How to Choose a Used Van–Part 1

One of the questions I get most often is for help and advice on how to choose a used car or van to buy to live in, so I thought I would answer it here for everyone to see This is Part 1 of 2.

The thing is, we’re all looking for some magical way to be sure we are getting a great vehicle at a great price that will never need repair. Sadly, that’s impossible, you do your best when buying a used vehicle but it’s still a crap shoot and it’s not only possible you will be doing repairs and maintenance on it, but a virtual certainty. But for those who insist on a magic solution to buying the best vehicle here it is in three easy steps:

  1. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!
  2. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!
  3. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!

Follow those three steps, and you’ll have done your best and hopefully will be okay. Now, let me answer some of your specific questions.

Should I Buy New (1990 or newer) or Old (older than 1990)?

This is not a simple question but it comes down to two basic points of view:

Older cars are better because:

  1. Older cars are much easier to understand and work on and parts are usually readily available.
  2. Newer cars are so complicated the average person can’t work on them.
  3. If it isn’t there, it can’t break. For example, older cars don’t have computers, so the computer can never fail leaving you stranded.
  4. If you have mechanical aptitude, you can probably do road-side repairs on an older car if it breaks down on you—at least enough to get you home.

Newer cars are better because:

  1. They are much more reliable. It’s reasonable to expect the first 150-200,000 miles to be fairly trouble-free, and the newer the more trouble-free it will be. On the other hand, the older a car is, the more trouble you can expect from it.
  2. They get much better gas mileage (MPG). Computer controlled fuel injection is so much more efficient than carburetors that over the life of the vehicle you can save a lot on gas.
  3. They run better. The computer automatically adjusts for elevation, temperature and other variables so that starting and running is much smoother and easier.
  4. The On-Board-Diagnostic (OBD II) computer can make it easier for a mechanic to find the problem or at least narrow it down.

No matter what age vehicle you buy, search carefully for RUST, in hidden areas!! Rust is a very slow and silent killer of vehicles and you must search it out. Remember, it’s just like an iceberg, what you can actually see is just the tip, there is probably much more hidden that you don’t see. This is especially important in areas that get a lot of snow and ice because of the salt they use on the roads to melt it.  Also watch for it in areas close to the coasts.

My Advice, it you have the skill, time, and ability with the desire to regularly be working on your vehicle–an older car is a great choice for you. If not, then buy the newest you can afford with the lowest miles.

How Many Miles Are Too Many Miles?

If you’re buying an older vehicle, 1990 or older:

  1. Mileage really isn’t that big an issue because you are planning to repair and replace everything as it breaks, but you still want to get the lowest mileage possible; 100,000 to 150,000 would still be ideal.
  2. However be aware that too low mileage can be just as bad as, or worse than too high. A vehicle that just sits and is never driven is still wearing away. The rubber is rotting in many things but especially the hoses and seals inside the engine.  Electrical connections are corroding possibly creating grounds and breaks that are a nightmare to track down. The inside of the whole drivetrain is subject to rusting. It’s by far better if a vehicle is driven consistently, try to avoid one that sits for too long.

If you’re buying a Newer Vehicle 1990 or newer:

Since this is probably what most of us will buy, let me give you what I think is a likely scenario for its lifetime repair cycle. But, first off, understand I’m talking about a mythical “average” 1990 or newer American made pickup or van, like the one most of us will be in.  Of course the vehicle you actually buy may not follow this at all, maybe it will be better than average, or maybe it will be worse. This is just the best broad, average understanding that I could arrive at based on my years of experience and talking to other vandwellers.

There are many variables that will make the vehicle you buy better or worse than average:

  1. The most important is maintenance. How well a vehicle is maintained (specifically changing the fluids, lubrication and inspections) has a huge impact on how long it lasts. So always ask to see any maintenance records they have. It doesn’t rule out a vehicle if they don’t have any, but it can help to rule one in.
  2. How it’s driven also tremendously impacts how well a vehicle ages. Driving on the freeway at a steady, reasonable speed is far better on the van than stop and go traffic in the cities with frequent short trips.
  3. Hidden accident damage. Always run a CarFax report to see if it sheds any light on past accidents or repairs. Just be aware it may not tell you the whole story–vitally important things can be left out.

