It’s time. You’ve been saving up, watching Youtube videos, following every Instagram page pertaining to the nomadic life, and have decided to take the plunge. Congratulations! In physics it takes more energy to get an object moving than to maintain its movement, so the biggest and hardest leap is out of the way- almost. Part of the acceleration process (and one of the most daunting) is finding and buying a vehicle. This is no small task, one that should not be taken lightly, and I hope that in the following post I can lay down my professional opinion about the basics of buying a vehicle. These rules apply to vans, buses, or any vehicle for that matter. The actual type of vehicle is up to you. Buses have a ton of space, but are costly to maintain and fuel; vans are more limited in space but drive and park more like a car. There are tradeoffs that you’ll need to consider based on your wants and needs.
I feel like I could write a volume of textbooks on the topic but I’ll start with this and let everything else fall in its shadow: Spend as much as you can on the nicest, newest vehicle that you can. Why? Because there’s direct causation between affordability and quality, generally. Many times have I seen a fellow with a $30k budget spend $4k on a van and the remaining $24k on the build. This goes back to the age old philosophy of “Build your house on a strong foundation” mantra. Of course there are always outliers to this and amazing deals can be found, but truly great deals are few and far between. If you can afford to buy new, buy new. If you plan on traveling to parts unknown and boondocking in the Mojave Desert, I can assure you that reliability is paramount. You will agree too if you break down with no cell service and are praying that Walter and Jesse come barreling through the hot desert in their Winnebago.
Think: “would I feel ok building my house in this thing and hurdling it down the highway at 70 mph?”
Apart from reliability, equally negative factors are reduced or eliminated with new or low mileage/ lightly used vehicles such as water leakage, rust, parts availability… all things that you will pay (more) for in the future, rather than upfront.
I understand that a lot of people can’t afford a new vehicle, so they must search for a used one. Craigslist is the #1 best place I’ve seen to buy used. Everyone from individuals to dealerships advertise on there, making it a great montage of vehicles. You can use websites like SearchTempest to search Craigslist nationwide, rather than just your local area. Auctions are good as well and give you a shot at buying a fleet maintained vehicle at a great price. These vehicles, especially buses, usually have less than 100k miles and are up to date on maintenance. The downside to auctions is that you are almost never allowed to drive the vehicle before it appears on the block. Sometimes you can find a good deal on a partially built project. I usually discourage people from buying these as we do not accept them and because you never know what has been done, or how it’s been done. This is an unregulated field of construction and it’s best to have someone who is knowledgeable and experienced oversee and carryout any build.
So you found a couple low mileage, fresh looking rides and you want to check them out! The first thing that I recommend is calling the seller and talking to them even for a minute. There are a ton of scams in the used car business and letting a seller hear your voice assures them that you’re a serious buyer. Ask about history, past owners, state of origin, title status, current problems, service records, who serviced the vehicle, what it was used for, etc. Do not ask why they’re selling it. This can leave a bad taste in the sellers mouth as it could be because of divorce, bankruptcy, or any series of bad events that when brought up evokes negative emotion and puts the seller on the defensive. It can be highly personal. Lastly, get the VIN number so you can run a CARFAX and compare its results with what the seller said.
Look for a clean title, free of major wrecks. Also check the area that the vehicle spent most of its life. Southern states, especially Southwestern states, are generally best as salt on the roads is nonexistent and the climate is warm and dry. Vehicles from these climates are usually free of major rust on the frame and body, as well as water damage. Not to say that you can’t find these vehicles up north, but buses and vans are generally not garage kept “grocery getters” and are driven daily regardless of the weather conditions, exposing them to salt, water, tar, etc.
So the vehicle in question checks out and you decide to set up a time to look at it. Pick a time in the afternoon when there is plenty of light so body damage and defects are more evident. If you’ve never bought anything from a private seller and are a little apprehensive about it, bring a friend. This also shows the seller that you’re serious and willing to drive it away that day. A comfortable seller is much more likely to be truthful and flexible with you. Ask the seller not to start or move the vehicle before you arrive. If a vehicle is hard starting, sometimes a seller will run the engine for a while before you arrive, since a warm engine will crank easier than a cold one. Check this upon arrival by popping the hood and CAREFULLY feeling around. Don’t grab the exhaust manifold first! It should be pretty evident if it’s been started.
While you’re in the engine bay, check the oil. If you don’t know how to do this, look it up. Fresh oil looks like maple syrup, oil towards the end of its life is dark amber or black in diesel engines. If it is milky, cloudy, white, or anything besides what it should look like, there is a good chance the head gaskets or cylinder head need to be replaced. If the oil smells strongly of gas, there is a chance that the piston rings/ cyclinders are worn and need replacing/ honing. These are not small problems, proceed with caution if any of these conditions exist. Diesel engines are a slight exception since piston blow by is normal, causing the oil to smell a little like diesel. But there is a problem if oil viscosity is compromised by too much blow by and fuel contaminating the oil.
