Good for you! You’ve made the decision to jump into #VanLife. All you need is a van. I’ve broken down the steps in the table of contents in case you want to jump around, although I think reading everything helps.
Some sections are applicable whether you are buying a used or a new van, so you might see a few similarities if you read my other post How to Buy a New Van. I have bought both a used and a new van, so I have insight into both.
List of Contents
Used Van Budget Considerations
It is important to remember that:
BUDGET = VAN + VAN CONVERSION + MONEY TO LIVE ON THE ROAD FOR X-TIME.
Therefore, if your budget is small you may not want to spend a large chunk of it on only the vehicle. Used Vans are awesome for your budget.
A used van will, in most cases, cost half as much or less than a brand-new van. This can make or break some van life budgets. For example, if you buy a previously owned van for roughly half the cost of a new one, you have more money to spend on the conversion or traveling later. Sometimes you might have more work gutting the interior from its prior life, but you pay for that in your time.
I say “in most cases” because there are some instances where you might want to purchase a used van that has already been converted. This would mean your VAN + VAN CONVERSION would be one price point instead of two. Depending on the conversion and condition of the van, this may or may not be a good choice.
If you’re budget is quite small, consider the older Ford Econoline series. Chevy and GMC also made some sturdy older models. You can generally find a fairly solid Ford Econoline on Craigslist for $2-7,000. They might not be ideal, but they will get you on the road and sometimes that’s the most important part!
Now, you can also find Transits, Sprinters, and Promasters made within the last ten years as vans with previous owners. The cost range here will vary more, but they give a good middle ground between the older models and the brand new ones. Our first van was a 2000 Ford Econoline e250 and it worked great for four years. We lived in it for 1-3 month stretches, not full time. That Econoline got us on the road and we had many amazing road trips in it. It gave us the taste to save up for a van that more suited our needs.
What are your 3-5 determining “MUST HAVES” for your van?
This section goes for a used and new van alike.
Before we dive into specifics, think about what features of a van can you not live without? Since you’ve decided to dive into Van Life, I know you have some ideas of what you’d want in a van. We’ve all watched van tours on YouTube and seen many different Instagram posts about vans.
It’s important to start thinking about 3-5 “MUST HAVES” or “MAKE OR BREAK” features that will make you happy in your van. For instance, a high roof might be a must have for a tall person. However, for someone who is only 5 ft tall, maybe a mid-roof would suffice. Maybe stealth is your ultimate goal and a low roof will work perfectly for you.
Another consideration is often the drive system. This refers to the van having Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD), Front-Wheel Drive (FWD), All-Wheel Drive (AWD), or Four-Wheel Drive (4WD). What type of roads you plan to drive and in what season can determine which drive system would work better for you. For example, if you are a snowbird and prefer warmer climates, you may be fine with RWD as long as you stay away from the severely rutted dirt roads and sand. However, if you’re an avid skier and seek out the snow, RWD can really limit what you can do in the winter. Here, AWD or 4WD would work much better.
Start a small list with a few of your “MUST HAVES” because these will make you happier with your van choice in the long run. Having this list will help you make more informed decisions when the right van comes about whether it is new or used. It will help prevent you from making the wrong impulse decision and help you make an informed quick decision if time is of the essence.
Helpful Information about your Potential Used Van
Used vans come in all shapes, sizes and conditions. This means, one must examine them with a certain amount of scrutiny and be able to walk away.
With a previously owned van, remember your budget. Have a threshold that you’re willing to spend. Know if you can go above that a little and compromise somewhere else.
Make sure you look the van over with a critical eye. Check under the hood. Get down and look for rust or leaks under the van. Bring a small flashlight or use your phone to look at the nooks and crannies. Check the gauges on the dash to make sure they run properly. Listen to the sounds it makes.
If you can, ask for the VIN number and get a car history report. This will tell you what a person might not. Get your own and do not go through whatever website they send you a link to. This will help you make a more informed decision before you even see the van. If the van is a long drive away, get this before driving. If you decide it’s not worth seeing because of the record, then the cost of the report is less than the gas and your time.
Many websites are helpful in finding used vans. The common ones are Craigslist and Auto Trader. You can have a wide variety of experiences using both websites. Another option is looking at Vanlife Trader. Here you can connect well with the seller, however, a lot gets marked up. Occasionally, you can find a deal, but often you see already converted vans for quite expensive. Lastly, Facebook Marketplace might have a few options as well.