Because of the many variables over the life of a vehicle, never buy a car or van without having it inspected by a qualified mechanic and have an emergency fund!!!

On a typical, modern American made truck or van expect:

  • 1 – 150,000 miles to be relatively trouble-free. Any failures are premature. The brakes and tires are constantly wearing out and likely to be problems before this, but they can usually be inspected and seen by a good mechanic, so they won’t be a surprise.
  •  150,000 – 200,000 you can expect minor repairs, starter, alternator, radiator, water pump, fuel pump. They can come earlier, but that would not be the normal thing. None of those can be inspected and seen beforehand–they are sudden failures. The front end will need repairs sometime in here, but it can be seen and inspected so a good mechanic can tell you how soon failure is coming to those parts.
  • 200,000 miles and beyond you can expect to be making numerous repairs—and at some point major repairs. Expect to rebuild the automatic transmission close to this number and the engine sometime soon.
  • By 300,000 miles expect to have replaced EVERYTHING, at least once and probably several times. Often, the rebuilt parts we replace the originals with are not nearly as good, and won’t last as long.

Body problems are things lots of people don’t consider but can be very aggravating and surprisingly expensive. Just like the engine, they are mechanical devices and constant use simply wears them out. If you have to pay someone to fix them, it will cost you. They follow a similar pattern to the engine, expect problems to start between 150-200,000 miles and get worse after that. Things like:

  • Ignition switch: I had one fail and the truck wouldn’t start so I had to get it towed into a shop to get it replaced, total cost $250
  • Door handles: they just break.
  • Door locks (power or mechanical) they all fail eventually, but it’s much worse on the sliding doors on vans.
  • Windows rolling up or down (mechanical or power) eventually won’t.
  • Door hinges: even if you keep them lubed, they’ll fail.

I believe my 1993 F150 is very typical of what you can expect from the “average” newer car. I bought it with 130,000 miles on it and it was totally trouble free (except needing normal tires and brakes) until 190,000 miles. Then the repairs really started in!  At 190,000 I replaced the alternator and starter. I rebuilt the transmission at 200,000 and replaced the motor at 220,000. By 260,000 the small repairs were just overwhelming and I sold it for parts.

MY ADVICE: I prefer to have some trouble-free miles before starting into the known repair mileage, but it really is just up to you. If it has 120,000 miles, you should have 50-80,000 relatively trouble free miles then expect minor problems ($300-$500) until 200,000, then be aware a rebuild can come any time ($3000-$5000).

If you have to pay someone to repair your car, van, SUV or pickup, buy the newest with lowest mileage you can afford. Spend the money and get a mechanic to inspect it and always have an emergency find

Those are the facts as I understand them—although some would disagree. What you do with them is really a very personal thing based primarily on your budget and ability to make repairs on whatever you buy.

In my next post we’ll talk about how to choose a vehicle based on it’s reputation.


I’m making Videos on my good friends James YouTube Channel. See them here:

https://www.youtube.com/cheaprvliving

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Bob
About

I’ve been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

42 comments on “How to Choose a Used Van–Part 1
  1. cc says:

    One thing that many people overlook when buying a used car is taking an afternoon and calling around and talking to credit card companies. If you have decent credit, you can often get a line of credit for 12 months for a much lower interest rate than you would ever get from a bank or credit union. Yes, you may have to wait to get the check sent to you from the credit card company in the mail and the loan is typically for only 12 months, but that’s 12 months where you are paying mostly principle. Only do this if you are willing to read ALL the fine print – there are a lot of hidden gotchas in these deals. We’ve bought 2 vehicles like this and are currently buying our next vehicle the same way.

  2. Cae says:

    Great advice. Professional repairs are really expensive. Someone should start a repair savings account the moment they buy a vehicle.

