Buying a New RV vs. Renovating an Old One: The Pros & Cons of Each

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Deciding to buy a home on wheels is an easy decision if you love to travel and want to see the world while on the road. But deciding if you want to buy a brand new or used RV (that needs some TLC) can be a challenge.

renovating an old RV

We know how hard it can be to figure out which rig is the best for you (we looked at dozens of trailers!), but thankfully there are resources like this one that can help you navigate what trailer or RV you should choose to make your own.

To Buy New or Renovate Yourself? That is the Question.

Airstream renovation project
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Pros & Cons Lists Are Not Overrated

For us, it was a pretty easy decision, but our situation won’t likely be the same as yours. With a dog, hiking gear, and a need to pee indoors (yep, we’re getting real here!), we only had a few absolute needs in mind before we bought our trailer. But you may have more to think about, as well as some budget, time, and resource limitations.

In this guide, I’ll explain how we chose between buying a new trailer or renovating a used trailer and how you can figure out which one is best for you. Plus we will cover all the things you should keep in mind when getting ready to purchase your home on wheels, no matter what condition it’s in.

But first, let’s go over a short pros and cons list to help you know what each option brings to the table.

Renovating an Airstream
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Pros & Cons of a New RV or Trailer

Pros:

  • Brand new and squeaky clean! (Life on the road will break her right in.)
  • Everything should be ready for you to take off after signing on the dotted line (with the exception of the inevitable RV accessories [link]).
  • Usually, you get more amenities, conveniences, and luxuries as the years go on.
  • Less required maintenance over the first few years.
  • Built-in manufacturer’s warranties can be helpful if you experience issues on the road.

Cons:

  • More expensive to buy outright and high payments if you choose to finance.
  • Higher insurance costs and much higher depreciation rates.
  • A vehicle’s layout may not be ideal for your use without making changes on your own, despite it being new.
Renovating an Airstream
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Pros & Cons of a Used RV or Trailer

Pros:

  • Usually, you pay less (and buy the vehicle outright).
  • Less money spent on a used trailer or RV means more money for renovations, allowing you to adjust it to fit you precisely. Cha-ching!
  • Lower insurance costs and depreciation rates.

Cons:

  • Renovating an RV or trailer to your specifications will take time and money.
  • You may encounter problems along the way, as previous owners may not have maintained certain aspects of the vehicle.
  • Used trailers will most likely need more maintenance up front, which can be additional time and money.
Designing an Airstream renovation
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

How to Choose What’s Best for You

As you can see, the bottom line is that choosing between a new or used RV really comes down to three things.

  • Time
  • Money
  • Resources

Time

Choosing an RV depends on how much time you have. If you’re willing to take a few months to renovate an RV or trailer, a used one may be the right choice for you.

If you’re in a time crunch, buying a new RV is your best bet, but you’ll still have to do some research on which model and layout is the best for you. You can always visit a new RV or trailer dealership to see what options are available and have a salesperson assist you.

Airstream renovation project
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Money

Money is another thing to consider when buying a recreational vehicle. If you have enough cash burning a hole in your pocket, buying a new RV is the simple answer. But it’s also one of the factors you need to renovate an RV or trailer, too.

Any renovations you make to a used trailer or RV will cost you some green. If you don’t have a ton of money to blow all at once, buying a used trailer and making renovations a little bit at a time is a great option.

Resources

The resources you have access to will also help you determine if you should buy new or used. If you’re a handyman or woman and have access to tools, you will be a better fit for renovating an RV or trailer.

Pros and cons of renovating an old RV
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

What We Chose and Why

After spending some time weighing these pros and cons, we chose a used 1976 Airstream Argosy, my beautiful white whale of a trailer Lorelai, as our home on wheels for several reasons.

I’ve always wanted an Airstream since I first saw one years ago, but I knew that I couldn’t afford a brand new Airstream on my budget. (Have you priced them lately? I mean, wow!)

I also knew that I wanted something that I could customize to our needs. If I had decided to buy something new, I would have had to buy a different type of trailer (most likely one that was much smaller) and one that I would have felt bad about ripping apart.

I know, I know, first world problems. But I wasn’t willing to give up my Airstream dream!

