The Pros and Cons of Buying a Pre-Built, Used Van

When you’re getting into van life, you have a few options for how to do it.

You can buy a van and build it out yourself (challenging, time-consuming, and hard), buy a van and have someone else build it out (incredibly expensive), or buy a pre-built van (risky).

I chose the latter option.

How I Got into Van Life

First, a little background on my van journey.

I stumbled upon van life in late 2019 and was instantly captivated. The freedom, the ability to explore, the ease of travel – all of it appealed to me. I had recently gotten into hiking and camping, and I loved how conducive van life was to spending more time on the trail. It was car camping but elevated with everything you needed at your fingertips.

At the time, I was working a 9 – 5 job. It was a PR job I had taken directly out of college and while there were many benefits to it, the job paid terribly. I knew if I wanted to make van life my reality, I needed more money. My skills in PR and writing were easily transferrable, so I decided to start freelancing in early 2020.

I landed my first client and I was so excited. But after I told my boss about my client (out of necessity, not choice) things went south quickly. Management decided my client was a conflict of interest to my current job and told me to choose between them or my brand new, sole freelance client.

Whether bravely or recklessly, I chose the client. I was tired of being overworked and underpaid on someone else’s timeline for advancement.

This was March of 2020 and a week after my last day, the US shut down.

It was a terrifying, uncertain, and occasionally dark time. I landed another client and then lost both of them. I pivoted from PR to copywriting and spent the next two years furiously working to build a business that could support me.

In the fall of 2022, I was finally ready to make a move.

When I first imagined getting into van life, it was glamorous and idyllic. I would have a gorgeous Sprinter van, custom-built by myself and my partner.

Once we started looking at vans, it quickly became apparent that was a pipe dream. We were not handy nor motivated enough to learn carpentry, electric, plumbing, and all the other handyman skills you need to build a van. So that got rid of the first option.

The second option of having someone else build out the van was laughable – do you know how much it costs to get a van done professionally?? ($30 – 75K for the van, another $50 – 100K for the build itself – hard no.)

So we were left with the third option, one I hadn’t considered before: buying a pre-built, used van.

It wasn’t glamorous or pretty – but it was achievable. So we started looking.

Where can you find pre-built vans for sale?

  • Facebook marketplace. What can’t you buy on Marketplace?
  • Facebook van life groups. There’s a group for everything, and that includes people selling their used vans.
  • Craigslist. It’s a classic, if risky, place to find oddities for sale
  • Specialty websites. People can list vans for sale on specialty sites that take a percentage of the sale as a fee. What you spend in fees is made up for in the security of having a third party back the sale.
  • Instagram. Van Life is widely popular on Instagram, and people in Van Life will often list their vans for sale to their followers.

The Challenges of Finding a Used Van

I joined several Facebook groups for van sales, which are separate from the groups where people in van life can connect. One was for Sprinters, one was for Ford, and another was just for any and every kind of van.

It quickly became apparent that most of the vans listed were out of my price range, especially the Sprinters. I was not in a place to pay $90,000 for a 2015 van. People were over-valuing their vans (understandably) and I had a long wish list with a small price range.

I also didn’t want to buy a half-converted van, which is much cheaper, and have to finish it out myself. I’m not handy. I don’t like power tools. And I certainly didn’t want to pick up someone else’s half-finished project.

How I Found My Van

One day, after a few weeks of scrolling, browsing, and straight-up wishful thinking, my partner sent me a van that seemed promising. A 2015 Ford Transit 350 XE that ticked most of the boxes on my (long) must-have list. We both liked it so he sent the sellers a message. We couldn’t pay asking, so he asked if they’d sell it for 10K less. They said no, but he left the door open in case no one else was interested.

24 hours later, they were willing to take our offering price. I was elated and terrified.
The process of vetting and buying the van itself is a blog for another day. But after some back and forth and frantic coordination with my bank, the van was mine.

