So, you’ve made the decision to jump into Van Life. 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 Used Van. I have bought both a used van and a new van, so I have insight into both.
List of Contents
It is important to remember that: BUDGET = VAN + VAN CONVERSION + MONEY TO LIVE ON IN THE VAN FOR X-TIME. Therefore, if your budget is small you may not want to spend a large chunk of it on only the van. If that’s the case, head over to my post on How to Buy a Used Van. If the van being a large portion of your budget is ok with you, then you’re in the right place.
Regardless, it is still important to estimate out how much you’re willing to spend on the conversion. This could inform if you will do a DIY conversion or use a van building company. This is especially important if you choose to not DIY it. You need to be on the same page with the conversion company to make a happy relationship.
Equally important is estimating your monthly expenses and leaving room in the budget for food, gas, entertainment, van payment etc.
Buying a new van looks a little different than buying a used van. However, it does have a few similarities.
We have the most experience buying a Ford Transit.
Ford Transit, Dodge Promaster, or Mercedes Sprinter?
First, decide if you want to buy a Ford Transit, a Dodge Promaster, or a Mercedes Sprinter. These are the most common new vans. Within each of these three main options, there are a lot of choices to consider.
Deciding between the Ford, Dodge, or Mercedes is a big deal. They all have pros and cons. For example, the Mercedes Sprinter is the narrowest of the three. The Dodge is the widest. And the Ford is in the middle. This affects how you create your bed and if you can sleep width wise or length wise in the van.
Another consideration is their drive system. The pre-2020 Ford Transits are RWD. Only in the 2020 versions does the Ford Transit offer an AWD option. The Dodge Promasters are FWD. Finally, the Mercedes Sprinters are RWD. HOWEVER, for a price, all can be converted into 4WD. It’s just a matter if you want to or can pay for that or not.
As for height, the Ford and the Sprinter both have three height options: low, medium, and high roof. The Dodge only has two: low and high roof.
For length, all three have three lengths: a regular/standard, a long, and an extended. It’s important to pause here and ask yourself if you want to fit into a normal parking space or not. Is having the extra inside space more important than fitting into most parking spaces?
Finally, think about the places you will want to visit. Mechanically speaking, any mechanic anywhere will be able to work on a Ford and a Dodge. Ford and Dodge parts are readily available across the United States. However, not all mechanics can work on a Mercedes. And, Mercedes certified mechanics tend to be in cities to get more business. If you tend to avoid cities and you have a break down in your Sprinter, you may have to have it towed a long way to a mechanic. Moreover, if you get a shop that can work on it, chances are, they’ll charge you more for repair. It’s a Mercedes and its parts are more expensive.
For a more thorough investigation of these three, check out this post by Far Out Ride.
Our “MUST HAVES” for a New Van
For us, after owning a 2000 RWD Ford Econoline e250, AWD was a “MUST HAVE” for us. We often could not go down some dirt roads with it. We also could not have it during ski season in Colorado. One winter, we tried it and we could barely drive two miles to the grocery store. It made for a rough winter. We knew the AAA guys after the season.
Secondly, a high roof was a “MUST HAVE” for me. The old van had a roof topper, however, at 5”2’, my head touched the ceiling. It worked and was ok for a bit, but long term, not so much. Could we have done a mid-roof? Yes. However, we wanted the space for upper cabinets.
Thirdly, we wanted the Ford Transit with a long length. This means that we got the 148-inch wheelbase, but not extended. At the middle length, it gave us more space than the regular 130-inch wheelbase, but we could still fit in a normal parking space. Right now, an extra two feet of interior space was not worth it because of parking.
Lastly, we wanted the Eco-Boost Engine. Our previous Ford Econoline did not do well above 65 mph and struggled up hills and mountain passes. We were that van in the right lane chugging along slowly. Since we’re in the high country often, we wanted a van that would make it up those 10,000ft passes without such issue. Sometimes, we even struggled to get the speed quick enough to merge onto interstates safely sometimes.
Buying a New Ford Transit
I will speak directly to my own personal experience in buying a new Ford Transit. I cannot speak to the experiences of buying a new Promaster or a new Sprinter directly. However, I believe this story to be applicable across the board in figuring out the dealership lingo and ways of selling vehicles.
Remember those “MUST HAVES” from the beginning of the post? This comes back into play here. If you have 3-5 MUST HAVE features in the van, you will be able to more efficiently sort through all the extra that dealerships like to sell you.
