So You Want to Renovate an Airstream? 5 Money-Saving Tips from People Who Did It

updated Aug 7, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Samara Vise

It’s often a nomad’s dream: selling almost everything they own and packing into a vintage Airstream trailer for a life on the road. But here’s what no one tells you: It’s expensive. Like… really expensive. Airstream owners Gabi and Brandon Fox, for example, spent about $20,000 renovating one for themselves, and other renovators report the same. The good news is that you can find some ways to save money during your renovation, so you have some funds left to actually enjoy it. Here’s how.

Decide how you want to use your Airstream first

What’s your plan for your Airstream? Are you hoping for some vintage kitsch to ride around in on the weekends and take camping sometimes? Or are you going to actually live in your trailer full-time and drive regularly? Maybe you want to rebuild it from scratch and put in custom everything, or you want to keep the original Airstream glory. Figuring that out first will make a big difference in cost.

“If you want to rebuild from scratch, definitely look for one that’s gutted,” Brandon says. “It saves a lot of the dirty work of having to gut it yourself.” Plus, you’re likely save some money. “The alternative to that is finding one where the interior is in pretty good shape, the appliances work, and you can do some minor renovations like adding new floors, painting the walls, and putting in a new countertop,” he adds.

And keep in mind that an Airstream that’s just been sitting gathering rust won’t be a good option for someone who immediately wants to hit the road. It may look like it’s in good shape, but things will start breaking fast if they haven’t been kept up—and that could get really expensive.

The best part about living in an Airstream is that we can travel the country and, no matter where we stop, it always feels like home.

Plan to spend half your reno time on planning

It took Jonathon Longnecker and his family six months, with three people working full-time, to renovate their 1972 Airstream. And about half that time was spent just on researching and planning what they were going to do.

“Plan and research, and then do that ten more times,” he says. Even though Airstreams are smaller than the typical house, they’re more complicated to renovate. “This stuff is old and it’s curved,” Longnecker says. “You can’t just go to the hardware store for parts. Things are not well documented. It’s not like a house where you can look up building code. There’s so many different pieces and it’s so precise, and you’re going to waste a whole ton of money if you don’t do your research.”

One extra complicating factor: Airstreams come together in a very specific way, with an outer shell, ribs, and an inner aluminum skin. You have to be absolutely sure you’re done working on what mingles within those ribs before closing up the inner skin—because once it’s closed, you likely won’t be able to get in there again without gutting it. Moving too fast could cost you both money and time on a re-redo.

Look for a good base shell

When you’re hunting for the Airstream trailer itself, keep in mind that it has a lot of Airstream-specific needs. Gabi suggests checking the trailer itself for Airstream-specific features—like metal window knobs and the window tracks—to make sure they’re in good shape and functional before you buy.

“The little Airstream-specific things are expensive and add up, and you can’t really substitute them,” Gabi said. It costs less in the long run to find a trailer that has all of them still intact.

Credit: Val O'Brien
This is the main view from our bedroom. Waking up each day, we're greeted by a bright space, usually with at least one cat glued to the window. Living in 200 square feet, windows are your lifeline and having 19 throughout the Airstream that let so much light in, even on a rainy day.

Find used appliances and materials

According to the Foxes, this is where you’ll save the most money on your renovation. If you can find an Airstream that has working appliances, snap it up. Those appliances, when they need to be replaced, cost about $1,000 each, the couple said.

The Foxes also suggest setting Google alerts for items you need to purchase for the renovation, like flooring or insulation. People working on home renovations often purchase extra and then sell the overage on Craigslist. With Google alerts, you’ll get notified as soon as something you’re waiting for shows up. You can also go to home supply stores or other suppliers and see if they have floor models or scraps you can buy from already finished projects; that’s a particularly good way to get stone for countertops. And keep an eye out for any Airstreams that are damaged from a wreck; you might be able to purchase usable parts from the owner.

Do all the work yourself

Yes, you’ll obviously save money on the redo—but you’ll also save money down the line when, inevitably, something goes wrong and needs to be fixed.

“By renovating our Airstream ourselves, we saved money because we can fix anything that goes wrong with this trailer,” Longnecker says. “We were able to teach ourselves how to put it together during the renovation. If you know how to work on it yourself, it’s going to save you tons of money. Service centers are really slow and not always very good at their jobs.”

The Foxes also did all the work themselves, which took about six months of full-time work on the Airstream. They changed out all the insulation, put down new floors, repurposed the existing wiring, made new cushions, added countertops, and updated the plumbing—all on their own.

Both the Foxes and Longnecker note that you should absolutely expect to pay more than you think the renovation will cost. Just like any renovation project, the time and expense involved invariably ends up being higher because of unforeseen costs and in-the-moment upgrades. So be prepared.

“It’s always going to take twice as long and cost twice as much as you think,” Longnecker said.