This article was originally published on Outdoria.com.au.
It’s never been easier to search, find, and buy a caravan in Australia. With caravans listed online and numerous Australian expos and dealerships all doing their best to make their products as accessible as possible, it's not surprising many potential buyers become overwhelmed by the whole process.
So, we're going to detail the steps you should take from start to finish. Whether this if your first time buying a caravan or you're looking to upgrade, stick with us and you'll soon be ready to start shopping with confidence.
In this buyer's guide, we'll provide an overview of the types of caravans that are popular today (and what you might expect to pay for them); help you narrow your search based on 'Must-Have' features and 'Wish-List' amenities, and arm you with some key questions to ask the seller when inspecting a van in person.
If you're in the market for a caravan, read on and you'll be hitching up and driving away, sooner rather than later.
What type of caravan is right for me?
It’s no small investment buying a caravan, so it’s vital that you take the time to set some guidelines for yourself about what you need your new van to include and how you intend to use it. So sit down your future fellow campers and start asking yourself some key questions to start painting a picture of your dream RV.
Here’s a few to get the conversation started:
How many campers do we need our new van to sleep?
What is the maximum tow capacity of our tow vehicle? Do we need to upgrade or is it more financially feasible to shop for a van within our current towing capabilities?
Where do we plan on taking our van? Is it for weekend warrior adventures or for a dream tour around Australia? Do we need an off-road ‘Outback’ caravan?
How many trips do we plan on going on in the first year? How much will they cost (roughly)?
Where are we going to store our it while it’s not being used? Do we have the space for a full-size caravan or would a pop top or camper trailer be easier to store?
Caravans, pop tops, camper trailers, toy haulers – knowing your options
To work out which type of caravan will fit your needs and your budget, you’ll first need to understand that difference between a caravan and other recreational vehicles. Let’s take a look at the different types RVs popular on the market today.
The classic on-road caravan is one of the most comfortable and capable trailers on the market. On-road models are targeted towards campers who prefer to stick to the highways, featuring luxurious internal layouts and a wide range of amenities. Typically, you can expect a classic caravan to contain a kitchenette, bathroom, multiple sleeping berths (including double / queen bed), lounge area, and plenty of storage. Caravans can range anywhere from 11 - 25ft, making them one of the largest and most popular categories of recreational vehicle. 'Outback' caravans are built from the ground up for off-road use with greatly improved chassis and suspension to that can handle rough terrain and are fast becoming more and more popular among Australians who want to be able to go ‘anywhere’.
Pop tops provide the spacious interior of a larger caravan model while saving on weight and fuel. Pop tops feature ‘pop-up’ canvas roofs that pack down while in transit reducing wind resistance and overall mass for towing and storing in between trips. Available with features as wide ranging as caravans, pop tops are one of the most popular choices among Australians wanting to get into the RV game without dropping the cash on a caravan just yet.
Camper trailers are the ideal solution for adventurous Aussies looking to save space, fuel, and cash on account of being much lighter and more compact than caravans or pop tops. Camper trailers feature canvas walls and extendable tent sections forming the camper's outer body. Most camper trailers come complete with kitchenette, multiple sleeping berths, and living area, but not all come with a toilet and shower.
Campervans (not to be confused with caravans) a sort of like mini motorhomes. Campervans are either: regular vans that have been converted for living on the road, complete with a bed and living space in the back where the seats used to be; or, they are purpose built with unique fold-out amenities and compartments. Campervans are popular among tourists as an affordable way to camp and drive the countryside without needing to pitch a tent every night. Campervans are also a great investment for small families or couples that love to get away on the weekend.
Toy Haulers are a modern variant on the traditional caravan aimed towards Australia’s extreme outdoor enthusiasts. Equipped with a garage in the back big enough for the motorbikes or even a jetski, toy haulers keep your cargo safe in transit without sacrificing living space at the campsite. In a toy hauler, you can find all the usual features and amenities you might find in a caravan.
Motorhomes do away with the trailer coupling combining trailer and truck in one. They are definitely worth considering as a jump in and drive away option that can work out cheaper than buying a tow vehicle and a caravan if your car isn't up to the task. Motorhomes range in length and power and most often contain a kitchenette, bathroom, and multiple sleeping berths including a living space that transforms into a bed.
By planning how you intend to use, store, and tow your caravan, you can work out which of these models is going to give you the best experience in the outdoors.
For example, your current tow vehicle might not be capable of towing a 25 ft luxury caravan. A better choice might be to go for a pop top or Expanda caravan. The pop-up roof and extendable tent sections increase living and sleeping space but reduce weight making them more accessible to more vehicle owners.
Adventurous families might prefer an off-road camper trailer, perfect for sleeping young campers who get to feel like they are camping in the outdoors in their pop-out bunks.
And of course, if your team is made up of extreme sports enthusiasts, a toy hauler might be the only reasonable choice to make.
Towing capacity and ATM - what size caravan do we need?
