To buy or not to buy? Should I buy an old motorhome is a question I asked myself and found I was doing a lot of research to find an answer. An old Motorhome is a risk without a doubt but with a little care, you can choose a great one.
For us, the decision to buy an old motorhome was a yes. An old motorhome can be very reasonable to purchase compared to newer models. If you are quite handy and enjoy a challenge then you will have an unlimited source of fun and frustration. An old motorhome can be a great investment for you and your family. It can be fun and a freeing experience. It’s camping without any discomfort. I wouldn’t say its problem free. You have to choose your old motorhome very carefully.
There are many great motorhomes out there but the ones that stood out for us travelling in the UK and Europe was the Hymer. Hymer make some really great motorhomes and the fact there are so many of them fast approaching 30 years old (and beyond), still on the road is a testament to their quality.
Hymer had the layout we were looking for in a motorhome so we started going to see some.
When you view motorhomes you begin to understand the complexity of the machine you want to purchase. They are very complex. As a first timer, it can be a bit intimidating as you realise just how little you know.
You have the problems of the living space where you will live so you want it sound and free from damp. You have all the equipment that will keep you warm, help you cook let you go to the toilet, let you sleep comfortably to name a few.
You also have the problems of a vehicle. Is the engine sound? Is the running gear good, does it need a gearbox is it in good shape structurally, is there any major rust, how many miles??
I had some idea these are complicated vehicles but after we purchased I realised the idea I had was dwarfed by the reality.
I found out later I had underestimated the costs involved. Hymers being such good quality, they use good quality parts. So, when parts break they are expensive to replace. The motorhome we bought was a 1990 Hymer 644. Its length is 6.4m and is about 2.2m wide and 2.6m in height. It can sleep 6 people comfortably has a toilet/shower room and plenty of storage. Perfect for our needs.
Before we start, let me just say that anything can be fixed. Most of the faults in an old Hymer can be repaired. It’s just a matter of money. What you want to find is a motorhome with the least amount of money needing to be spent on it. You will spend money whether it’s changing the curtains or needs its engine rebuilt. So if I was buying again, I would budget an extra £1000 for additional unforeseen expenses, not including the actual faulty you find.
Here are a few things to consider before you jump in and drive it away.
Things to look for in an old motorhome.
There are all sorts of guides about choosing a motorhome. Here are some of the things that were important for us and some things that we missed when buying a motorhome.
Choosing your motorhome
Before you even get down to the finding your perfect motorhome you should try and see a few. Motorhomes and campers have some clever use of space. Appliances differ slightly from make to make but generally, the same makes have very similar features.
Choose a make, or even two makes of motorhome such as Hymer, Pilote, Swift, Auto-Trail, Romahome to name a few.
What we did was have a look at as many as we could either online or in person. It is good to see a few in person to get a feel for the size and when you see it online you will know what the pictures are showing you. It is quite a daunting task at first but you will slowly get a feel for sizes and layouts.
Next, you want to choose the layout you would like. At first, we wanted bunk beds. There is one type of Hymer with this design but the Hymer we got has a convertible lounge area at the back which works well as it’s like a separate bedroom. You want to make sure its a layout that you will be comfortable with and that will suit the needs of you and your family. Once you have chosen your layout then you can start looking for your perfect motorhome.
Another thing to consider is the motorhome base. This is the actual van that the motorhome is built on. Hymer, for instance, has Mercedes and Fiat, as well as Peugeot, Citroen and even a few Fords. The most common seem to be Mercedes and Fiat. We went for the Fiat as the parts seem to be readily available, although now having had one for a while now I think you can get most parts for all the different bases. Just choose the one you would be most comfortable with. The Fiat Ducato gets great write-ups on its engine and they tended to be a bit cheaper than the Mercedes vans when we were looking.
