Buying a used caravan: The Ultimate Guide
Words by Will Hawkins
"I'm worried about buying a used caravan," you think. "It feels like a leap into the dark."
"Buying a used car is stressful enough. But, I've never bought a second-hand caravan before," you say to yourself.
"I don't know where to start."
When you're spending several thousand pounds of your hard-earned money, it's no wonder you worry about it.
All those questions and thoughts run around in your head. Are you're doing the right thing, buying the right caravan and getting a good deal?
Let's assume you want a caravan. Now, let's suppose that you want to look at buying a used caravan. This guide will help you understand the pros and cons of buying a used caravan. And, it will help you buy well.
Firstly, the basics.
Why buying a used caravan is a good idea
- A big difference between buying a car and buying a used caravan is mileage. Cars can do significant mileage. A second-hand, well-maintained vehicle is what most people want, and they pay more for them.
- Caravans have it relatively easy. Many cover only a few hundred miles a year, and their owners generally know how to look after a caravan. If you're lucky, some caravan owners treat their 'vans like pampered pets.
- The market for used caravans is big. With over 500,000 touring caravans in the UK and more coming into the market yearly, it means there's a good choice of models for you.
- The main advantage of buying a used caravan, however, is the price. Caravans depreciate, and mainly when they are 'nearly-new'.
- That's good for you now because you can buy a used caravan but nearly-new caravan for less. And, also, because if you've bought well and you look after it, the price you get for it may not drop massively compared to when you bought it.
But, you still need to understand what to look for when you buy a used caravan. And, what to ask.
Here's where to start.
What to do before you start looking
There's one action to take which will narrow your choice to find ideal models.
The vital check
The first check to make is to understand which caravans your car can tow, safely. In short, your vehicle should weigh more than the caravan you want to tow.
Your car has what's known as a 'kerbweight'. It's the weight of your vehicle, plus the weight of all the other fluids in your car (e.g. diesel, oil, coolants and air conditioning gases etc.). The kerbweight does not include the weight of you and your family, pets and luggage.
When you understand this number, in kilograms in the UK, it helps with the next number you need to know.
The other number you need is the weight of the caravan. It has an acronym, namely MTPLM (Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass).
The MTPLM is the weight the manufacturer says is the maximum to which you safely can load the caravan.
You can find a caravan's MTPLM in the handbook which comes with it, on the manufacturer websites, or a plate on the caravan. The plate is usually near the caravan's door.
If you're new to towing caravans, you should tow a caravan which weighs the equivalent to 85% of your car's kerbweight. Use a calculator to multiply your car's kerbweight by 0.85.
The number that comes out when you hit enter is the maximum MTPLM of caravans you can safely tow.
If you've more experience in towing, you can tow a caravan whose MTPLM matches your car's kerbweight.
These numbers are probably starting to boil your head. Don't worry. There's a simple way to find your car's kerbweight and the MTPLM.
It's called TowMatch. It's our free service where you find the make, model and year of your car, pick caravan makes and models you like and see if you can tow them. Click here to use TowMatch!
When you've got a good knowledge of the weight of caravans you can tow with your car (or the car you'd like), this is what you need to think about next.
Getting your head around caravan and car weights is essential. And so too is choosing the right caravan layout.
The layout is a big factor in finding your ideal used caravan. Getting the wrong design is like choosing a car by its looks without seeing if you can sit in it comfortably. If the caravan layout doesn't work for you, it could be an expensive mistake.
To help find the perfect caravan layout, start by answering questions and note down the results:
- Who will be sleeping in the caravan regularly?
- Knowing how many people will sleep in your caravan on most of your holidays determines how many beds you need.
- In caravans, the name for bed spaces is 'berths'.
- What will you do with the caravan?
- It sounds like an obvious answer (i.e. 'We're going to take holidays in it!'). But it's important. Here's why:
- If you plan to stay on one campsite and return there for all your holidays, you need a caravan different from one designed for moving from site to site on each holiday.
- You might be keen on outdoor sports, including kayaking or mountain biking. That will mean you need a different layout to someone who wants a less active holiday.
