For a stay-at-home Michigan mom of five, transforming dilapidated campers into chic glamper havens provides a welcome revenue stream.
But Sarah Lemp’s DIY camper flipping gig didn’t start out that way.
In 2014, the frugal family just wanted an affordable way to travel. Lemp dreamed of hitting the road for family vacations, vintage trailer in tow.
“I obviously can’t afford one that’s already been fixed up,” she thought. “So I’m going to get a really cheap, junky one, and I’m going to fix it.”
Five years later, Lemp, 35, hasn’t stopped.
Welcoming Gidget to the Family
To find the perfect fixer-upper, Lemp scoured websites like Craigslist, eBay and Tin Can Tourists. It took her about a year, but she found it: a 16-foot unpainted 1956 Century trailer.
Sure, it had decaying wood. And duct-taped doors. And dead rodents. Most of all, it had character. For $1,700, Lemp jumped on the opportunity.
It took her about a month of non-stop work to get the old Century in presentable shape. She patched up the holes. Repaired the rusty frame. Removed the oven and stove. Ran all new electrical lines. Installed laminate wood flooring. Painted the interior white and gave the exterior a two toned, white-and-powder-blue retro makeover.
Grand total: about $3,000 thanks, in particular, to the frame repairs.
All the while, she documented the renovations on her DIY blog All Things With Purpose, which was gaining a steady following. She even leaned on her readers to name the trailer. They landed on Gidget, based on the 1959 musical.
To this day and despite some renovation hiccups, she says Gidget was probably the best purchase she has ever made. As a homeschooling parent, Lemp took her kids on numerous field trips in Gidget. That first DIY camper served them through countless road trips to parks, forests, beaches and campgrounds.
“Travel has always been the retreat,” Lemp said. “You need a change of scenery. You need time to unplug and give your mind a rest.”
By 2017 and with the adoption of their youngest, Asher, the Lemps outgrew the cozy ‘50s trailer. Lemp wanted to renovate another one. But raising the capital to cover a bigger, newer trailer meant goodbye to Gidget, a family member in her own right.
Lemp’s husband, Jason, listed Gidget on Facebook Marketplace. That same day, it sold for their asking price, $8,900. That got the Lemps thinking: Could this be a business opportunity?
Their friends and family’s initial reaction to fixing up a camper was, “What on earth did you just do?” Lemp said. But after the sale, they were singing a very different tune. “Wow, OK. There’s really something here.”
And that something was the seed of a side gig that would blossom into $22,000 of profits, invaluable memories and myriad business opportunities.
Lemp’s DIY Camper Side Gig “A Family Project”
With cash in hand from the sale of Gidget, Lemp was ready to expand her operation. Gidget was a “learning experience” that gave Lemp a better understanding of how much time and money a flip would take. And she knew to avoid expensive issues like structural damage.
To accommodate her growing family, the second DIY camper definitely needed to be bigger. Definitely less of a time commitment (She had “mom guilt” from being away from her kids during the first renovations.) And definitely fewer dead rodents.
“We immediately got a newer… trailer that didn’t need nearly as much done to it” for family trips, she said. “And in the meantime, we did a couple different [campers] that were specifically to sell.”
To curb the mom guilt from the first time around, Lemp made camper flipping a family endeavor.
Husband Jason scours Facebook Marketplace for good deals. Prices can vary widely. Trailer purchases run between $1,000 and $2,000. Jason haggles with sellers, meets them and typically tows or drives the trailers home.
Once the vehicle is parked in their secluded and spacious backyard, the work begins.
“I usually have all the kids help me in the very beginning,” Lemp said. “They help me clear it all out and do the demo[lition]. They help take curtains off the windows, take smelly couch cushions out. They help pull up carpet. Vacuum everything.”
(Attention span permitting.)
To keep the kids interested, she rotates their duties frequently. She might start them with vacuuming or cleaning, then let them come back when the camper is in better shape to peel off flaky decals, paint and decorate.
“They love the idea of painting,” she laughed. “They beg me to help paint, but then they don’t last too long.”
She teaches them to inspect the walls, cupboards and floors for signs of water damage, too. In the earlier stages, the kids chime in on purchase price, guess how much renovations will cost and project how much they will profit off the flip.
Allowing her kids to see the money and labor investments enhances their financial literacy — another side benefit to her side gig she didn’t anticipate.
“As a kid, I didn’t have any kind of grasp of how much money was really worth,” Lemp said. “I didn’t know how it would impact me.”
A financial literacy survey by The Penny Hoarder shows that only 13% of Americans discussed finances as a family – and a lack in money talks as a kid leads to lower savings and income later in life.
Lemp’s Camper Renovation Process
Money lessons aside, the flipping process is laborious and expensive. The rest of the cleaning, demolition, remodeling, electrical rewiring, plumbing installation, painting, interior designing and staging? That’s all Lemp. She flips campers mainly, but lately she’s been experimenting with RVs.
Depending on what exactly needs to be done, it usually takes her between a few weeks and two months.
“I will always try to do it myself first,” Lemp said. “But if I’m in over my head, and it’s something I definitely can’t do, I’ll call in a friend… or lower myself to get a quote” from a mechanic or RV business.
Mechanical or structural issues are big time and money holes. Because of the engine, she says RVs introduce all kinds of potential problems. But with her first RV purchase for $3,200, she lucked out — there were no serious engine issues. When she sold it for $12,500 in August, she netted about $7,000, the most she’s profited off a single flip.
At that sales price, Lemp waded into a different buyer demographic. The RV garnered bids from all across the country. People wanted to fly to Michigan and buy it.
But that’s not who her work typically attracts. More often she sells to young families who are buying their first trailer and appreciate an older aesthetic.
For most vintage trailer flips, she pockets about $6,000 per project – and her profit margins are well into the 70% range. With DIY campers, she doesn’t have to worry about any engine issues, so the turnaround tends to be quicker.
“My sweet spot, I would say, is more the vintage style – ‘70s and older,” Lemp said. “There’s the cute factor, but yet they’re so old you can get them for dirt cheap.”
At a DIY Camper-Flipping Crossroads
After she expanded into RV renovations, Lemp’s side gig snowballed in popularity.
People from Florida and California reached out for RV requests. The media caught wind. ABC, Detroit News, Fox, Insider, Yahoo! Finance. A Michigan camping and RV expo tapped her as a guest speaker. A production company in LA raised the possibility of a reality show.
“How am I even in this position to have someone contacting me and talking to me about this?” Lemp mused. “Has this gotten too big for me?”
All of the recent attention has been “slightly exciting.” Mostly overwhelming. At its core, her side gig is a way to spend time with her kids and travel. With its success, she feels pressured to expand. Then the mom guilt kicks in.
She concedes that there’s less of a “get-up-and-go” mentality since her two oldest daughters, both 12, transitioned into the public school system. That’s also freed up a little more of her time.
“At what age are they not going to be interested in going on family camping trips?” she wondered.
She’s in no rush to find out. As her kids grow, she’d like to let her business follow suit.
For now, she’s happy flipping campers on her own time, all the while teaching her kids valuable life lessons about frugality, shared family time, and the importance of waiting for the paint to dry.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.