Nomad Life,  The Outdoors,  Travel Guides

10 Things to Consider When Buying a Van for Full-Time Living

These days, buying a van to live in “down by the river” is the latest trend. Vanlife is glorified by digital nomads on social media boasting freedom and adventure. For our sake, we really hope that’s true. However, I want to be honest with my readers and share our experience as naive first-time van buyers. This process was hard and became quite complicated for us. It’s important that you do your research and are prepared when buying a van. This list of considerations should be the first stop in your journey. Thinking about these things early on will establish a better understanding of the van-buying process. Hopefully, this will help you avoid silly mistakes. Thankfully, I’m writing to you after a successful purchase. So, even though it was stressful and sleepless it all worked out in the end.

1. Why are you Buying a Van?

I know that finding your “why” sounds woo-woo, but in this case, it’s actually very practical and important. Not to mention, it helps when you’re explaining this lifestyle to family members. Anyway, figure out why you are buying a van and this will help to answer many of the following questions. We were at a crossroads in deciding between moving back to the Midwest or staying in Denver. Both options were a hell no, but we didn’t know where to go next. Not to mention, we were done spending loads of money on weekend travel and not being able to really experience the places that we visited. 

Here’s what our why looked like. We want to live full-time in a van because we value travel and adventure. It’s important that we get to know the places we visit on a budget that we can afford. We want to avoid the slog of a 9-5 lifestyle before we decide to settle down. We want to save our money and live more simply. 

Now that you have your why, this will help to guide your budget, your itinerary, the type of van you buy, how you buy a van, and prioritize what you need in the van.

2. What Does the Market Look Like?

This step is important for several reasons. First of all, there is so much out there. By researching with low stakes, you can discover what your needs and nonnegotiables are. It will also help to determine if you want to buy already converted, DIY, or use a professional service. Preliminary research will also give you an idea of the market. You’ll learn just how much you will need to save in order to make this dream a reality. We knew that we wanted a fully converted used van, so we stuck to Facebook Groups and Marketplace as well as sites like Van Viewer and Vancamper. There are also dealerships that have used van conversions but they seem to be few and far between in Denver. 

3. How Will You Purchase the Van?

This raises the question of whether or not you want the van to be a DIY project, to buy an already built-out conversion van, or to use a professional van conversion service. Your answer to this question will depend primarily on your budget and how much time you have. Some professional services can take up to 2 years to have your van ready, while DIY van conversions always take more time than you plan for. Even with a used and fully converted van, it might take time to make it your own. As far as budget goes, a DIY build or buying a used van conversion seems to be the cheapest option. Using a professional service or purchasing from an RV retailer can run you a more hefty price. But hey, this is your home so sometimes spending a little extra can be worth it.

4. Additional Considerations when Buying a Van from a Private Seller

Several things come into play when purchasing from a private seller. First, ask the seller if they have the title in hand (title=certificate of ownership). This means that the seller has paid off the vehicle, and therefore, can hand over the title to you at the time of the sale. You will need this title for registration and to officially own the vehicle. There are some instances in which a seller may still be paying off a loan on their vehicle. This means the seller DOES NOT have their title in hand (typically the bank holds onto it until their loan is paid off). I would avoid this situation if you can as it makes things extra complicated. However, this is actually what happened with our purchase. To avoid never receiving the title, we chose to use this amazing service called KeySavvy. KeySavvy acts as a middleman to protect your purchase. I can’t recommend this service enough. 

Ask the seller for the most recent CarFax and service records IN WRITING. Or if they have a mechanic…call them. Or ask if they’d be willing to take the car to a mechanic to get checked out before the sale. This will help you negotiate the price and identify any major mechanical issues before you buy the van. 

Finally, when buying a van conversion from a private seller, you’ll need to look into all of the documents necessary for vehicle registration. This typically is some version of the title, bill of sale, emissions testing, etc. This will differ and vary especially if you bought the car from out of state.

5. How Much Can You Spend?

Here, you want to establish how long you have to save and figure out the amount that you can save each month. We saved for about 8 months. Next, do you plan to finance or pay in cash? To avoid monthly payments and going into debt, we chose to pay cash for our van. Finally and most importantly, you’ll need to consider several other costs beyond your initial purchase of the van. Things like unexpected maintenance (especially important for used vans from private sellers), registration fees, taxes, and insurance can really begin to add up. I recommend aiming for slightly under budget. An additional note, not all states charge a sales tax on the purchase of a vehicle. Head to your state/city DMV for more information on this. Denver’s sales tax on a purchase of a vehicle is 9%…that’s a lot of extra money.

