The Search

Once I decided to really go for this whole #vanlife thing for real, step one was pretty obvious: find a van! I mean, it’s right there in the name and all.

The research consisted of reading some books and blogs/sites, following a bunch of social media sites for inspiration as to what different types of vehicles can do in terms of layout, and every 10 minutes while driving craning my neck to see what model that cool van I just passed was.

Some things I narrowed my search to:

  • Must be automatic transmission. I never got past driving around the parking lot in my high school boyfriend’s car sort of being able to shift gears without stalling or rocketing us through the windshield. I’d like to learn the skill, but the chances of me mastering it quickly and with enough confidence to reliably navigate on all kinds of roads, through hills and mountains, and traffic? Pretty laughable.
  • Must be able to park and drive without major difficulty. I consider myself (as I’m sure most people delusionally consider themselves) to be a decent driver with the occasional exception of when lost, in storms or ice, or ridiculous traffic. Even so, the thought of changing lanes on a highway or navigating narrow or curvy roads in a gargantuan RV-esque van, let alone backing up a giant van with no windows terrifies me. I’d trade the ability to stand fully and more living space for the better likelihood I’ll avoid backing into a tree or careening off a mountain pass any day.
  • There are tons of brand new beautiful vans out there, ready to be Insta-customized, with room for bathrooms, ovens, fridges, etc. but only if you have tens of thousands to spend. You can find cool retro VW campers that have been redone and kept up, but only if you have tens of thousands of dollars. You can find already tricked out adventure-mobiles ready to off-road anywhere, but only if you have tens of thousands to play with. Sense a pattern here? Still, with so many work vans, fleet vehicles, campers and minivans around the used market is there, but for me budget rules since this is a relatively short term commitment rather than my life plan for a mobile/digital career full time. My search was limited to $10,000 and below.
  • Had to be under 100,000 miles for similar reasons: breaking down frequently ruins the trip, a major overhaul like a new engine or transmission kill the budget even if the initial price is lower, and lower mileage in my mind is reassuring to my visions of breaks failing on mountain in the middle of nowhere.
  • Had to have decent gas mileage. I know it will never be close to my Honda Fit’s 30ish mpg (and personal best of 50+ mpg average those months I was commuting on the highway to and from grad school between 12am-6am), but closer to car than RV. Plus, you know, the Earth is dying, climate change, fossil fuels, etc. (not to mention, gas is expensive!)
  • Had to be local since I wasn’t going to be buying sight unseen, and was van shopping at the busiest time in my work schedule so couldn’t take any time really to travel.
On pickup day

I scoured Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and used car sites online for weeks, sent many interest inquiry messages, discovered that a majority of sellers don’t know or care to mark things as sold when unavailable, and chatted with several people before finding my lead.

The Buy

It was a Craigslist ad, located in a suburb on the other side of the city, decent asking price, good photos, responsive seller, and met most of my list above. I checked it out, test drove, went back with a family friend who knows cars and made sure I wasn’t missing an obvious major issue, he test drove it, we negotiated a little, and after a long safety inspection process it was all mine!

The owners were a young couple from Germany working in the US who had been using the van for camping and road trips. They had installed some reflective insulation around the interior of the back, and built a removable bed platform which allowed storage underneath and a queen sized mattress. They were eager to have the next owner continue the camping life, so I think they sold it to me rather than another person with a higher offer who wanted it for work. They even sent me off with some replacement filters and bulbs, and had ordered a new stereo since they thought I might want bluetooth. Good karma to start! I hope I do them right and keep it going. The couple had recently purchased a much larger, nicer van which they planned to build out into a tiny home for full-time travel in a few years as off the grid as possible- they said this was a perfect test run before returning to Germany to build a green tiny home.

I ended up paying $7,000 plus a little for the inspection, registration, taxes, etc. Above blue book value, but the value of the many hours of work they’d put into improvements for camping were well worth it to me.

The Van

  • 2011 Ford Transit Connect XLT
  • Has rear windows for some visibility
  • Fits in a standard parking space
  • Taller than an average car, but not much taller than a large SUV or minivan so fits in most garages, tunnels, etc. but not tall enough to stand in
  • Power windows, cruise control, 3 cupholders (these things are important, especially after my 10 cupholder pre-tree smush Fit), AC & heat working fine, cd player, radio & aux input
  • Came with the insulation, bed frame, mattress, etc. they’d installed and passed along
  • Approx. 13 gallon tank, and best guess average when I bought was 18-22 mpg
  • Automatic transmission, standard gasoline
  • Small dent in back from previous (before the couple) owner, and one side sliding door doesn’t open for unknown reasons, but the other one does so no big deal
  • So far fun to drive and I haven’t almost hit anyone yet!

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