Everything You Need to Know About Van Conversion Research


Buying the right van for your adventures is no cursory task, it should take a fair amount of thought and research. Most of us decide to build a van so we can customize it to our liking on the cheap so it's important to figure out the exact features you want your van to include beforehand, then buy it at the best price possible. In our previous post, we outlined why we didn't opt for an older 'vintage' campervan and instead chose a cargo van for its practical advantages including cost, mechanical reliability and secondhand availability.

In this post we will cover features that should be considered when purchasing a cargo van, as well as the research that went in to buying our van.

Important Features to Consider

Beyond the mechanical workings and overall shape of the van, it can be overwhelming to know which make and model is right for you. A fair amount of research can be done online looking at other van conversion blogs and YouTube videos. but it is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the conversion and forget to think about how your starting shell can help you. Though this is not a definitive list, the below were essential items we looked at during the buying process that we felt would make the van more livable.

  • Side and rear windows are a necessity for letting light in. Without them the van will be very dark inside, even during the day. While this is a benefit for livability, there are generally less vans manufactured with windows to prevent thieves from peering in at expensive utility equipment inside. Although cargo vans with windows are harder to find, others may view them as a risk and pass on the van.

  • Windows that pop open provide more airflow on hot days, however, this feature is hard to find for the same anti-theft reasons. We only came across opening windows in about 5% of the vans we saw, but ended up finding one with a single side door window that popped open.

  • For safety reasons it is very beneficial to have a divider behind the driver and passenger seats. This will protect you from potentially lethal items flying forward in the event of a crash. A divider with a central opening (or the ability to remove the central panel) will allow you to move freely between the cab and back of the van.

Lessons Learned From Our Research

Depending where you live, you may feel overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by the selection of vans available through secondhand markets like used car dealerships or online classifieds. Here are some tips for sorting through the information and making an informed buying decision.

Finding a great deal requires sorting through a lot of mediocre and poor deals so you will need to stay organized. Set up a notebook or spreadsheet to track the used vans that are posted so you can compare vehicles and get a feel for the market value of the vans given their mileage and vehicle age. The graph below shows a selection of vans from online classifieds comparing their age and kilometres against their asking price. Dot colour represents the age of the van which darkens as age increases. The van we bought is represented by the red star (9 years old with 143,000 km for $7000).

Mapping out all of these vans helped us to understand:

  • There is a tipping point where fewer kilometres begins to have a greater impact on the price. Moving from right to left, this is represented by the area where the graph starts to lift (around the red star).
  • The price range for a given amount of kilometres. This is determined by making a vertical line through the dots at a given number of kilometres.
  • Older vehicles with 150,000 - 200,000 kilometres hit a price floor at around $5,000. This means you could buy a vehicle with around 150,000 kilometres and sell it for a similar price after putting on 50,000 or more kilometres (in our market).

When searching through online classifieds, look for information asymmetry where the owner does not accurately estimate the value of their vehicle. When a vehicle's value has been underestimated, it typically will sell in under 48 hours. The best deals will be quickly snatched up by buyers who go directly to the sellers location with cash in hand. Like when buying a house, if you see something desirable come on the market, be prepared to act fast and set up a viewing as soon as you can.

When you see postings from dealerships, beware that they inflate the vehicle's price to cover their markup and will never provide a great deal. Many people are drawn to the security of buying a 'mechanically sound' vehicle from a dealership, but if you have a good understanding of the market value and complete a thorough vehicle inspection you will have just as much knowledge as they have.

A great resource for finding the estimated retail value for any vehicle is VMR Canada (or Kelley Blue Book in the US). By entering the vehicle's make, model, year and mileage you can find out what the approximate value is and avoid falling for a 'deal' that digs deep in your pockets.

When inspecting a used vehicle, there are many important things to look for. Cargo vans are not often driven by their owner so keep an eye out for any signs of hard wear. We found reviewing the Consumer Reports used car buying guide very helpful. Carfax is another helpful site to check out when buying a used vehicle, they have a similar inspection checklist available here. Most importantly, take your time completing a thorough inspection and test drive. Trust your instincts, if you ever feel rushed by the seller it may be an indication they don't want you to find something.

The last thing you should do before purchasing the vehicle is check its history using the unique vehicle identification number (VIN). Using this serial number you can download a report that will uncover potential previous accidents through police reports and/or insurance claims, changes in ownership, places it has been registered and any potential liens against it (money owed on it). We used Carproof to obtain a vehicle history report which cost $51 CAD. The best place to find the 17 character VIN number is on a silver sticker in the driver side door post (near the latch) or where the dashboard meets the windshield.

Please note that these tips are based solely on our experiences and are for general information purposes only. We welcome comments below sharing your experiences and suggestions for buying a van.



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