A Quick Guide To Buying A Used Camper Van: Here’s What You Need To Know

Knowledge is power! Here's what you should be asking the seller when buying a pre-owned camper van.

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So you’re thinking about buying a camper van from a trade or private seller… but aren’t sure what questions you should be asking to help decide if it’s a good deal you should grab while you have the chance, or a bad deal to run far away from, FAST?

I hear you. It can seem overwhelming but by the end of this post you’ll know the essential questions to ask the seller when you’re considering buying a Sprinter van or any other type of converted camper van.

Questions about the van itself

Before they become a camper van, all vans are just… vans. So, just like when you buy any other used vehicle, whether that’s from an auto dealer or a private seller, these questions are important ones to get out up front.

1. Maintenance and Service Records

Ensure that the seller provides complete service records. This will help you understand how well the van has been maintained. Ask if it has had regular oil changes, and check for any major repairs.

Also ask whether it has any recalls outstanding. If you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that out separately in the Carfax report (see below) or by looking the van up on NHTSA’s website using its VIN (it’s quick, easy and free to do), but a good seller should know whether they’re up to date on them anyway.

Inquire whether the van will need a smog test or other assessment (and who is responsible for getting that done), as part of the transaction. For example, in California, the seller is responsible for providing the buyer with a valid smog certificate before they can register the van at the DMV.

2. Carfax report and accident history

Obtain the vehicle’s Carfax report (or equivalent in your country).

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In the USA, a Carfax report is a detailed history of a vehicle that’s compiled using various data sources. It’s particularly useful when you’re buying a used car, as it helps to verify the vehicle’s history and condition.

Here’s what it typically includes:

  • Accident History: It indicates if the car has been involved in any accidents and the severity of those accidents.
  • Ownership History: It shows how many owners the vehicle has had and in some cases, the type of use (personal, rental, lease, etc.).
  • Service Records: If available, it includes records of maintenance and service done on the car.
  • Title Information: It reveals critical information about the car’s title, such as whether it has ever been declared a total loss (salvage), rebuilt, or had any liens.
  • Mileage Verification: It helps verify the accuracy of the vehicle’s odometer reading by showing a history of recorded mileages.
  • Recall Information: It lists any recalls issued by the manufacturer and whether those issues have been resolved.
  • Emission Inspection Statuses: Depending on the state, it may include the history of emission inspections or smog tests.
  • Flood, Fire, or Hail Damage: It notes if the car has suffered any damage from natural disasters.

3. Title and Ownership

Verify that the seller has a clear title to the van. Ensure there are no liens against it. The Carfax report should help you do this.

4. Mileage and Engine Condition

Ask how the van was used (weekends, long trips, city driving, etc.).

If it has more than 10,000 miles per year since new, that’s quite a high mileage vehicle and that should be reflected in the price – although know that those Mercedes diesel engines can go for hundreds of thousands of miles without issues, they’re true workhorses!

It’s also essential to take it for a thorough test drive and check how it drives, as well as other ancillary functions such as the lights, wipers and dashboard information screens work as expected.

5. Physical Inspection

Inspect the van personally (or have a professional do it) for any signs of wear and tear, rust, or mechanical issues. Ask the seller to pop the hood so you can see the engine.

If the previous owners have been living the van life full time, then it’s likely the van has been well used, in which case you should be checking that all the appliances work as expected for example.

Get up on the roof and look at the ceiling fan, then get down underneath the van, under the wheel arches and areas where water is stored in the vehicle, to check for any evidence of leaks or rust. It may be a good idea not to wear your best clothes for this van inspection day!

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6. Price Comparison

Research the market price on sites like RV Trader and Van Viewer for similar models of van that have NOT been converted. This will give you an indication of what the base van may be worth. Then, depending on the extent and quality of the conversion, you can get a better idea of whether the van is valued appropriately.

You may also need a valuation on the base van for financing purposes – many RV and auto finance companies will not finance anything more than the used value of the vehicle itself.