Pros and cons of renovating an old RV
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Our Renovation Process

To know what you’re really getting yourself into, I’m sharing a little bit about our renovation process because it’s definitely not for the fainthearted (or weak-stomached). What you think will take a few weeks often turns into a few months of work, so it’s important to understand what a true and realistic renovation looks like before diving in.

If It Ain’t Broken, Still Fix It

Renovating a trailer from start to finish is a tall order. What started out as only a few expected renovations soon turned into a complete overhaul for us. Our used Airstream was in great shape on the outside (and mostly great shape on the inside), but it needed a lot of work to truly fit its purpose.

We ended up pulling everything out of the trailer, including the icky black tank and outdated furnace. This allowed us to replace parts of the subfloor that needed some love after Lorelai had lived 44 years of her life in the Arizona sun.

After the subfloor was replaced, we coated the entire floor with a waterproof sealant to avoid having to replace the floor again any time soon. After sealing the floor, we put in new weather-flexible flooring. All of that took roughly a week and a half from start to finish.

An Airstream renovation project
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

We then scrubbed and painted every interior wall. The amount of grime a wall can accumulate over 40+ years will amaze you and totally gross you out simultaneously! After the paint dried, we put together an IKEA cabinet for the kitchen, replaced the plumbing, updated the electrical, and built our own storage spaces underneath both beds.

This list of renovated items may seem short, but it took us several months to complete just those projects. That time frame is not counting the numerous other small projects, like fitting the oven into the kitchen cabinets and building shelves inside the bed area.

Bathroom and Black Tank Nightmares

The worst part of renovating, for me personally, was the bathroom. When I first bought the trailer, I knew I wanted a composting toilet. I didn’t want to mess with a very charred looking black tank on the road, so I knew we would eventually have to get into the bathroom, pull out the black tank, and install a new one.

Taking the black tank out took us an entire afternoon. With 40+ years of #2’s passing through, the black tank was not willing to go quietly, or without a good stink for that matter. But we finally got it out! That meant more waterproof sealant and flooring replacements to fill the tank hole that remained. Only then were we ready to install a new composting toilet.

RV renovation problems
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Everything ended up coming out of the bathroom after the black tank fiasco. By the time the bathroom was done, we had sunk nearly 3 months into researching bathroom layouts, buying a toilet and tub, building out new storage, and replacing the floors.

Our motto towards the end of our renovation was: “It’s good enough for Erin’s trailer.” We slacked off on our perfectionism after month six of our reno, but it’s those tiny imperfections that give Lorelai her character and personality we love and cherish.

The Renovation Stats

By the end of our renovations, we had spent nearly 8 months renovating the inside of the trailer. We spent nearly $6,000 on those renovations alone. Thankfully we had the tools to renovate, but if we didn’t have access to a garage with everything we needed it would have cost us even more.

We ended up spending closer to $7,000 to get our trailer road-ready with new tires, greased axles, a hitch for my truck, and trailer brakes. By the end of it, I had fully renovated 1976 Airstream that cost me about $20,000 from start to finish.

Our renovation process wasn’t cheap, but it was still a fraction of the cost of a new Airstream. It not only allowed me to live my Airstream dream, but it gave us the chance to build out a living space that truly felt like a home away from home.

Airstream renovation
Photo credit: Erin Maxson

Would I Do It Again?

If I had to do it all over again, I still would choose to renovate instead of buying a new RV. I looked at several new, smaller trailers and realized that I would have had to make a ton of sacrifices from my already dreamt up design.

We preferred renovating because it allowed us to live in our trailer after just a handful of renovations were completed. We made many necessary adjustments based on our experiences of living inside the trailer instead of just guessing at what aspects of our trailer would be annoying or troublesome on the road. And that, my friends, saved us a lot of time, money, and headache!

Looking back on this project, I think renovating our Airstream made me realize that no matter how much money I had, I would have chosen to buy a used trailer. I realized that I could live without a lot of the luxuries that we experienced in our home before hitting the road and it also allowed us to create a space that was truly our own.

At the end of all of our renovations, I was quite proud of what we were able to create with our own two hands and a couple of tools (and the money we saved!).

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Buying a new RV verses Renovating an Old One

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