The image below is a sample of what you can find on Vanlife Trader. They have a large selection that vary drastically in price and conversion level. On their front page you can scan their featured vans or you can be very specific in your search. This is a great way to find a used van that has already been converted. This allows you to get on the road quickly, but often at a price.
Used Car Dealerships
Both Craigslist and Auto Trader often have used car dealerships posting on them as well as vans sold by the owner. It is important to know that in both cases, you can often have a mechanic of your choice look over the van. With a used car dealership, they usually have a clause that you can add in when agreeing to buy the vehicle. This states that you have a 48-hour window to bring the van to your mechanic and if your mechanic finds major engine or transmission problems, you can return the van for the full price that you paid.
I did this when I purchased the 2000 Ford Econoline from a used car dealership. The car salesperson was a slimy individual who I did not fully trust. However, the van fit my MUST HAVES at the time and it was within my budget. With this clause, I called my favorite mechanic and immediately brought the van to his shop for him to check it out. He dug around a bit and jumped in the car to drive it. When he gave it his stamp of approval, I felt more confident in the purchase.
Another factor to consider is that you may not find the best deal with a used car dealership. Because the dealership becomes the middleman, you add in another party that has to make money as well. This can be helpful and not so helpful. They often will wash and detail the van before posting it, but they may or may not do anything mechanically. Therefore, it is important to do some research on a prospective used car dealership to see if the reviews lean toward their honesty or their shadiness.
Is the maybe $500 of detailing worth the upcharge that they are adding?
One upside to going through a dealer is that they do the beginning title work for you already. Then you just take the paperwork they give you to a DMV or Licensing Agency depending on your state.
Used Vans Sold by Owner
If you opt to buy a van sold by the owner, you have more negotiation power and ability to have it seen by a mechanic before you buy it. Most people are willing to let you test drive it one or more times. Make sure you drive it on small roads and get it up to at least 60 mph on the highway. Older vans often do not have the get-up-and-go necessary for lots of highway travel.
Go with your gut when buying a used van from an individual. If something does not seem right, it probably isn’t. Have a few conversations with the seller and ask them how they used the van and any problems they had. You can also ask these questions of at a used car dealership.
Some helpful questions to ask are:
- Why are you selling the van?
- Is the title clean?
- What did you use the van for?
- Has the van ever broken down on you? If so, what happened?
- Has the van ever been in an accident?
- When was the last time this van had an oil service?
- How old is the battery?
- What is the size of the engine? Has the engine ever been flooded?
- If the van has been converted or partially converted: How did you convert it? What materials did you use? Did you treat the wood with mold and mildew prevention or a waterproofer? On any holes in the van, did you use rustoleum or paint and primer on the metal? How is the electrical system wired if it has one? Could you explain the plumbing system if it has one? If you could change anything, what would you change?
If you’re good to go and you purchase a used van by owner, make sure you re-title it per your state’s requirements. This is best to do sooner rather than later. For example, Washington state gives you fifteen days to do this. Other states differ. If the seller has somehow done anything illegal in the van, it’s best to get your own plates as fast as possible. Get the vehicle titled in your name.
A Note on Search Terms and Areas
When you search online and find nothing initially, do not despair. Before you give up, try changing your search terms. Be less specific at first, then narrow slowly based on your MUST HAVES. For instance, don’t start your search on Craigslist with “Ford Transit 2016 high roof swivel seats extended gray.” Maybe start with “Ford Transit Extended.” Another try would be “Ford Transit high roof” and see what comes up. You can always add the swivel seats or a coat of paint later.
Switch your terms around and try searching different combinations. Repeat on different websites.
Also, do not be afraid to search outside of your local area. Of course, try local first. But, search within 100 miles, then search within 200 miles. Even, try searching near your friend or family member who lives a few hours away. This is particularly true on Craigslist and Auto Trader.
Finally, repeat once a week or twice a week. New vans get posted all the time. You never know when your new to you van will appear in an ad. I scanned craigslist in multiple cities for months before I found what I wanted within my budget. If you find nothing, the right van just has not been posted yet.
Listen to your gut, do thorough research before, and be willing to walk away.
Cheers to your new-to-you van!