Buying a Used Camper Van – How NOT To Get Ripped Off

Camper van sitting in weeds

If you would like to purchase a used camper van, especially one that has been converted by an amateur, there are many potential problems you should be aware of. Camper vans are often converted by amateur hobbyists so things may not be done up to the standards the way that they are on a manufactured Class B van. On the other hand, it could be that it is much better than a manufactured Class B.

There are many skilled amateur van builders who do a great job and create masterpieces in a van living space. It is possible to find a great used camper van that will serve you well on your journey. In fact, it is usually best to purchase a used one as long as you have done your research and know what you are getting.

If it’s a manufactured Class B that you are seeking, you will usually get a better deal on a used one. The first owner is the one who will take the loss of the initial depreciation. You’ll jump in after it has taken that depreciation and end up with a potentially good van for a good price.

If you are seeking a conversion van, you will need to know what to look for and some of the signs a job not-so-well-done.

Just because a van looks great doesn’t mean it is built solid. There could be potential problems down the road if you don’t look closely. Van builders often put a steep price on their builds, with some even being downright ridiculous for what they are. A high-priced conversion van doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting a high-quality product.

Likewise, if you are looking for a Class B RV that has been manufactured by a well-known company, there are also things to look for. A van is a van and while the living space may be done differently between a professional Upfitter and an amateur, the van itself will present some of the same issues. Parts break and wear out and you must be able to make an educated decision about which ones are winners and which ones you should walk away from.

I grew up with a step-dad who was a used car dealer most of his life so I have heard a few tips over the years about buying and selling vehicles. These same tips will apply to any vehicle that you are going to buy. It may be even more important with a camper van since the price is steeper than what you will pay for a personal car. Buying a dud will not only make you mad but it could potentially make you stuck with a van that you might not be able to sell or have to sell at a reduced price down the road.

Let’s look at a few tips that can help you avoid being ripped off.

Inspect The Van In-Person

Anything can be purchased online nowadays but if you want to reduce your chances of purchasing a dud, you need to see it in person. There are many things that could be wrong with a van or any vehicle in general that viewing it online won’t show. Don’t trust online listings or assume that everything is as stated. Always make sure that you do not agree to anything until you have seen the van in person and have had the opportunity to check it out.

If you are dealing with someone who is trying to create urgency and have you put down a deposit, it may be best to walk away. There is no need for this when there are tons of camper vans on the market and it’s not like they are flying off the shelf. You have time to make an informed decision rather than buying one from a distance just because of false urgency.

Check The Engine & Drivetrain

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is check the engine and drivetrain of the van to make sure there are no potential problems. I would suggest making this a priority on your search. After all, what’s a camper van without a properly functioning engine, transmission, and other parts of the drivetrain?

Many people buy used camper vans or other RVs and just assume everything is okay because it looks good. This may be a mistake because looks alone won’t tell you much about how an engine and other critical parts are functioning.

No matter how awesome the interior looks or how great of a job the conversion van is, if the engine is about to fall apart, it probably isn’t the van for you. For this to be effective, you should have the van checked by a mechanic or a friend that has a lot of knowledge of vehicles.

Drive The Van

You MUST drive the van before making any decision. If for some reason, the owner does not want you to drive it or makes excuses, you should walk away. Driving the van is the only way you are going to know that you are getting a van that is in good working order. Not only do you want to drive it, but you want to make sure you drive it in various situations.

Drive it on main street roads as well as get it up to speed on the freeway. During this drive, you’ll be able to listen for noises and feel for anything awkward as you are driving. If you have a mechanic or knowledgeable friend with you, this drive will help them to determine the overall working order of the van. You might hear some unwelcome noises that you will need to look further into.

If you are buying a van over the internet, be sure not to sign anything until you have met the person and driven the van. This is an important part of determining whether the vehicle is worth buying or not.

Look At The Small Details

A lot can be learned by looking at the smallest of details. You can generally tell when someone has taken care of an item by looking closely at small details that others might miss. In the case of a camper van, especially if it is one that has been converted by someone, there are a few details to make note of.

  • Dents and dings. Nearly any used vehicle will have them and especially a camper van. However, you can generally tell if they are just simple wear and tear type issues or the type that has been caused by mistreatment. This is a subjective matter and some may not care about small dings but some will.
  • Tire wear
  • The general condition of things under the hood
  • Check the oil and all fluids
  • Look underneath the vehicle for leaks
  • Check the interior for loose or broken hinges, screws, panels, etc.
  • Check the roof for signs of problems including poor caulking jobs, rust, holes or other areas that could allow for leaks
  • Turn on and test the electric equipment, outlets, inverters, etc.
  • Notice loose items and how the craftsmanship looks. Are the cabinets sturdy? Floors squeaking?

When you go to inspect the vehicle, just make sure you are extra observant of everything. You don’t want to miss anything that might be problems. If there are small issues, these aren’t usually a problem but you may have to fix them so it should be calculated into your final offer for the vehicle.