Off the Dealership Lot VS. Building Your Own
Before you even call or stop by a dealership, do online research. For us, that was creating our “MUST HAVES.” Then, think about whether you want so many “MUST HAVES” that you need to custom build your van for order on the manufacturer’s website or if you can get enough of what you want on the lot.
Off the Dealership Lot
When dealerships buy vehicles from the manufacturer, they build out what they think most people will want in the van. For example, many dealerships assume that people will want rear windows in a cargo van to see out. They may even assume you want the new adaptive cruise control. These are extras that they have added.
Sometimes the dealerships will add interior upgrades like basic paneling on the walls. Occasionally, they will add a vinyl floor which looks better on the lot. These are small upgrades that help them sell a van in person. Again, extras.
How do I know those are extras? Because I did research online. Beforehand, I went onto Ford’s website and built out a cargo van to the specs I thought I wanted. I did this actually, probably 50 times to tinker with all the options and see how the pricing was determined. Which extras did I like and which did I not like? Which could I use, but could also live without?
Custom Build from Manufacturer’s Website
When you custom build your van on the Ford website, you can actually buy exactly what you like. The website will direct you to the nearest Ford Dealerships and they will order that specific van that you built online with your “intent to buy.” However, there are often large time delays with this method. They often say 4-8 weeks. But, in the turmoil of the pandemic, estimates range from 2-6 months. If you press them, the dealership will give you an accurate estimate, but not unless you really press. Why? Because the factory had to shut down due to a COVID outbreak. While this could change in the future, know that no matter what, there will be a waiting period. The waiting period might take significantly longer than you want.
When You Start Talking to a Dealership
After I was quoted most likely 6 months for a custom build, I decided to try to find one that already existed. This proved significantly more challenging than it should have been in the fall of 2020. Due to increased demand for vans and decreased production, less vans are available. Even less vans are available with my four “MUST HAVES.”
Normally, you can call a dealership that you like and work with the INTERNET SALESPERSON. Don’t call any random floor sales person. They will try to bring you in even if it’s not what you want at all. Floor sales people love to push the Transit Connects (a minivan). The INTERNET SALESPERSON can search their databases based on your MUST HAVES. Theoretically, they can trade vehicles if another dealership has what you want within 500 miles. This is a huge radius.
Here’s what the dealerships won’t tell you
- They will look locally first within a much smaller radius to dealerships that they have a prior relationship with.
- If the van you want is in high demand, the dealerships will a.) not trade unless you have a similar van, or b.) refuse to trade.
- If they can’t make the trade, they often will tell you it has sold when it has not sold to prevent you from going through another dealership.
- You have to ask them to expand their search. They want an easier sale, and a farther sale requires more work. To do this, they often need to talk with a manager. If they find one and manage to trade it, they will want a deposit for “intent to buy.”
- They will not tell you where other vans are, as they want you to buy a vehicle from them. Not all dealerships are owned by the same people.
- You can ask them where the nearest Ford Dealership is that deals in Fleet Vehicles (which is what vans fall under).
If many of the above items in the list are happening to you, remember that you can always walk away. There are other dealerships. Because they’re not all owned by the same people, often they are run differently. Some have better customer service than others.
Finally, most of the INTERNET SALESPEOPLE will contact you via cell phone texts. This is helpful because you can ask for a picture the sales sticker on the van. With the sticker, it is easier to sort through the sales pitches.
Interpreting the Sale Stickers
These are important to ask for when finding a van from the comfort of your couch. If you have the sticker, it will tell a.) the main details, b.) what comes standard for the base price, and c.) the added extras and how much they cost.
The main details are at the top of the sticker in white text on a dark background.
What the Sale Sticker Says:
- Make (Transit)
- The year
- The van’s gross weight (150, half ton; 250, three quarter ton; 350, one ton)
- Wheelbase length
- Engine type
- Exterior color
- Interior color
Why You Should Understand the Sales Sticker
This can be important because sometimes you will know more than the salesperson. For example, I had an internet salesperson swear to me that the 3.5L PFDI V6 was the EcoBoost Engine because the DI stands for Direct Injection. I’d seen enough stickers to know that they were two different engines and the one I wanted literally said “EcoBoost” in the engine type. See the sales stickers below for evidence.