  3. Vagabound says:

    Really good info, Bob. It’s been a while since I bought my last vehicle, so it should really come in handy. Thanks.

    Seeing as your cut-off year between old and new is 26 years ago, can you explain why you chose 1990 as the dividing point? Maybe that was when on-board engine computers first showed up?

    Vagabound

    • Bob Bob says:

      The main thing is fuel injection, by then most vehicles were getting some form of fuel injection. My personal choice and recommendation is to buy the newest you can afford, hopefully a 1996 or newer with OBD II and honestly after 2000 is best.
      Bob

  4. whitey says:

    Hi Bob, a timely post for me as I’ve got a 1990 Pleasureway with around 80k miles in my sights. The asking price is ridiculous but the van is in nice shape and there just isn’t much on the market these days. The newer Pleasureway XL on the Dodge chassis appears to have too much weight behind the rear axle and the front end looks light, like a boat getting up on a plane. Oh well, the search continues….

  5. Vanholio! says:

    Glad you’re addressing this. Every other post on the vandweller subreddit seems to be “should I buy this vehicle.” I never know what to tell them as I don’t know that much about cars.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Me neither, which is why I want to buy the newest van with the lowest miles I possibly can–and get it checked out by a mechanic first!!! Bob

  6. mayble says:

    Another major difference between older and newer vehicles is the safety features.
    When driving my 1990 Vandura, with the driver’s seat just behind the axle I’m awfully close to the point of impact in a front end collision, and it has no airbags. That makes me a bit nervous. My 2014 Grand Caravan on the other hand has airbags everywhere. Too bad the thing is so damn small.
    My next (big) van will definitely meet 21st century safety standards.
    Thanks Bob, for another excellent, informative post.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Mayble, that is such a good point!! I wish I had included that. Some people swear all that steel in the old vehicles is safer but they are very wrong!! Today’s cars are infinitely safer. Bob

  7. I bought my 2009 Dodge Caravan on eBay, and I got a terrific deal. What’s funny is I kinda bought it ‘by accident’- I was learning and put in a ridiculously low practice bid. And I won! I spent almost $4k less than a retail purchase in my town. (hi price east coast)

    Never been sorry – at 100,080 miles, it’s got plenty of life in it. I’ve added about 60k and had no major repairs, just brakes, hoses, battery. The van has ‘Stow n Go’ so all rear seating folds flat, leaving an 8 foot long space at least 4′ wide at the narrowest point. I throw in my foam mattress bed, my two kitchen bins, cooler and dog, and we’re off!

    The car was previously owned by the GSA, the US government, who auction off excellent and interesting vehicles all the time. (Link here: GSAauctions.gov) but I didn’t know about that at the time. The great thing about GSA vehicles is they are maintained on a regular schedule. While they may occasionally have drivers that mishandle them, they do get those regular checkups to keep everything running.

  8. Rob says:

    Good write up Bob. I have to admit that you covered the need for an emergency fund very well! As I recall you also mentioned it on your website cheaprvliving.com

    When I was last looking for a van here is some of what my list looked like-

    1) 1996 or newer, OBDII was required in that model year & that’s a good thing to have.

    2) 3/4 ton or better, having a bigger truck/van is not a problem, a smaller one can be.

    3) 250,000 miles is the “worn out mark” for a modern car/truck. How long do I have until then?

    4) Rust is cancer.

  9. Ernie says:

    The best thing about OBD II is most auto parts stores will read the codes for free. They will provide you with a trouble code that can easily be looked up on the internet. Auto parts stores normally do not do extensive computer scans, they only read the stored codes. This code will point you in the right direction. Best thing is, that is free. A professional scan will check stored codes, current codes and live data but will cost some money and time.

