Buying a Caravan; the ultimate guide for buying a home on wheels

With the travel industry absolutely exploding in the last few years, there are a lot of people looking to purchase their first caravan, with no idea of where to start. In this post, we are covering absolutely everything you need to know before laying down any money on a caravan.

Whether you are buying something second hand, a demo model from the showroom floor or you are putting an order in for a caravan to be built specifically for you this will cover everything you need to know.

If you are looking at buying something else, we have a camper trailer buying guide and also the Ultimate guide to buying a Hybrid Camper.

Buying a Caravan
Looking to buy a Caravan but not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered!

What budget do you have?

The easiest place to start when buying a caravan is the budget that you have available. Caravans range from $2000 right through to $300,000, and most people don’t have a budget anywhere near that.

There is no point looking at vans that are well outside of your budget, as its simply not going to happen, and you’ll lose perspective. Set a maximum limit, and don’t bother looking at vans above this.

Air stream Caravan
Set your budget before you start looking too hard

When do you want the van?

Today, we are in a very interesting Caravan and Camper Trailer market. Actually, it applies to everything from boats to 4WD’s and plenty of other toys, but understanding supply and demand can save you a lot of money, and heartache. 

With everything that has gone on the demand for RV’s and Caravans has gone through the roof, and this coupled with labour shortages, and difficulty getting parts from all over the world (due to material shortages and shipping delays) the price of every Caravan in Australia has gone up like you wouldn’t believe. 

A 50k van 2 years ago is now selling for 65 – 70k, and if you want it new, you’ll have a lengthly delay. Some van manufacturers have stopped taking orders as they are booked out for two years, and that’s a long time to wait for a van.

Things can change hugely in that time, and when things do eventually go back to normal there is going to be a market correction, and if you’ve paid top dollar and signed up for a two year wait, by the time you get the van things could be very different.

Take a minute to think about when you want the van, and what risk you are willing to take to get it, so you don’t get burnt with the ever changing supply and demand saga’s that we are all navigating.

Dual axle van
Some van manufacturers are quoting 2 year lead times

What can your vehicle tow?

Hand in hand with budget goes your current vehicles towing capacity. If you have no intentions of changing tow vehicle, then you need a caravan that is going to allow you to legally tow it. Unfortunately, so many people get this wrong and end up having to spend a fortune to remedy it.

That means the weight of the van has to be under your towing capacity when loaded, but also that your tow ball weight isn’t exceeded, GVM, axle weights and a whole heap more.

We’ve written a comprehensive guide that explains all of this in detail, in a super simple way so that anyone will understand, and can get specifications for their vehicles regardless of your prior experience. You can read that here – Simple towing guide to keep you legal.

Its important to know that a massive number of people buy vans that are not suited for their tow vehicle, and end up having to make some difficult decisions.

Don’t buy anything until you are 100% comfortable that your chosen van suits your tow vehicle in every possible way. This is what comes out of finding the best towing vehicle.

Dmax GCM
So many people buy vans that their vehicle can’t legally tow

What do you want from the caravan?

The next thing to think about is what you are personally looking for in a van. Historically, a Caravan is a home on wheels, and if you are looking for a basic home that you can cook in, sleep in and go to the toilet in (or near), then that’s pretty simple.

However, if you are looking for unlimited free camping abilities with all of the mod cons available, then it’s a totally different kettle of fish, and what you want may not be the same as your best mate, or neighbour, or family.

Royal Flair Quad Bike Van
Do you want to carry a quad bike on the rear?

Do you want to take it off road and find the most remote and stunning camp sites possible, or are you happy jumping from caravan park to caravan park and never leaving the bitumen?

How long are you going to travel for? Are you intending on doing a few weekends a year, or are you going to live in it for two years?

What are you wanting to achieve? This is going to be vastly different to the next purchaser, and the next after that.

Even families travelling Australia like to do it differently, and what one family loves another may not. Get this right and you’ll save a heap of money, frustration and time. Get it wrong, and well, you know the drill.