With these details in your notes, it will make choosing the right caravan layout easier because you will have narrowed the choice available.
Would you like to know more about caravan layouts? Read our 'Ultimate Guide to Caravan Layouts' here.
The next important point to decide will affect everything you need in a caravan.
Affordability: Be realistic about buying a used caravan
It's a difficult subject for many people, but without it, nothing happens. It's money.
In your mind, you might have visions of your perfect caravan already. But, you need to be realistic about what you can afford.
Whether you are buying a used caravan with cash or on finance, you need to set a budget.
- What can you afford?
- How much can you afford monthly out of your household budget to pay for a caravan?
You know by now the weight (MTPLM) of caravans you can tow with your car. You know how many berths you need in your caravan.
Now note down, realistically, what you can afford.
With this number and the other details, you will have a rough specification of the types of caravan makes and models you can look at to buy.
And now for some industry knowledge.
Getting to know the caravan brands
If the world of caravans is new to you, it's a good time to help you with some industry knowledge. Like any other business, there are caravan manufacturing brands with different models.
The UK has six manufacturers, namely:
Some of them own other caravans brands, including Buccaneer, Compass, Sterling, Bessacarr and Sprite.
There are many foreign manufacturers too who import caravans into the UK, including:
It's a good idea to look at their websites to see their ranges and models, as well as the price from new. Knowing the new costs will help you understand how much new caravans depreciate too.
When you look around the manufacturers' websites, you will see many caravan models that look the same and some quirky models.
There's a reason why there are so many models which look the same. It's because they are popular and you can sell them more easily than some 'niche' caravans.
It's a good idea to buy a used caravan on this basis: buy a caravan knowing that you can sell it quickly when you want to move on to a different make, model or layout.
If you want an unusual caravan, buy it. After all, you may want to keep it for years. So, who cares if it's quirky?
By now, you should have a sound basis for the type of caravan which interests you. But, what about where to buy used caravans? We'll look at that now.
What's best? Buying a used caravan through a dealer or privately?
The choice you make on where you buy a used caravan might appear simple.
Buying a used caravan from a private seller is cheaper than if you buy through a dealer, right? You can negotiate on the price and make a deal. Easy.
But, it's not that simple, and here's why.
Why buying a caravan from a private seller is not a good idea for novices
- Buying a caravan from a private seller when you're new to caravans could cost you a lot of money.
- As with anything new to you, making mistakes 'goes with the territory'. If you don't know as much about the product you're buying as the person selling it to you, you're in a weaker position than them.
- When you buy from a private seller, they don't have to work to the same standards as a dealer.
The onus is on you, the buyer, to be aware of what you're doing when buying privately. The term is 'caveat emptor', Latin for 'Let the buyer beware'. A private seller must provide you with a used caravan 'as described'.
What are the benefits of buying through a dealer?
What happens when you buy from a caravan dealer?
- It's different from buying from a caravan dealer. They have higher standards to meet when selling you a caravan, which means you have a better chance of getting what you expect.
- For instance, if you've recently bought a used caravan from a dealer and something on it breaks, you can ask them to repair or replace it to your satisfaction. And, there's more.
- The law (Consumer sales and guarantees directive) assumes that, if you find any defects within the first two years from buying it from a dealer, the errors were present when they sold it to you.
The protection you get when buying from a dealer may mean you pay a bit more for your caravan. But, you are in a better position for making sure you get what you pay for, which you can't guarantee when buying privately.
Who can you trust?
Of course, not all dealers are made equal. There are many high-quality caravan dealers in the UK. And, there are some less reputable dealers.
To make life more comfortable, and to help distinguish between a dealer you can trust and one you might not, there's a scheme to help you.
It's the Approved Dealership Scheme. The NCC-approved scheme helps you find dealers who follow codes of practice and standards which are higher than those required by the law.
The scheme's website will help you locate a dealer who stocks the caravan you want.
Talking of locations, you need to know this detail too.
Location, location, location
Where you buy your used caravan is just as important as what you buy. Why?
Let's say you've found your ideal caravan and it's a bargain. But, it's 250 miles away. So what? You buy it anyway, and it comes with warranties and guarantees from the dealer.
