How to buy a van on a budget
Ever since we decided to join the #vanlife world, it’s been full steam ahead (choo-choo! Or should we say vroom-vroom?). Without a lot of time to plan and save money, we were on a pretty modest budget for our van and conversion. We knew that out budget wasn’t padded enough to purchase one of the glamorous Sprinter vans of your Instagram feed (never thought we’d be referring to vans in terms of ~glamour~) and we’d have more luck with the Conversion Vans of our childhood (cue the long road trips and fossilized McDonald’s french fries hidden between the seats). OK, so not so glamorous, but they have a sort of appealing retro sense of adventure, right?
Aesthetics aside, finding a van for around $5,000 (though we ended up going a little over budget) that we could count on getting us across the country and back (and not fall apart on us) is more of a challenge than we bargained for. First of all, we would strongly recommend against looking for the “perfect” van during a pandemic; the used car industry is hurtin’ and there’s simply just way less inventory out there. Also the number of conversion vans floating around dwindling with each passing year, and the percentage of those vans that are in acceptable mechanical shape is even less.
We scoured Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Ebay, and we’re *slightly* ashamed to admit that we even resorted to leaving our contact information on the windshield of a few vans we passed. All of this to say, the van world is fast paced and kinda ruthless. After searching for a few months, we’ve learned some things, and we’d like to spread the knowledge,
TREAT YOUR VAN SEARCH LIKE THE LAST PIECE OF PIZZA AND POUNCE
Search the platforms often, you want to be one of the first people to contact the seller and arrange an appointment. Because let’s face it, potential buyers 6, 7, and 8 probably don’t ever get a message back, let alone person number 156 (yes, the van we scored literally had hundreds of inquiries, but by a stroke of luck, Lauren was the first person to send a message). Lauren sent the message on Facebook Marketplace at 9am when the listing went live and by 2pm when she went to go see the van, it already had hundreds of people interested. Seeing as vans are one of the few viable travel options right now, they are selling like crazy. If you see a van you like, POUNCE.
We were a little late to the game on this one, but Facebook Marketplace let’s you set notifications for certain areas and items, which means that you could be the first to see and jump on a new listing.
THEY'RE HIDING SOMETHING
If the seller skirts around or doesn't fully answer one of your questions, they’re hiding something.
If the seller doesn’t allow you to either bring a mechanic along or take it to an auto shop to get it inspected, they’re hiding something (and believe us, you’re going to want a mechanic).
Rachel is big into those ~gut feelings~, and if something about the listing or your conversation with the seller gives you bad juju, it’s likely a scam or they’re hiding something.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET
These vans are a hot commodity, and sellers know that. They take KBB and Edmunds used car values and throw them straight out the window. We saw vans for sale that were questionably drivable, and they were listed for double their value.
Know that you will likely end up spending more for a van than the intrinsic value. Since COVID-19 has made traditional vacations impossible, many are turning to recreational vehicles, and sales are through the roof! Currently there is a serious demand for a limited supply, and that drives the cost to a place that had us doing double takes.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS JUST A LITTLE RUST
Where there is a little rust, there is always more. Seeing rust near the bottom is like the tip of the iceberg, and the undercarriage is the Titanic. Rust is a big issue because it affects the integrity of the vehicle and will cause it to literally fall apart.
Over the course of the search we encountered a lot of rusty vans, and not knowing much about cars ourselves, we had to piece together nuggets of information from helpful bystanders and mechanics along the way. Apparently, the state of the rocker panels is pretty indicative of the entire framework of the vehicle. Rusty rocker panels themselves are not a huge issue when it comes to repair costs, but dealing with rust on the underbelly of the van will exhaust your emergency funds fast.
NEW IS ALWAYS BETTER?
Well, yes and no. If a car part is actually replaced with a new product then yes, new is better. But often sellers will advertise a “new transmission,” and it is actually a used part. They justify this description because it is new to the vehicle. If you’re thinking that kind of marketing is dishonest and reeks of slime, we’re the first to agree, but nonetheless it’s a common practice.
The only time a new transmission is better is when it’s actually a new part, or in some cases a refurbished part (because they used upgraded parts to rebuild it). We wish that the used car market was more transparent, but the Harry Wormwoods of the world (Matilda’s crook of a used car salesman dad) are lurking about.
A VAN AS OLD AS YOU ARE
When you’re purchasing an older vehicle, there are some risks that are inherent given its age. When your van could be your slightly younger sister the integrity of its joints and belts (we’re not really good at car speak) are questionable, because let’s face it– these vans aren’t aging as well as you are. When you take your prospective van to a mechanic to check it out, you want to specifically ask what to watch out for. The lifetime of mechanical parts is finite, but the better a van is looked after, the more likely these parts will hold up against mechanical failure.
The other crux of buying a vehicle in general, is the odometer reading. You want to get a van with the lowest amount of miles possible. You will likely pay more upfront for a van with lower mileage, but you will end up paying for high miles down the road in the form of lots of dollars and broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road headaches (believe us from personal experience, there are few things more frustrating than being stranded on the side of a highway hundreds of miles from home and/or civilization).
WILL IT PASS INSPECTION?
Like us, you may not mind some cosmetic damage on the exterior or interior of the van. After all, it’s the reliability of the mechanics we’re interested in. But you may not (like we did not) consider whether the damage will prevent it from passing inspection. What may just look like a dent to the bumper may actually be a bent frame, which is not only definitely not going to pass inspection, it will cost you serious moolah on a van that’s probably not worth it.
It's worth leaving some extra cash wiggle room just in case you need to buy some parts. We had a mechanic in Boston tell us the van we purchased was in "immaculate condition" and still had to fork over some cash to pass PA state inspection (which is notoriously difficult)
Always ask a seller why they’re selling, because if they dance around its ability to pass inspection, that’s a mega red flags.
Don’t even get us started on the bureaucratic minutia involved with classifying and registering vehicles (blog post coming soon on buying a vehicle out of state because it’s UNNERVING). But inane or not, the different classes of vans is something you must consider. It will affect the kind of inspection required, kind of title, your insurance premiums, and even where you’re allowed to park it. Who knew van life was so confusing?
If you have any more questions or tips, we’d love to see your thoughts in the comments!