How To Buy A Used Van For Your Van Conversion

We explain step by step how to buy a used van for a van conversion, from looking to buy a van, inspecting the van, test driving a van, and actually buying the van.
How To Buy A Used Van For Your Van Conversion

Buying a used van involves 5 steps:

  1. Find the right van to view
  2. Inspect the interior of a van
  3. Inspect a van’s mechanical health
  4. Test driving a van, and what to know
  5. Negotiation tactics; how to physically buy a van

Buying a used van for your van conversion can be a daunting task if you don’t know what to look for or, more importantly, where to start looking for a good quality van.

It is especially tricky as everyone in the vanlife community has their own preferences and priorities.

The first time we bought a van to convert, we opened the bonnet, pulled an ‘I know all face’, smiled and bought it… and then paid the price of the vehicle again in repairs… (it all worked out well in the end).

So how do you buy a used van?

This extensive guide covers everything you need to know when buying a used van, from finding the right van to view, to buying one.

Step 0: Decide what van you want to buy

Before even searching for any vans, you need to decide on what van you are looking for for your van conversion. Are you after a micro van for a small conversion? Perhaps a cargo van is the right size? Maybe you are after a high-top van with lots of space and full-time vanlife?

We’ve explained how to pick the right-sized campervan for your van conversion here, so go check it out if you haven’t narrowed down your choice of van.

Once you know the make and model of the vehicle you’re after, now you can get started.

Step 1: Find the right van to buy

When buying a used van, you want to view as many vans on the market as possible and narrow down your viewing choices to the best of the crop.

Good websites to search for used vans

Along with these big sites, many smaller commercial sites sometimes sell their used work vans, so do a Google search for “used vans near me” and see what pops up.

What search criteria to use when buying a used van?

Chances are, up will pop hundreds of used vans, ranging from brand new to broken.

Depending on your van build budget, you’ll have a rough price of what you can afford.

Our recommendations for criteria to use are:

  • Vehicle Age. The older a vehicle, the higher chance of rust and mechanical problems. Go for no older than 7 years.
  • Mileage. Vans are workhorses, so have lots of miles. Lower doesn’t always mean better. Go no more than 150,000, but always check the service history.
  • Realistic budget. Do 15% higher than your budget, and remember VAT!
  • Private or Commercial. Private sellers often don’t include VAT and are often cheaper. But come with no warranty.
  • Category A, B, C, N. Unless you know what you are looking at, avoid these.

Listing criteria to use when buying a used van

Once you plug the search criteria into the search sites, up will come many listings.

As you are clicking through these listings, here are some things to look out for:

  • Pictures. If the seller hasn’t bothered to provide any, or only one, don’t bother.
  • Description. If the description is short and provides little/no useful info, don’t bother.
  • Sale Length. Good vans go quickly. If it’s been for sale for months, don’t bother.
  • Service History. A partial/complete service history means you can see what has been replaced when.
  • MOT. A recent MOT usually is a good indication the van is safe to drive. Checking the MOT history on the UK Government website shows you the past MOTs and what’s been replaced. A van with many failed MOTs with lots wrong means the van is probably not well taken care of.
  • Damage. Use the pictures to assess the bodywork condition. Lots of damage means the van might not have been taken care of during its lifetime, and driven recklessly.
  • Rust. Large amounts of rust should be avoided unless you know what you’re doing and you are ready to repair it.

A good van listing will have lots of pictures, useful information in the description, and a clean MOT history.

Go through these sites and eliminate any van that doesn’t meet your criteria. Ultimately, you’ll be left with a shortlist of suitable vans.

How to call van owners for a viewing

Always call before viewing a van. A phone call is the quickest way to obtain information.

There are a few key questions you want to ask on the phone before arranging a viewing.

  • How long have you had the van? They might have had it from new, so could have lots of info.
  • What was the van used for? If it’s been used for transporting heavy items, it will have had a harder life than if it had carried mattresses.
  • Does it have a service history? And check if it is printed so you can see it.
  • Ask about its age and mileage. Check it matches the advert.
  • Why are you selling the van? If they’ve bought a new one, they probably want to sell their old one ASAP.
  • Confirm price. Always do this, and check it matches the ad. If it’s lower, they want to sell quickly.

If everything checks out, the person seems genuine and happy to answer all your questions, and your gut is happy, arrange a viewing ASAP.

If you aren’t sure you want to buy the van, for whatever reason, don’t waste the seller’s time, and don;t go to view it.

You should be 90% confident you want to buy this van before viewing it. The viewing is to double check everything you’ve seen is true.

Step 2: Inspecting a used van

With the hardest part out of the way, now comes the fun part!

Before viewing a used van, there are some key items you need to have with you:

Essential tools to have with you when buying a used van

  • Torch.
  • Tape Measure.
  • Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.
  • Tissues.
  • Pencil & Paper.
  • OBD2 Scanner – a device which checks the van’s computer
  • Phone to take pictures

You’ll also want to take our FREE van buying checklist. This has everything you need to make sure you don’t miss anything when buying a used van for a van conversion, so print it out and take it with you.

How to inspect a used van

When you meet the van owner and the van itself, take your time and check the van’s exterior and interior.