After a few weeks, you notice some small defects which you can't repair yourself. It needs to go back to the dealer for them to fix the problems.
Now, that 250 miles from you to the dealer becomes a chore. You might need to stay overnight while you wait for them to do the repairs. Or, you might have to leave your caravan for a few days and return to pick it up.
The total distance you travel to have the repair work done will be 1,000 miles.
That's why it's a good idea to buy your ideal caravan from your nearest reputable dealer. It will save you time and money.
Caravan Magazine contributor, Rod Farrendon, bought a bargain which was 250 miles from his home. Read why he decided to do it!
Buying privately — the location check
If you do buy a caravan from a private seller, make sure that you are going to see the caravan at either the owner's home or at a recognised secure storage site (e.g. CASSOA sites).
If you don't, you're opening yourself up to being ripped off. If the seller has the caravan outside their house or at a secure storage site you'll have a record of their details. You'll go back and see them if the caravan's not right.
Top tip for when you arrive: Spot the difference
Another way to protect yourself when buying from a private seller is not so obvious, but it makes sense.
Picture this - You arrive to see the used caravan you want. It's only a few years old, say, so it's in good condition and the owner maintained it well.
Stop a second and look at the owner's towcar. Look at the quality and condition of their car. Does it match the quality and size of the caravan they're selling?
If their 'towcar' looks much cheaper, badly maintained and it's a mismatch with the type and quality of car you'd expect someone to tow the caravan they're selling, think again. The seller might be trying to sell you a caravan they don't own.
Does buying a used caravan from a private seller sound risky? It's not always like this, but be prepared to protect yourself from unnecessary risk.
Buying from a dealer is a better option if it's your first caravan. Let's see what else you can do to protect yourself.
Where to check who owns a caravan
You can see it's easier to check the reputation of a caravan dealer than it is to check a private seller's reputation.
And, there's another check you can do on the caravan to see if it is what you think it is.
Fortunately, you can minimise the potential for buying a stolen caravan or caravan which still has finance on it before you arrive at the seller's location.
You can carry out a 'CRIS check'.
For less than £15, you can check to see if the used caravan you want to buy is what the seller says it is. You'll find out the registered keeper of the caravan. You'll know if it's stolen or has outstanding finance on it, and its insurers have written it off.
By now, you should have a good grasp of the difference between buying a used caravan privately and from a dealer.
We'll look at alternatives on where and how to buy a caravan in more detail now.
Buying used: where to start
Aside from dealers and private sellers, there are other ways to buy a used caravan. One 'frequently asked question' is this:
Do manufacturers sell directly?
Sometimes manufacturers sell refurbished caravans directly to the public. They tend to be high-end models. However, their main business is selling new caravans. But, sign up to their newsletters to see when they have any refurbished models available.
Where to buy a used caravan
Can you buy a caravan online?
Yes. Search for 'caravans for sale' online and you'll find plenty of used caravans. They vary in price, condition and quality. You can find old caravans which cost less than £1,000 and more modern models for several thousand pounds.
Remember, however, to read the small print when buying on online auctions. If you're bidding for the caravan in a sale and you 'win', you're in a contract to buy it. It's different from a classified ad on eBay when you can look at it before handing over your money.
Often, sellers don't accept returns either. Remember — caveat emptor.
Caravans for Sale on outandaboutlive.co.uk is an excellent place to look. With over 2,000 new and used caravans for sale, there is a wide choice from reputable dealers around the UK.
The variety of models, conditions and prices is wide. Sellers place classified ads on the site, so you don't have to bid for the caravans for sale.
Are there any offline auctions?
British Car Auctions regularly auction caravans from its centres around the UK. You can search for caravans for auction on their website and go to the centre where they have the caravan on which you want to bid. (You can bid online, but this service is only available to trade buyers).
BCA provides an 'Assured Report' report on caravans they auction which are 'under 8 years old and have travelled less than 120,000 miles.' You have to pay for them, but they are good value. BCA also publishes video appraisals online.
Check if they will give you a report (for a fee) on the caravan that interests you. And, check their Nottingham website to see what's coming up.