James Price Point
What level of luxury and off grid ability are you chasing?

What’s your caravan storage space like?

If you are buying a Caravan to use occasionally, and to store at your residence for the rest of the time, you need to make sure that the van you choose is going to fit in its allocated position.

You wouldn’t be the first person to find that their new van is too tall to fit in the shed, or too hard to manoeuvre around a corner that you cant store it where you thought you would be able to.

I’ve literally seen holes cut in gates so they can shut with the drawbar sticking out, or people having to install tiny wheels each time they get home so they can push it into the shed. Think long and hard about every dimension, or you might end up feeling a bit guilty when you tow your new van home!

Where do you want to take the caravan?

When you look at different caravans, you’ll see that they are built very, very differently. Some are low to the ground, compact and light weight. Others have huge amounts of clearance, sit at over 3 metres tall and have much heavier duty chassis.

Caravans generally come in 3 classifications – on road, semi off road and off road. The names are fairly clear in their descriptions, except that off road is subject to interpretation, and what one person calls off road is not the same as what another does.

On road vans are generally not designed for anything more than a very good condition gravel road. They will have the least amount of clearance and structural integrity, and do not take well to being driven off road. Failure is far more likely.

Broken suspension
The result of taking a small pop top camper or caravan where it isn’t designed to go

Semi off roads are generally designed for dirt road driving, and will take a bit of punishment beyond a gravel road with extra clearance and sometimes stronger chassis. You are much less likely to bottom a semi off road van out, even going over curbs, or up and down roads that change in undulation in a sharp way.

Full off road vans have a much heavier duty chassis, significantly greater clearance, different tow hitch types (DO35, Haul Ace, Hitch Ezy etc), and are designed to be towed further off the beaten track.

Corrugations to Millstream
Off road vans are built for heavier duty use

However, this does not mean that they are designed for taking on 4WD tracks, going on big side angles and for crossing the Simpson Desert. Their exact capabilities will be detailed in the warranty, and the manufacturer should be very clear about what they can, and cannot do.

Off road vans are also incredibly heavy, and when you combine that with their sheer size, you are hugely limited in where you can take them anyway. Anything that is soft is almost always ruled out, and if there are tree’s around you’ll end up doing damage very quickly.

What size do you need?

Caravans start off at around the 16 foot mark, and work up to around the 30 foot size, which is a seriously big unit. Have a really good think about the sized van that you actually need, so you don’t end up with a monstrosity that you have a hard time towing anywhere, or a van that is too small to walk through.

Life is a compromise, and in an ideal world you’d have the smallest and lightest van possible, but then you lose out on luxuries, space and comfort, and this is where you need to pick what suits best.

Most vans with ensuites start off at 18 foot, and if you want bunks, you are looking at 20 – 21 foot minimum, and it goes up from there. With size comes weight (usually), and a big van (especially one that is off road) needs a big towing vehicle, and starts to push the limits on any normal 4WD.

XT17 Caravan
Picking the right size van is hugely important

Caravan and Camping shows

One of the easiest ways to find a caravan that you really like is to head to the Caravan and Camping shows. There’s usually one a year (or even more) in the major cities, and some of them have hundreds of caravans that you can check out.

Speak to the sales people if you’d like (but don’t feel pressurized, or believe everything they say), and walk into as many vans as you’d like in a few hours and you’ll get a good feel for things.

Yes, it can be overwhelming and confusing, but you have to start somewhere and having lots of different van brands and models in one place does make it a lot more convenient.

Caravan Show
Caravan and camping shows are the perfect place to shop efficiently

Full size vs pop top

Caravans come in two styles; full size, or pop top. The full size vans are a solid shell, and don’t expand at all.

Pop tops generally have 4 latches that are undone, and a PVC sock that expands as the roof pops up, giving you a much greater head room. Pop top vans are normally much shorter, and a similar height when extended to their full height.

Some are designed so you can still use them with the roof down, but if you are taller, bad luck.

