Buying a Used Van for a Campervan Conversion

Buying a used van for campervan conversion

How to Choose a Used Van for your Campervan Conversion 

The majority of people converting a van into a camper are looking to buy a used van to do up. New vans are expensive and depreciate as soon as you drive them out of the showroom which is very off putting! A new van obviously has it advantages like no MOT's for 3 years, warranty and no dodgy history to look out for but for us the price of a new van sends the conversion well over budget! 

Buying a used van, like a used car, can be quite nerve wracking especially if you don't have much mechanical knowledge. We have limited mechanical knowledge but know the warning signs to look out for. It can be a nerve wracking experience but if you apply a bit of common sense along with doing your research and being very thorough when you view you can limit any potential issues. 

When do you Start your Search for a Used Van? 

You can start your search for your van as soon as you make the decision to convert one. That will give you a good idea of market value and assess how many are available at that time. 

If you are not planning to buy a van straight away then our advice is do not start seriously looking at specific vans until a few days before you want to go and view. In our experience commercial vans do not hang around very long and you can be left very disappointed if you pin your hopes on one! 

For the conversion we are about to do we left until the day before to call around and make appointments to view so that we were sure they were available. 

Where to Find a Used Van for a Campervan Conversion 

There are lots of different places you can find used vans but the majority of sellers will list their used stock on one of the following major websites: 

You may find that a particular dealer tends to have a lot of the type of van you are looking for - we have certainly found that when doing our research. It's great if you can find a place with good reviews and doesn't do high pressure sales tactics. 

Buying a used van for a campervan conversion

Should you buy from a Dealer or Private Seller?

There are pros and cons to both and a lot if it depends on how mechanically minded you are or if you are willing to spend money having a vehicle inspection completed. 

Private van sales are usually cheaper and usually are not plus VAT. For the majority of people VAT is lost money unless you are VAT registered and can claim it back. Often private sellers know the history of the van really well and don't pressure you into a sale. 

The big downside to private sales for us is the lack of warranty and it's a case of buyer beware - once you have handed over you cash and drive away there isn't much you can do if the van breaks down or displays a serious fault. 

Buying from a dealer gives you peace of mind that if something goes wrong just after buying it you have certain rights and can usually return the van within 30 days. You can read more this on The Money Advice Service. You usually also get a warranty which is often 3 or 6 months as another bit of peace of mind. A lot of dealers will offer to extend this too. 

As neither of us are that mechanically minded we tend to buy from dealers where we know we have something to fall back on if something goes wrong. We are also VAT registered so can claim that side of it back and not loose out. 

Preparation & Organisation is Key - Do your Research 

- Create a Van Comparison Table - When you are looking for a van you may find yourself getting in a muddle with which vans are which, especially if you are using various different platforms. I find it easier to draw a table (or you could use excel) and include the following columns:

  • Price 
  • Engine size
  • Age
  • Mileage
  • Location
  • Colour (If that matters!) 
  • MOT expiry date
  • Extra info (this could include extras such as FSH, parking sensors etc) 

By doing this you can look at them all much more objectively and look at which seem the best match. It also makes it easier to organize viewings according to location. 

- Research common vehicle problems - check what the common problems are with the van make and model you are buying. Check out Honest John - we learnt that the most common issues with sprinters are with the injectors (black death), suspension, propshaft, minor niggly electrical issues and the usual rust issues. We made sure we paid particular attention to these things when viewing. 

Honest john used van reviews

- Do an online MOT check or vehicle history check - These will tell you how long the MOT has left and any advisories. You can also check if the mileage marries up with the listing. You can also do more in depth checks which look for insurance write offs and outstanding finance etc which cost around £12-£15 a pop.  

We tend to use an app called Vehicle Smart which tells you the MOT history in detail. You can pay extra for more in depth checks. 

- View a few vans in one day - If you can, line up a few viewings for the same day so you have a bit of choice and not so much risk of loosing out (if you stagger them over a week or longer then the likelihood is they will sell).

You may find that dealers have several vans in of the type you are looking for which makes it easier, however do be prepared to travel - its a really important decision! It will also probably make you feel more settled on your decision if you have had a choice. We drove from Wiltshire to Blackburn to view 3 vans in one day and it was well worth it as the van we settled on just felt right after driving from the previous one which we felt slightly unsettled about even though it ticked most boxes. 

