A Guide to Choosing and Buying a Caravan - Part 1
Caravan helps you choose the right caravan first time. Here’s how…
Words by Tony Brown
It’s a fact that very few caravanners choose the right caravan to suit their specific needs, first time.
Cost, style or a seductive layout often draws wannabe caravanners to buy the wrong caravan. So many end up changing their first choice for the right choice a year or so after buying it. This is an expensive way to do things!
This guide will help you to make the right choice first time.
Let’s start with the ‘fixed criteria’: cost (new or used), weights for towing and size for storage. After that, we’ll move onto the ‘variables’ like layout and style.
The Key Questions
What’s my budget?
If you’re paying cash, this question is simple to answer. But, if you have a caravan to part-exchange, or want to pay using a finance plan, things are little more complicated.
For part-exs, you need to get your van valued by a dealership. Or to look around for prices on comparable tourers and sell it privately. You may get a better deal selling privately, but it can involve significant hassle. Your call.
You may then want to top-up this amount with cash or finance, to buy a better caravan.
You’ll be able to find out about potential finance deals, online, through a dealership or at show. Look at a few options to get a sense of what is a good deal.
For finance packages, work out what monthly payments you can afford. Then base your caravan buy on multiplying that up over, say, three, or five years, or more. Remember to factor in interest payments. Your total buying power will not be a simple ‘months-times-payments’ calculation, unless you get a 0% finance deal. You need to factor in admin charges.
Years ago, cash was king. Then came the advent of the finance deal. People perceived that some of the extra profit a dealership would make by selling a credit package could be offset against the cost of a caravan.
But, these days, our industry insider tells us: “Every deal is individual and done on its own merits. We don’t discriminate one way or the other between cash or credit buyers.”
When you buy a caravan can have a large effect on the price. And there could well be some attractive offers at the end of the summer season. Dealers make room for next year's models which they expect to arrive in autumn.
New or used?
Will you be looking at new vans, nearly-new or mature? Newer models will incorporate all the latest bells and whistles. Yet, there is much fun to be had at less cost in finding used examples that have had a long , but well-cared-for life. That's providing you check them over well for damp ingress in particular.
What can my car tow?
A working knowledge of this vital subject is important. The majority of caravan salesmen are knowledgeable and honest. But, some give unrealistic advice. Or they ignore the barriers to buy to secure a sale. Check Towmatch before you go!
A weighty issue
The Caravan & Motorhome Club advises that, for a novice caravanner, the weight of the van (its Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass, (MTPLM)* does not exceed 85% of the kerbweight of the car.
This is either in the car's handbook, or you’ll find it online using Google. But in any event, never exceed 100% of its kerbside weight. To find which caravans you can tow with your car, use Caravan magazine’s online Towmatch tool. It's free and reveals whether a proposed towcar-caravan match is safe and legal.
What can you tow with your licence?
Did you pass your car test before 1 January 1997? If so, you are generally entitled to drive a vehicle and trailer combination up to 8.25 tonnes maximum authorised mass (MAM).
If you passed your driving test on or after 1 January 1997, and have an ordinary category B (car) licence, you can drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes (3500kg) MAM towing a trailer up to 750kgs.
Or a vehicle and trailer combination up to 3500kg MAM, providing the MAM of the trailer doesn’t exceed the unladen mass of the towing vehicle. For anything heavier you need to pass a category B+E driving test.
For car licences obtained on or after 19 January 2013, drivers passing a category B (car and small vehicle) test can tow small trailers weighing no more than 750kg.
Or trailers weighing more than 750kg, where the combined weight of the towing vehicle and the trailer is not more than 3.5 tonnes (3500kg). For anything heavier you need to pass a category B+E driving test.
If you are over 70 years old there will be further towing restrictions affecting heavier outfits.
The regulations are complicated. You can find all the listings and full details of the above online here.
How many berths do you need? Will you be accommodating guests from time to time? How do you use your caravan? Do you like to cook a lot? Do you only use site facilities or do you prefer small sites without showers?
Answering these, and dozens of other layout questions, will lead you making the right choice. In reality, very few people make the perfect selection first time. Sometimes you have to find out what’s wrong with a van before you know what’s right.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself:
- How many berths?
- How long are the beds?
- How suitable is the kitchen?
- Is the fridge big enough?
- Are there enough cooking options?
- Does the storage work for you?
- Do you need a full-sized washroom or will a combined-unit suffice?
- Will you accommodate guests?
- How much time will you spend inside the caravan? Is the lounge big enough?
- Do you want fixed beds or will you make one up every night?
Twin or single axle
Generally, people believe twin-axle caravans are more stable than single-axle caravans when towing. This is a good thing, though you will most likely need a heavier and more powerful towcar.
Also, factor in extra tyre, servicing and wheel-lock costs. And the fact that you may need to invest in a motor mover to shift your caravan around. Plus, these days there’s an excellent selection of family-sized, single-axle tourers.
We have heard stories campsite owners rejecting twin-axle van owners due to their link with ‘travellers’. This is more prevalent on the continent.
Buy from a dealer or private owner?
Will your budget dictate a new or used model? And if used, should you buy from a recognised caravan dealer or from a private owner?