Check For Signs Of Leaks

Leaks are one of the biggest problems in used RVs and if you don’t look closely, you may let one slip by. It isn’t always possible to find leaks unless it happens to be raining during the time you are inspecting the van. If it isn’t raining, you’ll need to look for signs that it has happened before. You’ll need to know what these signs look like.

Here are some things that you should look for when inspecting for water leaks.

  1. Stains on the ceiling
  2. Musty smell in the van
  3. Signs of mold or mildew
  4. Warped areas in the ceiling or other places where water may drip

All of these issues are dead giveaways that there is some type of water leak. They could be current leaks or leaks that have been fixed but make sure to discuss this with the current owner.

Besides looking for leaks from the outdoor environment, be sure, and also check the plumbing system for leaks. Turn on all the water faucets to make sure all is functioning properly and then look underneath sinks in all areas to make sure no water is leaking. You’ll want to make sure to create a decent flow of water through the system so you may be able to spot any problem areas.

Hopefully, the owner will let you know of any issues but it isn’t always possible for the owner to even know about them. It doesn’t mean that they are trying to screw you, it could be that they truly don’t know.

Don’t Get Emotionally Involved In It

It’s a financial transaction and if it doesn’t work out, move on. Similar to buying a car or pretty much anything else, it’s easy to get attached to something that you love about a particular van. However, there may be other issues that are front and center that are warning signs. The problem is that when you get emotionally involved in something, you will tell yourself anything to overlook the bad parts.

When you are emotionally involved in purchasing an expensive camper van, you will probably make a decision based on those emotions. Instead, you should look at it as a financial transaction and you should look to make the best financial move that you can make. Having the perfect van is not going to exist. There are plenty of vans on the market and for the most part, updating bits and pieces to fit your personality better will be a simple process.

If you find a van that has the perfect living interior but the engine of the van is questionable, you should move on. Don’t spend your time looking at something that has questions around it. Don’t allow yourself to become emotionally attached to any one van. Look at each van as though it is a contender but do not even consider purchasing it until you have thoroughly inspected it and driven it and taken into consideration the other precautions on this list.

Don’t Buy Alone

When you go shopping for an item as expensive as a camper van, you can’t possibly see all of the downfalls that might come your way. It is better to have someone with you when you go to look at a van. However, make sure this person has a good head on their shoulders and isn’t emotionally attached to the process like you are. People like this can help you to see problem areas when all you see is the beautiful camper van that you were looking at. While you are imagining parking the van in a nice location overlooking the ocean, the other person might be finding problems and issues that you would have overlooked.

Having a person with you during this process will help to ensure that you do not make quick decisions and that you have not forgotten areas that could be potential problems. Even better, take someone along that knows a lot about cars or vehicles. A person like this will be able to spot potential problems even better than a random friend.

Shop Around

Don’t buy the first one you see just because you like a layout.

It can be an exciting undertaking when you begin searching for your perfect camper van. It’s easy to get hung up on one just because you like the way certain areas of the van are designed. This is understandable but it’s a good idea to step back and think about things before pulling the trigger. There are plenty of vans on the market so don’t settle on the first one or two that you look at unless you are absolutely sure that it is the one you want.

When you become fixated on one particular van, it can be easy to forget about the budget. You begin to rationalize the reasons that you MUST have it. It’s as if it is the only one in the world and you’ll do anything to have it. Don’t allow yourself to get into this mindset. This is where having someone who is levelheaded to come along and help you during your search can be very helpful.

Use Common Sense

Last but not least and perhaps the best advice that I can give is to use common sense when you are purchasing a camper van. Sometimes you can just tell that a situation is not right or a van does not meet the requirements that you have set out to adhere to. Sometimes the emotional roller coaster involved in finding that perfect van can cloud your thinking and make you purchase something that you shouldn’t have.

The perfect van will show up but you will need to use common sense during your search. Without a little bit of common sense and a clear thought process, you may end up buying something just because you get excited about the way one part of the van looks.

Bottom Line

Buying a camper van can be a rewarding experience when you finally drive away in one that was a good purchase. However, too often, people get sucked into purchasing vans that are less than stellar and they might have seen this had they done more due diligence during the process. Pay attention to the small things and don’t worry about hurting the current owner’s feelings.

You need to inspect everything about the van. It’s you who will be stuck with the purchase after the paperwork has been signed. You need to know that you are making the right decision and that you will have no regrets.

Hopefully, the tips above will help you get your journey started with a van that you will be happy with. Camper vans provide a great way to travel and enjoy the world but you don’t want to be fixing problems that could have been avoided if you had paid more attention. Enjoy the process, take your time and the perfect van will eventually show up.

Dan Collins

I consider myself an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel and go to places that most people don't get a chance to go. I want to see it all and live life to the fullest while I'm alive. My camper van is helping me to do just that. I write about my experiences to help inspire others to do the same.

Recent Content