  10. Selwyn says:

    Back in 1974 I bought a 1971 Ford Econoline van from an appliance store that used as a repair and sometimes delivery truck. It had a single seat, a straight six engine with easy access from the driver’s seat to tune it up and a three on the column shifter. It had 40,000 miles on it. By 1977 I had a bed in the back, pop top vent, also in the back, a bucket and plastic bag toilet just like yours, Bob, a backpacking camp stove, three five gallon water jugs and a cooler within a cooler that kept things iced down for days at a time – the wooden box it was in was also a seat. The bed top was hinged at the back and opened to plenty of storage. I had a couple of candle lanterns. It was then I hit the roads for many months, taking in 38 states, part of Canada and even Mexico. I could everything on it, except rebuild the engine. At 120,000 miles I had to replace the engine.
    In 1987 the odometer stopped turning at 350,000 miles. By 1988 the rust was everywhere and major parts were dying from metal fatigue. I paid $900 for it originally!
    I have a van now that’s 17 years old that it takes a weekend just to change plugs and rotor on ;and I wouldn’t dare take it anywhere but work.
    I miss that old Ford. It was built like a tank.
    You give good advice. You also give me hope!
    Keep your blog going, Bob!
    Thank you!

  11. Vagabound says:

    Rob: Agree; helpful list. Thanks.

    Patrise: Thanks for sharing that story. Did you get your van on eBay or on GSAauctions.gov? Asking because if the latter, I’d like to know more about your experience bidding and buying on that website (ease, problems, payment stuff, would you use it again?, etc). I know there is some info on their website, but I’m looking for first-person experience.

    On a related point to the blog article topic this time, I have questions about engine type and whether it is wise to choose one over another. So, I started a thread in the forum in “Vans” asking about diesel engines (vs. gas), specifically in vans.

    Not sure, but diesel engines doesn’t seem to show up a lot in run-of-the-mill cargo vans, but I’ve seen them a lot in box trucks built on a van chassis. If anyone here has anything to share about that topic, or interested in the answers, please take a look:

    http://www.cheaprvliving.com/forums/Thread-Diesel-engines-in-a-van

    Vagabound

  12. Omar Storm says:

    Hi Bob,

    Great info as usual. I apologize for being off topic, but Verizon has same great data plans right now for cheaper than they were a several months ago. Just a heads-up to you and the tribe.

    Omar

  13. Zman says:

    Ready, Willing, and Able to buy determines who gets the fantastic deals! -Zman

  14. Hopefull Mom says:

    I have a 2011 Ford 350 12 passenger van with 95000 miles it. It’s in great shape and well maintained. I have two under 12 year old children. I’m thinking about doing a year plus fulltiming. To give us some time together before they get to Jr High. I can’t decide if I should buy a small travel trailer pull it with my van. Or buy a Class C and a small car to tow.

    Part of me wonders if I should pull out two of the benches out of the van. build a bed in the back and pack lite like backpackers. And hit the road. Decide if I need a trailer or a Class C later.

    • Bob Bob says:

      They each have different pluses and minuses so it is a very personal choice. My guess is the van is too small for three of you, I’d do one of the other ideas. Since you already have a great van, if it were me I think I would get a small trailer and travel in it. You could always put the trailer in storage and travel in just the van.
      Bob

  15. Larry Sugden says:

    Hi Bob, great article as usual.
    I bought a 1994 pickup truck and (inspired by your website) decided to build my own camper. (I detailed the construction on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1521991378051309.1073741831.100007213848581&type=1&l=879ca11e00)

    It has performed very well, but now I think a van would be much better. The biggest problem I have is maintaining the roof and waterproof seals against weather. A van has a metal skin that I won’t have to worry about. The camper has a separate heating system (electric and propane), but a van can use the the existing heat/AC of the vehicle. Insurance doesn’t cover the camper because it is not part of the vehicle, but a van would be covered.

    I will definitely be looking for a van for my next vehicle. Thank you!

    • Lucy says:

      Larry Sugden:

      KOOL front page.

      My regards, Lucy.

