8 things to know before buying a second-hand caravan

By Rob Pegley for the Open Road magazine.
Retro caravan on roadside
Retro caravan on roadside

Here's what they don’t teach you on social media about buying, renovating and owning a second-hand caravan.

We've all seen the rose-tinted Instagram and Pinterest posts of #VanLife, where perfect couples enjoy life in their pastel-coloured retro caravans. The reality of buying and renovating an older caravan though can be fraught so make sure you go into #VanLife prepared. 

1. Be prepared to travel to find the perfect caravan

If you’re looking to buy a second-hand caravan to renovate, there's a good chance it won't be in next suburb over. Old vans in good condition are in relatively short supply and having to take a two-hour or more drive to look at one isn’t uncommon. 

2. A caravan inspection kit is a good idea

It’s worth getting a few tools together for your van search. Vans that have been sitting outside for some time are unlikely to have working indicators or tail lights, but these are reasonably easy to fix. A light bar will be essential and keep some cable ties, electrical tape, screws and a screwdriver with you to attach the bar if necessary.

Take a caravan extension cord so you can check that the electrics work and plug into the mains to try at least one light and socket inside the van. Also take a hammer, an adjustable spanner and some WD-40 just in case the towing mechanism needs loosening.

3. Your van might need more than a paint-job

Ensuring a used caravan is structurally sound is the most important thing. Cosmetic things like painting, fixing furniture and styling are well within most people’s abilities. Few of us, however, are sheet metal workers, welders or electricians.

Make sure major steel beams aren’t rusted, the interior electricity works, and the body hasn’t come away from the frame. Once you've made sure that the van is a good, strong, solid box on wheels, then you can start making the van look Insta-worthy. 

Retro caravan

4. You don't need to register your caravan straight away

If it isn't already, you don’t need to register your caravan to tow it home straight after you’ve bought it. This is important because it may take months to renovate, so waiting could save you some cash.

An Unregistered Vehicle Permit (UVP) can be purchased from Service NSW for a one-off journey and at a much lower cost ($23) than registration. If you decide a caravan is for you, head to your nearest Service NSW office with your driving licence and the van’s details (make, model and year, VIN number and old plate number, if you know it), plus details of the journey you want to make.

5. You'll need a blue slip to register a caravan

Once you’ve finished your renovations, it's time to register the caravan it if the previous registration lapsed. Which means you’ll need to take it to a mechanic for a full blue slip.

Weighing the van is a prerequisite for a blue slip and that means a separate trip to a public weighbridge. Caravans are registered with a specific tare weight (the weight of the van when empty) and this can’t be changed. Make sure you replace materials, fridges, sinks, etc. with items of similar weight. 

6. Van registration is fairly affordable

There will be a small cost for getting a pink slip renewed in NSW ($22 without brakes and $33 with brakes) and a blue slip is slightly more ($34 and $48 respectively). Fortunately, there’s no stamp duty payable on a caravan in NSW and yearly registration has just been reduced by 40 per cent on all caravans.

The registration varies depending on weight: from $73 for the lightest of pop tops to $265 for a two-tonne beast. An average used van will be around 980kg and cost $151 per year. If you’re registering for the first time after a blue slip, new number plates are $45. All up, it’s going to cost around $250 to get a blue slip and register your second-hand caravan from scratch.

Retro caravan in garden

7. Be prepared to spend

I’ve never renovated a van for less than $2000 – and that one was in reasonable condition to start with. As a rule, expect to pay at least $7000 to buy and renovate a used van but this could always be more or less depending on the market.

Van costs and renovation costs are dependent on each other. You might be able to buy a van for $3000, but it’ll probably cost you $4000 in materials and gadgets to bring it up to a liveable standard. If you pay $6000 for a van, chances are you’ll only have to spend $2000 on renovating it, and it will take a lot less time.

8. Towing a caravan is stressful

Finally, you’re ready to hit the road. Hitch up to your towing bar, plug in the lights and check them, pull up the jockey wheel, take off the brake and away you go.

Be aware that turning right at a junction, driving in narrow lanes, and pulling into a service station will probably be stressful. And reversing will likely bring you out in a cold sweat. It will get easier, however, and the more you tow, the more natural it will feel.

It's not easy but it's worth it! 

Have I put you off? If not, then welcome to the club! There’s nothing like the freedom of taking your caravan on the road. Yes, there are practicalities to overcome, and maybe I’ve overhyped the negative aspects, but just think of it as an initiation ceremony to make sure you’re worthy of joining the #VanLife world. 


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