The Executive Summary
If you’re not interested in pursuing your own project, you can likely skip this post. If you’re looking for your own van, make a list of the top two to three things that are important to you and use that to identify your van. Do some homework. Use that to make a list of questions for the seller and help you determine what to look at when you go to test drive a good candidate. Take your time and don’t get too hung up on the details. All vehicles have some problems and you don’t need to have an entire floor plan laid out in order to take your next steps.
Once you’ve decided to live out of a van, or some other vehicle, the question becomes “which vehicle should you buy?”. Everyone has different ways of answering this question, but this is what I found worked best for me.
The first thing was to take stock of what was important to me. This can be a little tricky at first. I’m currently living in a house full of furniture and other stuff. Much of the stuff in my home seems important. But choosing to live out of a van means that I’ll be living without most of this stuff, thus challenging the very idea that these things are important at all. So when determining what’s important to you for van living, I think a good way to approach this exercise is to first limit your list to three bullets. What are your top three priorities? For me, it was the following:
- I wanted to be able to stand up straight while inside of the vehicle
- I wanted to be able to fit two bikes in the vehicle
That was it. Those were my top two that I would build from.
For me, standing up straight was a priority for a couple reasons. The first being that I live in Cleveland. The weather is not always so nice that you want to be outside. While plenty of van dwellers have outdoor canopies that they set up to extend their living space outdoors, I knew that this wasn’t always going to be an option for me. During a long day of working from your van, you might want to actually stand up once in a while. So I needed a vehicle with a high ceiling.
The second was bike storage. This, I suppose, is actually a sub-priority that stems from a higher one, but this is what I wrote down on my list. I was looking for something that could be a stealth camper. For those not familiar with the term, the basic idea is to keep your van looking like a standard utility van from the outside. You can then avoid paying for campsites all the time by parking in inconspicuous places within the city. Large shopping centers and industrial parks make good places for stealth camping as no one questions seeing a utility van parked in these places. In order to keep my van looking like a stealth camper, I needed to store my bikes inside the vehicle. I don’t recall ever seeing a plumber driving around with a couple mountain bikes strapped to the back of his van.
With those two priorities in mind, I began searching for a vehicle; and there are far more options than one might initially think. Some of the more common vehicles are the Sprinter, Econoline vans and other similar models, Westfalia Vanagons, and school buses. A couple more, less common options, are probably box trucks and step vans.
I really like the school buses, but I felt that these weren’t very stealthy. The step vans are a nice option, but they’re not very aerodynamic and so I don’t think they get very good gas mileage. They also don’t have many long body options, or perhaps I didn’t research them thoroughly enough. Everyone has different preferences, but the Sprinter is what I ultimately decided was the van for me.
Once you’ve settled on your vehicle of choice, you should probably dig into that vehicle a little deeper. Learn about different years and what they have to offer. Do some Google searches on common problems for that vehicle. Doing some research on common problems is good because it gives you some information on what to look at when you go to purchase your vehicles, but I wouldn’t let these issues scare you too much. There are enough people complaining online to make any vehicle seem like it will be nothing but a headache. The reality is that most of the problems you find are likely rare and only affect a small number of owners.
When buying a vehicle, there are a number of different websites to look at. I found Craigslist to be a valuable asset in my search, and ultimately what found me my Sprinter, but there are plenty of other used car websites out there. Take a look at all of these. Many of the listings will overlap from site to site, but some will be unique. Working with dealerships can be nice because they will often clean the vehicle and provide a history report. When dealing with private sellers, you may have to obtain a history report yourself.
When you’ve successfully located a good candidate, give the seller a call and perhaps have a list of questions about the vehicle. When buying the Sprinter, I often asked what the vehicle had been previously used for. Many used Sprinters on the market had previously been delivery trucks. Delivery trucks working in the city may not have too many miles on them, but their transmissions were usually well worn from all of the gear changing that comes along with city driving. Take your time when you go to look at the vehicle and don’t be afraid to walk away. If you’re like me, the urge to jump on the first deal you find will be great, but if it’s not right, wait for another to come along.
Be sure to give your van a good once over. It might be hot outside, but you don’t want to wait until it gets cold before discovering that the heat doesn’t work. In the first van I looked at, my friend noticed a small dip in the floor between the two front seats. We pulled up the rubber floor mat covering the cabin to discover a large hole had rusted through the floor. Yikes!
I mentioned it before, but I’ll mention it again for emphasis. Don’t get too hung up on the details. This is a big project, but you don’t need to have the entire thing planned out when you start. Some people like to plan every detail, and that’s okay, but don’t let it stall your project. Figure out what’s most important to you and use that to identify your vehicle. You can figure out the rest later.