Balancing Old and Reliable: Finding the Perfect Cheap Van

When I took my new van to Flagstaff Auto Repair for the first time the manager told me the mechanics were worried I’d made a horrible mistake. I don’t blame them. At first glance, the van looks like it was never loved. The paint job is potentially the ugliest ever to roll into Flagstaff, plus it’s faded, peeling, and advertising shitty non-craft beer. When I picked the van up from the inspection, however, the mechanics were quick to congratulate me on my good find. The engine compartment, they said, was in great shape – free of leaks, loose belts, and any red flags. I was proud of myself. I am not mechanical (read: English teacher who can barely lube the chain on her bicycle without getting confused), but I’d done my van buying research and it paid off. This post is about what I learned while looking for a cheap – yet reliable – van to turn into an adventure nest.

Bender, bikes, van
Bender and I – and the new van – outside of Bake’s Lotta Burger in Gallup, New Mexico. Lotta Burger is #vanlife must stop on the way through Gallup for a burger or breakfast burrito covered in green chiles.

What I wanted in a van:

  1. To spend less than $4,000
  2. Decent gas mileage – close to 20 mpg (18 mpg at the very minimum)
  3. Big enough for my 6’2 boyfriend (originally, I wanted a minivan because they typically get better gas mileage, but my tall boyfriend let me know he didn’t think the extra six to eight mpg was worth feeling cramped all the time)
  4. The option to put in at least a 3rd seat so we could bring one friend with us on our adventures
  5. Made in the mid-2000s with mileage under 150,000
  6. The lowest end model of an American made van so parts would be cheap and easy to find (I owned a VW before this van, and it was a pain in the ass trying to find parts, and sometimes mechanics even refused to work on it)
  7. A V6 engine for better gas mileage potential
After buying the van, we drove it around some chunky dirt roads in Red Rock Conservation Area, drank beer, slept in the back of the van, and did Mud Spring Canyon the next day.

After a week scanning Craigslist almost every day, I narrowed my search down to three types of vans: the Ford E-150, the Chevy Express 1500, and the GMC Savannah 1500.

The vans I ruled out in the process:

  1. Dodge Rams – the ones I found on Craigslist all got slightly lower gas mileage than their Ford and Chevy cousins
  2. Ford Transits – these are newer vans, which put them out of my price range. Because of their good gas mileage, I toyed with the idea of spending a bit more on a Transit (and going into debt!), but then I read Transits are plagued with transmission problems and I quickly ruled them out (thank goodness, because at 32 years old I just paid off my undergrad student loans and I would like to be debt free for awhile!).
  3. Dodge and Mercedes Sprinter Vans – even with really high mileage (like, 300,000 miles high) these were out of my budget
  4. Chevy Astro Van – at first, I thought the Astro was the perfect van for me, but when I compared the size and gas mileage to the other vans I was looking at, I ruled it out. Astros are a lot smaller for only about two or three miles per gallon better fuel efficiency than the Chevy Express 1500. If it was just my dog and me – without the addition of an extra large boyfriend – the Astro van (with AWD!) is what I probably would have committed to.
Packing up the van after 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest took forever! My boyfriend crammed a lot of stuff in the van for the race (including two coolers and a solar oven), and it still felt spacious!

On Craigslist, I searched mostly in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas because these are the two biggest cities near Flagstaff. To make the price even more reasonable, I wanted a van with either some minor body damage or a really ugly paint job.

What I learned through my searches:

  1. Vans in Las Vegas, overall, are priced a bit lower than similar vans in Phoenix (I’m not sure why)
  2. Cargo models are a bit cheaper than passenger vans
  3. Chevy Express, Ford E-150, and GMC Savannah cargo vans all have attachments to add a jump seat up front for a third person
  4. If the price seemed like a screaming deal on Craigslist, it was always a scam
My boyfriend likes my van so much, I was able to talk him into shuttling my friends and me to the top of Junction Creek in Durango!

When I found my beautiful Guinness painted Chevy Express 1500 on Craigslist it was listed at $3,900. Artec (my tall boyfriend) was quick to point out it had been listed for over a week, so over text message I offered $3,200. The owner’s wife texted back that worked for them, so we loaded into Artec’s Corolla two days later and headed for Vegas. Artec bought his Corolla on Craigslist for $1,500 four years ago, and aside from needing a new battery, it hasn’t had a single mechanical issue. I was glad to have him along for the transaction.

We met in a Walmart parking lot in North Las Vegas. I came prepared with valuable Kelly Blue Book information: a base model 2004 Chevy Express with 135,000 miles in “fair condition” values at $2,800. Or, at least that’s what I’d thought at the time. While writing this, however, I looked it up again, and it’s Kelly Blue Book value for fair condition is over $3,100. Maybe it’s gone up, or maybe I did a bad job looking it up initially. Either way, I was prepared to pay $3,200 if the van looked like it was in really good shape.

After looking over the van – and test-driving it – I decided it wasn’t in really good shape:

  1. The paint was peeling badly (you couldn’t tell from the photos, but it was flaking off all over the body)
  2. The inside was pretty dirty – it had beer splattered on one of the walls, and food crumbs smashed around the seat attachments on the floor
  3. The radiator fluid looked really low – there could be a leak!
  4. The tube the oil dipstick slides into was broken and reattached with a hose clamp that had also been broken, which made sliding the dipstick in and out tricky
  5. It had been parked for a year (thus the low miles!), and also hadn’t had an oil change in a year
  6. The driver side visor was broken, the front turn signals were out, and the rear door latch wasn’t working properly (Artec had all of these things fixed by later that afternoon!)
#vanlife #doglife
Bender testing out the front seat of the new van – it took him a little while to warm up to it because on his first ride I slammed on the brakes, and he went flying into the dashboard head first!

I decided if I could get the van for less than $3,000 it was worth the risk. I wanted it. The engine compartment looked dry, it drove smoothly, it came with an insulated floor mat, and I had been hard pressed to find anything on Craigslist with such low miles around $3,000. Worse case scenario, I reasoned, maybe I’d have to put $1,000 into it. I would be bummed out about it, but it still would be within my budget.

I offered the owner $2,600 and he hemmed and hawed with his wife for a bit. They had three kids crawling around the Ford Explorer his wife was sitting in – with the AC blasting – and I really didn’t want to screw them over. The kids were cute, and I couldn’t imagine having to spend my summers in such a hot city. The owner said he was hoping to get at least $3,000 for it, so I came back with $2,800 and a statement about how that’s what Kelly Blue Book said it was worth. He agreed, and Artec swooped in graciously to shake his hand. Thank you, Artec! I was so nervous about the negotiating I had forgotten about how to politely seal the deal.

#vanlife #doglife
Bender doesn’t like riding on the bed in the back of the van because it’s too far away from his people. His favorite spot is between the front seats with his head on Artec’s lap (actually, he would prefer to have his entire body on Artec’s lap, but this is the compromise they came up with).

I gave the owner $2,800 cash, and he gave me the signed title and one key. Artec waltzed excitedly into the Walmart (he really likes the paint job) to buy some coolant for the van and a cold coconut water for himself. The radiator, it turned out, needed three quarts of fluid! We then drove throughVegas to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to christen the van with some beer drinking and a canyoneering adventure.

Stay tuned for how Artec and I built the van out on a budget! We added a super comfy bed, a shelf, a stove, a rear window that opens, insulation and a really cool roof fan and vent. 

The van came with a stack of Guinness cardboard cutouts. So many that Artec was able to make the bed out of them!


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