  • Walk around the van. Take a good look. Any major damage that wasn’t on the pictures?
  • Check door gaps. If there are panel gaps, the doors might have been replaced, or they may leak.
  • Check for rust. Small stone chips are common. Check for any major rust, as this will need to be repaired.
  • How does the inside look? Does the plywood cladding look bashed up? If so, it might have had a hard life.
  • Windscreen and windows. Are there any serious chips or scratches that will need to be replaced?
  • Check roof ribs. Are they straight? Do they bulge when you press them?
  • Bulkhead condition? Again, if it’s very damaged, it could have had a hard life
  • Check cabin area. Are things clean, are the seats ripped or worn? Are the buttons and dials unbroken?
  • Go under the van. Use your torch and check the underneath for major rust, loose hanging components or any damage. Rust on an exhaust is normal.

Note down any damage, and take pictures so you remember. A used van will not be in perfect condition, but you generally get a feel in under 5 minutes whether this van has been well taken care of or whether it has been treated badly.

A badly treated van means it has probably been cheaply repaired and not driven with care.

If all seems good, you can then move on to the van’s mechanical health.

Step 3: Inspect a Van’s Mechanical Health

When you inspect the van’s engine, you can’t be afraid to get a bit oily! You want to ensure everything is in good mechanical health.

  • Open the bonnet. An honest van will have a clean-ish engine bay. Not filthy, but not spotless.
  • Check all liquid levels. Is everything filled to the maximum?
  • Oil. Check the oil level with the dipstick. It should be within the min and max lines.
  • Look for leaks. See if anything is wet/oily and has been leaking
  • Go under the van. Leaks drip down, so go under the van and look for leaks.
  • Tyres. You can use a tread depth tool to see how much life is left in the tyres (tyres start with 8mm of tread, they need to be replaced around 3mm).
  • Brakes. Feel the brake pads. Do they look worn down? Do the disks look rusty or scratched?
  • Start the engine. Listen for unusual noises. Does it struggle to start? Are there any warning lights? Watch to see if the engine jerks excessively when it is started (this is bad).
  • When the engine is running, check for leaks again. A warm engine can produce leaks not visible when it’s cold. Go underneath again and use your torch to have a look around.
  • Check exhaust gases. Rev the van and see what colour the exhaust gases are. Pale white/clear is normal. Thick white = burning water/unburnt diesel. Blue = burning oil. Black = not good.

Don’t be rushed. Go through your checks at your own pace, and always ask questions. The van owner probably knows a lot about the van. If you have a concern, ask about it.

If, at this point, you’re still happy, then you can go for a test drive.

If you aren’t happy, then voice your concerns and say that the vehicle is not for you.

Step 4: Testing Driving a Van – What you need to know

When test-driving a van, it is important to be careful. The vehicle is not yours, so treat it with respect.

When it comes to test driving, drive it as though you are driving your own vehicle. Give it 10-15 minutes, and drive around city streets and on a dual cartridge way/motorway to get a complete test.

When test driving, be sure to do the following checks:

  • Noises. Are there any mechanical noises, hums, clicks, squeaks or clunks?
  • Warning lights. Are there any warning lights that pop up during the test drive?
  • Hard acceleration. When safe to do so, accelerate quickly to make sure the van gets up to speed smoothly.
  • Hard brake test. When no other vehicles are around, brake from 30mph to 0mph (tell the owner before you do this). Make sure the van stops quickly, without jerking, and stays straight.
  • Full lock test. In an open area like a car park, turn the steering wheel all the way to one side, go forward slowly, and then turn it all the way to the other side. Listen for any clunking sounds, squeaks or whirring.
  • Bumpy Roads. Drive over a bumpy road if you can, where you can listen for bad suspension parts.

Within 10-15 minutes, you usually get a feel if something in the van feels off. Even if you don’t know what it is.

If, after all of these tests, everything still seems good and you are interested in purchasing the van, now comes the hardest part.

Step 5: Negotiation Tactics – How to buy a used van

Only approach this step if you are seriously considering buying the van, and ready to buy it there and then.

If you need more time to think, let the owner know.

If the van is not for you, let the owner know.

If you want to buy the van, this is what you should consider:

  • Is the van priced reasonably? Use some valuation sites to determine what the rough cost of this vehicle would be in very good condition.
  • Is there any work to be done? Does it need new tyres, brakes, or any other replacement parts?
  • Bodywork condition. Does the van have bodywork damage that needs fixing? Take the cost of this into consideration.
  • Be prepared to walk away. If you can’t agree on the price, don’t get emotionally attached and be prepared to walk away.

Let’s say the van is for sale for £5,000

A van of this age, size and milage would cost £4,500 in very good condition.

The van needs some new tyres (£400), front brakes (£150) and a few bodywork fixes (£300). Total £850 in repairs.

First offer price: £3,750

If you do all the fixes, you would have spent a total of £4,500, which is what the van is worth in good condition.

Explain why you offer what you offer to the owner, so they can see where you are coming from.

But don’t be surprised if they aren’t willing to go as low as your offer, even if that is what the van is worth.

At the end of the day, considering everything, you will want to have a maximum figure in your mind that you are willing to spend, and don’t go above that offer.

And if the owner doesn’t want to go as low as your highest offer, then be prepared to walk away.

Thank them for viewing the van, remind them you are a serious buyer, and your offer is X and let them know that the offer still stands, and give them your phone number in case they change their mind.

But if you stick to your guns, you should be able to agree on a price, and buy your own van!


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