avatar Andrew Burgess March 25, 2021

9 things to keep in mind before buying a used campervan

Don’t let your dreams of #vanlife get spoiled by overlooking these practical pointers

Whether you began dreaming of adventure on the open road today or many moons ago, you may also envision owning your own camper van. If buying new doesn’t feel like the most practical option, then buying a used camper van – or perhaps converting a used panel van into a camper van – are both great ways to get into the van lifestyle while being careful with your budget.

So, if you’re starting to look at used VW camper vans, consider some of the following advice.

1. Takestock of your finance options.

One great benefit to investing in a used camper van is that the original owner likely handled most of the costs associated with driving it off the lot in sparkling new condition. This means that, generally, you can get more value from the overall purchase. It’s also useful to know that you can finance a used camper van for a period of up to 10 years. In fact, spreading payments out over any length of time helps reduce monthly costs, and if you have a healthy deposit or another vehicle to trade in, you may be able to select something more desirable.

For example, take a look at the nearly new models featured in the ‘for sale’ page on the Revolution Campervans website. These will change of course, but right now we see a three year old VW camper van with 27,000 miles at an asking price of £44,995. Someone who would like to purchase that one can space payments over 120 months. That doesn’t mean you must keep it for a decade. It’s just good to know that you can always sell or trade it in if things change.

2. Plunge into the DIY #vanlife – if you have the right skills.

Before we continue our focus on legit used camper vans, take a moment to consider a conversion project.

Search #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll quickly spot evidence of this popular trend. Some of these efforts start with a simple panel van that doesn’t have side windows, so they look less like a traditional camper. An upside to this approach is that you may be able to create your dream van on a tighter budget. But you might want to be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do, because often the work is not as easy as it might seem.

At Revolution Campervans, we’ve had people bring in their partially built DIY conversions for us to complete. If it’s still registered as a commercial vehicle rather than a camper van by the DVLA, that has implications for road tax and insurance. You can get it reclassified, but that’s not always a simple process. There are certain regulations the vehicle will have to comply with.

If you’re serious about going ahead with a DIY project, here are some points to remember. Make sure:

  • The weight of materials used for the interior don’t eat into your payload too much
  • All gas or electrical items are installed professionally
  • Smoke and carbon dioxide detectors are fitted
  • There’s easy access to the exit door in the event of an emergency
  • Flammable materials are minimized and kept away from flames

3. Consider a used camper van that’s right for your budget and capabilities.

Would you prefer to buy a second-hand camper van that’s complete and ready to go, or one that needs a little more work?

One benefit to converting a used vehicle is that your camper van will sport an all-new interior. You also get the chance to choose the conversion materials according to your exact taste and budget. That’s certainly the case at Revolution Campervans. And you can add options such as two-tone paintwork, body kit, alloy wheels, or solar panels.

If you’re considering an outfit that claims they can convert a used van into a camper van, it’s a good idea to check that you’re happy with the quality of other conversions they’ve done. It’s safe to say that not all companies produce the same level of craftsmanship. 

Some aspects to assess here include:

  • Quality of the carpentry
  • Quality of the equipment included
  • The team’s customer service record

Not all outfits convert used vans. But some that do have established trade resources which enable them to source a used van for you, and can save you a lot of hassle. Most conversions are done to order, but you may find ready-made new conversions of used vans also available.

4. Slightly used camper vans may be the ideal purchase for many buyers.

Buying a “gently used” camper van is also a great option that can provide peace-of-mind. Since camper vans have been around for decades, there are usually plenty of used models to choose from. This also means there will also be a wide range of prices to suit every budget. Some will show signs of wear and tear, but there are plenty of ways to refurbish them. 

Consider that interior items are generally easier to upgrade, so it might be more important to make sure the engine and bodywork are in good condition. If it’s a private sale from the current owner, you may be able to squeeze some extras out of the deal – like an awning or other camping equipment.

When assessing any used vehicle, there are essential checks you must make about its condition and roadworthiness, especially if it’s a DIY conversion. By the way, you should also confirm that it’s not stolen. More on this in a moment.

5. Contrary to widespread perception, each camper van is unique.

At first glance, you might think every camper van looks the same, particularly in terms of the interior. After all, most camper van manufacturers have settled on the same basic layout – featuring a side kitchen and rear seat that converts into a double bed – for decades. But these days, fridges are mostly powered by electricity, and heaters, if fitted, operate on either diesel or gas. Your water tank might be situated in an out of the way spot (such as around the wheel arch) and filled via an external inlet point – or you could opt for a smaller refillable container that’s tucked away in a cupboard under the sink. The latter is a cheaper solution, and some people prefer the simplicity of this arrangement while others feel they take up valuable storage space.