I bought it in October 2022 and didn’t leave until March 2023. I’m hitting the six-month mark of full-time nomad van life, and I’ve come to realize the pros and cons of buying a used van.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Used Van

Pro: It’s ready to go. This is the single biggest benefit to buying a pre-built, used van that someone else has lived in.

I bought the van in October and could have left the next day if I wanted. Everything was set and functional; the electric system, the plumbing, the build-out – it was all done. I didn’t need to touch a screwdriver or a drill. The sellers had done all of the work themselves and lived in it for two years prior to selling it so there was nothing that needed to be done to make it livable.

Con: Someone else has lived in it. In my case, two someones, a dog and a cat. Have you ever walked into a friend’s house for the first time and been taken aback by the smell? This van smelled bad. It was an odor you go noseblind to when it’s your own but is instantly noticeable by someone new. Dog dander, cat litterbox, human body odor, it all lingers. I pulled everything out, cleaned it, painted it, got a professional detail, and used an entire body of odor neutralizer, and still it smelled. Sometimes I still catch a whiff of it.

Pro: You can still make it your own. It was ready to go, but I wasn’t ready. I hated the paint color the sellers chose, and the arrangement of the baskets, and was nitpicky about a few other things. So I painted it, rearranged the baskets, added a drawer and a shoe rack, drilled new holes for cord management, and got rid of a bunch of stuff they left in the garage. Once I was done, it felt like my van.

Pro: It’s a cost-effective option. I bought this van (2015 Ford Transit 350 XLT with 120,000 miles) for $55,000. It was an absolute steal, good enough to make me buy a van nearly six months before I was ready to leave. The 350 XLT is the biggest van Ford makes and it would have cost me way more to buy the van empty and convert it myself.

Con: You never know what kind of wear and tear the van has. The van needed new brakes and tires immediately after purchase. It has six tires, so that wasn’t cheap. Then the batteries died over the winter (who knew you needed to keep diesel engines warm in 10F? Not me.) and I had to get new ones – two, because of the size of it. Then the diesel exhaust system had to be replaced and it needed a new turbo hose. Between all of that, I spent close to $10,000 on van repairs in the first six months of ownership – ouch.

Some of these problems could have been avoided if I had someone who knew vans inspect it before I bought it, but that simply wasn’t possible. I took a chance, and while it paid off (and still is!) it was undeniably expensive.

Pro: Knowledge of van life built into the build. The sellers of my van had designed and built a small bus before this one, so they were well-versed in the intricacies of tiny living. This meant the bed ran the length of the van instead of the width, they had two overhead fans instead of one, a pantry, the largest Dometic fridge on the market, and a couch included in the build. I’ve gotten many a jealous look from other van lifers who wish they had a couch to lounge on.

Con: You better hope your builder knew what they were doing. I mean this in terms of all systems (water and electric) working but also in terms of layout functionality. Vans have a small space that needs to be maximized to live comfortably. There are a million options for laying out a van, and some are quantifiably better than others.

Clearly, there are a lot of positives and negatives to buying a pre-built used van. But there are pros and cons to approaching van life from any angle – it’s up to you how much weight each point gets. In retrospect, I wish I had taken my van straight to a mechanic who knows vans, not just one that deals with large vehicles. I wish I had plugged the engine in throughout the winter so I didn’t have to replace the batteries. But I don’t wish I had never bought the van, and I certainly wouldn’t tell someone not to buy a pre-built, used van.

This is a challenging way to live. It’s usually not glamorous or idyllic – it’s cramped, warm, and messy. Things break more than I’d like, days go wrong at the drop of a hat (or more accurately, the misplaced drop of a Google pin) and I’ve never been so up close and personal with my body’s waste. But choosing an alternative way of living isn’t supposed to be easy – it’s meant to push you.

Don’t get into van life because you think it will be smooth, Insta-worthy sailing. Get into it because you crave adventure, freedom, and trying new things.

Published by Jessica Reilly, Writer

Writer, cannabis aficionado, and poetry lover

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