Caravans, camper trailers, pop tops, and toy haulers are all available in various lengths and floor plans depending on make and manufacturer. They are often measured in feet (because, America?) which can make it difficult to visualise just how big a van actually is – unless you have a working knowledge of the (seriously bonkers) imperial system.
How big you can go is largely determined by the towing capacity of your vehicle, the maximum number of people you need the caravan to sleep on your travels, and the range of interior features you would like your van to have.
But how do you know whether or not your vehicle is capable of towing a particular van? It’s time to learn a bit about vehicle towing capacity and ATM.
Aggregate trailer mass (or ATM for short) is the term given to a fully-loaded trailer (at maximum payload capacity) when it is not coupled to a tow vehicle. If your vehicle’s listed towing capacity (check your vehicle’s owner manual) is equal or greater than the ATM of the trailer you like, you should be alright. It’s always a good idea to inquire with the seller as to whether your vehicle is cut out for the job if you're not sure.
Knowing your maximum towing capacity, you'll now be able to search for vans that fit within that range. As we mentioned earlier, sizing up is not necessarily always the best choice; make sure you take into consideration where you will be storing the van, the cost of towing a large van versus a smaller model, and how that fits in with your travel plans over the coming year.
Must-haves vs. wish list features
This question is one of the trickiest stages in the process of buying a caravan, but it is also one of the most important because it can save you a lot of money. Everyone wants the washing machine, barbeque, and fridge-freezer combo. But it pays (literally) to ask yourself this question when formulating a budget for your new van: what do we need and what can we afford to do without?
Remember, if you spend too much on your van, you might not be able to afford to use it as often as you’d like.
A great way to do hash out the answers to this question is to create a list with one column labelled ‘Must-haves’, and the other, ‘Wish List’. Then start breaking down your dream van by dropping its features into each column.
If you can afford all the trimmings along included in your preferred caravan model, great! But sacrificing on build quality, sleeping capacity or trip frequency for ‘Wish-List’ amenities might not always be the wisest decision. You can always upgrade further down the line, and you can always park up for the night at the local caravan park, use the facilities, and meet some other intrepid Australians along the way – which is what it's all about, right?
How much do caravans cost?
You’ve got an image of your dream van in mind, and you’re ready to start researching vans to get a better understanding of how realistic that dream is. But you’d like to know roughly how much caravans cost.
This is a tricky one to answer because caravans range enormously in price depending on their size, sleeping capacity, features, and age. As a rough guide, we’ve listed models with approximate prices ranges to give you an idea of what you should be aiming for depending on your target model.
Please note: Price ranges are based on new caravans available at Outdoria on date of publishing and not representative of the full online market.
Camper trailers can range from $10,498 for a new Jayco J-Pod mini camper right up to $26,990 for a Stoney Creek Camper fully kitted out for off-road adventures.
Pop tops start at around $20,000 and are now available with features to rival more expensive luxury caravan models around the $70,000 mark.
Caravans themselves range in price to an even greater extent than their smaller towed cousins, typically starting at around $30,000 for a new Avan Cruiseliner and jumping as high as $160,000 for luxurious hotels-on-wheels with electric-powered room extensions and more.
Toy haulers tend to range slightly less in price but can be picked up for between $40-$60,000.
Motorhomes tend to have a higher base starting price than other RV models – usually up around the $80-$100,000 mark – on account of the fact that you are buying a motor as well. Prices can soar as high as $200,000 plus depending on the size of the vehicle, the interior finish, and the range of features included.
Window shopping and setting your budget
Armed with a basic idea of what different types of caravans cost and your list of ‘Must Haves’ you can now start to narrow your search to focus on caravans that are the right size and configuration for your lifestyle and budget.
Some buyers prefer to set a budget before they even start looking at what’s available because they feel it helps limit their spend. But, it can be difficult – especially for first-time caravan buyers – if you have no idea how much this year’s models cost. Window shopping in its many forms is a great way to set a lower and upper limit on your spending. Then you can go back to that list and reassess.
Buying a used caravan vs. buying new
You could look to save some money by buying a pre-loved caravan. Many of the same points in this guide apply to the process of shopping for a used van, except there are additional risks involved. It is even more crucial that you know exactly what you are getting yourself into with a second-hand model. You need to ensure that you perform thorough checks on the van in person, and if possible, get a record of the vans history. Our guide to buying a used caravan is a great free resource for future used caravan owners.
Where to buy a caravan - expos, online, and in-store
There are the tried-and-true methods: head down to an expo (like the VIC Caravan, Camping, and Touring Supershow, for example) and spend the day getting to know the various Australian and international manufacturers showcasing their lines of vehicles; or take a drive to the nearest dealerships and ask one of the salespersons to show you which caravans align with your budget and needs.
Alternatively, you could take the modern day approach and begin your search online. Over at the Outdoria marketplace, you can browse new and used caravans by Aussie and international brands from home before even thinking about getting in the car. Extend the breadth of your search and browse caravans by state: you can shop for caravans available in Victoria, Queensland, WA, South Australia – anywhere in AU.
Using the search system is easy: limit your search criteria based on the features and options that you desire to save time wading through unsuitable caravans. You can even set a budget right from the start to help prevent over-reaching for a more expensive model.
