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Buying Guide & Owning Advice for Caravans & Campers

Written by

Scott Murray

For people who’ve already decided to get one, here’s what you’ll need to understand about finding, negotiating, inspecting and looking after your new (or used) caravan or camper.

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Bargain hunting: Dealer versus private

You might be interested to know the caravan industry has been somewhat put on notice recently, by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC). Essentially, there are growing reports of caravan retailers and manufacturers failing to comply with consumer laws, namely the consumer guarantees, which basically mean they need to replace defecting parts, under warranty, or offer refunds or replacement vehicles on irreparable problems that may arise. This is important to know and you can read more at the ACCC caravan retail industry report.

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It’s absolutely vital that you distance yourself from brands which develop reputations for dodgy workmanship and poor customer service. You are buying a retail product from a business that is required - by law - to fix faulty products or give your money back.

So do your research. Because once you drive out of the lot with your new caravan, the more cunning a caravan business is, especially at disproving any claims you make by suggesting you might have abused the vehicle or driven in unknown conditions, whatever it takes, they’ll try to wriggle out of returning your cash.

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So have these discussions when you’re at the dealer, and get all your interactions with the business IN WRITING.

Emails, take notes when you speak face-to-face, get names, phone numbers, emails, and ask the sales manager or whomever what their stance is on Australian Consumer Law. Ask them directly. See how they respond. Are they comfortable and genuine, or do they squirm and try to redirect the conversation into something else?

Then, depending on your budget, what kind of caravan you want and perhaps how your dealer experience has gone, you might also like to consider buying privately or second-hand.

This can not only be much more affordable, but considerably easier when it comes to caravans. Easier because, unlike cars where you can’t really see inside the engine (which is the critical part) to see how badly it’s been abused, caravans are much more open-book. You can literally walk inside the part that matters.

So whenever you’re checking out a caravan or camper - crawl all over it. Open every cupboard, pop-up every skylight, extend the pull-out beds and check for rips or wear in any canvas skirts, awnings, roofs or any area where there is repeated friction.

The good thing about buying a used caravan is you can check the temperament of the people you’re buying from. Do they live like slobs and treat their house, car, garden and probably their caravan like crap? Or are they conservative, careful custodians of their noble camper?

You might also want to consider buying privately because after the last two years of catch-and-release living here in Australia, where overseas travel was banned, people bought caravans and went on holiday locally - in between lockdowns.

But now that flying is back and people seem masochistically content sitting in airports for untold amounts of time they’ll never get back, caravans are being sold en masse. Demand for new caravans has tapered off and you’ll find some good deals on relatively newish, or hardly-used campers and caravans of all shapes and persuasions.

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What to really look for when buying a caravan or camper

Beyond just tinkering with all the superficial stuff inside the caravan, looking for mould and checking for rips - you also need to understand the caravan or camper’s fundamentals. You’ll want to read our Virgin Caravanner’s Ownership Guide for details about how to tow and knowing the legal weight requirements for your vehicle and the caravan/camper.

But in general, you need to know exactly what the ‘van weighs empty, and fully laden as you intend to tow it (with a full gas bottle, all your cutlery and cooking gear, any bedding you might choose to routinely stash in there, porta-loo etc.). You equally need to understand what the caravan/camper’s maximum permitted laden weight limit is to make sure you do not exceed it when shoving it full of your stuff.

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Next, regardless of buying new or used, you need to look for rust, for dodgy welds, for frayed hand brake cables, damaged or bald or unevenly worn tyres, check their pressures - including the spare! - and check the wheel nuts are all appropriately fastened.

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Hint: You might need to seek someone mechanically minded if you’re not, and start learning some of the basics.

Brakes are another critical component you need to know the status of. Buying a used caravan, you’ll need to find out how long, if ever, since the brakes (typically drums) were serviced, and again, it might be a good idea to have the ‘van inspected mechanically.

If you’re accepting the gas bottle/s bolted to the front of the caravan or camper, have a glance at the holder brackets and check they actually fasten appropriately and cannot come loose in-transit.

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Importantly, you’ll also want to have them tested and tagged to make sure they haven’t developed any small leaks - do this with the kitchenette stove, any hot water heating systems. It’s always a good idea to give the taps a little tweak to know in your own mind that they’re shut off.

Same goes for any on-board built-in battery and inverter systems. Ask a local sparky or any qualified electrician friend to run their eye over the cables, connections, do a voltmeter test on the battery (if you don’t know how to do it yourself; it’s okay if you don’t). And while you’re at it, get whoever’s with you to stand at the back and test for what lights are working or not, get your sparky mate to check the plug connection to the vehicle, and check over the lights inside the caravan while you’re at it, microwaves, powerpoints, grilles and ovens, even the telly.

If you’re buying from a dealer brand new, all this information should, in my view, be provided with the ‘van, so ask for it if you think so too. Or, if all that stuff has already been done, make sure you have copies of all the service/inspection work carried out and check the expiries on those jobs in case they need doing again.

Make sure you always have an appropriate fire extinguisher, serviced and easily accessed in your caravan or camper. Fit one externally for quick access in the event of an emergency, so you’re not fumbling around trying to get through annexes, unlocking the caravan door or trying to wind up the pop-top roof on the side of the highway as someone’s vehicle catches fire.

