Guide to buying a used Camper van, What to look out for. A check list. Avoid expensive mistakes
You have decided to live the dream and pull the trigger on a camper van. Spent hours on Instagram, forums, and youtube. You are ready to start your adventures! Its a huge investment however with an over whelming selection of used vans in a very wide price range. What is a good buy?
Hopefully you have read some of our build articles, we cover some of the main things we feel are important in a build. Nothing is more upsetting to have a customer bring in their newly purchased van for some "upgrades" and explain to them what they purchased has some really significant problems or worse something that is just flat out dangerous. This post will cover some of the top things to consider to avoid in some cases huge mistakes.
By far the most important thing on any van is how well is the seller providing detailed information on the build other than a huge list of parts. Its always what you DON'T see is what counts. Just like buying a house, it can be an amazing looking pig...but underneath its still a pig.
How was the van built?
What materials where used and why?
Where the materials used specific for automotive use?
Was it professionally done by an ESTABLISHED REPUTABLE builder?
Are there photos of the build in progress, this is really important in a DIY van build or a builder that is new to building vans
If DIY did the owner take photos of what they did, how they did it, and how did they know they did it correctly?
If there is excellent documentation of the build it's more likely it was done correctly as the seller is proud of the work done and shows attention to detail. We are talking about the stuff you don't see. Look at really high end custom car builders, they spend so much time on fabrication of stuff that is totally hidden because their attention to detail is important. But this can really add on costs 2-3 times more to the build, but the work will last forever. This applies to professional builders and even more so to the DIY builder. In general, like with everything else experience counts. If Not saying a DIY build is done wrong, we have seen some really nice DIY builds done at a high professional level but its rare, especially if its their first one.
Looks can be deceiving
Can't emphasize enough, its the details that count. If the van has a "Martha Stewart" looking interior, look beyond that and the fit and finish of the work. Are the cabinets van specific or from Ikea or Home depot? What is the access like to make repairs, modifications, or trouble shooting? Did the builder allow access to do this? Can wall panels be removed easily if you need to get behind them or are they "nailed in" (this should never be done) so you can't ever remove them? Quality builders always think of these aspects. If the wrong materials or construction methods are used the van will fall apart. You can't build a van like a house. A house doesn't move. A van's interior can flex up to an inch, it gets rattled to death, twisted, and the hot/cold extremes really push the limits on how things will hold up. This is the main reason boats are so expensive, they have to handle a lot of stress and a van is no different. Its no different than a house built in Hawaii for hurricanes is different than a house built in the mountains that gets 20-30 feet of snow a year.
This is the area where most take huge shortcuts especially by DIY builds as its by far the most complicated. Its also totally hidden? Was it done correctly? Was it spec'd correctly to the requirements of the user? Any short cuts taken? How will you know?
Documentation- any pics
Does it look clean and tidy? - This a sign its more likely done correctly
Proper wires used? Connectors?
What type of battery system?
Was the battery system installed correctly, different batteries have different installation requirements
Will the battery system meet your needs? (There are differences, and they can be significant in results and performance)
Charging the system back up- does it have alternator and solar charging? If not what is involved in adding it? Why was it not done?
Don't know? Ask the builder to explain, if they know what they are doing they should feel and sound really comfortable explaining this in really good detail. This is a big learning curve, especially on high voltage systems. You might want to consider hiring professional to look it over. You would hired a house inspector right to look at a house? Why wouldn't you hire a pro before you spend 50-100k on a used van? A few hundred dollars could avoid thousands of dollars later, worse worse you van burning up or someone getting hurt. low voltage systems are less critical, high voltage (house outlets) gets way more serious and great care should be taken when van has house type outlets and shore power hook ups.
Clean panel right?
Looks whats behind it, this owner did not bother to wire this to a proper electrical panel and chose to use house wire connectors that will come lose under vibration.
Is the van and/or build under a warranty?
Is it in writing?
How do you know the builder will be able to support that warranty?
I have seen many DIY and Builders totally bail on support on they sold. This usually isn't the well established builders, but with all of the pro and DIY van builders popping up over the "Van Life/Covid" era over the last 3 years its a bit interesting. Its like when the housing market went nuts...so many flippers building just because its quick money paying no attention to quality and after the sale they were MIA for any after sale support. It doesn't count if its not in written down and even more so if there is not historical record to show the seller cares. Keep this in mind with the price you are paying.
We see a lot of builds that look so pretty online, but in real life they just don't function very well. Its like looking at a model home...everything is so perfect. They hire interior designers, the back yard is designed perfectly, its just amazing! However you move into the house and find its to small with all your stuff, the materials don't last, there isn't enough space, you have to drop a small fortune for just basic landscaping, and its nothing like what you imagined in "real life".
Storage - by far totally overlooked. Think about what you will have in the van and how you will use it. We cover this very well in our other blogs
Electrical- Do you know it will work for how you will use the van? A lot of builds are under powered. Easy to corners and costs here because it hidden
Flexibility- how will you use the van? More than one use or can it be used for more than just camping.
Where do the kids sleep?
Nothing is forever and its not an appreciating asset -No different than a house, always consider resale, if you buy a van that is so specific to one type of buyer, if/when you do sell it this can greatly affect resale value. More specific the design and function the smaller the buyer market. What can affect resale?
Size of van
Bed Size - length
Ability to modify van for other uses
Finishes -trends change
A clean van usually shows the owner took great care in maintaining the van
Maintenance records-really important on high mileage vans as well as low mileage to make sure warranty is valid
Paint - look at the roof of the van- if this looks as good as the rest of the van the owner likely took really good care of the van, this is also one one area that is most neglected, its my hack to quickly tell if the owner really took great care of the van
Don't get fooled
Roof Racks, lift kits, big tires- Its super cool to see a van with big tires, roof rack, lift kits, and a ton of bolts ons. These things are really expensive, but very easy to do, it's not what's important in a build. I love add on's but its like putting a bunch of potted flowers in front of your house, looks great, doesn't mean its a great house. Just be aware of this. If you want a campervan with functionality then focus on the build inside first, then the fancy add on's. This stuff is easily added on later and for example a roof rack should be one of the last things to be put on in sequence of a build.
Wall Paint-freshly painted interior of a van; beware. Pro builders don't paint their vans generally, they use laminated wood for durability or fabrics that have high rub ratings specifically designed often for automotive use. (exposure to heat, humidity, light) House paint is not designed for heavy wear and after a short time can look pretty bad due to wear and tear. This applies especially to cabinets and side walls.
One of the builds below we did, lots of eye candy, but the stuff we did inside was a ton of work. 165K van.
Window and fan-Super overlooked area. Windows are really expensive to add on, keep that in mind in the selling price. Its an area many builds over look due to costs. You have to get the hot air our of your van on those warm summer days and screens to keep bugs out. Easy to spend 3-6k just in windows for a van. Side screens on doors are ok, but provide no security at night.