How Much Does an Airstream Renovation Cost?

Photo Jul 31, 8 27 36 AM.jpg

One of the questions we are asked more than any other (by far) is the following:

How much does an Airstream renovation cost? 

While we address this somewhat in our FAQ section, we felt that a post covering this topic was long overdue. As we move forward with expanding The Modern Caravan, we want to empower and share our knowledge with those of you tackling this work on your own. So let's dive into costs of renovation below.

**It is important to note that the numbers and questions below do not reflect the costs of hiring us, they are reflective of the work we've done for our own renovations. These costs do not include labor. 

There many factors that go into these numbers, and they all start with asking questions: 

  • What is the condition of your project?
  • Size of your Airstream/caravan?
  • Are you planning to fully gut it? In our opinion, you should not skip this step. 
  • What tools do you already own? 
  • What tools will you need to buy? There are a lot of tools you'll need (check out our resources tab to get started) that aren't necessarily in the everyday garage.
  • Are you creating custom cabinetry or buying pre-fab?
  • Tile or no? High-end hardware? Hardwood or laminate? 
  • What are the amenities and options you want on board? Water heater? Solar? Oven? Water tanks? Make a list. Start researching some of these costs. We recommend creating an Excel spreadsheet to record your findings and compare and compute. 
  • Will you need to hire out any of the work? Electrical, welding, cabinet making? 

Whatever your budget (and timeline) are, double-triple-quadruple it. It's not going to be what you expect!

While looking to others to see what their renovation costs have been, remind yourself that your project will be somewhat, if not completely different. We know folks who started renovations before we started our first that aren't yet completed. This is good indication and reminder that everyone's schedules, budgets, and tool and knowledge arsenals are different. For example: 

  • A couple with no kids, freelance jobs with flexible schedules, access to a bevy of tools, open budget, and prior knowledge of renovation is likely going to finish their project faster than say...a couple with four kids, 9-to-5 office jobs, very little prior knowledge, a stretched budget, and basic tool access. The couples are likely to choose different outcomes for their projects based on all of these factors, and the budgets could vary widely. 

For our first Airstream renovation, we were in a wildly different financial situation. We had a better work set up because we owned our home. Our daughter was younger and not in school yet (i.e., no school functions or extracurriculars or drop offs/pickups yet). We bought a cheaper Airstream, spent a year renovating it with long stretches where we couldn't afford to work on it, and the build was simple and the amenities slim, based on what we could afford. 

  • 1957 Airstream Overlander: one year to complete, $16,000 in supplies and tools, and $4000 to purchase. 

On our second Airstream renovation, we had more knowledge. We didn't do much for the first six months we had it, as our budget didn't allow for it. Things picked up steam when our budget opened up, though renovation was more difficult on us, as we lived in a rented duplex with a shared driveway. Our schedules were busier given that our daughter was older. We designed and built an intricate and complex interior bursting with amenities and high end fixtures.

  • 1977 Airstream Overlander, one year to complete, $35,000+ in supplies and tools, and $5000 to purchase. 

Just within our first two Airstream renovations we did for ourselves, you can see a big difference in circumstances, budgets, knowledge, and scheduling. All of these things play into budget and cost. What worked for one person may not work for you, and it's important to remember as you're deciding on how much you can afford. 

*If you are interested in working with us on developing a personalized budget for your Airstream, we would love to help! During our one-hour consultation, we will help you come up with a basic plan for your project based on photos and video you share, along with a set of questions that will help us determine your needs and wants. Shoot us an email to schedule your consultation! 

On Progress

While it may seem like we have so far to go, we were able to stand on the muddy earth and be inside the Airstream at the same time - just six months ago. 

While it may seem like we have so far to go, we were able to stand on the muddy earth and be inside the Airstream at the same time - just six months ago. 

One step forward, two steps back. Sound familiar? Airstream renovation can be just that at times, or at least, it can feel that way. The thing is, most of us are doing this as a side project - on the side of full-time jobs and/or/maybe parenting (the constant "job"). We're squeezing in work hours on weekends when our friends are relaxing and barbecuing, trading in the days we used to have "off" to days one-thousand percent ON. We spend our days puzzling over subfloor removal. We perch precariously on curved, slippery Airstream roofs. We measure, measure again, saw once. We curse, grunt, and on occasion, go through an entire twelve-pack of craft IPA in one weekend (no? Just us?). 

Airstream work, especially full-gut job renovations, as many of you folks can attest, are most certainly not for the faint of heart. I love what Evan said in his Caravan Story last week about basing your entire life around when you can get work done on your renovation, and I echo his sentiment. You spend every single second talking and thinking about your project, and get frustrated when something impedes the process, and despite being slightly obsessed...er, passionate...about your renovation and wanting nothing but to renovate every second, you've still got to keep living real life in the midst of it all. 

We have been working on this Airstream for the last year now. A few weeks ago, we were getting a bit discouraged at our progress. As much as we love the Instagram community, it's easy to begin to compare yourselves and your renovation to others (guilty). We see other folks' wrapping up their renovations, but we are still building and still have a ways to go. So late one night, collapsed on the couch after a day at work and then work, we pulled out that same social media app and begin scrolling through the last year of our renovation, noting dates and realizing that for the first six months, we were only working when we had the time. We hadn't set a self-imposed deadline yet, and truthfully didn't yet have enough cash flow to do a major renovation. We noted that there were times we went weeks without working, and some days we'd put in just a few hours. 

