Four Major Decisions to Make Before Buying a Van

My brand-new Ford Transit van.

My brand-new Ford Transit van.

When I first discovered van life, I thought there were three kinds of vans: standard, long, and high. As I got further into my research and became more committed to making this idea a reality, I was blown away by the number of options. Standard, long, and high were just three options available for each model, and it seemed like every auto manufacturer had at least one model of van. Some had multiple models, or a cargo model and a passenger model. Some had two kinds of “high” or “long.”

I’m not what you’d call “mechanically savvy,” and the number of differences to look at completely overwhelmed me. And while there’s tons of articles, videos, and guides about the differences between van models online, none of them run down the how to make a decision about a van.

The Four Major Decisions that Narrowed the Field:

Gas or diesel?

There are pros and cons to both. Gasoline engines run down based on mileage, while diesel runs down based on how well the engine is maintained. This means diesel engines have the potential to go hundreds of thousands of miles — I’ve even heard about a fellow whose van has nearly 1,000,000 miles. This sounds great: a van that can go forever? Sign me up!

The problem is, diesel engines are also much needier than gas engines. They require more frequent maintenance and the maintenance is more expensive. If you plan on going a million miles it may be worth it, but many van lifers get a second van after a few years because they’ve figured out what they should have done the first time around and are ready to give it another go and commit to the lifestyle for another several years. Plus, there’s always the environmental consideration: diesel is dirty.

High or low roof?

This is something I decided I couldn’t yield on. I hate the idea that I’d have to crouch and hunch over in my home; that I’d have to be bent in half while cooking, getting ready for the day, even spending a sick day in the van. It kept coming back to that for me: I’m doing this so I can bring my home with me everywhere I go. The low roof makes me feel trapped even without the extra inches of insulation and paneling and the space taken up by the bed, counter and whatever I would need to sit on so I could cook. Anxiety isn’t something I want to associate with “home,” and I think going with a low roof would be setting myself up for failure, not success.

Everyone’s different. My mom has spent the last few months trying to convince me that a low roof would be better because it would have greater accessibility to parking garages and the like. To her, it doesn’t matter if the roof is low, because it’s really just a place to sleep. And I have no doubt she’d be completely comfortable with the low roof.

This point really just comes down to what matters more to you: invisibility and accessibility, or space and comfort. I tried to compromise by going with the mid-roof option on the Ford. In truth, though, I think the mid-roof is only slightly lower than most high-roof vans, and the Ford high-roof is the extrahigh option. Don’t hold me to that. I meant to write up a spreadsheet comparing every van on the market, but that was completely chaotic and impossible, so I don’t actually know all the specs on all the vans.

I thought about mentioning wheelbase, too; ultimately I decided that wheelbase wasn’t much of a deciding factor for me because I’m going to notice if I can stand up straight much more than if there’s an extra foot of counter space. Wheelbase definitely has an impact, but there are wheelbase options for every van model, except some of the vintage ones, and although they vary, I don’t think there are any models where the wheelbase options are unreasonable. Once you figure out which van to get, choosing a long or short wheelbase is pretty simple.

Drives like a car or drives like a truck?

That’s probably an inaccurate comparison, but that’s really what this point boiled down to for me. Some vans have a relatively compact cab and handle smoothly, which makes you feel like it’s just a big car. Some feel like stepping into an eighteen-wheeler the second you open the door.

I was really into the Ram ProMaster when I first started looking at physical vans on dealership lots. Sprinters are huge and fancy, but ProMasters are huge, fancy, and durable, so they’re like the castle of van living. They were a little out of my price range, but I was hoping I might be able to find a used one for cheap if I got lucky.

Actually sitting in one completely turned me off. These things are massive in the cab. The cupholders are nearly on the ground, and everything feels a lot more spread out. I’ve got short arms and short legs, and I quickly realized the ProMaster would be really uncomfortable for me to drive. Just sitting in it made me feel six inches tall. I couldn’t imagine actually handing that machine on the road on a daily basis.

