Mr. Aleister & The Silver Bullet

Late November, 2011.

After the Less Is More class, I was more eager than ever to find my very own Airstream. The budget I had in my head just to purchase the basic shell was $3,500 maximum, based loosely on a dollar figure given to me by someone who was doing a similar project. I started scouring local ads on eBay & Craig’s List, and found a few possible contenders.

The first I found was actually in Vermont, about an hour north of the school. The trailer was being offered at between $2,000 – $3,000. I was advised to ask one of my instructors that knew a thing or two about camping & living in a trailer to come with me to do the inspection. So I made arrangements and off we went. The Airstream was – as I recall – a 1973 Trade Wind, which at 25′ was about as big a trailer as I wanted to tow.

The owner was away, so we were able to take as much time as we wanted to inspect the trailer and make our assessment. The trailer had a lot of the original interior in decent shape, and the awnings were attached and in good condition. So for me to do any significant work inside of the trailer would mean taking a lot of things out and building new, not really an ideal prospect for my purposes. As I would later find out is fairly typical with vintage Airstreams, there were areas of the floor that had water damage, and it looked like there was a leak in the roof that they were temporarily covering with a box. There was also evidence of rodents having nested in the insulation. After taking a good look around, I wondered aloud about what price to offer. None of the damage was listed in the ad, and the extent of it was still a bit of an unknown.

My instructor (who admittedly didn’t have any special feelings about Airstreams in general) said he wouldn’t pay more than $1,000 for it. With that, we left and I followed up by leaving a message with the owner the following day, to see if there was room to negotiate on the price. I never heard back. But I’d had a great experience inspecting my first Airstream, and now had a much better idea of what I was looking for… and what to watch out for.

Back home in NY, I soon found an ad on Craig’s List for a 1969 Airstream Safari for sale in Virginia, asking price, $1,900. That was within my budget… but what was the condition? I figured that there was only one way to find out for sure, so I prepared a checklist and then called the owner to get some basic information before making the long drive. Later, I would learn that sometimes people create constraints on how far they will drive when they go to pick up materials for a green design project in order to reduce the carbon footprint, but for the time being the radius I had in mind for my search was based primarily on convenience and purchase price.

After several hours’ drive, I was close to my destination on a beautiful, sunny, crisp afternoon. I found myself driving along the hilly, winding roads of a farm community close to the highway, when I rounded a bend and there it was, gleaming in the distance… a little Airstream Safari. I pulled up close, and this was the first picture I took:

I knocked on the door & met the owner, Mr. Aleister (not his real name). He led me back over to the trailer and we started to take a good look. First of all, the trailer was basically a complete gut, except for the original bathroom, comprised of a toilet, tub, sink and some cabinetry that was made to fit the rounded curves of the trailer. I asked if there were any leaks, and was told that in his experience with the trailer, there were none… although it seemed to me that rotted wood flooring under windows and in the bathroom area – where I could see daylight! – told another story. There were some original windows, and some made of plexiglass that “did the job” but were in poor shape. There was a small area on the front curb-side of the trailer where it had been pierced by something, but otherwise the exterior looked to be in very good condition. I could see that there were missing panels underneath the trailer, and that the frame was rusted, but was assured that these panels could be replaced relatively inexpensively. Hmm. As a final selling point, he mentioned that the trailer came with the title, which he assured me was not always the case and would be valuable to the future owner.

During the course of our conversation about the Airstream and what he had been using it for, he asked why I wanted it. I told him about the green building & design classes that I was taking at Yestermorrow, and how I wanted to use the trailer for my final project. He seemed genuinely interested in selling the Airstream to someone who had a good plan in mind for the trailer. He told me that coincidentally, a local school was offering to buy the trailer for a green project that they had in mind, but that they wanted to buy it well below the asking price. After we spoke for a little while, I was left alone to take my time and photograph the trailer as much as I wanted. Time seemed to pass very quickly, and before long it started to get dark. I went back to the owner and said that I needed to think things over now that I’d seen the condition it was in, and that I wanted to sleep on it and come back the next day. We agreed that I could take the trailer to a local RV repair shop the following morning to have them check the brakes & bearings before my long trip back to NY.

I stayed up late at the hotel that night and did a lot of online research on what other comparable trailers were selling for, and what repairs typically cost for the damages I’d found, so I’d have some room to negotiate later. Then at 9:00am, before even leaving the hotel, I called Mr. Aleister and asked if he’d be willing to work with me on the price based on the critical information I was finding online. Reasonably, I thought, he took $500 off of the price and I was a happy man. I made my way back to the farm to take the Safari to the RV repair shop to have the brakes & bearings inspected.