Can you import used caravans?
Yes, you can.
However, you need to think about two things before you consider importing a caravan in the UK:
- Standards — does the caravan you want to import meet European Standards (EN 1648) and UK standards? You need to show it does before you buy and import it into the UK.
- Maintaining it — As with other vehicles, you need to maintain your caravan. If you can't get hold of parts for the imported caravan, it will be difficult to maintain it. Make sure you can buy spare parts for it, or there is a dealer who can service your imported caravan.
Timing: the best time to buy a used caravan
Knowing when to buy a used caravan is as important as what you buy, especially when buying from a dealer. Here's why:
All industries work on 'supply and demand' models which determine the price they can get for the product or service they sell. The caravan industry is no different.
Caravan dealers experience high demand for caravans. New caravans come off production lines in March, April and May from customer and stock orders placed in the previous autumn.
The seasonality means dealers often want to sell older stock, including used caravans in January and February to clear space for the new arrivals. Hence, that means you can usually get a better price on a used caravan than if you buy in March, April or May.
The next stage is this:
Dealers take caravans in part-exchange for new models. They need to sell these used caravans, of course.
But, the peak season for caravans and caravanning is from April through to the end of August. What does that mean?
It means from September through to December is low season for caravan dealers. They need to keep making sales even when demand is weak. Therefore, the price of used caravans tends to drop at this time of year, which means you can often pick up a good, used caravan for a better price.
As you can see, timing is essential. Talking of which...
Be prepared to act fast
Popular, used caravans sell quickly. If you have found a good deal on a caravan from a reputable dealer, or even a private seller, don't dither. Act!
There are some sought-after models on the market. You may have to compete for them when they come up for sale.
What can you get for your money?
Good question. There are used caravans from the 1960s on the market, and some which are only months old.
Here's a rough guide on what to expect to see depending on your budget:
Under £500 — Tatty, old caravans with question marks over their roadworthiness — but you might get lucky.
£1,000 to £2,500 — Old but reasonably roadworthy caravans with basic interiors. Expect extensive wear and tear.
£2,500 to £5,000 — This should buy a reasonable 15-year-old caravan. The upholstery will not be to modern tastes, and the caravan won't have many whistles and bells. But it will be serviceable.
£5,000 to £7,500 — Most dealers will have a good selection of caravans in this price range. Check there's a warranty.
£7,500 to £10,000 — Look for well-maintained and cared for touring caravans with full-service histories, no faults or repairs and good specifications.
£10,000+ — Nearly new family caravans with the latest gear and immaculate interiors. Also, older, but more luxurious caravans with all the kit.
Why not look at our 'Caravans for Sale' section to see what's available in each of the price ranges above?
You've now got the details on what you can get for your money, where you can buy a used caravan safely, when to buy it and what you can tow.
Let's start on the checks you need to make when you see the caravan for the first time.
Buying a used caravan: What to look for outside
You arrive at the dealer's showroom or the private seller's house. You're nervous and excited simultaneously. You could be about to buy your first caravan, and you can't wait to see it.
Now is the time to swallow your emotions and develop your cold-hearted business head. Get excited when you've done these checks, agreed on a deal and you're happy with the caravan you've just bought.
Start on the outside. Follow this list of checks:
Where can the water go?
A common complaint about caravans is water leaks. Also known as 'water ingress', you need to look at where water might get into the caravan where it shouldn't. In other words:
- look at the windows to spot any obvious broken catches, hinges or seals.
- If you can look at the roof, do so. There could be aerials, windows or vents which have signs of water damage around them. Water can sit on the roof and leak through.
- Caravans consist of different panels joined. Do the joints between the panels look watertight?
- Wheel arches
- Look inside the wheel arches to see if there are any apparent gaps in the joints. Holes will mean spray will get into the caravan causing dampness.
- It might surprise you how often water leaks happen around a caravan's door. Older caravans will have had done more mileage, so check the seals.
- Grab handles
- The seals on the front and rear 'grab handles' on some caravans leak. Check them and ask about the seals. Also, see if they are loose.
