The value of your vintage trailer is probably higher than you think — and convincing your insurance company of its worth will be an uphill battle unless you cover your bases with a professional appraisal.
“That’s becoming more and more important,” said Jim Polk, who (along with his wife, Lynda) heads up Polk Associates, LLC. “Insurance companies have no idea whatsoever.”
“If you own a 1954 Flying Cloud that’s been restored — and by that, I mean restored to like it once was when new, or even better, the body may have even been off the chassis, with a new floor — that trailer is worth fifty, sixty thousand dollars. Insurance companies don’t know that,” he said.
“If you walk in to your insurance agent and say, ‘I’ve got this really cool classic trailer that I want to insure’, he’ll say ‘sure’, and attach it to your car policy,” Polk continued. “You go down the road thinking all’s well and you’re done. But if that trailer is stolen or totaled, they’re going to offer you four or five thousand dollars for it. And you’re going to have a heart attack because you just paid fifty.”
“So in today’s world you’ve got to go to an agreed-value policy insurance company and cover yourself properly,” said Polk. “It’s evolved that way, because Airstream trailers are so valuable these days. And there are only two or three companies and underwriters in the country who know how to properly insure a vintage Airstream trailer.”
A variety of individuals hire Polk Associates, LLC as an appraiser during a claim dispute: Airstream owners, insurance companies, banks, and lawyers—people from both sides of the argument. “Think about it,” said Polk. “When a person has a fifty thousand dollar trailer and an insurance company is offering him five, the insurer is most likely not going to come to fifty very easily.” The owner’s best defense team will be a certified appraisal from a member of the American Society of Appraisers (ASA)— like Polk—and an attorney, but it’s best to agree upon the value with your agent before you need to make a claim.
“You take your vintage Airstream photos and a certified appraisal to your insurance agent and say ‘I want to insure this trailer for fifty thousand dollars, based on this document’ that’s twenty five pages thick with all kinds of information provided, and that’s what they do,” explained Polk. It’s just that easy. “You may pay a higher premium, but now you’re insuring your trailer for what its value is. If it’s totaled, stolen, or catches fire, and there’s no chance of repairing it, you now know what it was worth.”
“The most important thing vintage Airstream owners can know is that their trailer is most likely worth a lot more money than they think it is,” said Polk. “For example, in 2006 a 1956 Bubble was probably worth ten grand. Today it’s worth $35,000 if it’s at least partially restored and in good condition. The owner of that Bubble in 2006 probably thinks it’s still worth ten or fifteen grand, because cars depreciate, but vintage trailers appreciate,” he said. “Our vintage Airstream trailers are appreciating dramatically.”
Cash value vs. replacement value
“Without getting into the boring details, the actual cash value is what the insurance companies use for determining what the value of your trailer is today,” he cautioned. “They don’t look at replacement value.” Polk Associates, LLC researches the marketplace and consults their vast and growing databases to find “comparables” from recent years. “We try to find the exact trailer but you never can,” he said. “So we look for three or four very similar trailers in the exact condition, and then either average the price or adjust the values based on the differences between them. And that adds up to the value of your trailer.”
“The insurance company is going to fight that like crazy,” Polk continued. “They‘re going to want to determine — by who knows what method—what the actual cash value is and it’s going to be a lot lower than our number.”
And that’s why you need an appraiser.
“You need to go before the fact, if possible, with an appraisal,” said Polk. “Replacement value is what you, the owner, is interested in. Actual cash value is the ongoing dispute between you and the insurance company. You need to insure your trailer for an agreed value — the replacement value that you’ve both agreed to.” For this you’ll need a professional, certified ASA appraisal in hand as well as supporting photos of comparable trailers in the marketplace to come to that agreement. “Any logical person who sees that report would say, ‘yes, those comparables show me $30,000 trailers, so I can agree that your Airstream is worth somewhere between $28,000 and $32,000’,” said Polk.
Take care of your classic coach
What do vintage owners need to take care of that will depreciate an Airstream the most? Watch out for floor rot, and damage to the exterior shell says Polk. “Keep the interior and the trailer sound,” he advised. “If it’s got an old worn out axle and brakes under it, or a worn out floor that’s sagging — with the Caravels, typically in the 60s, a lot of the back baths leaked and they eventually rot—well, you need to fix that stuff.”
But “it’s all about the shell” when you’re trying to buy a vintage trailer, he said. “The plumbing and the floor can be replaced relatively easily, but the shell usually involves high-dollar metalwork people, because in many cases you can’t buy replacement pieces; you’ve got to make them.”
But don’t over-restore
“I know somebody who paid $125,000 to restore a trailer that’s probably only worth $50,000,” said Polk. “You have to pick the correct raw material that’s got value in the marketplace; what people want. Not to belittle anybody’s trailer, but if you go out and find a mid-80s, 34-foot triple axle Classic, and pump $150,000 into that trailer because you want it to be something special… well, it’s never going to be more than a $50,000 trailer, because it’s not desirable.” A rare mid-50s Flying Cloud, one of only a couple hundred that are left, would be a better investment. “Put $30,000 or $40,000 into that one and you’re probably going to create a $50,000 or $60,000 trailer that’s also a beautiful iconic showpiece, like a piece of art to travel in. Something unique that no one else has.”
After successful corporate careers for both Jim and Lynda, Jim Polk became an appraiser of classic cars, which was no small feat; senior certification required extensive study, classroom instruction, rigorous testing and verbal exams—“like going back to college”—followed by hours of field practice. The letters PE/ASA now follow his name on his business card—PE, for licensed professional mechanical engineer; and ASA, for accredited American Society of Appraisers. Both Jim and Lynda collect and restore classic Airstreams and have an affinity for those Flying Cloud models of the mid-50s. “I’ve always thought the name was super cool,” Jim said, “and when the model name came back, that only enhanced the value of the original Flying Clouds.”