Find as much Information as Possible
Gather as much information as you can. A fantastic source of information we found (after we had bought out motorhome of course) is a Facebook group called Classic Hymers. This group is really well run and has quite a few knowledgeable people based in mechanics and habitation. This has been an invaluable source of information for us. Would have been great to find before we bought – it also has a sister site called the Hymer Market where you can buy Hymers and parts.
There should be similar sources of information for other makes of motorhomes as well. Well worth hunting down.
Some Basic Checks
When talking to the owner, if they seem vague when talking about their motorhome there is a good chance that there is something wrong. The person we bought from claimed that he didn’t have a clue how anything worked yet had owned the motorhome for 2 years. I believed the guy because he really didn’t know how things worked and had basically used the motorhome as a big tent on wheels. Now there is nothing wrong with this, they are complicated beasts. But if you don’t know how to operate things they are not getting used. The area he never used was the gas side of the van which includes the water heater, fridge and fire. The hob he had used and that worked well. The water heater, fridge and fire are all very expensive to replace or even to repair so you need to take that into account.
If the owner doesn’t know how to use them they won’t know if they are broken or require maintenance. These machines need to be well looked after or you are just building up a long line of expensive jobs. A well looked after example could be bill free for a few years but just know you will have to spend money eventually.
It took me about 10 hours to get these appliances working properly on gas and about £90 for parts (just two were needed). If you were putting it into a specialist it would cost a lot more.
Have a look underneath for any signs of rust on the frame or Rot on the floor of the motorhome. If we’ll looked after it should look nice and clean with no sign of rust and no delamination of the plywood floor.
While you are under have a look at the springs at the rear, these cost over £400 for the springs and parts. They should have a happy smile, ends turned up, they should not look sad with the ends turned down.
Look for any punctures in the bodywork. Chances are there will be a few dents but you don’t want punctures as the water will get in and can cause some serious damage.
The Hymers have an aluminium skin so doesn’t rust and if looked after will last for a very long time. Ours has a few dents but no punctures.
Once I had it for a while I noticed the large boot door at the rear had a small bit of rot on the inside and had been filled with polyfiller or something similar. The leak was traced to one of the number plate lights that was resealed. It has dried out now and awaits repair (another job on the list).
The windows are made from a plastic, usually tinted. They last a very long time but when you are on track for 30 years they may be starting to break down. Look for cracks especially at the handles. Replacements are expensive, especially for the larger windows. You can replace these yourself without much difficulty but better if you don’t have to.
Also check on the inside, around the windows for any damp. If a window is leaking this is where it will show up.
Roof lights and hatches
Again just like the windows check for cracking and traces of water damage. If you see any water damage you really need to investigate. The large roof light on the Hymer will be upwards of £500 to replace. Not a bill you want when you have just purchased.
Old Motorhomes and Seatbelts
When you are looking for an old motorhome one of the things we found was that the safety rules have changed a lot in the last 27 years. Back then seat belts in the rear were not compulsory so many of these old buses don’t have rear seat belts. Some do have them mostly fitted after they were bought. Ours had two lap belts fitted but after a bit of inspection found them to be very poorly fitted so had to be replaced. The best seatbelts are the factory fitted type as these will have been crash tested to make sure they pass the regulations.
So when you are looking for one make sure it has the number of seat belts required or you will have to have some fitted which is not a cheap thing to do. Most motorhomes you will see will have lap belts but you may feel better with three-point seat belts, some do have these fitted.
Tyres in a motorhome can be deceiving they might look perfectly fine and have a lot of tread on them but they could be very old indeed. A motorhome tends to sit in the one place for a very long time without moving so the tread can look almost brand new.
When looking at a campervan or motorhome it’s well worth taking the time to check the dates on the tyres. Once a tyre is about 5 years old it should really be replaced.