Some alternate layouts you might see are vans with two single rear seats (which make two single beds) or a kitchen positioned toward the rear, opposite a wardrobe, with a dedicated space for a portable toilet.

6. Utilize rear seating and elevating roofs to their fullest capacity.

Rear bench seats vary in quality, safety, and bed formation. With the popular ‘rock and roll’ seat/bed, the backrest simply folds backwards, and you sleep on the same surface that you sit on. The other type of rear seat folds over so that you sleep on the flatter, seat-belt-free, back side of the seat. From a safety point of view, some rear seats have crash tests performed separately rather than with the seat actually fitted inside the vehicle itself. It’s easy to imagine which produces the safest solution.

If a used camper van you are considering has a pop-up roof, check that it opens and closes smoothly and whether the material has any stains, damp marks, or rips. If it’s fitted with a bed, check that you fit it okay, and that it’s comfortable. 

7. Understand the implications of different wheelbases, engines, and transmissions. 

Though maximum payloads will vary depending on the model, most used vans have a standard wheelbase – also known as short wheelbase or SWB – of just under 5 metres long. This popular camper van size enables you fit into most parking spaces. Longer wheelbase versions may have a noticeable amount of extra living space inside and are still easy to drive, but they aren’t quite as popular. 

Another thing to check is the power output of the camper van’s engine. If you see a camper van with a temptingly low price, it may have the lowest power output of something like only 90PS. That may be okay if you’re not in a hurry and aren’t concerned about driving up inclined roads, but something around the 130-150PS might be more practical. There are more powerful options up to 204PS for the latest Volkswagen Transporter T6.1.

Are you more comfortable with a manual transmission or automatic? How about an automatic transmission with all-wheel-drive? Automatics are fairly popular, especially the super-smooth DSG transmission from Volkswagen, while all-wheel-drive models are a bit more niche.

8. Know the difference between “barn” and “tailgate-style” back doors.

Would you prefer your used camper van to have a rear tailgate or the twin opening doors (called ‘barn doors’)? You may not have given this any consideration, and it may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it is something worth considering if you’re looking for a used model. The barn doors are more prevalent among commercial vehicles, while the tailgate is seen to be a bit more car-like and almost always chosen for brand new camper vans. If you’re shopping for a used camper van and you find it’s got barn doors, it may have started life as a commercial vehicle. That’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just something to be aware of.

9. Make these checks before you part with any money. 

A critical difference between buying a car and a camper van might seem obvious, but could easily be overlooked in the excitement. Camper vans have gas and mains electrics in the habitation area, and if they’re not checked regularly, they could be very dangerous. 

Find out when the camper van last had a habitation service:

  • Gas hose pipes need to be changed fairly regularly
  • All pipework connections and burners must also be checked. 
  • Electrical systems, especially when the camper van has a mains hook-up, should be checked for safety. 

If the camper van hasn’t been serviced, you should get this done first thing after you buy it.

It would also be prudent to have a used camper van checked by a mechanic before you buy. There are mobile technicians out there who will come and look at it, and there’s also a convenient service called Habcheck with mobile technicians who will produce an impartial report for you from £199.

Check the history of the vehicle, especially to find out if there’s any outstanding finance on it or if it’s been stolen or scrapped. One of the most respected ways to check this is to get an HPI check. Unlike caravans and motorhomes constructed with side panels and a roof, a camper van is a complete vehicle, so water ingress leaks are much less of a problem. 
Finally, if the used camper van is over three years old, you must check it has a current MOT, or it won’t be legal on the road. If you have the registration number of the vehicles, you can check the MOT history of any vehicle, including previous mileages and failures at the gov.uk website.

Start your camper van journey with a bit of smart shopping.

If you want to make your dream of owning a camper van a reality but aren’t quite ready to purchase a new vehicle, there are still plenty of options for you to consider. If you’re going to go the route of a used or converted camper van, we’ve outlined a number of points that you’ll want to consider.

Remember, you want to make sure that any cheaper camper van option turns out to be a wise purchase – not an expensive mistake. The more thought and care you put into the process of researching, planning – and perhaps refurbishing – the safer and happier you’ll be when you set out on your first trip.

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