Apparently other vehicles are available, so this will be mainly applicable to those other, lesser brands.
Defining the term
They all do the same thing but have many names. Each person will have their own term but loosely we are talking about Camper Van, Van, Bus, Bulli, Kombi and others covering everything from the iconic Split Screen to the current T6 (at time of writing). For specifics on the VW variants, see also the definitions page.
With that out of the way, let’s refer to the vehicle as a “van” for simplicity.
The physical size of the outside is often a determining factor. A friend purchased a perfect Mercedes Sprinter in 2018, completely unmarked exterior, excellent condition all over and a bargain price. He drove it home and his wife compared the physical size of the van to their house and it was promptly returned! Remember that if you are not away in the van, it will be sitting outside your house unless you are lucky enough to have additional storage.
If you want a shower, permanent toilet room, standing height with no requirement to lift a lid then you will be hard pressed to fit all of that into a van the size of a Split Screen!
For many reasons, you may decide that you want to stand up inside your van. If you do not need this, a “tin top” could be your ideal vehicle. A solid metal roof will not leak water! Another option is the “High top”, a lid usually made from plastic that does not move, giving additional height for the vehicle. A sunroof on a modern vehicle is likely to be watertight but this is not guaranteed, a sunroof on an older vehicle has a much higher chance of water ingress.
A lifting roof aka pop top comes in all shapes and sizes. these can hinge on the long side, the short side or only part of the overall roof. They are made by many companies and you can move a roof from one vehicle to another as long as it is the same model…you cannot put a Split Screen pop top onto a T6!
A pop top will add the ability to drive a small vehicle and make it larger when you arrive, but can leak through any openings and will add weight up high, reducing fuel efficiency and possibly impacting handling, especially around a corner.
If you want the world inside a van, you need to compromise. We find that small is beautiful and you are limited on space making you focus on the items that you really need with you. Two adults can easily have everything required to tour Europe for months, you just need to pack sensibly and use the space effectively.
External – it is made of metal
It may sound obvious but vans are generally made of metal and this metal will ultimately fall foul of the dreaded brown stuff. Rust. ALL vehicles are fixable but this comes with cost and time. If you have a tight budget or want no downtime to maximize usage, rust is something you want to avoid. This sounds illogical but paying more on a vehicle without rust is often more cost effective than a cheaper vehicle with rust unless you can weld. Then the sky is the limit – buy a rusty van!
If you want a perfect interior, many vans are already done but may not match your taste for layout, colour and style. Interiors can be swapped out easily but again this costs money. You can build your own interior for very little money or buy incredible units and pay for installation but this quickly runs into multiple thousand pounds.
An interior will have a second hand value – don’t just scrap it! Sell it and use the money towards the interior that you want in your van.
Fixtures and fittings
If you need it ready to go, what do you need? Bed, sink, fridge, TV for the evening?
Bed – our first van had a fantastic interior and the bed was 41 inches wide with the vertical sides of the sliding door and kitchen units. The foam from the seats made up the bed at an inch thick. We did not sleep much and it made a huge dent in the enjoyment of being away.
Our new interior (built at home for the cost of timber) gives us a 60 inch / 5 foot wide / 1.5 metre wide bed. It is long enough for an adult, wide enough comfortably for two adults and the “bedhead” is the solid back door, so you can read in bed with your head propped up. It makes so much difference that we actually say we prefer that bed to the one in the house. This is our key requirement, sleep!
Sink – washing up is a necessary evil when you eat in the van or have a cuppa. If you only ever eat out, never need to wash up or use site facilities to wash up, a sink may be optional.
Fridge – a cool bag will get you a long way to keeping food and drink cool and they are inexpensive. Some camp sites have a freezing service for ice packs for a few pounds allowing you to keep food cool for longer. Moving up to the next stage is a fridge, running on electricity (either 12 volt or 240 volt when at a camp site) or gas. These can be picked up used but get them serviced. Compressor fridges are not as efficient as an absorption fridges if you want efficiency. Be careful though, a good sized 12 volt fridge is over £500 new and they need to be thought about sensibly to avoid flattening the battery. See also our recent article on solar panels and split charge relay.
TV – If you absolutely must have the TV on in the evening, you either need a large additional battery or mains hook up on a camp site to power it. You will also need a decent sized aerial / dish to pick up the signal. Another option is a computer tablet that charges from USB which uses much less power and can have TV programs and movies downloaded to it before you leave.
Cooking – kitchen / stove / burner. These can be portable and sit in a cupboard or fitted permanently. Even if you just want a cuppa, you need one. These can be purchased reasonably inexpensively new and if you get a used one, anything with gas or electric on it should be serviced before use.
Think about other things that you cannot live without and would not get into a suitcase for a flight.
Heating – this one is contentious. Camping outside the key summer months means that you might be a little chilly. Bespoke heating is available and usually runs off either gas bottles, or your petrol or diesel tank. If you are careful, you can instead heat your van with the cooker as that is generating heat although it is not as efficient.
Already covered earlier but important enough to cover a second time. If you don’t know the specifics of the vehicle type that you are buying, you may not know where exactly to look for hidden rust that can be really expensive to fix. Find an expert to tell you where to look or take one with you to view the van.
Inside wheel arches, underneath in the hard to reach places, around the gearbox or engine area. These ones are key places where rust and rot are not seen although there may well be many, many more!
See it in the flesh taking an expert with you. Anything else means you will probably get a shock and it could be a shock to your wallet. Prod things, check everything, take a list with you of things to check. Do not be put off with cheap and shiny bits – trinkets like candles, blankets, curtains and other items make it look great but are cheap and possibly do not come with the vehicle. Focus on the metal shell of the vehicle, the engine, gearbox and other high cost items.
Does everything work and show signs of being maintained rather than cleaned last week after sitting unused for a decade? Is the pop top stiff with lack of use and with cracked canvas? Look for water leaks everywhere.
Do you have any service history, bills, documentation or other paperwork that adds confidence that this van has been loved?
Does the logbook match the vehicle for chassis number, engine number if applicable and the address of the viewing? Check the MOT if applicable, the address visited to the log book, check the mileage on all paperwork. Get a sense of regularity of use, regular use is better than sitting in a field.
Scene tax is a term used for buying a van at a show. It may not apply where you are purchasing. Buying privately is possibly cheaper than buying from a dealer unless it is a pig wearing lipstick (poor van made to look like a great van). A dealer will have a higher price for the same vehicle to cover profit, warranty and servicing. Insist on seeing the HPI paperwork from the dealer even if it is online. Again, check the details match! There are bargains and nightmares both privately and at a dealer.
Shop around online, look at as many as possible to understand the price ranges. Use other examples as a haggling tool. If it sounds too good to be true, be wary! Never use escrow, don’t pay in advance, don’t pay until the goods are in your hands. Buy from the property marked on the logbook not a McDonalds car park nearby. And don’t inspect a vehicle in the dark.
“You get what you pay for” is true! If you pay £2,600 for a Bay window van, it is going to need a lot of work. Trust me on this one, I am over 3 years into the metalwork restoration. If you pay £30,000 from a dealer for a one owner, low mileage, always garaged, T6 with full service history and a 12 month warranty, you are likely to have fewer problems than me.
Lots of people sell in the spring ready for the season, looking for wide eyed folks with wads of cash who want to live the dream. Best time to buy is really September when the dream wears off but even so, be careful of the reasons why people sell! Then you also get the winter to prepare for next season. Good luck!