Once you’ve found a few models you like, you can add them to your wish list while you continue searching. Then, simply return to it later to inquire with each seller about your favourite listings.
Combining these techniques – browsing online, visiting the van at an expo or dealership – is the most thorough window shopping method you can use when buying a caravan new in Australia.
A note on buying a caravan online
Shopping for a caravan online really does take the hassle out of the research process. But we can’t stress enough how important it is that you always view a van in person before handing over any money. It might sound obvious to some, but there are people using the internet for their own gain at the massive financial expense of others. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Inquire and ask to see the van in person first eliminating the possibility of being taken for granted.
Visiting your potential new caravan in-store
Phew, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about viewing a van. Wherever you are viewing a caravan, make sure that you use your time there wisely. Even if you know what you are looking for (having done your research properly) it can’t hurt to ask the salesperson to show you other models within your budget that tick all the boxes on your list of 'Must-Haves'.
It is vital that you ask the salesperson the right questions while you inspect the van. Checks are of course more important if buying a used caravan, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t inspect every corner of your potential new home-on-wheels – you might spot some construction flaw or notice that a minor feature is missing that was important to you.
Questions to ask the salesperson
Many dealerships and Australia caravan manufacturers offer a number of great extras when you buy a new van. At the dealership (expo, or even over the phone), make sure you get an idea of exactly what they are offering.
What ongoing customer services do they provide?
What does the warranty cover?
Do they offer roadside assistance and servicing post-purchase?
Have any of these vans been returned in the past? Why?
If it is the latest model, find out what they have changed this year and whether there are any benefits to buying last years'.
Where is the van made? Where do they source parts?
What construction techniques are used?
Is it aluminium, steel, or wood-frame?
What are the wall panels made from? Are they aluminium, fibreglass panels, or made from composite materials?
How are the chassis and suspension built? What are its capabilities versus an off-road model?
Make sure you take note of the answers to all of these questions and any others that you might have. The later, you can compare across brands and sellers to find the best value for your money.
Things to check when inspecting a new caravan
It can be tempting to take the brochure by its word and buy without truly checking every nook and cranny of every van you view. But, not only is it important to make precise checks to ensure that it meets your needs, but you never know when you’ll spot and imperfection in the construction process that needs attention before you tow it off the lot.
Get the salesperson to first walk you through the van demonstrating the features and how they work. If you are looking at a camper trailer, pop top, or Expanda caravan, make sure you get a demonstration as to how the tent sections / walls extend.
After you’ve been shown around, ask to take some time to inspect the van on your own. You might spot something that the salesperson glossed over while giving you ‘the tour’.
Ask yourself while inspecting the van:
Is this the best interior layout for us, or should we ask to compare to a van with an alternate floor plan?
Does the van look like it will comfortably sleep our whole crew?
Is the storage space sufficient? Are all storage lockers located at head height or are there cupboards as well?
Upholstery and bedding: is it the best you’ve seen or will you need to replace it at an additional cost?
What’s the bed like? Have a lie-down and test it for yourself. Does the bed take up the whole interior; can it be folded away during the day?
Have the wall joints been sealed properly? Check around the furniture: is it firmly secured?
Do the windows open and close smoothly? Do they lock securely?
What does the van sound like? Does it make a lot of noise when you move around? If so this could indicate a flaw in the chassis or suspension.
Do kitchen and bathroom cabinets lock securely or will the locking systems need upgrading in the future?
Are all appliances in working order? Check the lights and fittings work. Don’t be afraid to try things out!
Are external storage lockers large enough? Do they seal properly?
Does the step ladder fold away securely?
Gas bottles: does the gas work? Is there sufficient supply or will we need to purchase another bottle down the line?
Towing system: how does the coupling work? If you are not familiar with the system, make sure to get a demonstration and find out whether you will need to upgrade your vehicle’s tow bar.
These are just a handful of things to consider while working your way through the van. Choosing a caravan is such a subjective process – especially when buying new – that you will undoubtedly find many other features and options worth considering relevant to your personal style.
Take it for a tow test
If your tow vehicle is already equipped to handle towing the caravan, ask the salesperson if you can take it for a test drive. Find out what it’s like to hitch and unhitch the trailer itself and see how it behaves on the road. Does it handle well when cornering? Does it make a lot of noise? How does the van feel under acceleration and braking?
So many new buyers hit the road without even feeling what it’s like to tow their new van and end up feeling surprised when they hitch up for the first time. You wouldn’t buy a brand new car without taking it for a drive: we like to think that you should treat a caravan the same way.
Buying a caravan really is so much fun. You can spend hours browsing all the available options, and you'll no doubt spend a large chunk of that admiring the top-end models you hope to one day upgrade to. But if you follow these steps, you should be able to find a caravan to fall in love with that provides you with all the comforts of home in the great outdoors.
Armed with newfound insight, it's time to start shopping for your new home-on-wheels and get ready to experience #thebestwaytogetaway in Australia.
Images: Jayco Australia
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