The standard details will tell you what automatically comes in the van. This is important to know because these are included in the base price. Car salespeople will try to talk these up as if that’s why the price has increased. You’re getting these no matter what, so don’t let them fool you. Yes, for the 2020 Ford Transit that includes features like “Rain Sensing Wipers,” “Air Conditioning,” “Lane Keeping System,” and more.
Finally, what’s important to view is the bottom third of the sticker which is called, “what’s included in this vehicle” AT EXTRA CHARGE. This is where the dealership has added what they suspect you’ll want so they can sell it for a higher price. Things you’ll find here can be “Ebony Leather Seats Power Seats” for an additional $1,160, various tow packages, or a “Front/Rear Splitview Camera” for an additional $1,135.
Add-ons in this area add up fast. If you like these, then great! If you don’t, ask the internet salesperson to find a more basic van with less of these extras. Be specific about your “MUST HAVES” and remind them what matters to you. You know from practicing the build online what you like and what you don’t.
If there is a shortage of vans like there was for us, the “MUST HAVES” became very important. Hardly any vans existed in a 500 mile radius of where we were staying had our “MUST HAVES.” Therefore, when we found one with our four main criteria, we could not be picky about some of the additional add-ons. The dealership knew that if we did not get it, someone else would.
Examples of Sale Stickers
Above, we see two different sale stickers. Because Ford Transits come in three lengths, with three roof options, two main engine types, and three different weights, there are a lot of different variations. These two stickers are both for Ford Transit 250 with a 148 wheelbase (long length).
While I was specific about having an EcoBoost engine, dealerships continually try to pass off the 3.5L PFDI V6 Engines. If you want a specific engine, you must check at the top EVERY time they send you a sticker. That’s also where the wheelbase or length information is. I found, the internet sales people usually got the length right, but it’s always good to double check.
The middle section with the very squiggly lines is the exact same. That comes in the base price.
Pay attention to the last section. This is where the price can really start adding up with extra features. Sticker #1 does not have an EcoBoost Engine and has very few extras. This makes the price lower. It has additional keys, cruise control, a basic tow package, an extended fuel tank, an extra USB charge spot, and some handles. Not a ton.
The new van in sticker #2, has lots of extras. These you may or may not deem necessary. It includes all that the last van had and more. If you want all these extra features, fantastic! If you do not, tell your contact that you want a minimalist van. Explain to them which extras you want and ones you don’t want.
Actually Finding A Van
If you’re set on buying a van already in existence and not building one, there are a few strategies. These took me several phone calls to really figure out. I’ll save you the time here.
The first dealership you call may not be the best. The first one I called for us was terrible. They said they had two vans that met our criteria and had us make an appointment to come into the dealership. When we got there, they were two Transit Connects, not cargo vans. Then, when I asked about them sourcing one, they pushed having us build one and lied about the time frame. Finally, I asked if they could search and trade, they sent me to the manager who said sure and never called back. Do not get discouraged!
The second dealership I called, I got someone who really did not understand my query at all. It just did not compute. I hung up.
The third dealership I called had a very helpful internet salesperson who texted me many vans that were inside their normal trade area. However, not all of them met our criteria. He was persistent and kept looking. However, when I wanted to move on two of them, suddenly, they were “sold.” I found out later that this specific dealership only had a low roof van to trade and the other dealerships did not want to trade for it.
How to Hack the Dealership Bullshit
What this told me was that vans existed and the normal trade system was not working normally. This was a basic supply and demand issue.
Since the dealerships were not communicating very well, I decided to cold call them. I pulled up a map and started calling all the dealerships in the area that had anything with fleet vehicles in the Google Maps description. As I called, I kept a list of dealerships that I called including the name of the representative and what they said. I did not ask if they would look elsewhere, only if they existed on their lots outside. Piecemeal, I figured out the list of what they weren’t telling me written above.
After about twenty cold calls, I landed on a new and used dealership and found an honest person. He did not have anything that I wanted, however, he said in his own searches he thought what I wanted existed in Eastern Oregon. I was staying in Washington, so this was far, but not outrageous.
I shifted my map from Washington Ford Dealerships to Eastern Oregon Fords. Luckily, this was a smaller list. Miraculously, I found exactly what I wanted after three tries. It had a few extras that I did not really want, but it had taken me a month to find one that had my four MUST HAVES. I asked if he would hold the van until the next morning as we’d have a six hour drive to get there. He was old school and said sure. The rest was history.