Reminiscing this way helped us put things into perspective. The first six months was a slow, easygoing demo process that we worked on when we wanted to. It wasn't until August hit - right as Ellen returned to teaching another year and our kiddo started school - that we hit the ground running. At this point, we have spent six months rebuilding. In August, we could stand between the bars of the frame and our Airstream didn't even have wheels. Several of the windows were out, and we had the world's largest tarp draped over the entire trailer to keep the chassis from getting wet after we'd repaired and painted it. Now we are painting cabinetry and furniture and running plumbing, appliances are installed, and we are rounding the corner. 

Airstream work is it's own kind of beast. It helps to take a minute, every now and then, especially when frustrated or annoyed at the pace of progress, to take a deep breath and look around. Note how far you've come. In the moment, it feels like the build is going so slowly. You start your work days with a checklist of things you'd like to accomplish, and by mid-day, you've not even checked off one single bullet point. Yet what you've not done in making your list is account for all the other little things, the extra steps that you'll always need to take to accomplish just one of the larger tasks on your list. We've started to create two columns, one a task list, the other an achievement list that we fill out at days end. Seeing the two side-by-side reminds us how much work actually did take place, and it's much easier to move on to the next day's work feeling proud and successful.

Then we mentally take note of all the things we did outside of the Airstream work, like going to our full-time jobs, and the meetings before and after or during. Driving our kiddo to gymnastics and drama club. Writing a blog post here or upgrading the resources tab, doing three loads of laundry, cooking a healthy dinner and eating together as a family. Making a meal plan, list, and heading to the grocery. Getting a good night's sleep. Cuddling with our daughter and watching a movie. Going for a run or morning yoga. Writing and creating for self. These things matter too, and are just as vital to the success of the Airstream. The food and exercise and sleep fuel us and make us stronger. With our first Airstream, we didn't get much sleep and it wore on us majorly! The family time unites us and reminds us why we're even renovating an Airstream in the first place - it is for our family and for our values. We work hard at our respective jobs so we can pay for life, provide for our daughter, and make our way, slowly but surely, to our dreams.

Remembering why you are doing this renovation, why you're giving up weekends of freedom, why you're working and thinking about the Airstream 'round the clock, and when it feels never-ending, just pause. Take a moment to reflect on how far you've come. Take a moment to remind yourself why you started in the first place. Say it out loud. Progress is happening, and you're one step closer to where you want to be. 

The Start of Something Big

So here we are, folks. This photograph was taken by my dearest Ashley, the first time we met her. She offered to drive up the coast and meet us at Crystal Cove in southern California to take photographs of us, as we were in those travelin' days of ours. I later had the photos printed and bound in a linen book, for they so perfectly captured us in the happiest days of our lives with our daughter and our beloved first Airstream, Louise. 

We're a little less tan now (and a little less fit now that we're not hiking everyday), but we're still chasing after our dreams and our love for vintage Airstreams has just grown all the more. What could've been just a short chapter in our lives is expanding and growing in ways we never thought possible, but we're so thankful it has. There was a moment as we were wrapping up Louise's renovation, where our days were long and we'd collapse into bed so exhausted and weary we could barely move, that Ellen looked over at me with this big grin and said, I could do this for a living and be so damn happy every day. I love this work. 

I laughed a little and said, we should probably do another one before we can be certain we've got the experience to renovate these for other people. 

We couldn't have guessed in that moment that in less than a year from that night, we'd have that chance. Through an absolutely crazy turn of events, our days on the road came to a close and we had to sell Louise. Less than two months after the sale was finalized, we drove to check out an Airstream an hour north of our city. A fruitless excursion, for no matter how much I haggled or dangled cash in front of the salesperson at a shoddy ass used car and trailer dealership, he wouldn't budge on the $8,000 price tag of a 1971 Airstream Overlander. Feeling defeated, we drove away and then in a moment of hope, I popped on Craigslist to see if anything new had popped up overnight, and sure enough, it had. A 1977 Airstream Overlander, listed at a much more fair and appropriately priced five grand, down in Louisville, Kentucky. 

I wasted no time emailing the owner of the listing and told them we'd be there as fast as the highway allowed us. When arriving, we realized the owners were folks who knew exactly who we were - in fact, they had been following our Airstream journey, and had even emailed us at one point to ask advice! It felt like kismet, and after a thorough inspection of the trailer, we grabbed a photo of all of us and gave them hugs and a stack of cash! We love that they are a part of this too, when we are working I think of them and hope we're doing them proud. 

As we are moving forward with The Modern Caravan, I can't help but take stock of all the events that led to the work we are doing and what we are embarking on, and it gives me chills to think about it all. For me, I needed to see that we could do another Airstream renovation to know we had what it takes. I knew that in renovating for other people, having experience was crucial. Two different Airstreams, two different sets of problems, two very different designs, two completely different builds, yet we've stayed true to our aesthetic and craftsmanship. The ability to learn from one, and then learn even more the second time around, has given us the confidence and skills to pursue this passion of ours. 

We knew when we purchased Louise two and a half years ago that our lives were changing, that that purchase meant something big. I remember standing in the doorway of our house the morning after we brought her home, cup of coffee in my hand, feeling as if I was seeing a mirage. It was so surreal, this dream of ours becoming a reality, and I still feel the same way today. Louise really was the start of something big, and it's beyond what we could have ever imagined possible. 

If you're interested in working with us on your Airstream renovation, from design services to a full renovation, click here for information on how to make your dream a reality. We'd love to help you, because we know how much this means to you - it's big.