- The external lockers contain batteries, gas bottles and store useful equipment. Check the seals and open them to see the state of each. Do they look and smell dry?
- Look for cracks, bumps and bulges on the external wall panels.
Get on your knees (if they can stand it!)
No, really. You can get a good idea of the caravan's condition by looking at items which are out of sight.
- Is there rust on the galvanised frame? How bad is it?
- Check the hitch to see if it is in excellent condition. Are all the bolts there? Is it badly corroded anywhere?
- Can you see any big scrapes on it? That's a sign it might have hit a ramp.
- Check the jockey wheel to see if you can lower and raise it quickly.
- Under each corner of the caravan check the steadies. Do they look damaged or rusty?
- Steady winder
- Check the caravan has a 'steadies winder' (the handle to raise and lower the steadies).
- Do the tyres have any cracks or lumps in them? Look at the dates imprinted on the walls to see how old they are. Over five years old? Ask for replacements.
- How much tread does each tyre have left? It should be at least 1.6 mm deep over the entire surface. Read this article for more details on tyre safety.
- Spare wheel(s)
- Is it or are they in good condition and road legal too?
- Have a good look at the caravan's suspension. Can you see any fluids leaking from it? Step back from the caravan and look at it from the front and rear. Does it tilt unnaturally on one side?
- Gas — Look in the gas locker. There might be a gas bottle in there. If not, ask if they can put one in (or bring your own). Turn on the gas. Can you smell anything inside or out?
Next, it's time to do some necessary security checks.
Is the caravan secure?
You can buy and install plenty of useful devices and gadgets to keep a caravan secure. But, check the basics first.
- Locks — The caravan has some necessary but straightforward security devices to keep your stuff in it and unwanted people out.
- Door — Does the external door lock from the outside and inside? You might laugh, but sometimes they don't, even on new caravans.
- Windows — Can you open the windows from the outside? If you can, check inside to why you can open any from the outside. Are there any broken window locks or latches?
- Wheel and hitch locks — The caravan might not come with any wheel or hitch locks. But, if it does, see if they work, and they fit the caravan.
It's time to go deeper inside.
What to check inside the caravan
If you feel confident about the state of the caravan on the outside, get inside and start looking at in detail.
Trusting your senses
You've got a remarkable set of senses and instinct to help you find any problems inside the caravan. Trust them. Let's go.
- When you step inside, take a moment and breathe in the caravan's atmosphere. Does it smell damp? You might smell aromas from water ingress or leaks.
- To confirm your senses, invest in a damp meter before you go. They cost a few pounds and will help you find the damp in the caravan.
- If it does smell damp, start looking for where it leaks. And, you might begin to feel less enthusiastic about the caravan.
- Use your eyes to look for streaks or stains on the walls. They could indicate leaks. Ask the seller about them.
- Look for any noticeable damage to windows, roof lights, mirrors, handles, cupboards, doors, lights and other appliances.
- If the caravan passed the 'damp test', use your sense of touch to help you get a feel for what you're planning to buy.
- Sit on the sofas. Do they feel worn out and thin? Is there any spring left in them? Lift the seats and look underneath them. Are the struts that support them in good condition?
- Have a fiddle with door handles, tap, switches, latches and buttons. Does everything work as it should? Is there water in the onboard tank see if the pumps work and pump it out into the sinks.
- How does the floor feel? Stable and steady, or bouncy?
- Power games
- If you tested the gas outside earlier, then great. If not, it's time to see if the gas works as well as the electrics.
- Look at the pipework connecting the gas bottle. Is it in good condition?
- You want to see if the gas leaks or not. If it does, get them to repair it before you part with any cash.
- Caravans have two sources of electricity to run the lights, pumps, heating and appliances, namely the mains (hook-up) and a leisure battery.
- Ask to see if the power works so you can see if it all works. Is there a leisure battery at all? If not, check the sales description they used to see they include it.
- Check the external lights too, if you have a porch light.
If you've got this far, you should have a good feel for whether you want to buy the caravan. Let's get closer to negotiating a deal.
Get in the driving seat
Before you get down to the details of the deal, you should ask to tow the caravan. That's mainly for when you buy privately.