What to Look for when Viewing a Used Van

Used Van Checklist 

1. Inspect the Bodywork - Keep an eye out for overspray which will indicate the van has had damage previously. If there is damage then it is usually easy enough to have it repaired whilst it's still a panel van (unconverted) but bare in mind the cost of this. You can use any damage as a potential haggling tool. 

inspecting a used van for camoervan conversion
Signs that the vehicle has been sprayed - sticker is covered in paint

2. Check for rust- If the van was a commercial van they are prone to not being looked after very well. Check not only the visible bodywork but the hidden bodywork like wheel arches, sills, under the bonnet and door shuts. This is where you might spot rust that hasn't been covered up or treated. See if you can look under any flooring that's laid down as that is another area prone to rusting and being covered up. 

3. Check the spare wheel - If it's missing it can set you back a couple of hundred pounds to replace. Most dealerships can put one on for you or you knock money off to get it included.

4. Check the tyre treads and wear- If they are close to the limit replacing them can get expensive. If there is uneven wear it can indicate a problem with the suspension or bushes etc. 

Buying a used van for a campervan conversion5. Check the condition of the cargo area (in the back!) - If it's really bashed on the wheel arches, the bulkhead and on the visible paintwork it's probably a sign it's not been very well cared for. You also need to consider if these bashed bits will be visible once the van is converted as they could look scruffy. 
buying used van for campervan conversion6. Check what's currently installed - There may be vents, compressors and electrics etc that might be a bit of pain for your conversion plans. If there are vents are they in a good position for the vents you plan to install or can you make use of them? A compressor or any internal shelving may take sometime to remove and leave holes where you don't want them. 

7. Check the engine - Listen out for any unusual noises, squeaky fans, rattling, puffing etc. Make sure you rev the engine and look and listen - are there any signs of smoke or bad smells? All these are indicators there is probably an issue. If you are buying a sprinter then look out for injector issues. 

8. Check door alignment - If they don't align very well then this can be an indication of a previous prang.

9. Wear and tear on the seats -  this can give you an indication of how well a van has been looked after.

10. Check the locks all work - make sure all the central locking is working as it should and all the doors open. 

What to check on a Test Drive of a Used Van

  1. Listen to the engine and have the windows down - Listen out for any knocking, loud noises and smells whilst driving. 
  2. Check the brakes - Are they noisy and do they feel firm or spongy? If there is a metal noise or they feel spongy when you apply the brakes then they will probably need replacing. 
  3. Try all the gears - Do they feel smooth? If they ae clunky or crunchy then this could be a sign of a gear box problem. 
  4. Do some tight turns - and have the wheel on full lock to check for any knocks that could indicate wheel or suspension issues
  5. Check the wiper blades and lights all work
  6. Check the heating/aircon works
  7. Check if any warning lights come on - if they do make sure they are diagnosed and the work is repaired before buying
Engine management light- mercedes sprinter

    Engine management light on during an inspection 

    Used Van Negotiation 

    After checking all of the above you will probably have found a few things that you can use to negotiate on the price. One thing you must understand (as frustrating as it is!) is that virtually all commercial vehicles are not particularly well loved or cared for. They are usually workhorses so don't get set on trying to find one that is in perfect condition - if you do you will be looking a long time and will probably loose out on some potentially good vans that just need a little TLC to get right. 

    Depending on the market when you are looking for your van you can usually negotiate on the price a little. Everybody's negotiation skills are different and you may already have a good way of doing it but we usually find a little charm, goes a long way rather than being bullish and negative. Be very factual with the seller rather than being overly negative about the bad points. It's better to just say what you will need to get done to get the van to get it to how you want it and then ask them what is their best price. When they give their best price you can then try lower to see if there is more flexibility. If they say no then try the "How about meeting us in the middle" line. 

    Be prepared to walk away if there is a lot that needs doing and the seller isn't budging. Unless you are in a particularly desperate rush or are looking at a more unusual van the chances are another one will come up fairly quickly if you keep you eyes peeled. 

    Do you have any any tips of your own for buying a used van to convert? Please feel free to leave any comments below. 

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