When I bought my motorhome I found that the tyres were very old, the youngest one was four years old, the oldest being around 12 years old! What happens with old tyres is that the rubber tends to crack that cracking is a weakness in the tyre. To add to the problem of weak tyres motorhome tyres are pumped up to very high-pressure levels so if you have a weak tyre it may blow in spectacular fashion. All tyres on our camper are blown up to a pressure of 60 PSI this is double what the normal car tyre pressure. Our tyres also have metal valves which apparently can take more pressure than the normal rubber valves, though after speaking to our local tyre supplier he reckoned the rubber valves can handle 60PSI no problem.
The tyres for a motorhome are about £100 each. You can replace them over time but you don’t want one bursting on you if you can prevent it.
On our motorhome, a metal valve actually sheared off causing an almost instant flat and by the time we pulled in to the side of the road the tyre was destroyed There was no saving the tire and had to buy a new one. The annoying thing was the tyre that blew was the youngest tyre on the motorhome.
If you can get a mechanic to come with you to give the machine the once over that would be a fantastic investment. If he can identify problems it will give you a negotiating lever or you may avoid a complete banger.
Just having someone who knows engines with you will give you some peace of mind. I am not saying a mechanic will be able to determine all the mechanical problems of a motorhome with an hours inspection but he should be able to identify any major issues. Major issues are good to avoid if possible.
Look for smoking when the engine is warm. Most older motorhomes will smoke when they are started but the smoke should go once the engine is warm.
The payload of a motorhome is the amount of additional weight it can take once it’s been prepared for travel. Its the weight when it has a 90% full tank of fuel, water, gas bottles and the vehicle is ready for the off.
The payload is the additional things you may want to take like your family, crockery, bedding, bikes, clothing, personal items, pets, surfboards, mopeds, whatever you want to take away with you will be added to the payload. It is very unclear just how much of a payload you get with a particular model. Older motorhomes may have many modifications and extras that will have to be subtracted from your total payload reducing what you can legally carry even further. Some motorhomes have their suspension beefed up and the maximum load of the motorhome increased you can find this out on the plate in the engine bay which has the figures clearly marked. Ours has about 300 kg which is quite small. By the time you add passengers and bikes, there is not a lot of breathing room for all the holiday things.
The problem is that it’s difficult to tell and the only way to really know is to visit a weighbridge and have your camper weighed. Even if you are under the total weight the axles have a maximum weight which means you can’t have all the weight at the rear, the weight must be evenly distributed or the handling of the motorhome will be affected.
This is something to bear in mind as we had no idea when purchasing and were shocked at how little the payload actually was.
Extras are the additional things that previous owners have added and that still work.
We have a small solar panel on the roof that helps to keep the leisure battery topped up. This worked better than expected and would recommend having one.
There was also some levelling system and air suspension fitted but no longer works
Obviously, these checks are by no means conclusive. They are just a start and maybe you can rule out a motorhome if you notice anything major wrong.
Another thing to consider before you make an offer is to arrange a habitation check. You pay for someone to come and check the van out. they basically check out the habitation side of the camper. They check for dampness, the gas, the electrics, waste, fridge, all the important things to do with motorhome except the engine and mechanical side.
Get out there and start viewing. That is the only thing that will give you an idea of what is possible space wise and comfort levels. Visit a secondhand dealer and view as many as you can. We went to a few and this gave us a really good feel for a lot of different makes and sizes of campers. Then hunt down the make and model of your favourite and start making offers.
If you are handy and love maintaining a vehicle and a home rolled into one then you will enjoy an old motorhome. If you are not handy and want an easy life I would suggest that you keep saving and buy a newer model. Even with me being handy we have still spent thousands on garage fees.
So in conclusion, once you’re happy that a particular motorhome or campervan is right for your needs and have taken into account all of the faults you have found and make an offer. But don’t be afraid to walk away, in fact, be prepared to walk away from a lot of motorhomes. The more you see the better prepared you will be.
I wish I had found this information before we bought ours. I really hope it helps some of you when you go to purchase your dream motorhome.
If you are serious about buying an old motorhome then check out the guide I put together for buying an old motorhome.