All of these above things are vitally important because once you drive off that lot, it becomes increasingly possible if you have an issue with something, the caravan dealer might try to shift the onus onto you, suggesting owner wear and tear. Not saying this is what should happen - it absolutely shouldn’t - but it’s something to be aware of. The world isn’t fair.

Some personal advice: remember, you are taking ownership of this vehicle and it is your responsibility to work toward the safety of others. Pleading ignorance around critical safety issues like tyres, things falling off, overloading, not checking things are done-up tight - that’s on you.

The caravan/camping fraternity loves to blame the roads, the conditions, other drivers, wildlife, the manufacturers, whoever or whatever they can find as an excuse for laziness and ignorance. But try telling that to the innocent family behind you when something goes wrong. Be safe. Be thorough. Be vigilant.

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How to get the right price

Right, here’s the fun part.

If you’re buying from a dealer, remember this - there are other caravan dealers, be it up the road, one town over, or even across the road. If you’re not getting the price you think is reasonable, you don’t have to be rude or disrespectful because the sales person isn’t buckling under your pressure. Just try a different place.

Same goes for private buying/sellers. Everybody selling their caravan is thinking about all the fun memories they made on their holidays and attach inflammatory importance to the selling price of their ‘van, and they try to leverage that in their negotiations with you.

But there are plenty of other sellers out there with caravans cheaper or younger or older or in better condition than the one you can’t get the owner to budge an inch on. That’s fine, just say thanks for your time - we’ll let you know what we decide to do. Make sure they have your number, tell them to give you a call if they change their mind on your offer, and get back in the car.

Then, as you drive home, don’t brew on the missed opportunity - thank you lucky stars you didn’t cave in and overspend.

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Now, it’s also worth keeping this in mind: You decide what something is ‘worth’. CaravanCampingSales.com.au, Gumtree or WeSellCaravans or the Trading Post (is that even a thing anymore?) - none of the countless buy/sell websites decide what your caravan or camper is worth. You do.

You’re the one with the budget; if that A-van is worth too much, that’s fine. If that Jayco Finch is far too old for what they want, there’ll be others. If you can stretch your budget to nab yourself that slick, multi-purpose function-focussed off-road Kimberly Camper - provided it ticks all the boxes, go for it.

Consumers these days, despite the expression “the customer is always right”, often guilt themselves into giving up too much, pressuring themselves into settling on something that isn’t quite right, or simply buy the first fancy rig they see without even negotiating. Caravans and campers are depreciating assets. In fact ‘asset’ is the wrong word. These things lose value every single day. So save as much as you can at the outset when you’re buying it.

Ongoing upkeep

Caravan upkeep is fairly straightforward, starting with where and how you store it.

Regardless of how well you house your shiny new home-on-wheels, it’s going to be subject to nature. Temperature, moisture, leaves, possums, cats, rodents - they all wanna slowly destroy your H.O.W. So if you can, store it in a lockable garage.

Obviously that doesn’t work for everyone, so invest in a decent quality caravan cover from your local automotive retailer taking basic measurements for length, width and height - and there’s a good chance you’ll find one that fits, maybe not perfectly, but close enough is good enough. It’s not a Ferrari.

Try to get it as tight as possible so the cover or whatever tarpaulin you put over it doesn’t flap and create excess friction with the ‘van. Even using some cheap cloth tape on any loose bits is a good idea.

Car Maintenance and Servicing

Every six to 12 months you’ll want to pull your caravan/camper out and open it up. Let fresh air in, give any mechanical rotating parts a light grease if they require it, inflate the tyres if they've gone down (so the rim doesn’t add additional pressure (wear) on the tyre sidewall).

It’s a good idea to keep spare light globes in the ‘van, along with a light, dedicated maintenance kit such as screwdrivers, a shifter (adjustable wrench), some cable ties (just in case) and a pair of pliers - all things you can put your hand on easily to fix little things when you notice them.

Make sure all wheel bearings are maintained, either yourself or getting a mechanic to do the work. Replacing wheel bearings on the side of the road is a bad start to your holiday, plus it’s potentially dangerous.

Another good idea is keeping a dedicated all-purpose first aid kit in another easy-grab spot in the caravan, somewhere near the door so it’s quickly accessed. Make sure you have your fire extinguishers checked regularly, perhaps even fitting one externally as well as internally.

Don’t let known issues get forgotten about - fix them straight away so they don’t become bigger, more dangerous problems further up the road where you might not be so close to help.

Ready to see what type of caravan you can afford?

The easiest way to find the best caravan loan rates from lenders is to simply use our Money Matchmaker™ engine.

We’ll compare the best loans we can find from our available pool of lenders, personalised entirely based on a few simple questions, and you can see exactly how much you’ll pay with each lender.

This includes all the little details like fees and restrictions, so you can find the offer that suits you best, for the caravan you want.

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About the Author

Scott Murray from BestFamilyCars.com.au

Scott

Murray

Scott Murray

BestFamilyCars offers honest information & discounts for your next new car. Our lives depend on cars, but most reviews don’t answer the real questions. I live with the cars I test, to report their strengths and weaknesses, ad free