The Official Checklist for Buying a Used Van

So you think you’ve found the used van you’re going to live out your #VanLife dreams in. Excellent. You’ve read our blog post “Buying New vs. Used Vans” (LINK) and have decided that used is the only feasible option for you. Great. Now let’s make sure you have all of your ducks lined up and your T’s crossed or whatever before handing over any of your hard-earned cash. 

First things first: When you buy a used cargo van, you have to understand you’re buying a vehicle that was probably worked out of – heavily. We’re talking rode hard and put away wet. You know what we mean. We’ve had vans come in with the floors smashed out, deformed walls and warped components, even though they have 30,000 miles on them and are two years old. You often (note: unless you buy from a friend) have no idea where and how that van was used. Story time: We had a van come that smelled kind of bizarre. We scrubbed it down and soaped up what we could, but there was still this lingering smell that had seeped into the soul of the van. The new owner reached out to the previous, just to find that their Transit had previously been used to transport toxic chemicals from a fracking site. Gross. 

You also never know how heavily they loaded the van. Did they do some serious towing with it? Usage like this causes often undetectable damage to the powertrain, a significant and expensive component. We all know how we drive rentals, and the same mentality applies to these work vehicles. Use the chart below to vet any used van before even considering purchasing. 

  • Get a professional mechanic to look at it 
  • Bonus points if they’re your friend and will give it a serious rub down. This is the most important step you can take. Since they don’t have any skin in the game, they have no reason to hold back any bad news. It’s nothing to them if you don’t buy it, and not to knock your Internet knowledge, but they know what they’re doing. Alternatively, if they end up saving you from buying a lemon, you might come back to them as a customer the next time you get some work done.

  • Suspension
  • A general test of the suspension can be carried out by pressing down hard on one corner and seeing how quickly it bounces back. It will return to its original position quickly and smoothly if the shock absorbers are in a good condition – no dillydallying. Listen for squeaks, creaks, and cracks – all of those signs are bad news and expensive to fix. Ensure the tires are the correct ones for the van and that the wear is even across the front and rear treads which is also a tell-tale sign of bad suspension or alignment.

  • How’s the outside look?
  • Be wary of rust. If you can see rust on the body, there’s probably way more rust underneath. Dents and scratches are okay as long as you’re okay with them, but make sure the gouges don’t have any exposed metal that could leave to future rusting.

  • Leaks
  • To state the obvious, leaks are never a good thing. Especially if it’s oil or transmission fluid. They can point to much bigger, much more expensive problems.

  • Check the doors, windows, locks, lights, heating and air conditioner
  • Just do it. Open the doors from both sides. Make sure no weird smells come out of the air vents, which often indicates other issues.

  • Get the CarFax
  • You’ll be able to decide on your own whether or not its history is good to go. 

  • Ask the previous owner what it was used for
  • Sometimes a simple “Anything I should know?” is enough to start the conversation on the van’s previous life. You can ask point blank what kind of work the van was used for. It’s up to them to be honest though. 

  • Tires
  • U.S. law requires a minimum 2/32-inch tread; however, you’re going to want something well over that if you plan on taking your van anywhere exciting. Know if you can negotiate new tires into the deal or if the ones on there will work. 

  • Take her for a ride
  • Is the steering tight or leave room for a lot of play? Does it make a funny noise when you accelerate or brake? Do any lights flicker on the dash, indicating important warning signs? Make sure you like the way it drives as well. If you let go of the steering wheel, does the vehicle stay straight?

  • Listen to your gut
  • If something doesn’t feel right, or if you feel like you’re compromising too much – walk away. That noise you think you hear is probably a legitimate concern and not worth the risk. Make sure you always meet in a populated location and bring a friend for safety and backup opinions.   

    We’d love to hear about your own van-buying experience in the comments below. Any other tips or tricks you’d recommend? 

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