Shopping for a Van

12 Apr 2019

Since getting my van, every second person tells me they wish they could do the same and of those people, plenty are actually serious about taking the plunge. I get hit up with heaps of questions about how I made the choice to buy the van that I bought, so here are the parameters I set when searching.

Having lived in a van for a few weeks on holiday, I learned that I was definitely on to something when considering buying one. I absolutely loved it. If you’re unsure if you’re just romanticising a lifestyle, why not hire a van and live in it for a couple of weeks? Not only did this make me realise I definitely wanted to buy one, but I also knew that there were certain things I couldn’t compromise on to make sure I was comfortable.

Room to sit or stand

The first was that the van I bought had to have a pop top. Being able to stand up in a van makes it go from car to home. It means the ability to vent hot air in summer through the canvas windows and it means being able to cook inside. Having my own space to do everything including standing was a definite deal breaker. In lieu of standing, not being able to even fully sit up make a van much less comfortable so a primitive conversion wasn't ideal. 

A preferred brand

The van had to be a Toyota. My first car was an indestructible Toyota Torago. This gave me a great sense of trust in the car I would be buying knowing that it would be reliable and as long as I looked after it, it would last through the thrashing I was likely to give it. I travel a lot in my car, and it would become my main vehicle, so it had to be reliable.

Mechanical requirements

It had to be mechanically sound. There was no way I was going to buy a van that was someone’s mechanical project. I’m no mechanic and mechanical work costs money. I also don’t have time to be learning how to replace parts or install things, nor do I have the budget to be outsourcing any of that work to a mechanic. So the car had to be totally mechanically sound. To make sure this was the case, I paid to have the car checked out by a mechanic prior to purchasing. This cost me about $75. The mechanic then gave me an independent report of what the car needed now and might need in the future so I knew exactly what I was buying in to. I ended up having a second mechanic verify this and do the work I needed on it.

Under 300,000km

The van had to have under 300,000km on the odometer. I had a mechanic advise me that most cars begin getting mechanical problems around this point so if someone is selling a car above this range it could be because it has got a mechanical issue that is no longer financially reasonable for them to get fixed, so they sell it to make it someone else’s problem. This is where having a mechanic check a vehicle is a good idea, but you don’t want to have to do this to every car you are possibly interested in. I used the mechanic check as the last stage. I asked the seller if I could get a mechanic to look at it so I could make an informed decision when making them an offer.

No rust

I wanted a van that would pass a roadworthy, so it couldn’t have crazy bad rust holes in the body. There are so many vans with bad rust out there for sale. If I couldn’t get it ready for roadworthy, there was no point in buying it.

Manual transmission

I also wanted the van to be a manual. This is a personal preference. I don’t like automatic cars; I find driving them too passive. I knew as all that there are projects to convert the van I wanted over to a new V6 engine with all parts available in a kit, so if the worst happened and I had to have a mechanical project, it was definitely plausible.

Van age

The van couldn’t be early than a 1984 model. This was because I knew a bunch of van lifers and hit them up during the search. They gave a solid thumbs down to earlier models for their mechanical quirks and unreliability but what I discovered that made them undesirable were engine power and fuel inefficiency. The later a model you get, the better the perks. For example, they will be more fuel efficient, have more gears (some I looked at had 3 gears not 6), possibly have air conditioning etc. The one I went for had power steering. This was a huge deal for me and a brilliant surprise. A camper van is usually a long wheelbase vehicle and driving one without power steering would be super hard. My buddy Ollie has a 1985 van and he has no power steering. My 1986 van does.

Cast a wide net

Have a wide search. I started looking in Victoria and it took months. Eventually, I bought one in a country town in WA, which I flew over to collect and then drove back across the Nullarbor. The same van in Victoria would have gone much quicker for a few thousand more. A mate bought theirs in Queensland and then drove it down south. 


The budget I set for myself to find the van I wanted was $6,000. It ended up costing about $2.5k to get the car ready for the roadworthy, roadworthied and to get it registered. When looking at the price I made sure to keep in mind that the amount I spent on the car itself was just the start. There were always going to be extra expenses to get the car into my name and then ready to live its best life on the road with me. 

- L

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