Towing the caravan will help you with the following:
- You can check the towing electrics on the caravan
- You can check the handbrake and hitch mechanism
- You'll feel what it's like to tow
- You can see what's happened to it after towing to see if anything has broken.
What you should ask the seller for next
Your 'business mind' might have begun to think about making an offer on the caravan. But, wait. You need to do your 'due diligence' on the seller and the caravan first.
What? Check the paperwork. It's tedious but essential.
You need to see the following documents:
- The caravan's handbook
- The service history record
- The caravan's CRIS registration details
- If there are any valid warranties and guarantees
- Check the expiry dates
- Read the terms and conditions in detail
When you've seen the 'paperwork' and checked the details, it's time to talk about the money.
Buying a used caravan: Knowing your rights
Before you hand over any money, take a moment to know your rights.
When you buy from a dealer, you have consumer laws to protect from you buying defective goods. The legislation is the 'Sale of Consumer Goods Regulations'.
What you're buying must correspond to what they've said on the contract of the sale. Your rights last for two years after delivery of the goods.
Here's what they have to provide within the two years:
"If the goods do not correspond to the contract, consumers can ask for the goods to be repaired, replaced, and reduced in price or for the contract to be annulled."
Private sellers only have to make sure the caravan is 'as described'.
The lighter obligation of the seller is why it's best to check the caravan first before you tow it away when you've agreed on the sale. Especially for a private sale, your responsibility for the caravan's roadworthiness begins when you tow it away on a public road.
Always check first and be thorough.
Are you ready to do a deal?
How to pay for your used caravan
If you're buying privately, cash is the likely payment type, depending on the price you're paying. Now is the time to negotiate on the price.
When you inspected the caravan inside and out, you will have spotted any defects. Use them as 'negotiation levers' to get a better price or deal. If they don't budge on price, you can ask them to throw in anything they might have which you can use, like an awning or gas cylinders.
If you're buying from a dealer, you can negotiate on the price as well as any warranties or guarantees. Plus, they will probably have new accessories they can add to the deal to encourage you to buy.
Have you got a caravan to trade in with the dealer? Make sure you know your caravan's trade-in value to ensure you're getting good value for money.
Whether you're buying privately or through a dealer, if you're not paying cash you will need to arrange either a bank transfer or to pay by cheque. You won't tow the caravan until the payment has cleared into their account.
That's different if you have arranged a finance package. You may have to pay a deposit and wait for credit checks.
In all cases, get a receipt for the caravan you just bought which has their details on it, as well as those of the caravan. It could be useful later if things go wrong.
You've handed over the money and bought the caravan. What next?
How to store and protect your caravan
How you store, insure and protect your caravan is essential. The better you store and protect your caravan the more likely it will be that you can get a good deal on insurance.
Firstly, insuring your caravan.
Your car insurance will only give you 'third party damage' protection for your caravan when it's attached to your car. But, it will not cover damage to your caravan.
The lesson is you need to insure your caravan separately.
We have a complete article on insuring your caravan here to help you in more detail. It's worth reading to help you get the right insurance.
And, now, the physical protection of your caravan.
To make it harder for people to steal your caravan, here are some tips:
- Stop people moving your caravan with wheel locks
- Prevent thieves from towing your caravan away by installing a hitch lock
- Install a tracking system and let people see it's present.
These are the basics tactics to trying to prevent thieves from taking your caravan.
Secure storage for your caravan
Keeping your caravan on the drive means you can keep an eye on it (when you're at home). But, many caravanners store it in a particular, secure storage site for caravans.
It will make it even more difficult for thieves taking your caravan.
Read our Caravan Security Accessories guide for more ideas on how secure your caravan!
Buying a used caravan wasn't so bad, was it?
When you began reading this article buying a used caravan may have felt like a big minefield waiting to catch you out.
Now, with this guide, you should buy with confidence. You understand where to buy, what to buy, when to buy, how far your money will go, what to ask for, check and inspect.
All you have to do now is find the ideal used caravan, view it and strike a good deal.
To help you find used caravans, try our 'Caravans for Sale' service.
And have a great time in your caravan when you get it!