A Warning on the Perilous Act of Buying a Camper, or How I Learned to Trust Nothing and Got Stuck with a Rotting Tin Can

Back in 2006, I knew nothing about what to look for in a camper. At the time, I was recently out of college after a year studying for a philosophy major. Money was so tight that I was unable to qualify for another loan, so it was a no-go on continuing my education. I left school and moved in with Mom to help her sell the house she was living in (and about to lose). After a thorough house prep, I got a job doing graphic arts for a major corporation and we started putting money into "important things" - learning such things as how to make our own herbal tinctures and soap-making as well as good quality "Bug Out Bags" and miscellaneous survival gear.

After months of trying to sell and barely ever showing the house, we got a bite. It wasn't much of a bite, however, as the selling price was a mere $6k above what was still owed - we felt lucky to get that much.

So the next move, carefully planned out based on internal feelings, money supply and the prophecies, predictions and trends of the time, was to buy a camper. This would allow us to be mobile in the event of a disaster. It cost less than an apartment or house and would not only allow, but actually force us to get out and enjoy nature again. Many aspects of the full-timer lifestyle appealed to us, not the least of which was the idea that if you don't like your neighbors, you could just move your house.

But in retrospect, I should have done a lot more research on what to look for. With such a small amount of money to work with, the only options were used and mostly abused rigs, most of which were literal nightmares manifest. We checked the floors for soft spots and wouldn't buy anything with signs of water damage. We knew enough to ask about water tanks and heaters, furnaces and propane lines. And we finally found one: a 26' fifth wheel rig that seemed a wonderful investment.

Note the use of the word "seemed".

We found a campground that was like an oasis in the middle of the city, here in Florida, with trees and grass and big, roomy sites. A few months later, we hauled north to New Hampshire to spend time with my ailing grandmother. But after a total of maybe 6 months living in the rig, we discovered something shocking: the wall around the stove vent was completely rotted out. You see, we didn't know how rot occurs in these rigs. The wall may look 100% normal from both the rig's inside and out, but behind that wall-paper covering, the wood might be sopping wet, rotted out and full of termites and carpenter ants. We started running around checking everywhere and found that most of the walls in the camper were fine. We assumed it was isolated.

Then, about 8 months later, during a prolonged period of rainy, dreary New England days, a drip developed from the ceiling in the overhang, directly over the queen bed. I made my way to the roof to check things out and realized the rubber membrane showed no signs of cracking or anything. There was no pooling water, no rips or tears...no sign of why the ceiling was leaking. By the next morning, the ceiling was dripping fast and steady from a couple locations along the panel joints. I opened things up to check where the water was getting in since the roof seemed fine, not knowing what I was going to find.

And I found mold. A lot of it. I found the 2x2 framing was rotted through in spots. I found the 1/8" chip board that presses directly against the rubber membrane swelled up and sopping wet. It fell apart with the lightest touch of the finger.

From there, I proceeded to remove the entire ceiling in the overhang. The damage was extensive, showing what must have been years of water damage, rot and mold. Fungus of all colors covered the face of the chip board. The small amount of fiberglass insulation was blackened and soaked with water. As I opened up the walls, I found the same thing had happened there and was only just starting to penetrate into the interior panelling.

At this point, I got very discouraged. My mother had moved out of the camper a few months previous and I was fairly cash poor - there was no way I could afford to strip everything down and rebuild, nor could I afford to get another rig. I opted to just seal things off and sleep on the couch until my situation improved. Up went the plastic to protect both myself and the pets from the infestation of mold, to at least some extent. I made it a regular habit to spray down the walls and ceiling with a mist of bleach solution.

And I resolved to save money up to get myself another rig - a rig that I could be sure is safe from such disastrous neglect.

That was back in 2007 when I made that resolution. Of course, like most long term goals, nothing has gone to plan. In 2008, I was forced to change jobs. I began earning a bigger and much more reliable paycheck, but my savings grew slowly. My car broke down, then my truck, then my car again...then my truck again. Gas prices went through the roof and I found myself driving my 8-cyl Dodge pickup 60 miles a day. Frankly, in today's world, what money there is just doesn't like to hang around long.

By the summer of 2009, I finally had enough saved to start figuring out what the next step would be. I began vigorously researching various rigs and was disappointed by everything that was available. The better rigs cost more than I could afford and what was in my price range had all the same weaknesses I had discovered with this rig: rubber membrane roof, basically no insulation, poorly designed electrical systems, and cheap construction materials with no thought to durability.

The best solution, I decided, was to literally build my own - a "Bus Conversion", and specifically one on a "flat-nose schoolie". I drew up the plans and budget, then set out looking for my bus.

But then, that October, I got a wake up call I couldn't ignore. My gut told me to get moving in no uncertain terms. By that December, I had quit my job and moved back to Florida. I spent around $2k of my meager savings in that move, paying for gas, repairs, new tires, rent and food. It took me three months to find work, but once I did I was ok again. After 3 more months, I was back to where I was and felt comfortable.

But then another wake up call. Another push into the unknown. I found myself moving to New Mexico and spending out of my savings yet again. And the trend continued.

You see, I'm now effectively stuck with this rig. No matter what plans I make, I can't seem to get out of it. Something else always comes up. I'm back in Florida with about half of my original savings left. Meanwhile, the exterior seams have popped and the roof leaks in dozens of places. In fact, the roof is caving in now on the overhang.

So you ask yourself, what's the point? What's the moral of the story?

Due diligence and thorough research. Never take anything at face value.

If you, like so many others, are finding yourself ready to buy a used camper and become a full-timer, learn about what to look for. Learn about what might go wrong. By making a single honest mistake in the beginning of all this, I have spent years dealing with dripping ceilings and worries about mold.

What appears to be is rarely the case with these rigs, and you're probably going to be stuck with what you buy for years to come.