Pop tops are normally lighter, but take a little longer to set up. They also have the benefit of not hitting tree branches as much, but have more to go wrong, and most definitely have worse insulation. Air flow when its warm can be better, but when its cold a full size van will stay warm much easier.

Pop top caravan
Caravans will either have a solid roof, or a pop top like this

What internal framing is used?

When buying a Caravan its worth asking about the frame type, and what material is used. Many are timber framed, but a lot of the newer manufacturers are going to steel, or a composite material.

Timber has been reasonable in the past, but is susceptible to water leaks doing extensive damage when things start to rot out.

Caravans need maintenance done, and leaks are not uncommon. In a timber van this is a much greater issue than a composite version.

If you are buying a second hand van, this is a hugely important point, as you can buy a disaster on wheels that has been patched up so you can’t see it, and end up having to replace a huge chunk of the internal framing as its rotted away from a water leak, which can come from outside, or from the shower or a drain inside the van.

What is the warranty like?

If you are buying a second hand van that is still new, there’s a chance that some of the warranty will be passed on. However, know that a lot of manufacturers will not pass the warranty on, and even if its only 6 months old you may not have access to any warranty.

If its an older van there is no warranty anyway, unless you get it from a caravan sales yard, in which case its hugely important you understand your rights, their responsibilities and what will happen should something go wrong in the first period of your ownership.

If you are looking at a new van, you should be familiar with the warranty, and what it covers. Know what your responsibilities are in terms of maintenance and regular checks, where you can take the van, and what its actually designed for.

If you go against the manufacturers recommendations and something goes wrong, they will often walk away from the claim.

Wagon security
How long does the warranty last, and what does it cover?

Single axle or dual axle?

One of the bigger choices you’ll have to make when buying a caravan is whether to get one with 4 wheels, or two. Single axle and dual axle both have their advantages, and each style will suit different people for different reasons.

Note that once the van starts to get to the 2800kg plus mark, you’ll have no choice but to go dual axle anyway, so the load is distributed in a manner that is compliant with the suspension, axles, wheels and tyres. We have a comprehensive post on this – Single axle vs dual axle Caravans.

Also, this makes a big difference to the Caravan Tyre Pressure that you run, and that will determine whether your van tows well, and doesn’t fall apart!

Tyre blow out dual axle
Dual axle vans are common once you hit a certain weight and size

What battery system do you need?

There are a couple of areas in a van that can cost a huge chunk of money, and the electrical side is one of them. For many people, the capacity to run lights, a water pump and charge mobile phones, tablets and a laptop or two is all that is needed.

The solar and battery setup for this is vastly different to someone who wants to run a compressor fridge, air conditioner, Thermomix and induction cook top.

Electrical systems in a caravan can range from a few hundred dollars through to around $30,000, and getting the wrong setup will best case be a pain in the backside.

I know full time travelling families who happily live off one 100 amp hour AGM battery, a portable solar panel and two 80 watt panels on the roof.

I also know full time travelling families or couples with more than 1kW of panels and 600 amp hours of lithium on the roof. 

You only need what you need, not what others have, so work out what that is and go from there.

Lithium battery install
Our new lithium setup which will run most household appliances for short durations

We have just upgraded our Reconn R2 to a Lithium Battery Setup, and have been pleased with it so far (with limited testing).

Compressor vs 3 way fridges

Historically, the large majority of Caravans came with 3 way fridges, meaning they are designed to run on gas when you are stationary, 240V in a caravan park or at home and 12V when you are driving. You can swap between the 3 options, and with a decent gas bottle you’ll get a number of weeks before having to top it up.

However, there’s been a fairly strong movement towards the use of compressor fridges that will run on 12V, or 240V (or one or the other).

There are a number of benefits of a compressor fridge, but you need to have an electrical system that will handle it, as many of the base model vans will not come with the  best caravan battery setups and will not have the capacity to run the fridge even in good, sunny conditions.

Some 3 way fridges have historically struggled in really hot weather, and they all need to be nice and level to run well on gas. A good 3 way fridge will work fine in all climates, but there’s a lot of people who aren’t happy with them, so again, get what is going to suit your needs.