If you are an inexperienced caravanner, or need greater buying security, consider the advantages of using a reputable dealer. Although the cost here will be a little higher, a used caravan dealer should have checked for defects, particularly on damp ingress. And you should get a short guarantee period when the dealer can rectify any faults. You also will enjoy the enhanced protections of the Consumer Rights Act, 2015.
When buying privately, on e-bay, for example, or in response to a private advert, it is a case of ‘caveat emptor’ - buyer beware. You should give the van a meticulous examination. And, check for theft and finance history before committing yourself.
In any event, only buy at a private seller’s home. If you do the deal in a car park, you could find yourself left with a stolen van. Or one with finance owing, and no knowledge of who was responsible.
Take a look at our Caravans For Sale section here for used vans available!
Grab a dealer special
Look out for ‘dealer specials’, which can be a great way to upgrade your van at little cost. They are regular models from a manufacturer’s range which an individual dealer has ordered with a clutch of upgrades. These could be high security locks and tracker, alloy wheels, caravan stability control, better soft furnishings, improved interior lighting, extractor fan, or heavy duty corner steadies.
Dealers rename the range. They only available from a particular dealer. The result is a small price uplift compared with the normal cost of providing these extras on a standard van.
Small car? All is not lost
Don't worry if you conclude that your car is too light or under-powered to tow a mainstream caravan you want. There are many excellent compact caravans, trailer tents and folding caravans that may be compatible with your smaller car. See our online guide.
Storage and ferry costs
Finally, you may wish to consider whether there will be a limitation on length either for storage. Particularly, if you intend to keep it at home to save site storage costs. Or if you wish to minimise the ferry costs of taking it abroad.
There is no reason for the novice to be apprehensive about hitching up and towing. But, with the right training, towing a big tourer is not an issue. Both the Camping & Caravanning Club and the Caravan & Motorhome Club run excellent towing and manoeuvring courses. Most last a day and cost just over £100. The best ‘ton’ you’ll ever spend – we can’t recommend them enough!
Visit a show
Here you will have the advantage of many competing manufacturers and dealers, all displaying nearby, making comparisons easier. This can give rise to some very attractive 'show price' offers. Do keep in mind that the further the dealer is from home, the more difficult it may be to resolve any future mechanical problems. Local manufacturers’ agents will not always welcome other dealers’ guarantee work as you might expect of car dealerships.
Fixed or make-up beds?
Fixed beds may sound like a good, convenient idea. But bear in mind that you can only use fixed beds for sleeping. This can seem like rather extravagant use of space. Some, including many of the new mid-washroom layouts, may only be suitable for smaller readers, too!
You might also want to consider twin beds rather than a double. Some caravan couples choose a four-berth van either to take the grandchildren or for more space. And, they have the possibility of leaving the beds made up at one end whilst having lounging space at the other.
Our personal preference, as a couple, is for twin singles which we can put together to make an enormous double bed. But which, during the daytime, offers 12 feet or more of sitting, eating and entertaining space.
CRiS security registration
For 25 years, new vans come with CRiS, tamper-proof vehicle registration numbers. The manufacturers etch these codes on every window. And, now they come on scannable microchips hidden within the caravan’s structure. They discourage theft, and new owners have to keep the register up to date allowing you to check the genuine, current owner's details. Have any new caravan CRiS checked before parting with your hard-earned.
The devil is in the detail!
Does the van have an underslung spare wheel? Not all do. We cannot remember using a spare wheel in 55 years of caravanning. But, I would not feel comfortable with the possibility of my caravan being immobile miles from anywhere for want of a spare wheel. Especially as a replacement tyre will not always be of a common size or rating.
Also, most current caravans come with a microwave. But not all have a dual-fuel hob, ie: one electric ring and three gas. This common set-up can save a lot of expensive bottled gas, and gives you an option should one system fail or run out.
For improved stability, you can have an expert fit the excellent AL-KO ATC, anti-snaking system, and even shock absorbers. It gives extra peace of mind on the road.
All these make a van more appealing and therefor add value.
Which construction system?
Over the past decade caravan construction has moved from the traditional timber, ‘glue-and-screw’ method, to patented building techniques. Examples are Bailey's AluTech; Coachman’s ABC; Swift’s SMART and Elddis' SoLiD.
These methods often cut timber and screws from the build which, in theory, reduces the chances of damp ingress problems. They are not yet by any means foolproof. But they do enable manufacturers to include long water-ingress guarantees, providing you abide by the makers’ annual damp check routines.
Compromise may be necessary
I am quite fond of GRP (glassfibre) exterior cladding. It is more resistant to the everyday minor dings suffered by aluminium covered panels.
Having said that, my new van does not feature either GRP cladding or a patented construction system. Selecting a van is often a compromise. And the only manufacturer to produce my chosen length and layout did not offer these features.
Have an eye to the future!
Keep in mind how attractive your choice of van may be to a potential future buyer, when your time with it comes to an end. If it is a larger van, will it provide accommodation for a family? If a two berth, will bed access be adequate for the older buyer? Does the kitchen provide the best facilities?
I hope this info and suggested choosing process proves useful. You can now produce a shortlist of suitable models?