The option to park at a trailhead after work and go to sleep for an early morning start makes adventuring more accessible, and while sleeping at a trailhead, it’s nice to have somewhere to sleep instead of a tent.
Why a camper van?
My husband, Andy, and I have been sleeping in the back of our Jeep for years on outdoor adventures and road trips. The process was somewhat complex of shuffling gear from the back of the Jeep to the front seats, folding down the back seats, blowing up sleeping pads, and laying out sleeping bags before going to sleep.
We’ve been a one-car family for the last six years. After returning from living abroad and starting another work commute, we toyed with the option of getting a second car. Maybe a reliable Volvo or gas efficient vehicle.
I love road trips, and the van life is a tempting one. Since Andy works remotely and only needs access to a vehicle to do errands or could potentially do work from the road, a van made more sense for our lifestyles, plus I vanpool to work so the Jeep doesn’t get much use during the week anyways.
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Camper van criteria
Unless you want to spend the money and customize a van yourself, buying a built-out camper van can be more affordable and save you time. Though, you may not know what you want unless you have spent time in a van or on the road for periods of time. Andy and I tend to be simple in what we need and had the below things in mind but were flexible and open to a variety of options.
As mentioned, a camper van will help me live an outdoor lifestyle with its ready-to-sleep bed and storage to hold gear. Growing up, I spent most summers in state parks scattered between Pennsylvania and New York with a family of six crammed into a camp trailer. Now, I want to be able to explore as far as a vehicle can take me.
You save money when you can have a mobile home without needing to pay for hotels and minimize eating at restaurants while traveling. Being able to find public lands and dispersed camping or paying a smaller fee (compared to a hotel) to park at a campground for a few nights.
We wanted one that didn’t take much “work,” like running water for a sink, cleaning a bathroom, or features that would rattle or make the van heavier. Weight = lower miles per gallon.
Make and model
Sprinter vans tend to cost a small fortune, but they tend to be better on gas mileage. Since the van is a second car, I wanted something that could navigate the city if needed and be able to park in crowded parking lots.
You can also use the make and model, plus year, to estimate how much maintenance can cost in the future. Is the type of van hard to find parts for? Does the make have dealerships where you live? What parts will need to be serviced after driving many road trips? Are newer models still being placed on market or is the model discontinued? All are good questions to find answers to before making a decision.
Finding a camper van with the right combination of year and mileage can be tricky, especially if you live in a region of the U.S. where having camper vans is normal. Supply is limited and demand is high, so people can sell at a premium even with an older van with more mileage.
My dad is a mechanic, and I was spoiled before moving away with only needing to pay for parts and not labor. Living in a large metropolitan area, labor costs can definitely set you back, especially if you don’t know how to do some of the work yourself.
- Check the warranty on the van. Is it expired? What does the warranty include?
- Does it have a clean title, meaning it hasn’t had any major body work from accidents?
- Did the van have regular oil changes?
- When was the last regular maintenance done on the van and what did it include?
- Check the make and model and research online if any recalls have been replaced or what the regular maintenance schedule looks like. Was it serviced at the milestone maintenance suggested by the dealer?
- Does the seller have proof of the maintenance?
- What type of drivetrain does the van have (rear wheel drive, front wheel drive, all wheel drive, four wheel drive)?
If you’re buying a built-out van, consider what improvements you may want to make.
- Do you plan on installing new features or replacing some from the prior owners?
- Who did the build-out?
- Did they know what they were doing?
- How does the suspension handle the added weight?
- Do you want to upgrade the drivetrain?
- Do you want to add swivel to the seats?
Budget / cost
Set your budget with a little wiggle room. Make sure to know your max and that it will cost money to customize it or personalize it to your lifestyle. Though some of the upgrades can span for months as you get used to the van. Start scanning what it does cost even if you’re half-considering purchasing a van. Think of a payment plan. Do you need to get a loan out or do you have enough money to buy with cash?
Research the market price for the make and model of the camper van base plus the mileage for a starting point. Ask for an itemized list of all the built-ins and features.
- Are the features worth the additional cost of the van from the market value?
- Is the van fully built or was it a project for someone that still needs work? Sometimes, owners want a van and realize it is a time and cost investment or they have other life changes that cause them to sell the van.
Get as much information and make a spreadsheet with itemized features and costs. Don’t forget to add the cost for a title transfer, registration, and taxes.
In the technology age, people like to be connected or use smart devices to navigate. Another big factor for buying a van is how much power (electric and solar) does the van take.
- What features will drain the battery most? Refrigerator? Lights? Space heater?
- What are your power requirements?
- How many house batteries are required?
- How does the van recharge? Solar? Shore Power? Alternator?
- Does it have a way to plug into an electrical outlet at a campsite or house to recharge?
I’ll be honest, I’m not overly knowledgeable on this subject, but know that I need to monitor the house battery to make sure not to let it get too low without being able to recharge it.
For more information, check out my friend’s, Kristen’s, solar panel and electrical system tips.
Finding the camper van online
After deciding to buy a van, we had the expectations we wouldn’t find one right away. Both of us started scanning Craiglist and found one almost immediately. Low mileage and a good price. Was it too good to be true?
The listing of the van provided some details, but the pictures are what sold us. Below is the posted description:
This camper van comes complete with queen size bed, tons of storage, solar panel, and outdoor kitchen setup. All appliances and electronics included in the van come with manual and warranties.
- Engine: 3.7L V6
- Queen size bed
- Low-energy RV TV that folds down from ceiling for watching movies in bed
- Pull out cubby for electric or ice cooler
- Solar panel with battery
- Ample interior lighting on several different switches, including a dim interior red light. Interior can be illuminated from very bright white light down to soft mood lighting(color changing options.)
- Cooktop with kitchen storage pulls out from back for outdoor cooking with propane bottles
- Awning with optional wind/privacy flap comes off side of van
- Speakers installed on barn doors for listening to tunes while hanging out under the awning
- Tinted windows
The build on this van is VERY well done, must see!
They were right!
Decision phase: Asking the right questions
When looking at the van for the first time, we compiled a list of questions and notes we wanted to make to help us decide. I can get flustered meeting new people, especially in a large, busy Trader Joe’s parking lot. Lists will look different depending on what you want out of your camper van. You can refer to the topics above for more details, but below is a rough list I wanted to make sure the seller covered.
- Regular maintenance
- Clean title – no accidents or body damage
- Prior life – who had the van before?
- Electrical details
- Build-out details
- Kitchen details
- Storage, especially hidden compartments
- Test drive
The most value was having conversations and walking through all the features in the van to help with the decision making phase.
Van buying process
The buying process definitely varies from state to state and from owner to buyer depending on the situation. Is the van owned by the bank (loan) or by the owner (owner has possession of the title)? You can see where it can get complicated and you have to trust you’re making smart decisions, on both ends.
How’d we trust them? They had little to no online presence, which made it hard to make an educated guess on if they were reliable. First, the owner shared her driver’s license and was super transparent about the costs of the van, shared a spreadsheet of all the items they built into the van, plus receipts, and shared other details.
They also had to trust us as part of the deal. We met them in person to see the van the first time. After lots of back and forth, thanks to Andy, we drove to their house to pay for the van and drive it away.
Even though we didn’t have the title, we had a signed Bill of Sale in case we were pulled over and questioned. We then had 15 days to transfer the title from the owners to us.
We’re slowly adding improvements and small items specifically for the van. Check out my full list of van life recommended products. I’ll be adding more as we get situated.
Stay tuned as I continue to share more about customizing our new van!