A first timer’s guide to buying a caravan

Man and woman sitting at table with caravan in the background.

Cathy Anderson

Posted January 12, 2021

New to caravanning? Here’s all you need to know about buying a caravan.

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes the shine off international holidays, many Australians are looking for other ways to take a break, and for a growing number of holiday makers, that means caravanning. 

Contrary to the stereotype, caravans aren’t the sole domain of so-called grey nomads – the average caravan owner in Australia is 33 years old, according to research by the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA).  

As travel restrictions ease, domestic tourism is booming, with caravanning and camping leading the charge. RACV Cobram resort manager Gary Hunt says caravan parks across the country, including his own by the banks of the Murray, are experiencing huge demand with an influx of bookings for the short term and well into the year. “People who traditionally might have spent money on an overseas holiday are realising that might not be possible for some time, and many are using the money to invest in a caravan that they can use for many years to come.

“We don't have the option to go to Thailand, so a lot of people are thinking, why not explore what’s in our own backyard here in Victoria. And caravanning is a great way to do that.”

Even before COVID struck, registrations for recreational vehicles were at a record high, with 740,000 RVs registered in Australia in January 2020. By May, as international and even interstate travel plans collapsed, Google reported a three-fold increase in the number of searches for “caravan” or "recreational vehicle". And a CIAA survey in September found that 62 per cent of respondents were more likely to take a caravanning or camping trip due to COVID.

But for those considering buying a caravan, it is a substantial financial investment. Prices for basic entry-level vans start at around $50,000 up to more than $120,000 for deluxe models fitted with all the comforts of home. Even a decent second-hand van can set you back $25,000. There’s a bewildering range of sizes, styles, layouts and construction materials on the market, so you need to do your homework. Here are some top tips to help you make the right choice if you’re buying your first van. 

5 things you need to know when buying your first caravan

Size really does matter

Firstly, consider who will be using the van, to determine what size, layout and features you need. Are you a retired couple, a family of five or a solo traveller with a pet? Smaller pop-top caravans, where the roof literally winds up (and on some models the ends fold out for more internal space), are popular entry-level options, but rarely have showers or toilets. (Plus: tips for caravanning with kids.)

Larger units offer more layout choices, bigger kitchens and more storage. Beds set across the width of the van save space but require one person to climb over the other to get into and out of bed, while beds running length-wise offer better access but soak up valuable real estate.

Make a list of your wants and needs, and be prepared to cut from the bottom should it blow out your budget. Think toilet and shower, air-con and heating, a bigger stove, leather interiors, slide-out barbecue, coffee maker, washing machine or rear-view cameras. And don’t forget to consider the size of your carport or garage.

Choose your own adventure 

Newcomers often prefer to hop from one caravan park to the next, enjoying onsite power, communal facilities and kids’ playgrounds. An on-road van with standard suspension and body protection, kitchen, living and sleeping space will suit nicely.  

But for those wanting to venture off the beaten track, an off-road-style van offers self-reliance with bigger water tanks, solar panels and a souped-up battery management system for off-grid power as well as greater protection for the front and undercarriage – usually in the form of checker-plate aluminum cladding – and a heavy-duty suspension system for rough tracks.

Caravan weights and towing 

One of the most confusing things about buying a caravan are the myriad weights involved. All of these pertain to towing, and are designed with safety in mind.  

Basically, you must ensure your vehicle can legally tow your van. Start by checking your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity, whether that’s 1200 kilograms for common four-cylinder cars, 1700 to 2500 kilograms for 4WDs or up to 3500 kilograms or more for heavyweight tow-tugs.  

The legal maximum loaded weight of your caravan is called the Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) and is dictated by the manufacturer. The ATM is the combination of the tare weight (the van’s unladen weight without gear, water or gas) and its payload (the maximum weight of equipment, food and so on that the manufacturer deems safe to be added). Your van’s ATM must be less than the vehicle’s maximum towing capacity to be legal and safe. 

Your vehicle manufacturer will also specify a Gross Combination Mass (GCM), which is the maximum combined weight of the car and the caravan and can be found on your car’s documentation. This number is set so that you don’t overload your car or caravan with too much gear, and it is illegal to exceed it.  

You also need to be conscious of the ball weight, which is the maximum pressure you can put on the towball of your vehicle.  

Check with your dealer or manufacturer about weights (it’s a complex topic) and check how heavy your combination is at a public weighbridge to be certain. 

The smart way to buy 

Do your research carefully around weights, but also investigate each brand. Check if they are members of RVMap, the CIAA’s national accreditation program. Be wary of new or used models that have water damage or rust, and always ensure a second-hand van passes an inspection from your state’s transport body (required for registration). 

Caravans are made from a variety of materials, from lightweight and generally less expensive timber frames to more durable aluminium frames and composite panel construction. Carbon-fibre is a lightweight construction material used by a only a handful of manufacturers as it does hike the price. Look for strong warranties and great customer feedback. 

Also ask other owners for their opinion via the myriad caravan social-media groups and forums or try a few out for yourself. There are several peer-to-peer platforms such as CamplifySHAREaCAMPER and Outdoorsy where you can rent someone’s pride and joy for a weekend to road-test different layouts and styles.  

To buy, seek out your local dealerships, manufacturers (visit the factory if possible) or online marketplaces such as TradeRVsCaravan Camping SalesGumtree or even Facebook if buying second-hand. 

Know your budget 

What will you get for your money? Second-hand vans will be cheaper, but here’s a guide for new models. 

Up to $50,000: Expect smaller models with fewer bells and whistles. You’ll get a kitchen, sleeping for up to four, dinette and possibly a shower and toilet, although you’re unlikely to find the last two in an entry-level pop-top. 

From $50,000 to $70,000: You’ll find so-called family vans that are longer, with a bigger dinette, lots of bathroom space and better finishes throughout. Standard items may include air-con, TV and bigger water tanks. 

From $70,000 to $120,000-plus: Fully tricked-out off-road vans live in this price range, as do on-road models with top-of-the-line suspension, full kitchens, a washing machine, luxury upholstery and even voice-activated lights.

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