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So you’ve decided to embrace the challenge of #vanlife! First things first, you’re gonna need a van. When I tell you I spent months researching types of vans and the pros and cons of each one, I am not exaggerating. From the time I decided I wanted to try living in a van, it took me 7 months to actually purchase my van. Granted, life and work was in the way for a large portion of that time but I definitely had a lot to take into consideration. So what are some of the best vans to live in and which one is right for you?
Where Can I Buy a Van?
- Craiglist – You have to filter through carefully, but that’s where I got Venus! If you’re not finding any luck, open up your options to other areas of the country that may be cheaper like down south and in Florida. What a perfect excuse to give the van a test run than driving it home!
- Used and new car dealerships – Call ahead to ask specifically about the vehicle you’re interested in and they’ll give you a heads up when new ones come in.
- People using van fleets – Universities, retirement communities, hotels, businesses, and any other establishment that may have been using vans as part of their fleet. We almost bought a lightly used sprinter van from Brown University after they decided to update their student shuttle vehicles.
- Auctions – This is more for collector’s vehicles and government vehicles such as an ambulance, but there are auctions going on all the time selling vehicles for fairly cheap!
- Cars.com – I didn’t have a lot of luck here, but they do have a wide variety of vehicles to look at.
Now that you know where to start looking, let’s figure out what kind of vehicle you might want to look for to live in…
The Sprinter Van
Most of the time when you see a picture of #vanlife on Instagram, it is inside a Sprinter Van. In fact, this is what Venus is! There are a few types of Sprinters but the most common models are the standard length (mine), and the extended version.
The day we bought Venus!
- High ceilings! My dad who is 6 feet tall can stand comfortably in my van and not have to worry about stooping low or bumping his head.
- High ceilings also means TONS of storage space! Overall its about 80 cubic feet and I have a three foot storage space under my bed.
- Decent gas milage. This truck gets 16-20 MPG depending on which model you’re driving. For a vehicle this size, that’s pretty great! I seriously saw some vans that get less than 10 MPG. TEN. No, thank you.
- Diesel. While some people have negative assumptions about diesel vehicles, the truth of the matter is that diesel vehicles are built to last. I’ve seen some diesel Sprinters that went past 350,000 miles, which is amazing. You’re going to have this van forever.
- Easy to drive. I am 5′ 2″ and really worried about my ability to drive this thing. What people don’t realize is that you’re so high up and the nose of the van is so small that I can see way more than I ever could in a standard car. It’s hard for me to switch back now!
- High re-sale value. Because these are newer vehicles meant to last, the chances of selling your van after you’re done is very high. You might even be able to make a profit off it!
- Sprinter community. Because Sprinters are common among other van lifers and they’re a common business vehicle, no matter where you go you are going to be able to find someone that can help with your van.
- Decently stealthy! While this isn’t as stealthy as a minivan or even a low-top utility van, it can pass as a work vehicle and get away with some great stealth camping.
- The price. It is no secret that these vans are the most expensive on the market. Unless you’re buying a much older model with a lot of miles on it, it would be nearly impossible to find one for less than $13,000.
- A pricey vehicle means it is also pricey to maintain and fix them. Because most of them are owned by Mercedes, you’re going to be dealing with Mercedes dealers and Mercedes prices. I already ran into this once when I had just two little pieces that needed to be replaced and it cost over $1,500.
- Not good for city driving. While it is obviously possible to drive this thing in a city, a longer rear means that parallel parking is going to be near impossible and it’s a little too big to fit into a standard space. Baby got back, y’all.
- Not always stealthy. This van can look like a standard utility van and get away with some stealth parking in neighborhoods, but it’s still pretty big and conspicuous.
The Conversion Van
When I think of conversion vans, I think of my retired grandparents going on a road trip down to Florida. If you’ve got a laid-back un-ironically vintage aesthetic, these are the vans for you.
- The price. If you’re seriously on a budget, these vans can be sold for as low as $2,500 depending on the year and the mileage.
- Easy to fix. Because these are a pretty common vehicle, no matter who makes it you’re going to be able to find someone who can fix it. You won’t have to bring it to a Mercedes dealer you could fix it at any mechanic’s shop.
- Relatively roomy. While the ceilings aren’t as high as a Sprinter, they’re almost 6 feet high which is fine for anyone under that height!
- Easy conversion. Because these vans come semi-insulated with carpet and seats that fold into a bed into the back, if you’re really trying to hit the road immediately, these could be converted to a living space very quickly.
- Built for road trips. These vans were meant to be lived in and drive long distances! They drive well for long periods and they’re easy to handle.
- Low MPG. Because these are generally older vehicles, they average about 12-15 MPG. This is relatively typical for vans but not great for your carbon footprint.
- Not great for stealth camping. Because these are vehicles meant for driving and sleeping in, if you try to park these in a parking lot overnight or a neighborhood, chances are someone is going to notice. Sometimes they won’t care and sometimes they’ll call the cops.
- Older vehicles. Unless you get a newer souped-up conversion van (which can cost around $50,000), chances are your range is going to be from 1995-2008. While older vehicles are fine, you do run a higher chance of your vehicle not standing up to the test of time.