3 way fridge
A typical Caravan 3 way fridge

Caravan Ensuite options

Again, there’s been a big swing around for ensuite options in Caravans. You’ll notice that a lot of second hand vans simply don’t have ensuites. If you wanted a shower, or needed to go to the toilet, you just walked through the caravan park to the amenities block.

However, today people enjoy free camping far more with Caravans, and they want the ability to shower and use the toilet without being attached to a caravan park. You can get external ensuites, internal ensuites and then a number of varieties.

The most common setup in vans that are tight for space is a combined ensuite, where you have a shower head to the side of the toilet. This means they are not split, and you save a lot of space.

Alternatively, you can split the toilet and shower, but it takes up more room (and has a number of other benefits that a lot of people feel is worth the loss of room).

Caravan toilet
A typical caravan toilet

What condition is the van in?

When it comes to making your purchase, you need to look very carefully at the condition of the van. If its new, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this. However, if its second hand make sure you inspect the below

Chassis condition

The chassis is the backbone of your caravan. Ideally it will be hot dip galvanised, and not showing any evidence of rust beyond very minor surface appearances. Have a look at the welds; are they smooth, uniform, penetrating correctly, or do they look like bird poop and have big lumps sticking out?

Look around the suspension to make sure there are no cracks or damage, or broken leaf springs. This can be hugely impacted by the Caravan stone protection options used in the past, along with the front portion of the van higher up.

Reconn R2 chassis
Is the chassis clean, rust free and in good condition?

Tyre condition

You should aim to replace tyres in between the 5 – 7 year mark, regardless of their age. Every tyre has a marking on it to tell you the tyre age, and if they are old, you should plan on swapping them out as the rubber deteriorates. Want to know how to tell a tyre age?

Beyond that, have a look at how they are wearing; is it worn on one edge, or the middle, or both outers? Tyre wear tells you a story of what needs to be done to make them last, and it can be as simple as a caravan wheel alignment, adjusting of tyre pressures and rotating the wheels around.

Evidence of recent work

Caravans that are regularly serviced by reputable businesses are far more attractive than something that has no receipts or information for the last decade. Wheel bearings in particular need regular attention, as can your 12V system, suspension and tyres. 

Most good caravan workshops will do it all under one roof, and if the van is new to you and you have no history, its worth getting it checked out for peace of mind.

Cheap wheel bearings
When were the vans wheel bearings last done?

Damp smells

Unfortunately, caravans have a long history of getting water ingress, and things going mouldy, damp and rotting away. If you smell any moisture in the van, be very careful about proceeding. This is even more the case if its timber framed, but water in caravans can be a hugely expensive repair, and you don’t want to live with things inside being damp.

Roof condition

Going on from the above, one of the most common places for caravan leaks to start is the roof. Silicon is used hugely today, but it has a shelf life, especially if the van has been outdoors for much of its life. You should climb up and look at the roof; is the silicon work neat and tidy? Is there any evidence of water pooling, or marks from damage in a previous life?

Cabinetry condition

 If you plan on taking a Caravan off road, you’ll know the cabinetry works hard, and its easy for screws and fittings to work their way out. What condition are they in? Do all of the doors and drawers open properly, and close squarely?

What are the reviews like?

I wouldn’t buy any Caravan without first reading reviews from other owners, and finding out what they love, and don’t love about your potential van. Today, there are some amazing groups on Facebook that have been created by the owners to share improvements, faults and ways to make things better.

Providing its not run by the manufacturer of the caravan, you’ll get some fantastic responses from those who have had them for many years, and have worked out all the shortcomings, hacks and ways to make them better.

Its important to be careful with the reviews though, as people are happy to leave negative reviews when things don’t go their way, but will rarely take the time to post positive reviews when things are amazing.

Every single brand of caravan will have issues at one stage or another, and in my opinion this is just part of a production line. The important thing is how the business deals with the issues when they are raised.

Its impossible to make a perfect product every single time, but good businesses will stand behind their customers and if there was ever a niche where people feel badly ripped off, it’s the caravan one.

