Before buying a van for VanLife, you have a lot to consider. It would be great to only have 1 or 2 or 3 “must-haves” and forget about everything else, but unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. I’m going to list all the different things you need to consider before buying your van, and then provide some advice for when you go to look at them.
Before Buying a Van for VanLife
Before you ever step foot on a lot, contact someone on Craigslist, or start crowd-sourcing your search on social media, you have to decide what your life is going to look like once you move into your van. You have to decide why you’re moving into a van in the first place. Once you do that, then you can start looking at the different shapes, sizes, and mechanical specifications.
Let’s start with my #1, biggest regret after buying my van.
High top, pop-top, or standard roof height
Choosing the best roof height for you is going to set you up for long term happiness, or a life of discomfort. Living in a van is going to be inconvenient no matter what so get this part right and make it a little better for yourself.
If you know for sure that you only need to sleep in your van and can spend the rest of your time outside, then a standard height van might be for you. If you never plan to live in a cold climate, a pop-top might work. But if you plan to live and work from your van, I suggest finding a way to buy a high top.
Even if you spend a TON of time living outdoors, there’s still quite a few hours in the day when you might be trapped inside — bad weather, feeling lazy, being stuck in a city and parked next to free wifi, ran out of things to do outside for that day, and on and on. This is when you’ll wish you could stand up.
This is typically everyone’s starting point, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t gloss over the importance of choosing the right height for you.
If you’re on a budget or you plan to DIY build your van yourself, it’s possible to find a smokin deal on a van for about $1,500 – $3,000, but those usually come with risks: high mileage, known mechanical problems, have been sitting outside for the past 5 years unmaintained.
I would say a more realistic price range for a used-and-in-good-condition van is closer to $6k – $9k. Unless you’re buying from a private party, the mechanical risks in this price range are minimal as long as you do some incredibly basic checks while on the lot.
If you’re looking for something brand new, already built-out, or paying someone to do it for you. The sky’s the limit. I have personally seen some vans that cost $100,000. But even if you just want an entry level, already-done-for-you option, you should expect to get into that market for around $15,000.
Small. Small vans are minivans, meant for hauling around kids and soccer gear. Don’t be mistaken, TONS of people have turned them into homes as well.
Medium. There aren’t a lot of medium sized vans. They tend to be one step bigger or one step smaller. For reference, a Chevy Astro Van fits into this category.
Large. Large vans are the standard cargo vans used by construction companies and mobile businesses. They’re also used for conversion vans which usually have rear seats that fold into a bed, a tv, and a few storage options already fit into it. These are a great platform to start from, and you can easily add or modify the interior for whatever you need.
Extra Large. For people wanting to live in their van full-time, I recommend sticking to this option if possible. It gives you the most space for storage, living areas, and comfort. They are built on the same platform as Large vans, but designated by “extra wide” or “extra long” from the manufacturer.
Drivetrain. Most affordable, full-sized vans are only two-wheel drive, but 4WD is available if you’re able to pay for it. If you can live with a smaller van, like an Astro Van or minivan, you can even get AWD.
Windows. With more views to the outside world, you also expose yourself to window peepers. Trust me, you’re going to get that a lot. They’re also harder to insulate if you plan to spend a lot of time in colder climates.
Engine size. Each manufacturer has pros and cons, within their own models and compared to competition. Researching this is a topic all by itself, so I’ll just address the general size here. Smaller engines usually get better fuel economy. But if you plan on visiting a lot of mountainous areas, you’ll need something bigger, or a turbo, to safely make it up and over mountain passes.
Gas vs. Diesel. Diesel vans are more expensive to buy and more expensive to fix, but they get better fuel economy, have higher torque, more power, and last longer. A diesel can easily last for 400,000 miles.
What to look for when buying your van
No matter how much research you’ve done ahead of time, the actual purchase is always the riskiest part. Buying from a private party is much more risky than buying from a dealership, and while it’s impossible to know 100%, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if your van is going to breakdown a week after driving it home, these simple checks will give you a little piece of mind.
1) Get it checked out by an independent mechanic, bonus points if they’re your friend
Since they don’t have a dog in the fight, they have no reason to hold back any bad news. It’s nothing to them if you don’t buy it. Alternatively, if they end up saving you from buying a lemon, you might come back to them as a customer the next time you get some work done.
2) Check for leaks
In general, leaks are bad. Especially if it’s oil or transmission fluid. They can point to much bigger, much more expensive problems.
3) Check the oil
Ask them when the last oil change was. Make sure it’s still at the proper level and relatively clear if it was recent. If it’s low, it might be leaking or burning it. If it’s already black, the engine could be overly dirty, or it might have sticky engine valves. Lastly, if it smells sweet, antifreeze might be leaking into the fuel system.
4) Check the transmission fluid
Ask when the last time it was flushed. Check the level. Check the color. If it’s black, it’s burning too hot and that means something else is wrong.
Just don’t forget to look these over. If they’re low on tread, use it as a bargaining tool when haggling the price or get them to add some new ones.
Ask if they serviced them, how much longer they should last, and listen for squealing when on your test drive.
7) Weird sounds
Most people wanting to live in a van have already been driving for many years of their life. While you may not be able to identify exactly what a sound is, you still probably have a gut feeling when you hear something weird. Make sure to ask about it.
Actually buying your van for VanLife
I listed as many things as I possibly could for buying your van for vanlife, but by no means can I be held accountable if someone sells you a lemon. There are far too many variables for me to know everything about every van ever made, and I’m not a mechanic.
However, the things listed here are a great starting point for your vanlife buying journey, and I’ve given you many things to research when making an educated decision.
If you still need more help or aren’t even sure where to start searching for your new van, never hesitate to reach out and schedule some time with me. Good luck and let me know what you buy!