I’m sure it’s doable, and I could have gotten used to it, but driving the Ford Transit was so comfortable I almost forgot that it wasn’t the same car I’d been driving for seven years. I decided that feeling comfortable in the driver’s seat from the get-go was important to me.

New or Used?

Sure, you can find some used vans for $10,000 or less. A lot of these vans probably aren’t in the best condition, but there are tons of vanlifers out there who got something like this and reported that it all worked out well. But a lot of these vanlifers also say that you should try to find something under 5 years old, especially if you plan to live in it for a long time. These vans tend to be in better condition and sometimes still have time on the warranty in case you do discover a problem early on.

Looking at used vans under 5 years old, most of them are not much cheaper than new vans, particularly if you qualify for rebates or other discounts. My mom is pretty worried about this whole endeavor, and said she was willing to pay the difference for me to get something new, both because it would ensure that I had the full warranty and she thought ‘new’ just sounded safer. So I was lucky enough to be able to get something new, and I think if you can afford it, that’s probably the best option. I also realize that most prospective vanlifers can’t afford a new van.

There’s a book that does a great job of covering what to look for before you purchase a used van to make sure you don’t get ripped off. It’s called How to Live in a Van and Travel by Mike Hudson. Mike’s perspective on vanlife is honest, practical, funny, and inspiring. The book mostly covers the ins and outs of navigating life in a van, but the first 60 pages or so discuss choosing a van, and helped me to clarify what I needed to focus on. I definitely recommend it.

Dan and I with Van

I’d also like to slip a big thank you in here. One of the biggest pros of buying from a dealership, whether new or used, is if you find a salesman who is a total rockstar. While we were checking out vans at dealership lots to try to figure out what kind I might want, we met Dan Nichols, who is the fleet manager at Reno GMC. Everyone I met at Reno GMC was warm, friendly, and genuinely supportive of my plans with the van, but Dan was really incredible. He went out of his way to give me honest pros and cons for different models, talked to me (the 23-year-old girl with almost zero knowledge about cars) with respect and explained all the details that I didn’t understand without complaint. Dan listened to my vague, twisted descriptions of what I was looking for and diligently hunted down a vehicle that met all my requirements at a Ford dealership in California. Then he arranged everything so we could buy my 2018 Ford Transit mid-roof 148" wheelbase with rear windows from his dealership in Reno and not have to deal with the hassle of buying across state lines. Dan went above and beyond and is truly a stand up guy, and I recommend Reno GMC to anyone who is in the market for a vehicle.

I don’t really think the kind of van you get makes much difference.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the “perfect” van for me. I wanted to make sure that every specification was ideal for my plans. I tried to make comparison charts, looked at all kinds of details that made absolutely no sense to me, and tried to figure out how to become a mechanical guru overnight.

Here’s the problem: plans change, and so do people.

Let’s say I actually managed to figure out the exact van that would be perfect for all my wildest dreams. In a year, those plans might have changed. I will certainly have changed, and I might not care about the same things that I do now when looking at vans. Some of those “perfect” details will probably turn out to be totally unnecessary or even detrimental. The only way for me to know what aspects matter the most to me is to get out on the road.

All vans are more or less the same: they have an engine, a cab, and a big empty space. All of them will do the job. No matter how my plans change, no matter how I change, my van is going to stay the same, and I will have to find a way to make it work.

That’s not to say that I think buying the first van you come across is the way to go. I think you need to have some basic knowledge about what the differences between makes are, and have an idea of what options are most important to you. I wasn’t willing to drive a van without rear windows, because I like being able to see what’s behind me. Being able to see the sliver of a car tailgating me but not being able to really keep an eye on it would drive me insane. That’s something I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Figuring these things out helped me eventually find the van that’s going to be my home for the foreseeable future.

But at the end of the day, I would have gotten used to not having rear windows. It would have driven me mental for six months, but people are adaptable. Eventually I wouldn’t even notice.

We always hope for the best case scenario. But even the most ill-fitted van has the potential to become a home. All it needs is some TLC and a little time. In the coming months, I’m going to give my van some TLC and a whole lot of character, and you’ll be able to watch the progress here as I turn it into a home.