The stories of poor quality vans, issues, and behaviour from caravan manufacturers are pretty shocking, and you need to take care that what you are buying is not going to cause you a huge headache in the future.

You’ll no doubt come across a list of Lemon Caravans, which you should investigate, and read with a grain of salt. I’m sure many of the businesses on that list deserve to be on it, and I’m sure there are many that have had their entire name tarnished from a few mishaps, which are much less justified.

Do your own research, be happy with what you buy, and don’t rule a brand out just because its on the lemon list, as you’ll be able to find a huge number of owners of the same brand that are hugely happy with their purchase.

Electric Caravan
Nothing beats real life feedback from owners

Are you handy on the tools?

Caravans are not maintenance free, and things will come loose, or break, or need adjusting. The further you take them off road the more likely this is to happen, but if you know how to do the basics you’ll be a lot further in front compared to someone who has no skills at all.

Being able to notice when something isn’t sitting right, or a new noise, or work out where a loose screw has come  from helps you to prevent major failures before they occur.

Corrugations will shake the daylights out of everything, and any fittings that are not nylock nutted, or don’t have threadlocker on them will come loose.

I’ll never forget the first time we walked into mum and dads van after a couple of hours on the Gibb River Road. Almost every single cabinet door handle had vibrated loose, and there were bits everywhere throughout the caravan.

Do them up tight, and they come loose again. A simple dose of threadlocker and they will never, ever come off again.

How well is the van sealed?

If you plan on taking your van off the bitumen road, you need to ensure its been built, and sealed well. Many vans today come with dust suppression systems, which take air from the outside, filter it, and push it into the caravan.

This forces the van to be under positive pressure, which stops any dust from entering it as air is always workings its way out.

I’ve seen some shocking shortcuts with vans in terms of installations of microwaves, sealing around the door arches, and fridges. My parents van had gaps that insects could fly through, let alone giant patches of bull dust.

Carpet to block the dust off
A lot of vans require vents to be blocked when its dusty

Where are the kids going to sleep?

If you have kids, getting a bunk setup that is going to suit them is pretty important. Not all of the bunks are full length, and if your kids are getting older or you plan on keeping the van for a long time then it pays to get something that is going to accommodate the arms and legs that seemingly don’t stop growing!

R2 camper bed
Is there enough room for the kids to sleep even when they grow a bit?

Other things to check

Now, you might think we are getting into the nitty gritty, but when you buy a van you make a substantial commitment, and you should know whether anything is not working as it should. Start with the awning, which should move in and out freely and have no damage.

Then, make sure the jockey wheel and the tow hitch work correctly, and that the hand brake actually work. Ensure the gas hot water system fires up, and the gas stove and grill or oven (if there is one). Does the toilet flush, and all of the taps work? 

How do you fill the water tanks up? Does the 240V wiring side work, when you plug the van into a house socket?

Kokoda awning
Does the awning operate freely, and present well?

When you feel confident, hire one

Caravan hire options have gone through the roof, with Camplify being a hugely popular platform to do it, along with many local businesses. When you find a van that you think you are happy with, hire one as closes as possible to it and take it away for a weekend. 

There’s no better money spent than living in the product you want to buy for some time, and getting a real life experience from it. I know plenty of people who’ve hired vans or camper trailers and come back perfectly clear that they either love it, or hate it, and in the grand scheme of things its not that much money.

The more research you do now, the better

You might get tired of looking for the perfect Caravan, and it might take a long time to find one. However, looking back later on you will appreciate the effort you put into finding out exactly what you were chasing, and then buying a Caravan that is going to do what you want it to.

When you rush into a purchase you’ll often end up with something that doesn’t actually suit you, and then you have to go through the entire process again, and throw a huge chunk of time and cash away in the process.

Research, research research, and when you are happy, go for your life. It’s an amazing lifestyle, and you’ll have a ball!

What Caravans have you been looking at, or what did you end up with? Let us know below!

Dual axle van
Out and about, enjoying the magic of Australia by Caravan

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