Buying a 32′ FEMA Trailer

So you think you want to live in a FEMA trailer? Are you sure? Before you buy, you need to recognize the sacrifices you will need to make, otherwise you will make a $4000 mistake. The first step in the purchase is making sure you want it. IF you decide you do want to live in a FEMA trailer, here are some other things to consider when looking for one.

First beware of the seller. There are a lot of trailers out there and a lot of people trying to make a quick buck on them. Treat the seller like you would a used car salesman… listen to what he says but make him prove it. He can tell you anything but once you have pulled the trailer off the lot, it does not matter if what he said was true or not.

While the trailer is still on the lot check out every system of the trailer. This includes the air conditioner, the furnace, the water heater, the LP gas supply, the tow package, the water supply and plumbing, 12 volt electrical system, the 110 volt wiring, the appliances, the ventilation fans, and the trailer’s structure itself. While the designs and specifics are different on different manufacturers all should meet some basic standards.

First check the structure. Start at the roof. Climb on top of the trailer and inspect it for signs of damage. Look for cracks in the roofing membrane or deteriorating membrane. Check for loose or missing caulk, especially around the AC unit and the vents. If the roof has not been treated within the past 12 months, you will need to add $80 for material and a half day of labor to the cost of the trailer. If the caulking is suspect it will cost even more. If the roof is PCV you will have less trouble with it that if it is a rubber roof but both require maintenance to remain in good shape. Remember, Katrina was in 2005. Some of these trailers have sat under a hot sun all this time unattended!

Once off the roof, check all the doors and windows. If caulk is missing or if the screws which hold the door frames to the wall (located under a piece of pop-in plastic) are loose they can leak and cause water damage. Our trailer had leaked around the door, damaging the floor which was a pain to fix. Take a screwdriver with you that includes a Phillips-head, flat, and square-tip driver. Test the screws to see if they are loose, if they are inspect the interior of the trailer at that location to see if there is any sign of mold or damage. Re-calking the windows and doors of a trailer is standard maintenance but you have to use the good caulk or it will not withstand the vibration of road travel. While you are at it, note if any of the screens are missing. Window screens for these trailers are hard to find.

Wear your overalls because you now need to crawl under the trailer. It should be completely under-covered with a reinforced vapor barrier. If it is loose or repaired, that is a sign that some repairs have been made to the trailer. You are entitled to know what was fixed (or if it was just patched). Also check for any stains that may indicate a plumbing or sewage leak. Many of the FEMA trailers were not equipped with sewage holding tanks but if the trailer has one, check to see that the valve opens and seals properly.

Then dust yourself off and go inside the trailer and check the interior structure. Look along the baseboard to see if there is any sign of water stains. If the trailer was not properly winterized a frozen water line may have burst, flooding the trailer. Make them explain any stains to your full satisfaction or get them to drop the price accordingly. Inspect the ceiling and the walls for stains or mold which indicate a leak in the roof.

Carefully examine the structure of the floor by stepping on EVERY SINGLE INCH of the floor. Push down hard with the ball of you foot. If the floor gives even the slightest bit be very suspicious! Most (if not all) FEMA trailer floors are decked with partical board and covered with vinyl floor covering. The particle board is horrid stuff. A single gallon of water, if allowed to stand on the particle board decking, will dissolve the glue in the board and turn it into a mess of useless sawdust. The decking can be repaired, but is a job! I had to replace about 20 square feet in our trailer. If the soft spot runs under a wall or a cabinet, it is even more difficult to deal with. A soft floor should mean a greatly reduced price.

Now for the electrical systems. Most travel trailers have two electrical systems. First is the 110 volt system that receives its power from a “shore line” which is a special plug designed to fit into a camper’s 30 amp hookup. This cord will be about 20 feet long and will pull out of a hole in the side of the trailer. Inspect the cord to see that it is in good shape. The 110 volt system will run the refrigerator, the AC unit and a (very) few wall receptacles. INSIST that the seller plug up the system and test everything that is plugged in. The trailer should have a working microwave and a refrigerator (most FEMA trailers have a small house type refrigerators instead of the camper style cooler). Let the refrigerator run long enough to get cold. Test all the receptacles, too. Most of them will be “ground fault” (GFI) to protect against shock in case water is spilled in their vicinity.