If (and only if) the engine is 100% cold, pop the radiator cap or coolant reservoir cap off and check that the coolant is clean and clear. It’s typically red, orange, or green in color. If it smells like gas, is cloudy, has dirt and contaminants floating in it, there is an underlying issue in the engine. Look for oil leaks around the valve covers, belly pan, transmission, or anywhere on the ground. A well maintained gasoline engine will be clean looking with no serious oil and grime buildup. Diesels are subject to much higher extremes than a conventional gas engine, especially commercial diesel engines that are commonplace on buses. It pretty normal for a perfectly healthy diesel engine to be dirty and show signs of oil leaks (especially Detriots) so don’t judge a book by its cover. Belts and hoses should also be inspected for dry rot.
Do a walk around to check the body, tires, plates (inspection), lights, rust, or any signs of deterioration. Tires are important to check for safety as well as a negotiation point. A set of tires on a van can cost $600-$800 and twice that for a bus. Check the inspection sticker to see when it was last inspected. Check for rust- this is the scary thing for people. Surface or flash rust is not a big issue. Sure, it’s unsightly on a body panel but can normally be sanded and painted to look new. Rust that is neglected begins to pit the metal, causing irreparable damage and can affect structural integrity. Check the frame, axles, suspension components, and underbody for this deep, damaging rust and make note of it. A little surface rust on these components is to be expected. Body rust occurs most around the wheel wells, lower rocker panels, and body mounts. If the body mounts are rusting they will need to be addressed ASAP. If the paint looks like its bubbling out anywhere, there is deep rust underneath, a costly fix. Rule of thumb, the less rust the better. Duh.
Climb inside the vehicle and poke around. What smell hits your nose upon entering the vehicle? Hopefully there isn’t a particular odor lingering about but if it smells like a cave, crawlspace, or locker room, there is probably water getting in somewhere. Do whatever you can to see the actual substrate underneath the carpet, walls, ceiling, and try to assess the situation and potential rust. Bring along a screwdriver or metal dowel and tap on the floors and walls to feel if they’re solid. Water damage is not always evident especially in buses where the walls are hollow and filled with fiberglass insulation. Often time’s leaks enter the exterior and drain down the inside of the roof, down the walls, and settle on the bottom near or in the floor. Sometimes after a heavy rain water can be found puddled on the floor with no obvious signs of a leak. Water leakage should be heavily investigated beforehand as it adds considerable time and cost to a build!
Ask to start the vehicle. If it’s a process you’re familiar with, do it yourself, otherwise let the seller do it. Immediately upon starting look at the exhaust- is it smoking? Condensation in the exhaust is normal, especially in the winter time, and is easily distinguishable from burning oil. Burning oil makes the exhaust blue in color and quite smelly. Diesels may smoke for a second upon starting, especially if the ambient temp is below 60 degrees. Check the dash for warning lights. Bring a code reader if you can get your hands on one, or buy a cheap one for $25 at an auto parts store. Listen to make sure that everything sounds as it should. An annoying buzzer is normal to hear for a vehicle with air brakes and will cut off within ~90 seconds upon starting, once sufficient air pressure is reached. If there is a knock, drone, tick, or anything out of the ordinary, be cautious and ask questions. Diesels will sometimes clack for a moment until they begin to warm up but should sound smooth after a minute or two.
Ask to drive the vehicle. If a bus or large van is something you’re not comfortable with or have much experience driving, ask your buddy or the seller to drive. Take it to a parking lot where you can learn to drive later on. The driving part is pretty obvious and intuitive. If you or your buddy can drive, look for a smooth, steady ride, unless you’re in a school bus. In that case just think back to those good ole days of bouncing around while finishing your homework and questioning if they forgot to put a suspension system on that model. This is normal. A newer van will drive like a newer car. They handle, brake, and steer surprisingly well for their size. Drive long enough to warm the engine to full operating temperature, about 10 minutes, and make sure it doesn’t overheat.
Once arriving back at the rendezvous, cut the engine off and walk around the vehicle again, checking for leaks or signs that something is wrong. Smell for burning rubber, oil, or plastic. If possible restart the engine after a minute or two to check that it restarts fine. Check the heat, front and rear A/C, radio, windows, wipers and other things like backup cameras if equipped.
If you are serious about buying, take a few minutes to talk to the seller about something unrelated to the sale if possible. Having a laugh and being in good standing with the seller will greatly improve your odds in the negotiating process- which is an art. Be kind, respectful, and courteous. If you’re not interested, be upfront about it and shake their hand. I’ve found that good people usually don’t sell bad cars, but a shady dude will sell a lemon in a heartbeat. Use your brain, use your intuition, and listen to your gut. Stay safe, have fun, be smart. Be blessed in your travels!