If the van is a conversion by a company such as Storyteller Overland, or a Winnebago Revel, where all the conversion vans are similar or are done to a limited number of floorplans and specs, then you could also research the market for similar models of that particular camper van type.

7. Registration and Insurance

This is one area so many van buyers overlook, but it’s important to ensure you are buying a vehicle you can get adequate insurance on, without spending a fortune.

Inquire about the current registration status and any implications for insuring a converted van. For example, some vans that are registered as commercial vehicles will attract a much higher insurance rate than vans registered for personal use, whether that’s just as a van, or as a van camper.

Questions about the conversion aspect of the van

These questions will naturally be easier if you’re buying a van that has come from a known company such as Winnebago, or has been converted by a popular professional van conversion company.

You should definitely have more questions for the seller if they’re selling a DIY self-build conversion van, or if you’ve never heard of the company they used to convert it.

1. Do Your Own Research

Knowledge is power!

Before you look at the van or speak to the seller, do your research and learn about things such as different types of water and electrical system (happy to help here if you want to ask me anything in the comments below), so you can assess whether they’re suitable for your needs, and whether you’re getting what you think you’re paying for.

There’s a wealth of information here on Sprinter Campervans to get you started, check out our other articles by visiting our homepage or clicking on the menu at the top of the page.

By knowing what you’re looking for, as well as what you’re looking at when you are assessing potential vans to buy, you will be in a stronger, more knowledgeable position to negotiate as well as call out any misleading statements a salesperson may make when you do start to shop around in person.

2. Conversion Quality Inquiries

Inquire about who did the conversion, the quality of the materials used, and if there are any warranties on the conversion work. Ask if they were happy with the conversion, what they would change if they built it (or had it built) again.

Specifically for the materials, find out what the panels are made of, what insulation was used, how the water system and electrical systems are installed.

You can also ask outright if there’s anything that has broken, had to be fixed or replaced, and why, and anything you should be aware of. This is much easier if you’re buying from the owner themselves, rather than a salesperson.

You’ll know if they’re telling the truth or not, as they’ll likely get flustered if there’s something up with their toilet when asked, for example.

And you can ask them to demonstrate how the van works, lighting, electrical system, water, heater, cooler, etc – you’ll soon know if something doesn’t work during this demo.

If you want to get into more depth, you could also ask specific questions about the brands of key components (such as the make of the batteries, refrigerator and inverter, for example).

Don’t be afraid to ask them how much they spent on the conversion, and ask if they have a breakdown of costs written down anywhere, many diligent van builders should have all that information and it will give you a clearer idea of whether or not it’s worth the price tag – and if you don’t think it is then feel free to ask for a discount that makes sense.

3. Conversion Inspection

With the seller’s permission, step into the van to get a feel for it, and start opening cabinets, sitting on the bed or seats, switching lights on… you need to understand what you’re potentially buying and if it’s going to work for you.

This may also uncover issues such as broken cabinet doors, or an unstable bed, for example, that a simple look wouldn’t achieve.

4. Functionality of Added Features

Check that all the added features like the refrigerator, shower, solar panels, and LED lights are in working order.

5. Reason for Selling

Asking why the seller is parting with the van can provide insights into any potential issues or if it’s simply a matter of them wanting to upgrade or change.

In summary

Buying a pre-owned camper van is a big deal – not only is it a very exciting time because you’re shopping for an adventure wagon to call your own, but it’s also an expensive time, especially if you buy a van without asking all the basic questions first.

While you’ll probably have other questions (and don’t treat this list an exhaustive list!) I hope this list helps you cover all the basics about the van and camper van conversion element of it, when you come to van-shopping.

Author

  • Helen

    One of Trail & Kale's co-founders and Editor In Chief of Sprinter Campervans, Helen not only brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our van conversion guides and camping gear reviews, she also shares finance expertise to help our readers budget for their DIY van conversions and living the van life.

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