#Vanlife, in the words of Derek Zoolander, is “so hot right now”. If, like ourselves, you are keen for endless adventure, then you’re going to need to find yourself a van. We have been researching, viewing and testing vans for the last two months and it’s been a rollercoaster of an ordeal.
So we’ve put together some tips on finding the right van and verifying that it is “the one” for you, as many vans will be flawed, from excessive rust to a hidden and dark history.
1. Front wheel vs. rear wheel drive
To begin your journey you’ll need to decide on the base of the van you want to convert. There are many makes out there, but the majority will either be based on rear wheel or front wheel drive. There are of course also four wheel drive options, but these are rare and expensive.
Front Wheel Drive Vans
Some FWD vans include Fiat Ducato, Peugeot Boxer, Citroen Relay and Renault Master. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:
- Higher internal height and width in cargo bay
- Better fuel economy
- Greater under floor space for water tanks etc
- Cheaper purchase costs
- Less grip in hazardous conditions
- Less power under load
- Shorter overall body lengths
- Higher maintenance costs
Rear Wheel Drive Vans
Some RWD vans include Mercedes Sprinter, Volkswagen Crafter, Ford Transit and Iveco Daily. Again, the pros and cons:
- Better grip
- Generally longer internal load areas
- Cheaper to maintain (most of the time)
- More power – generally RWD vehicles have larger engine options
- Less internal height due to a higher standard floor height
- Higher loading/entry height
- Worse fuel economy
- Higher initial cost
If you look at many specialist motorhome builders they will use FWD vans more often than RWD ones.
With that being said, we opted for a Mercedes Sprinter because I’m a really tall human being at 6’ 5” and wanted to have a full length bed parallel to the van. Also we loved the feel of the Mercedes and the enhanced build quality, even if there might be higher maintenance and initial costs from a “premium” van.
2. Checking for rust
Rusting vans are something to absolutely avoid, and looking around the outside panels of the van is not enough. You need to fully examine the van’s structure. Start your search at the back of the van and check the suspension on both the supports and joins. These should be fully intact and show no flaking. You’ll need to learn the difference between surface and structural rust.
I’ve marked two examples in the picture above.
Then move up to the wheel arches, and then get right under the centre of the van to the drive shaft and the exhaust. If at any point you see any major degradation from rust you should avoid the van.
On the inside of the van, check for rust around the ceiling joins in the cargo bay. It’s really rare not to find any signs of rust at all, especially on vans older than 3-4 years, but it’s important to understand where rust can occur and to judge its severity.
Rust is really hard to treat. If body panels are rusted you can get replacements, but if drive shafts, suspension or exhausts are rusted it’s a much more difficult and expensive job getting them replaced.
3. Checking for mechanical issues
Always always always conduct a road test. I spoke to a couple of van dealers who said they didn’t do road tests. Without testing the van, you have very little leverage in negotiations, so you really need to get behind the wheel! On your road tests you need to check the following:
- Turbo charger – do this by accelerating hard uphill and listening to the engine carefully. You should hear no loud whistling/whining or knocking sounds.
- Brakes – perform an emergency stop, checking that the van does not veer to the left or right.
- Engine test – You can grab an OBD engine testing tool on amazon for $16 which can check all diesel engines for warning codes as long as the van is younger than 2006. This is a must for everyone to own.
- Clutch – Sometimes hard to fully understand on a short road test, you should have plenty of give on the clutch when fully depressed and a short biting range preferably near the top of the release. If you’re buying an automatic van this is obviously irrelevant!
4. Lease or Private Van
Many vans are bought by lease companies who lease them to courier companies who use them for 1-3 years before taking them back in and selling them on.
Lease vans generally are not very well looked after. The drivers will push them to their limits. At this point, you need to be very thorough in your search. You need to make sure you know the history of the van, so any lease van with no service history is almost always a no go!
You’re going to get the best deals on lease vans, but could get unlucky. We’ve gone for a 2-year- old ex-lease with service history every 3000 miles so (touch wood) it should do just fine.
Changing the colour of your van after buying it is a costly exercise. A full re-spray is $4000+, whereas a wrap is around $1500-2000. So if you buy a van in a colour you hate, be wary that to change it you’ll need to spend a lot.
White vans make up 87% of listings on Autotrader, so sellers may charge a premium for a silver/black/blue etc but it may actually be more cost effective to buy up front in the colour you want!
If, like us, you’re buying a 7m long wheelbase panel van there are some critical optional extras, such as parking sensors and/or a reversing camera. I don’t know how we’d cope without a reversing camera.
Another extra to consider is air conditioning, as aftermarket air con costs a lot of money ($1500+), and if you’re going to be travelling to hot climates often, getting a van with inbuilt air con is vital for comfort on the road.
It goes without saying that newer vans have more modern conveniences. It really is worth noting the difference between the models you’re considering by year.
For instance in 2014, Mercedes Sprinters went through some big changes. They had a completely new design with a new aggressive front end, as well as major changes to the anticorrosive coatings that come as standard on mechanical parts. Crosswind and hillstart assist were also added to make tricky driving conditions that little bit easier.
Editors note: On the other hand, buying an older van with fewer sensors and a simpler engine means any maintenance and repairs can be done by anyone who is mechanically minded. This is something to consider if you’re driving into isolated places especially.
A good rule of thumb is to not buy the first van you see. Don’t buy a van that has any major rust or dodgy history. Ultimately the time you put into your research up front and combing through ads over several weeks will ensure you get the most trustworthy and suitable van for your buck.
The hours spent hunting the classifieds will be worth it, I promise! Best of luck on your van hunt, and feel free to get in touch if you need any pointers!
Written by Will from the Feral Escape
Feral Escape is an adventure travel blog started by Will & Emily, two travel addicts with a passion for off the beaten track experiences.