Art & Freedom On The Road

Choosing Your Van

By Joe On 13th September 2018

Buying your van can feel like the biggest hurdle before you get started. To van lifers, its not just a van, it’s a home! When we bought our van, it was like buying our first home so we wanted to get it right and considered all our options.

Benefits of a self build campervan

We originally looked into getting a ready made campervan for our travels. It was only when we realised the drawbacks of motorhomes that we decided to go down the self build route. For short term travelling and particularly if you have no ability or desire to renovate a van, then a motorhome is for you. For us, we found not only were motorhomes too expensive, but for our budget we would have ended up getting something nearly 30 years old, that’s going to be investing into a vehicle likely unreliable and with a poor mpg.

Also, we realised if we were going to be living in it long term we would want to make it our own. We’re not very materialistic, but we wanted to be surrounded by something a little less oppressive than 80’s brown and beige colour scheme, and it was also nice knowing that we could make the layout any way we wanted it to be.

Things to Consider When Buying A Van

If you’ve already chosen to go down the self build route, don’t feel too daunted, theres actually not that many factors to account for when buying a van, firstly because there aren’t that many makes that are affordable and widely available, and secondly because they tend to come in a small variety of sizes. Your budget will probably narrow your options for you.

#1 Size - Vans typically come in 4 lengths (Small Wheel Base, Medium Wheel Base, Long Wheel Base, Extra-Long Wheel Base) and 3 heights (Standard Roof, High Roof and Extra High Roof). Below are the Mercedes Sprinter measurements for each size. We have a Long Wheel Base High Top.

  Mercedes Sprinter model   Maximum load length (mm)   Maximum load height (mm)   Maximum load volume (cu m)
  Short Wheel Base, standard roof     2,700     1,650     7.5  
  Short Wheel Base, high roof     2,700     1,940     8.5  
  Medium Wheel Base, standard roof     3,365     1,650     9.0  
  Medium Wheel Base, high roof     3,365     1,940     10.5  
  Medium Wheel Base, super-high roof     3,365     2,140     11.5  
  Long Wheel Base, high roof     4,400     1,940     14.0  
  Long Wheel Base, super-high roof     4,400     2,140     15.5  
  Extra-long Wheel Base, high roof     4,800     1,940     15.5  
  Extra-long Wheel Base, super-high roof     4,800     2,140     17.0  

#2 Make – Vans are pretty much the same in essence, but there are suttle differences between some makes in design, for example the Peugeot Boxer is more “boxy” and therefore less internal curves and more space! We found Boxers where expensive and not as widely available in our region, so it depends how important the shape of the van is to you. Some people have also recommended its worth going for a make that’s popular in the countries you’re travelling as parts may be easier to get hold of, however we didn’t worry too much about this as it’s easy to ship parts anywhere in the world these days. 

#3 Budget - Ford Transits and Mercedes Sprinters are the cheapest and most popular vans I encountered in the UK. It’s worth keeping an eye on auto trader and eBay for used vans as you may find a good deal on any kind. I spent around 6 months keeping an eye on private listings but inevitably we ended up travelling to a Mercedes Sprinter wholesaler who specifically sold ex-DPD vans and they were the cheapest. We paid just under £6000 for a 6-year-old high top LWB sprinter with a few dents and 170,000 miles on the clock, they took our car in part exchange too! We initially thought the mileage was insanely high but learnt that vans are built to do at least 250,000 miles and many can reach 400,000 without needing too much work, this was in fact ok because we only forecasted to do around 15,000 miles a year. 

#4 Condition - Not knowing much about vans, I took Alice’s dad along to help me pick the right van at the ex-DPD depot. Here’s the main things he looked out for:

  • Rust – Unfortunately with many cheap vans they don’t treat the body work properly before painting, so it probably will have rust, but some more than others. Rust can be sanded off and re-painted if it’s not too extensive, so try and go for one with the least amount of rust possible.
  • Dents – Most vans have the odd minor dent and scratch here and there, but how bad are they and do any dents show signs of severe collision? We have a minor dent in the driver’s side rear wheel arch and it rusted, so we just treated it and re-painted.
  • Tyres/Brakes – How much tread is there in the tyres? How do the brakes discs and pads look? Bear in mind you may have to replace all these things sooner rather than later on some used vans so account for this in your budget.
  • Clutch – Some delivery vans are used on shorter routes and others on long routes, so if the mileage is low pay extra attention to the clutch, have a little test drive and see if it sticks.
  • Gear box – Again, on shorter routes the gear box may have suffered more abuse, make sure all the gears work smoothly.
  • Engine – Start it up, how does it sound? You’ll know if you hear anything abnormal such as clunking, if so avoid if you’re not much of a mechanic.

Any questions buying your van feel free to ask us! Also, if you’ve had experience in buying your van and have any extra tips please share and I can add to this page.

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