there are too many faults to deal with.
Make the leap
If you are satisfied that this motorhome for you and you feel comfortable then it’s time to start talking money. Use any faults you find to negotiate on price and hopefully, you will be able to make a deal where both you and the seller will be comfortable. With a bit of luck, you will finally be able to take ownership of your new Classic Motorhome and head off into the sunset.
May 10, 2021 @ 21:03
What an amazing guide this is!
I only wish we’d have read this before we bought our campervan back in 2017!
I’ll be sending several of our email subscribers your way in their search for an older motorhome.
Keep up the excellent work and thank you for an excellent article.
May 11, 2021 @ 20:48
Thanks for your kind comment. Your van looks amazing as does your website – motorhomehobos.com