    • Bob Bob says:

      I agree, in every way but one a van is better than a pickup. That one is that you can easily get trucks with 4×4. For most people that is not important so they should be in a van. But it is very important to me, so I am going the other direction.
      Bob

  16. Hi Bob,
    I’ve been reading through a LOT of your posts as I will start my own full-timing adventure in January. My home isn’t a van, it’s a little tiny home built onto the bed of my 1985 Ford F350 4×4 duelly diesel flatbed truck. I love my truck. I don’t know that I got a deal on it, as it was $4000 (which I think is pretty standard), but the owner took very good care of it and I’ve had to do little to it. A new rear fuel tank, new rear tires (four of them, of course, but they will last years), and not really much else. I’ve had it check over thoroughly by a local diesel shop and they love this truck and have given it a clean bill of health. I’m saving for those emergencies, and keeping an eye on any possible malfunctions to catch them early.
    I think I could live in a van if I needed to. I hope I won’t need to, of course, and that my Rufus will stay with me for a very long time!

    • Bob Bob says:

      That sounds like a GREAT home!! The older diesels weren’t as strong so you’ll go everywhere slowly, but they were super reliable and easy to service so you can be SURE you will get there!!

      I’ve often considered a rig just like yours, building a cabin on a 4×4 flatbed. The thing that has always stopped me is their height off the ground. Great for ground clearance but so hard to get in and out.

      I’d love to see pictures of your rig!! I’d strongly suggest you join my forum, you’ll get all the ideas, help, encouragement and friends you could ever need. But most importantly you could post pictures and show us your home!! Find it here:
      http://www.cheaprvliving.com/forums
      Bob

      • Oops, I only now saw you replied!
        I had no idea you also have a forum, so I will be sure to join. I have a little blog that shows the build with quite a few pictures, but I don’t do a terrific job keeping updated all the time. I’ll definitely show some pictures on the forum. You are absolutely correct about both the sloooooooow speed (especially uphill ~ ouch!) and about the height of the door off the ground. I solved the entrance problem with an RV bunk bed ladder that has hooks that are really secure so I’m safe which going up and down. It’s lightweight, durable, and has non-slip steps so it’s easy to use. I’m going to hang it from the outside of the home while outside or on the road. I just need to figure out a way to secure it well.
        I have so many decisions still to make…think I’ll mosey on over to the forum after I’ve read a few more posts here. 🙂
        Parker

  17. gary e green says:

    bob, great advice , can’t wait till part two ! just bought a roadtrek 1999 dodge road trek 190 poplar with 72000 mile on it ! really happy with it , i’m in the process of restoring it and bring it into the 21st century as far as electronics , you can follow me on youtube ” gary green, roadtreker gary ” all the best in your travels BOB !

  18. Jeff says:

    Bob, I am loving your site and videos. It is taking me quite some time to consume all of this information but I’m having a great time. With any luck I will be able to stop by for the January event. Also, I tend to purchase a thing or two (way more than I should) from Amazon – from now on I will be using your link to get to the site. Happy to support the cause. Thank you for all you do and don’t (hope you know what I mean by that – admire your lifestyle).

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks you very much Jeff! The websites have been a long labor of love and I’m always very grateful when people find it useful! Hope to see you in Quartzsite.
      Bob

  19. Rick Herzog says:

    I buy my used vehicles at around 100,000 miles and sell them when they reach 175,000 miles. At 175,000 they usually haven’t needed any major repairs and they still have some value on the used car market.

  20. Douglas in az says:

    This is good advice. When i look at purchasing anything, i purchase the best I can afford. Having been a mechanic, I have seen what buying an older vehicle can be like. I have also done it. As a general rule half ton or smaller vehicles last ten years or less and a three quarter ton or heavier duty vehicles typically last 15 plus years. That has been my experience anyway.

  21. Paul says:

    I would like to add that if you’re buying pre-1990 to make sure:
    1: Parts are common, thus being cheap
    2: make sure the engine & transmission are robust models, for example the Chrysler 5.2L 318 gas engine.

    These two things can lower the odds of expensive repairs and hardship plus keep running costs down.

  22. Seth Gold says:

    This post was very helpful. I used your guide and advice and found an older extended cab chevy truck with low enough mileage. I also happen to find a camper top that will fit it after a little adjusting for $20! Not a bit of rust on either one. Started on my emergency fund, too. Thanks, man!

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