The AC unit runs off the shore power. It will have a thermostat mounted on a wall somewhere in the camper. While everything else is still running, switch the thermostat to cool and turn down the temperature. The unit should come on. If it does, allow it to cool to see if it is working. Because the trailer is so small it should quickly drop the temperature. If the AC does not come on when you turn down the temperature, find the breaker box and see if the AC breaker is thrown. If the AC is not working you are looking at a minimum $300-$600 to replace the unit and you can not live in one of these little houses without AC… at least not here in the south! The AC unit may be repairable (I had to replace the control board in mine) but HVAC work is not cheap and not every HVAC man will even work on camper units.

The furnace may be a little harder to test since it is propane and I seriously doubt there will be any gas in the cylinders. Do make sure however that you have two cylinders mounted securely to the tongue of the trailer. There should be a gauge connected to tell you if there is any gas in them. We found that it was cheaper to heat our FEMA trailer with electric heat (more on that later) so we never tried to light our furnace.

Nor do we use the 9 gallon gas water heater for obvious reasons… three women! While it would be great in a camping situation, it is just not big enough nor efficient enough to service our family (more on that later, too). Unless you have water supplied to the water heater, do not try to turn it on. FEMA trailers come with different makes and models of water heaters but most are totally automatic with electronic ignition and have no pilot light. If you have questions about the water heater, get the make and model of the heater and download a PDF manual online.

You do need to attach a water hose to the camper and pressurize the plumbing. With a standard garden hose attached to the trailer, check all the sinks, the bathtub and flush the toilet. Check supply and drain lines for leaks under the sinks. Also check inside all compartment doors and under the trailer for leaks. The water heater is accessible through a small compartment door on the outside of the trailer. Check it for leaks, too.

In addition to the 110 volt AC “shore power”, FEMA trailers also have a 12 volt DC system which runs the lighting, the ventilation fans and controls the ignition to the propane furnace and the water heater. A working 12volt system is a very good idea when the shore power is off because you can still have basic creature comforts. The system includes two deep cycle 12 volt batteries and an inverter which “steps down” the 110 volts to 12 volts and turns it into direct current. The batteries are probably not going to be with your trailer. They are all quickly “salvaged” or have gone bad from lack of use. If you decide you want to have the battery back up, a set of batteries will set you back a few hundred dollars. Check with your local travel trailer dealer to find the type and size battery you need. If you don’t intend to use the 12 volt system as a backup, you will not need the batteries. (We don’t have battery backup so I use the system’s battery connections as a recharging station to keep an old car battery fully charged.)

The inverter for the system will be located near (or as part of ) your breaker box. It will have a half dozen auto type spade fuses accessible from it. If things are not working, check to see if any of the fuses are blown. If one is blown, replace it and try it again. If it blows again, that means there is a short in the system. I have had no problem with our inverter (or 12 volt wiring) but I would not want to purchase a trailer with a defective inverter or faulty wiring. It would be difficult/expensive to repair. The interior 12 volt light bulbs in most FEMA trailers are the “blade” type. They are cheap enough at most camper centers and, if you are willing to pay considerably more, you can replace them with bright, long lasting LED bulbs. The ventilation fans are noisy but they do get some of the hot air out of the trailer making it easier on the AC unit. The blades are often broken, but easily replaced for $10. If the motor does not work it will cost about $50 to replace it.

If you are going to tow the camper home yourself, make sure you have a heavy duty vehicle and some experience in towing. Check out the tires carefully. They may look good because the have very few miles on them, but remember that they have sat in the southern sun for several years and may not make it home. (A few weeks ago I saw a FEMA trailer on the side of the interstate with two blown tires… I bet that was a bad day for someone.) I cut a deal with the seller to deliver our camper to our location. He was better able to cover the towing liability that I was. If you plan on towing it, your vehicle will need to be equipped with an electric braking system and you need to check out the electric brakes on the trailer before you begin.

So how much is this trailer worth? That depends on several things; 1) the condition of the trailer, 2) how many trailers are on the market at the time you are purchasing, 3) how badly you want it, and 4) how badly the seller wants to get rid of it. I have watched the FEMA trailer market for several years and it appears to me that the supply fluctuates dramatically. At times they seem to be sitting on every other corner and at other times they are no where to be found. Wait until the market is right if you can afford to, and you will probably be able to get a nice one for under 4 thousand dollars.

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