The 5 Things We Learned Buying a Van

Buying a van was a mixed bag of emotions ranging from euphoria to mystified. To be clear, we did not have any idea what we were doing when we bought the van or what we were getting ourselves into. After 8-months of ownership we still have things to learn about the best practices of RV maintenance and ownership. 

Our approach to the actual buy was to do research and start shopping for used Sprinter vans. 

Our best reference for making a wise decision was to approach the van purchase much like we would buy a car or a boat (two things we had experience with). The problem with that approach; a RV is a mode of transportation and a rolling house.

There are a lot of working parts and components in a RV and you should dial into the details of each aspect of the of the overall unit. Know what you are buying before shaking hands on a deal.

We questioned whether we should buy a manufactured van or convert and panel van.

We did many things right but there were also things that surprised us.

1. The Lifestyle

The #1 thing you need to know when you’re considering buying an RV is how to you plan to use it. What is the lifestyle you want to pursue?

Gail and I had a clear understanding of how we wanted to use our van. We discussed where we wanted to go and what we planned to do when we got there.

Our main priority has always been to visit National Parks and points of interest in the United States and Canada.

We also knew once we arrived at our destination, our main purpose was to either hike a trail or bike. This was an important distinction. We knew before our purchase that we wanted to be outside exploring.

Spending a ton of time inside our van and staying at a singular campground site relaxing for multiple days was not for us.

Our reason for needing an RV was to get us to our destination and use it for sleep, food preparation and gear storage. We were not seeking a Glamping type lifestyle.

We also knew we wanted to visit some towns and cities as we travel, so we needed a RV that was nimble enough to maneuver in traffic and park in places without much hassle. Today, we park on main streets in towns or in public parking lots routinely. This feature is also handy when trying to park at trailheads.

Your needs will likely be different than ours. We no longer have kids at home or pets to consider. There is no wrong answer in the type of lifestyle you are seeking in van ownership.

The point is to know going in how you want to use it. 

2. The Floor Plan

Out of much thought and some dumb luck we got this one right.  

Knowing we wanted a Sprinter Van over a larger type RV we focused in on the floor plans and configurations of the van we wanted. The floor plan of the van and the lifestyle you are seeking are like musical harmony if you pick it right.

Sprinter Vans are not super roomy no matter what floor plan you select.

The bed is the biggest consideration in a Sprinter van. There are elevated bed types and fold out couch beds. Both of these bed designs have pros and cons. Our bed is elevated so we can have useful storage underneath it. The downside is we have limited seating in the van for lounging. With our floor plan there is just enough seating for the two of us.

After looking at all types of floor plans and van configurations, we ultimately decided to prioritize storage space. This sounds so simple but it makes all the difference when we are on the road.    

Our best advice: Prioritize storage when buying your van.

3. The Inspection

The inspection step is our biggest regret regarding the purchase of our RV. 

We originally shopped for new vehicles but could not stomach the pricetag and started looking for used vans. What we discovered is there is a great selection of RVs to choose from on the used market. 

I used an website called RV Trader  which I really liked. I could sort by models, mileage, price, etc. It was great! I poured over it’s pages for a few months until I got a good sense of a good deal. 

Long story short, we found a used Sprinter van we liked at a dealership in Boise, Idaho. After dropping a deposit to hold the Sprinter Van, we scheduled a flight from Kansas City to Boise to pick it up. 

Generally, it was a good experience but where we failed was at the inspection stage. We did not ask enough questions or test enough of its functions. We were more concerned about getting on the road to drive home than fully testing out all functions of the van.

If you don’t get anything else out of this post keep this step high on your list. Learn everything you can during the inspection. Flip every switch, turn on the water, turn on the stove. Look on top of the roof!

Ask questions and test everything. 

It all turned out okay for us, but we did have a list of 10-12 items that needed to be repaired or corrected when we got back to Kansas City. Don’t assume that the dealership or private sellers has gone through the RV and fixed all the issues. 

 4. The Maintenance 

I find this topic to be a bit embarrassing to write about. 

Did you know when you buy a recreational vehicle you cannot get all your service work done at one place? We did not.

Our RV is a Mercedes which means the motor and the drivetrain should be serviced by a Mercedes certified shop.

Our coach is Winnebago. The coach includes the refrigerator, the generator, the stove, the heater and everything else. If something is wrong with any of these types of items you should ideally take it to a Winnebago dealer for service.

All this to say, if you need an oil change you get the engine serviced at one place. If you have a problem with your generator you take your coach to another place. We were running all over town getting our 10-12 items fixed when we got back to Kansas City!

5. The Marriage

The most important thing we learned about buying a RV was after almost 30 years of marriage we still like each other and enjoy spending time together.

Thank goodness for small miracles!

What I find most interesting about traveling with Gail is our willingness to make decisions on the fly. This is not how we live our daily lives. 

When at home our focus is on work and daily living. We are task oriented and schedule driven. We have to work at spending time together and we both make conscious efforts to stay interested and engaged in each other’s lives. 

On the road, we are making memories and our attitudes are totally different. Because we are together all the time in the van or on a trail, we take the time to talk and share the things that are most important to us. We laugh more.

When traveling, we are not only exploring the country, we are also rediscovering why we got married and why we admire each other as companions and best friends. 

If you want to enhance your marriage, buy a van! 

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