6. Will You Be Working from the Van?

If so, I highly recommend purchasing a van with solar power. If you’re building the van yourself, I recommend learning how to install solar. A simpler electrical system may not give you enough power to plug in all day every day. Also, solar panels provide freedom to be off the grid as you will not require shore power. Your work may also affect how you travel and where you travel depending upon your choice of wifi. For example, phone hotspots are a great and easy option, but you need to have service in order for the hotspot to work. Therefore, you may not be able to travel into the wilderness on a weekday.  On the other hand, Starlink Roam allows you to be anywhere that doesn’t have too much tree coverage…just be cautious of the cost. Here are some other wifi options for van life.

7. What are your Vanlife Interior Dealbreakers?

This is another reason that consideration number one is important. There are endless types of vanlife builds and innovations out there, so you’ll have to narrow down what is important to you. For us, the biggest dealbreaker often came down to size. As full-timers with a dog who planned to work from the van, we needed something larger. Another major consideration for full-time vanlifers might be whether or not you want to have a shower/toilet in the van. It’s easiest and cheapest to choose an outdoor shower option, but if you’re an avid skier then outdoor showering in the winter is not an option. A shower was something that we had to compromise on. We have a solar shower that allows us to shower outside in nice weather. In the winter, we will plan to shower on the road. Other dealbreakers for us included things like having solar power set up, van insulation, a heater, some type of ventilation, a place to work (table), a sink, and a refrigeration system.

8. When, Where, and How Much You Plan to Drive?

Some of us are buying a van to live in but staying put for the most part while others are buying a van to maximize travel. How much you plan to travel is important when looking at the mileage, age, and overall performance of the van. Staying put may allow you to compromise on maintenance while traveling a lot can make safety and maintenance a priority. It’s important to consider when and where you plan to travel mainly for the weather. For example, weather can affect the amount that you pack (think storing summer clothing vs. winter clothing) and the performance of your van. If you plan to ski in the mountains like us, you may want a van that performs well in the snow. Maybe you want to off-road? Then you’ll have to get a van with 4-wheel drive capabilities. If you’re not sure where to go in your van, then check out my outdoor travel guides and road trips for inspiration.

9. Are you Willing to Buy a Van from Out-of-State?

There are incredible van conversions all over this country. Looking at buying a van conversion from out-of-state will help widen your search so that you can find exactly what you’re looking for. However, this can come with additional costs including traveling to pick up the van and out-of-state registration. While FaceTime calls are helpful, just know that the seller is in control and can choose to show you what they want. You have to be willing to make a journey just to not make a deal when pictures don’t quite match reality. We bought our van from Utah and thankfully the seller was willing to drop it off to us. For the most part, the van met expectations, but there were some cosmetic and maintenance issues that were not disclosed so just beware.

10. Where Will You Establish Residency?

Before buying a van to live in, take a look at your state’s rules for residency. Obviously, your van is not going to have an address so, this step requires some planning. The easiest thing to do here is to ask to use a family or friend’s address as your permanent address in your current state. They’ll just have to deal with your mail for however long you’re on the road. If that’s not seeming like an option for you, you can also establish residency in other states. The big three that make it fairly easy include South Dakota, Texas, and Florida. In South Dakota, for example, all you have to do is stay overnight and provide a receipt of the place you stayed to the DMV (with some other documents). And boom, you’re a South Dakotan. Anyway, I recommend planning this portion before you buy a van as this affects van registration, ownership, and insurance. You don’t want to be driving illegally out there. Ultimately, we decided to use a family member’s address and maintain CO residency for now. Gnomad Home provides the best guide on this process that I’ve seen so far.

As you can see, the steps and considerations of buying a van are not as easy as they may seem. This is a major purchase that can get complicated quickly. Of course, the more you can pay, the more convenient the process becomes. Personally, I wish we would’ve saved longer to avoid some of the hoops that we’ve had to jump through. However, we are incredibly excited to start this journey and figure it out along the way. Of course, I will always be transparent with my readers and update you on the inevitable highs and lows of this lifestyle.

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