- Gas vehicle. While some people prefer gas vehicles, usually they don’t last as long. These vehicles can get up to 200,000+ miles but eventually they will die.
- Little to no re-sale value.
The Cargo Van
Remember when your mom used to warn you not to talk to the guy that lived in his work van? Now that could be you! Just kidding – there are a ton of pros to choosing a cargo van and it’s seriously worth considering!
- The price! Just like the conversion vans, these can be found for as low as $2,000. This is a great option for a budget van life hopeful!
- Readily available. The right Sprinter or conversion van can be hard to come across. Luckily, there are tons of businesses and private owners that are always trying to sell a cargo van.
- The stealthiest option! These vans fit into any parking spot and are just about as stealthy as they come. As long as you find the right spot, chances are no one is going to notice a standard cargo van. They could even be driven in a city.
- Easy to fix. Just like with the conversion van, pretty much any mechanic will be able to fix these bad boys up in no time and hopefully not for too much money.
- Previous owners. If you find the right van, you might get lucky and discover it was previously owned by a business or government organization. If this was the case, chances are it was meticulously maintained with regular checks and oil changes. This will make a big difference for the lifespan of your van.
- These have little to no head space and the least amount of storage. If standing up in your van is critical to you, this is not the option for you. I checked out a few cargo vans and even some with extended roofs and they still weren’t high enough for me. I felt claustrophobic inside them.
- Low MPG. Just like with the conversion van, these also average 12-14 MPG. For a van considerably smaller, the MPG should be better.
- Previous owners. You might get lucky and find a van that was owned by a news team or mail delivery service. Or you might find yourself facing a van that had been transporting tools and paint and chemicals and may have faced serious wear and tear. Take into consideration what the previous owner was doing with the vehicle because that could affect the quality of the floors and walls and any lingering smells.
- Gas vehicles. These vans are meant to last a while, but not forever. They max out at about 200,000 as well.
- No re-sale value. If you buy a used cargo van and drive it for another 50,000 miles, chances are you will have problems re-selling it if you decide to give it up.
If you want a bit more space or considering traveling with a family (or a TON of gear), these are a great option.
- Definitely the most space. I’ve seen some converted buses that have full bathrooms and a living room space! Obviously, this will vary based on the length of your bus, but if you want a true apartment on wheels, this is for you.
- Because there are so many schools and ski resorts and retirement communities and shuttle services that are updating their fleets, it’s pretty easy to find a decently priced bus. Depending on the year and model, they can be found for as low as $3,500.
- Although not all buses are diesel, most models require diesel fuel and this means these engines will last a while.
- Plenty of people available to fix a bus! Buses aren’t a specialty vehicle and it should be easy to find someone to help should you face any problems.
- Because most buses are bought for schools or businesses, most likely they were maintained fantastically and there are plenty of records for oil changes, changing of parts, etc.
- Because they’re the biggest, these definitely have the lowest gas mileage. It comes with the territory!
- If you want stealth camping, this is not the vehicle for you. Bsses don’t fit in any standard parking spot and can be hard to maneuver.
- If you need to do any city driving, I would not advise doing it in a bus. It’s not impossible, but you have a much higher risk of damage.
- Because buses come standard with seats and lots of windows, there is a lot of prep work that is going to come with it. All those seats are going to need to be removed and all those windows means the bus will be much harder to insulate.
- Usually no front passenger seat. Most buses come with the little steps and folding door where the passenger seat should be. No riding shotgun here.
This is about as classic as they come! Van life originated with these bad boys back in the 60’s. Let your inner hippie out in these!
- You can’t beat the classic aesthetic here! You are going to turn heads everywhere you go and these are truly collector’s items.
- Obviously these are camper vans so they’re pretty much move-in ready.
- High re-sale value. If your van is still working, they never go out of style and someone is pretty much always willing to buy one – even just for parts.
- When the top is popped up, there’s plenty of head space and upper storage areas.
- Because these are pretty standard size, they are easy to park and navigate. With the top down they will fit in garages and under passageways.
- For sometimes being an older vehicle, the gas mileage on these are pretty great! The average 17-22 MPG.
- The price. Unfortunately, since these are classic vehicles, they can come with a classic price. If you opt for a new camper van, it can get up past $60,000.
- If you opt for an older vehicle, replacement parts can be very hard to find.
- Unless you know how to drive stick, you may be out of luck for most of these vehicles.
- These vehicles definitely draw attention – this can be a good thing or it can draw attention to the fact that you are living in your van (and there may be valuables inside that are tempting to thieves).
Above are the most popular options I’ve seen for converting a vehicle, but I have also seen these unique ideas throughout my various hunts:
A pickup truck with a camper on top of the bed!
A pickup truck hauling a small RV trailer!
As you can see, there are a LOT of options when it comes to #vanlife (or I guess #buslife, #ambulancelife, and #camperlife). Take time to evaluate what kind of experience is right for you, what your budget is like, and how much work you are willing/able to put into your new home on wheels!
What does your dream home look like?