Finalizing Your Airstream Renovation Budget

In my last post on this topic, we covered the basics of preparing a first draft budget for your renovation. Creating a budget for your Airstream is the same process you’d follow with any other type of architecture, so any experiences you’ve had in the past working with a home renovation can help give you a sense of confidence and familiarity. The main differences are that there are certain construction categories that you won’t find in a home renovation (for example any automotive-type work), and often it’s harder to find local contractors to compare pricing – particularly ones that specialize in vintage RV’s or appliances. Vintage items are often more expensive, fragile, or difficult to find, all factors in that can affect the ultimate price you pay. 

The first draft of your renovation budget is unlikely to be your final one. The main reason is that problems often reveal themselves only once you start the renovation process or review the scope with the right contractor. Another factor is availability. Contractors sometimes find themselves over- or double booked (as mine did), and you have to find more or less expensive alternatives or wait for them to become available again… and keep in mind, waiting can sometimes cost you. Or maybe you’ll do a little extra research and find a product for less than you’d seen it advertised for earlier. Airstream Classifieds, Craigslist and eBay were all places where I was able to find deals on used parts or even whole Airstreams! 

My first draft budget totaled out at about $11,000 (click the link and scroll down to the bottom of Column 2). My actual budget (not including change orders, which I’ll share with you later) ended up being over $18,500. Why?

The biggest ticket items that I hadn’t anticipated:


  • “Parts trailer” – I spent $1,800 to park my parts trailer (which I later crashed & stripped) in a rented space. It was all worth it in the end, financially and otherwise, but this was an unexpected expense in the sense that I didn’t know how long I’d need to park it while getting the value out of it. 

  • A-frame Repair – This welding work added about $1,800. A great example of “scope creep,” or “opening up a can of worms.” But, I couldn’t travel safely without getting this work done.

  • Upholstery – The new, eco-friendly cushions I had made were not cheap to begin with, but unfortunately I was overcharged for the fabrication at a point when it would have been equally expensive and inconvenient to find an alternative. Fortunately, the cushions turned out beautifully! 

  • Electrical – RV electrical systems not being my area of expertise, I had to wait to see what the contractor would charge for installation; this ended up costing me about $600 more than expected.

The real reason for the unexpected costs reflected in my final budget, however, boils down two things. One is my simply having to gain new experience and learn about the Airstream through this process. And that’s a good thing, although keeping costs down is certainly of vital importance to any renovation project – this wouldn’t fly with a client. But in this case, I’d started this renovation as a way to continue my education and invest in my new home, and I knew that it would come with certain “to be determined” costs. Early on, I was given to expect that a renovation could cost me anywhere from $30,000 – $100,000, so I kept that range in mind and have pushed to keep it at the low end. I’m still very much on track, by that standard.

Also different from my experiences in residential construction is that I couldn’t get firm quotes for my scope of work from vintage Airstream contractors, even when I outlined the work in detail & went to the trouble of bringing the trailer to them for inspection. They were just not accustomed to, or couldn’t find the time to work like that. So I leaned into the adventure. If I couldn’t afford the changes, I sometimes had to wait until I could, but I’ve been very lucky and so far everything’s worked out. I hope that it will for you too!

Up next: Wheel Refinishing


  1. Great blog! We find ourselves going over budget in some areas and under in others. Thankfully we are able to most of the work ourselves. But those cushions cost us a pretty penny! We think they were worth the extra cost as we won’t be changing that fabric in our lifetime! Lol oh did I mention the corian counter we are having installed? Yikes! That’s more expensive than we thought too! It better look nice! you’re doing a great job on your reno!!

    1. Thanks, Val! I’m with you guys. Having a bit of experience and being willing & able to work on things myself (or occasionally with a partner) has made a huge difference in my final costs, although not sure it saved me any time. It’s fun though, and develops confidence for doing other home improvement projects.

      I was really interested to see your two Airstreams, as I’m going to be doing some of the stuff you’ve been doing in the future (for example, new countertop). I was really impressed by the work you guys have done too! Obviously through years of experience. Anyway thank you for the compliment, and glad you’ve been enjoying the blog! 🙂

  2. I have a fairly good idea on what a fully renovated 20 foot airstream would cost and of course know what a new one cost. So…what was (or what do you think) the total cost of your airstream will be? How hard was it to find an Airstream in need of repair and your “parts” airstream?
    Great project…

    1. Hi Henry, 🙂

      Thanks for the compliment! I’ll have a breakdown of the budget in an upcoming blog post. The last couple of months I’ve just been pushing the construction side and collecting receipts, but the last time I did a tally, my initial budget was at $18.5k with about $15.5k in change orders. My guess is I have about $40k into it, paid incrementally over the last 6 years. I’ll explain the CO’s in greater detail in the post, but essentially it came down to discovered issues and unexpected opportunities during the process.

      Also to be considered is that mine is a eco-friendly building project. In some areas, that meant I saved $ by finding creative solutions and working with existing architectural features rather than purchasing & installing new. In other areas, the green industry isn’t as as robust yet or it’s otherwise harder to find solutions, so it cost more (for example, the eco-friendly foam cushions I bought).

      As for the total cost, this is just Phase 1. The goal has been to make it safe & liveable for now. The concept for the Phase 2 renovation includes a shell-off repair of the subfloor, which requires taking out the entire interior and I’m still learning about & assessing the systems. It’ll depend on how DIY I get, and I also need to price out the work once I arrive in CA where I’m moving and don’t currently have many resources. So the short answer is that I don’t know yet.

      I don’t know how easy it is to price a renovation like this in one’s head without a specific trailer or at least decade in mind. My understanding is that each generation of Airstream has its idiosyncrasies. For example, the Airstreams from my year are known to have floor rot in the rear bath area. Also depends on the interior and your intentions for it, the degree of maintenance previous owners have put in, status of appliances, one’s DIY abilities, &c.

      It wasn’t particularly hard for me to find the Airstreams I purchased. I think I bought the 2nd and 3rd ones I looked at in person. But research is one of my strong points. And I was willing and able to travel on short notice. I bought both of them on Craigslist for very good prices, although I’m noticing the market for vintage Airstreams is improving. There are a lot of people who start these projects and don’t finish them. So I’d say if you’re patient and persistent person by nature, have a little negotiation skill, and educate yourself on what to look (out) for, you’ll do fine in your search.

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