We certainly weren’t “motor-heads” or car enthusiasts, we didn’t think about whether we wanted a van that ran on diesel or gas and we didn’t have any automotive skills. What we did know, however, is that we wanted a van within our budget with low-gas mileage, minimal initial repair costs, enough space to stand up in, and to buy it from a seller we trust. Not too much to ask for right?
Anyone who has been vehicle shopping (who hasn’t?), knows that there are a few options to choose from...okay, maybe a few thousand. From used car dealers to craigslist and everything inbetween, where to start can be a pretty intimidating and exhausting task - especially when you’re trying to make this vehicle your new home.
We started our search by looking at all of the options we could find, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the most organized approach (but hey, we’re not quite the organized type). After a week or so, we decided to focus our efforts on Craigslist because it’s easy to search for specific vans, there were always added van listings and let’s be honest, the prices were way lower.
A few more weeks went by and by this point we had narrowed our search to a Sprinter van. We could stand up in the back (in the tallest model), they get great gas-mileage, and from what we heard they are pretty reliable. The search continued. We had the same daily routine for months: wake up, check Craigslist for new Sprinter postings, go to class, go to work, get home, check Craigslist in the hope that someone had posted something in the last 12 hours, get frustrated over the fact that your dream was on hold for another day, have a beer, go to bed. Alright, it wasn’t all that monotonous, but you get the point.
It wouldn’t have taken us nearly this long to find a van, but like most young people who have dreams of traveling, we didn’t have a lot of money. We contemplated making a trip to the bank and asking for a “vanlife startup cost” loan, but decided against it for some irrational reason.
After four long months of searching, we stumbled across a van that looked ideal for what we were looking for. The van had an extended cab, low-ish gas mileage (194,000), was in seemingly good condition, and the price was crazy low for the specs that were listed in the description. Up to this point, we hadn’t actually traveled to see a van but we couldn’t resist seeing this one. A few phone calls to our co-workers to cover our shifts and were off on a two hour drive to see this beauty of a van.
It wasn’t an obvious beauty. The exterior was laughable. A previous owner covered it in bright blue and purple vinyl and the current owner had clearly made a half-hearted attempt at peeling it off; rendering it a weird, speckled mess. When we stepped inside the shuttle doors (which we love), we saw a very dusty, empty interior. The dashboard had about three buttons; the rest had been ripped out. The radio didn’t work and the AC vents had been ripped out also. But the gutting was minimal and with blind optimism, we saw its potential.
A long story short, we fell in love with the van and asked the seller if we could drive it to a mechanic to see if there were any major problems with it. This is one thing we would highly recommend. If you’re buying from a private seller, always take the vehicle to a mechanic that can do a general inspection just to ensure that everything the seller tells you is accurate and that there isn’t some huge underlying issue that you’re not aware of.
We politely asked the seller if we could take it on a test drive to a mechanic and without hesitation he said, “of course”. There weren’t any red flags after the inspection. There were a few things that needed some attention, but other than that the van seemed to be in good shape. We may have been little impulsive and we were definitely naive, but we both had that cliche “gut feeling” that we would be traveling in this van, living in this van.
That’s when everything became real for us. This vanlife dream of ours didn’t have to be a daydream anymore. In that very moment, we were in the position to make it a reality. Giddy with excitement, we drove to the nearest bank and withdrew enough cash to buy the van that would soon be our home on wheels. The “giddy from excitement” feeling soon became the “oh shit, if we do this we’ll almost be broke” feeling pretty quick on the drive back. But to us that’s what life's about: following your passions, even when it brings uncertainty. And if we didn’t buy this van, let’s be real, this dream would be suffocated like many other dreams; with lame (and likely reasonable) excuses. Our decision had been made; there was no talking ourselves out of it.
We bought the beautiful van; a 2004 Dodge Sprinter with a 170” wheel base and a Mercedes diesel engine. Without a valid license plate, no insurance and no title, we drove that baby home and couldn’t have been more proud. Let the conversion process begin. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.