The process of picking and finding a van can be long and have a few roadblocks, so maybe our story will help!
The two main considerations you have to make when picking a van is what size you’re comfortable with and, obviously, what your budget looks like. Mercedes Sprinter vans, for instance, are large and luxurious, but they can come with a hefty price tag. School buses (“skoolies”) on the other hand can be found fairly cheap and give you the size you might be after, but they are certainly less stealthy than an actual van and can draw attention when parking on residential streets.
Moreover, some vanlifers opt to purchase a new van that they pay for over time, whereas we wanted to try to purchase a used van outright for a lower price. Another consideration vanlifers make is whether to go with an American, European, or Asian vehicle, which primarily affects the availability and price of your auto parts in the event of a breakdown. Typically, any auto shop you visit will have generic auto parts suitable for American vehicles, but the longevity of those vehicles is questionable. We felt the most familiar with Asian car makes, which can have higher price tags on parts but tend to run more reliably in the long haul.
When we were planning our van adventure, our biggest concern was the height of our van – Noah is 6’1″, and we felt that not needing to worry about headspace would alleviate personal tension in the long term. Not everyone needs that kind of space, though. Many vanlifers are more than happy to live a little closer to the ground, and solo vanlifers in particular might not need excessive headspace because they aren’t sharing their small home with another body. For us, after three months on the road as of writing, we are definitely grateful for the ability to stand and stretch inside the van itself.
That made the high-top Nissan NV2500 a perfect pick for us, but there were some trade-offs. The van clocks in around 6’4″ of interior height, so Noah can still stand up straight even after our flooring and ceiling installations, but these Nissan vans run a few feet shorter in length than many used for conversions. The good news is that at less than 18′ in length, we almost always fit into normal parking spots and never have to pay for oversized parking (well, except in LA, where parking can be exceedingly restrictive). Unfortunately, length translates directly into storage space. Headspace is a luxury, but it’s also empty space, and you would be surprised how much bigger the interior feels with only 4′ or 5′ of extra length. For example, our cab is about 9′ long, split roughly in half between our bed and our kitchen/seating area. Imagine that seating area being twice as large!
Nissan vans are also uncommon for van conversions, so we were able to find one in great condition for under $10,000. Cargo vans in general skew on the less expensive side, whereas hunting for that traditional Westfalia or VW bus look might cost you a bit extra.
The key to finding a van at a great deal seems like common sense, but we cannot stress it enough: look every single day. We started our van search pretty casually, looking when we thought of it, sending a stray message out on Facebook Marketplace when a van looked decent, and we got absolutely nowhere. It wasn’t until both of us were looking at least an hour a day on Craigslist, Facebook, and eBay for two or three months straight that we stumbled upon our Nissan, which was perfectly within our budget and in great mechanical condition. Good vans get scooped up quickly, so make sure you’re already looking when they start popping up!
Best of luck in your van search!
Jamie & Noah