Van life: How I decided which van to buy

SAN JOSE — I drive a 14-year-old used Toyota. I’ve never spent more than $12,000 on a car.  But I was so excited about my van plan that that it didn’t take me long to make the biggest purchase of my life after a quick review of what I could get for my money.

I knew I didn’t want a cute candy-colored used VW minibus after reading reports of how frequently they tend to break down. Also out, for aesthetic reasons, was a flat-topped used “shag wagon” of the 70s, with its high-pile carpets, captain’s chairs and velour curtains. (I actually rode in one four decades ago for 900 miles while hitchhiking with a boyfriend from New Jersey to Wyoming, and that was enough for me.)

I could have gone with a used van from among the newer models, but I decided to buy a new vehicle after watching multiple YouTube videos of young vanners breaking down by the side of the highway, getting towed to an auto shop and anxiously waiting for the bill. My options ranged from spending roughly $30,000 on a cargo van tall enough to stand up in to going all out on a luxury camper with leather seating, hardwood floors and rotating flat screen TV for $165,000-plus.

A tall white cargo van seemed like the best bet. Customizing the interior would allow me to ensure that the workmanship and materials were the highest-quality I could afford. And my van doesn’t look like a typical RV or camper, which might upset neighbors. It looks like the other white delivery vehicles that traverse the greater Bay Area, reducing my chances of drawing attention from residents or police if I need to park on city streets.

I narrowed my choices to the three vehicles most commonly cited in the van life community and by consumer groups: the trendy Mercedes Sprinter, the roomy RAM ProMaster or the Ford Transit.

The Mercedes has a certain cachet that I thought would go over well in Willow Glen, where I’d be parking it from time to time near the pool house I rent until I retire. It’s also is wildly popular with van dwellers. But it’s more expensive to maintain: An oil change costs about $350, compared to about $75 for the Ford, and there are fewer mechanics capable of dealing with Sprinters in some of the remote places I hope to visit. The base price of a new extended length, high roof Mercedes Sprinter starts at $46,515 compared to $40,295 for the Transit and $34,340 for the RAM ProMaster.

The RAM ProMaster is roomy, but has front-wheel drive, which can affect handling at high speeds though it does provide more traction in rainy or snowy weather. Some van aficionados love it because its boxier configuration makes it easier to convert into a mobile home.

I wound up choosing the Ford Transit because it’s relatively cheap to maintain and is much easier for me to drive than the others. Its gas mileage isn’t as good as the diesel Sprinter — 13-16 miles per gallon depending on the load compared to around 24. It’s also narrower than a Sprinter, which requires people taller than me to sleep lengthwise. The narrower configuration also leaves less room in the van for other features, like a shower.

The Transit often has to be built to order to get the features you want — in my case, a high roof and large, electric side mirrors for better visibility. And I had to wait more than four months for it to arrive from the factory in Kansas City, partly because I ordered it around the Christmas holidays.

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If you go with a Transit, be sure to carefully scrutinize your order before the dealer submits it to the factory. The codes for special features are complex. In my case, the van arrived with fancy chrome wheels and rear air conditioning, neither of which I intended to order, especially since the air conditioning unit eats up a lot of precious storage room under the bed. But taking it out would have cost me more than $1,700.

The van came with another unexpected feature that I’ve come to love: an extra sliding door on the driver’s side that will create a welcome cross-breeze when I’m parked. It’ll be like sitting in front of a picture window in a seaside villa  — only way cheaper.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Van life: How I decided which van to buy