Mr. Aleister helped me to attach the trailer to my truck for the first time, and we were both a bit surprised that the lights and signals were in working order. Feeling a bit nervous about what I was getting myself into, I set my eyes on the road ahead and turned the wheel to bring the trailer around. Hitting the gas, I felt exhilaration and then a sudden shock as the trailer ground to a halt. I pushed on the gas, and it wouldn’t move. I hit reverse and slowly gave it gas again, and… nothing. I hadn’t gone more than ten feet, and the trailer was stuck fast, where the ground rose up from the paved road onto the owner’s property. The rear tires of my truck were in the air! Not an auspicious start.

At that point, my pickup was still attached to the trailer and we were having a hard time getting it off. It was sticking out onto the road, right after a sharp curve where oncoming drivers wouldn’t be able see until it was probably too late! Fortunately, there was little traffic along these country roads, and after about an hour-and-a-half of playing with jacks, waving people around the truck, and flagging down a neighbor with a tractor to help us move the trailer into a better position, I was back on my way to get it inspected. I was feeling sheepish, yes, but very excited and curious about what the mechanics would have to say.

The guys at the RV repair shop couldn’t have been nicer. About three of them stopped what they were doing, and came over to look at the trailer. While one worked on the brakes & bearings, another assisted and the third stood by me, offering a layman’s opinions and words of encouragement. All agreed that the trailer needed quite a bit of work, which I knew, but hearing it again from the experts made me feel a bit nervous. I was also told that the axle was not the type that the owner advertised. I asked what was a reasonable asking price, and was told by the guy doing the brakes that he’d pay $1,000 for it, tops. And that was with all of his experience and access to tools, materials and shop space. But one of the other gentlemen said to me that he’d be willing to pay a bit more than that for it, and that the project would be fun, which is worthwhile. I asked if he’d be daunted by the scope of the project, and this otherwise humble guy said something that brought me courage and still stays with me, “I just tell myself… If a man can do it, I can do it.”

By the time I got back to the farm for the final round of negotiations with the owner, it was already dark again. I had already gotten him to bring down the price significantly that morning, but the trailer needed a lot of work, and I’d gotten a professional valuation of the trailer at $1,000, so it was time to talk turkey. In the end, we met about halfway between the last number he’d given me and the number the mechanic had given me, and we were both happy. We went into the house and he got the out the title to transfer ownership. I got out the cash. Giving the document a once-over, I asked him if it needed to be notarized, and he told me no, that the state where the title came from didn’t require a notary’s signature. So we signed the paperwork, I called my insurance company to add insurance for my new trailer, and I hit the road back to NY…

I’d driven large moving trucks before, and feel fairly comfortable behind the wheel of a large rig, but driving my new vintage Airstream for the first time at night definitely kept me excited and alert all the way home. I stayed in the slow lane as often as possible, and gradually applied brakes well ahead of time. Driving through the tunnel and into NYC for the first time was so exciting. I was glad that it was the middle of the night and that there was little traffic! I was hitting potholes and wincing as I thought of the rusted frame and black water tank (which I later discovered was hanging 1″ off of the ground by the time I got it home). But I eventually made it home safely, backed the Safari up and detached it from the truck. I was elated knowing my dream had come true. Mr. Aleister was even kind enough (or was he just curious?) to call me the following day to see if the trailer had made it all the way to NY in one piece.

EPILOGUE:

I’ve never regretted this purchase or how it was negotiated, and I learned a lot about the value of research and due diligence in negotiation. THE ONE THING I didn’t do, that in retrospect would have spared me a good deal of time and stress, was to challenge the owner’s claim that the title didn’t need to be notarized. Upon my return to NY, I went to get my registration and other paperwork taken care of, and after a call to the DMV in the state where the trailer was titled, I was told that a transfer of ownership DID in fact need to be notarized with both parties present. The prospect of driving back to Virginia to get the owner to help me get this done put my stomach in a knot! But in the end, after a lot of phone calls and snail mail correspondence and minor fees, maybe 6 months later, I had my title and registration for the Airstream, and I didn’t have to drive back to Virginia to get it. And although I would have appreciated being spared the extra effort in the first place, I am still very grateful to the former owner for helping to get the title transfer sorted out after the fact, in a relatively timely fashion. I was lucky. Lesson learned!

Soundtrack:

Visit the Little Green Airstream’s Facebook page for additional photos of the trailer from the day of purchase!

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