Inspecting A Used Camper

If you are considering the purchase of a used camper, then you should make yourself familiar with some of the most important things to look at when you get to inspect your future home-away-from-home, especially if you're planning on buying from a private party rather than a dealer. If you are about to be a first-time owner of a camper, then you should not underestimate the importance of this step – it is the only way to ensure that you will get the best bang for your buck, and save yourself from a lot of headaches down the road.

This might sound like a daunting task, but I assure you that it is worth the effort to try and learn more about the most important things to look at when purchasing a used camper.

Here is my list of what to inspect and why, in order of most important to least important. 


The first and most important thing to take a look at is the roof. Typically, camper roofs are made of either aluminum, fiberglass, or sometimes even ABS plastic. Regardless of the material used, the most important parts to pay attention to are the trim, gaskets and the corners. The latter is usually the first thing to fail in a roof’s structure – of course, this is preventable with proper maintenance and timely repairs. If you see fresh caulk, then you know that the owners have at least paid attention to maintenance, but if you see any compromise in the caulk or around the trim, you might need to worry about water damage.

Not all caulk is created equally, either. Be sure to ask if the camper has been caulked with regular home-quality caulk, and take a really good look all the way around doors, windows and trim for cracks or separation. I recommend Pro-Flex RV Sealant for caulking, I have used it for years with really reliable results.

Pay attention to the surface of the roof as well – seeing traces of patched-up holes and dents may mean that the camper was hit by hail. You do not want to deal with the consequences of such damages – a roof that has been hit by hail will need to be patched up again and again and again. Take it from me: you really don’t want to replace the roof of a camper. I have, and it is a considerable task.

If the roof has been coated with protective coating, that could be good or bad (or both). When the coating ages, it can present you with the gigantic (and/or costly) task of stripping and replacing it. For the time being though, if it's fairly new, it can protect the roof.

Moving Parts: Slide Outs, Jacks, Levelers, Lift Systems and Winches

The next thing to check is to make sure the camper is actually ready and able to be used, by moving all of the moving parts. Whether electric or manual, make sure you test each and every one, looking for signs of bad wear or lack of maintenance, and listening for any grinding or the struggling of a motor.

Mold, Stains and Mildew

Next you will want to take a careful and thorough look all throughout the camper for signs of mold, stains and mildew. These are signs of water leaks or past water damage. Follow your nose, if the camper smells musty, then get to work finding the source, and what caused it.

If you are inspecting a pop up camper, then next you want to take a careful look at the canvas. In addition to water damage, look for mildew signs indicating the camper was packed down in the rain and not aired out properly. While you're at it, look for rips on the outside and pin holes from the inside looking out. Small holes and tears can be patched, but replacement canvas can start at $1,000 and go up from there.

Last but not least, stains. Seeing stains usually means that there was a water leak in the past. Even if the leak is fixed now, this fix is unlikely to be permanent, while the stains usually are permanent. Stains might be considered a deal breaker for you.

Floor & Ceiling

Once the camper is popped open and you get inside, it is time to see the condition of the floor and ceiling. When you inspect the ceiling, check for spots by pressing on it all over, focusing on the corners in particular. Typically, the corners and the area around the AC unit or exhaust fans are going to be the weak spots, so they are the places where you may find issues. If you find a weak spot that gives in or feels soft, then you need to keep investigating to find the source of the issue. That's almost always a sign of a past or current leak.

The floor is pretty much the same – corners and doors tend to be the weak spots. Now, keep in mind that the edges are typically hidden by cabinets or storage of some kind, so you will need to open those to access the floor spots you want to press on.

A/C Unit

The A/C unit is easy to check on – see if it manages to cool off the inside nicely. The good news is that even if it seems to not work that well, it is fairly easy to replace – a new one typically goes for around $350, and a used one can be found for as low as $150. They're heavy and awkward, but they're a pretty simple DIY repair if needed. An A/C unit that does not work well is probably not a deal-breaker, but you should probably try to bargain for a discount considering the cost of the A/C replacement.

Sinks & Plumbing

Checking sinks and plumbing are all pretty straight-forward: run everything and see how it goes. The same goes for drains – run the water and see if it drains nicely.

Other Appliances (Fridge, Stove, Furnace)

Camper appliances vary widely depending on the size and age of camper you're considering. From a tiny propane-run mini-fridge to a full-size electric fridge and freezer combo, you could be checking cheap or expensive appliances, and results can vary quite a bit. Ask the owner to run the fridge for at least an hour before you arrive, so you can see how it well it cools.

The stove typically runs on propane, and it can be either an inner or outer one (or both). While having a stove inside may sound convenient at first, it is not really great – cooking inside a camper can be a potential fire hazard and can cause ventilation issues, smelling up the camper for a while after cooking.

The furnace is also important to keep the space warm, so make sure it works. An electric furnace is pretty straight-forward, but a propane furnace can be expensive and difficult to replace, so make sure it works well. 

What to bring with you for inspection

You will need to check if appliances are running, so bringing an extension cord and an Edison plug converter is recommended. You will need 30amp or 50amp to Edison depending on the power that the camper is setup for. Of course, make sure to meet up at a place where you will be able to connect and test electrical – this may mean you need to insist on meeting at the owner’s house, rather than a public place. I've run into the problem of not being able to test the electrical, even being at the house, so make sure you bring an adapter and extension cord to ensure your own ability to test everything.

Since you may need to crawl up underneath the camper or see in dark spots like backs of cabines, you should bring also headlamp and a flashlight. I'm a big fan of the Fenix E12 pocket flashlight, which is light, compact, has a pocket clip and puts out a lot of light for only using one single AA battery.

Wheels & Bearings

Wheels and bearings may seem like an important deal, and a lot of people worry about them first when looking at a trailer, but the truth is they can be replaced without really breaking the bank. Trailer tires are fairly inexpensive, and you can even sell your old tires in classified ads to make some money back. Replacing bearings is also recommended, regardless of condition – it is easy to do if you’re handy with basic car maintenance, and you can get the parts at most auto parts stores for under $25 a pair. If you feel like the wheels and bearings are in poor condition, you can use this in your favor when negotiating the final price – but don’t let it stop you from buying a camper.

If you really want to test the wheels and bearings, the best way is to check the tires visually, and then take the camper for a drive to see how it rides. Feel the hubs when you get back – they will probably be a little warm, but if they're hot, then the bearings probably need grease. And if they do now, they probably have been for a while, and may already be worn out.

Upgrade your camper for free

Playing the camper market can help you get a nice upgrade for free. However, you will need to hold two campers for a while, so this is applicable if you have a storage solution, as well as the finances to purchase a new one before trading in the old one.

So, what is the trick? It is really simple – wait for the cold months to buy a newer or bigger camper, but do not sell your new one just yet. Winter prices are much lower, so you will be able to find some great deals. Once spring comes, it is time to sell your old camper – the market is much more active at the time, and you will be able to get a great deal. If you play your cards right, you might just end up getting a free upgrade, or at least save a lot of money like I did.


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