Buying a Campervan: How I Chose Mine

Ever since I bought Josie (my van) and started living the Vanlife, people have been asking me how I chose her. What I looked for in a van, how I found Josie and based on what criteria I made the decision that she’s the one for me. Just the other day I got another message from a reader of my blog asking exactly this question. So I thought it’s time to do what I’ve been planning to do for a while; write a blog post about it :)

Truth is, my original plan was to get a caravan (towed trailer) and not a van or motorhome. I really liked the idea of having a separate car, especially one with 4WD, that I can take onto the beach and to those remote surf and kitesurfing spots. When my sister came for a visit last year and we planned a road trip around the South Island I took the opportunity to test caravan life. It was awesome to be able to leave the caravan behind and just take the car. But turns out that was far outweighed by the negatives; mainly the setup effort. Every time we arrived at a new spot, we have to manoeuvre the caravan into the right spot, unhitch it from the car, extend the legs, set up the grey-water and fresh-water tanks, etc.

To be fair, it really only took 5-10 minutes but when it’s dark, your tired and the rain is pouring down those 10 minutes can feel like hours!

I think caravans are great if you prefer to stay in one spot for longer periods of time and want to take the car exploring while returning to your caravan each night. But for someone like me who wants to cruise around and change locations frequently, a caravan seems a lot of effort.

But the main thing that made me choose a van over a caravan is actually safety! I’m traveling on my own most of the time and I really like that I can get from my bed into the driver’s seat in a matter of seconds without having to step outside. That way, if I ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe somewhere, I know I can take off quickly.

And that also brings me to the first and most important thing I looked for in a van; I wanted one that has a walk through from the back to the driver’s cabin so I can get into the driver’s seat without having to leave the van. That really was key for me!

So that was the first big decision. It had to be a van and it had to be a ‘walk-through’ one.

Two other things were clear pretty quickly.

It had to be Certified Self-Contained

In New Zealand, we have a Certified Self-Contained standard that caravans, vans and motorhomes can get if they meet certain criteria. These criteria are mainly about having a toilet on board as well as fresh water and grey water tanks. Right now, it’s fairly easy to achieve this standard and you see small vans and ‘people-movers’ driving around with the certification (they simply put a little portable toilet and some water tanks in the van). However, that’s about to change. Last year the criteria to be certified self-contained have been updated and going forward, only those who have a toilet that can be accessed even when the beds are made up will be able to get the certification. That will rule out many of the smaller vans where the bed basically takes up the whole van. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the criteria get even stricter over time.

Why is this important? There are lots of spots in NZ where you can park up overnight for free – if you are certified self-contained! There are even some paid spots where you can only stay if you have the certification. So that was a must have for me. I wanted a van that is, and can continue to be, certified self-contained.

I’m not sure if there are similar certifications and rules in other countries. If you know more, maybe leave a comment at the bottom to share your knowledge with others J

It had to be ready to go

I totally loved the idea of converting my own van – get a ‘empty shell’ and then turn it into a campervan. It would have been so awesome! But, I kind of have to admit that I don’t really have any of the skills needed to do that. And while I might have been able to learn them, I still didn’t have the tools, time and space needed. So as much as I would have loved to build my own van, I decided that for now it needs to be one that’s ready to go as is.

 

After that, a lot came down to budget. I didn’t want to spend more than NZ $30k so that did limit the options quite a bit (I ended up spending significantly less than that actually). But here are a couple of other things I thought about.

Size

Initially I thought smaller would be better – both in terms of how much I would need to invest as well as ease of driving it around. But the more I thought about the fact that I would be living in it for who knows how long, the more I realised that I would really like one I could stand up it. Being almost 6 foot tall meant it would have to be a high-top van. But one thing I really liked about Josie is that she is only 5.5 meters long which means she is easy to drive around the city and fits into most standard car parks. I can see how anything bigger would often be harder to manage, especially around cities.

Automatic vs. manual

From the beginning, I definitely preferred getting an automatic. I learnt to drive with manual transmission and would be totally OK with it but automatic just is so much easier – especially in hilly New Zealand. Getting an automatic was not a must have but knowing Josie had an automatic transmission was definitely a bonus point.

Ready to go off the Grid

I really wanted a van that I could go off the grid with for several days. Josie’s fresh and grey water tanks last me about 5-6 days when I’m on my own and am careful with water, the solar panel helps keep the battery charged and the fact that she has a fridge means I can keep food fresh for days.

Suitable for Winter

I want to be able to live in Josie in Winter – or at least do longer trips. To me that meant I wanted to have a full kitchen inside the van that you can use in all weather (not one of those you access from the boot of the van) and the fact that she has a heater was a big plus too.

Age

Given my budget, it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be able to get anything new or modern. And truth is, a 10 year old van can cause just as many issues as a 20 or 30 year old one. Josie was built in 1999 so she’s almost 20 now which felt like a good compromise.

Storage

Given my hobbies and lifestyle, I knew I would need lots of storage – especially my kitesurfing gear takes up lots of space. Josie has massive storage under the two benches so that was a big plus.

The mechanical side of things

I have to admit, I don’t know anything about car, engines and all that stuff. So I knew right away I would need to trust an expert to assess the mechanical condition of any van I would buy. So I asked a mechanic to do a per-purchase inspection before I bought Josie and he confirmed she is in great condition for her age. He also confirmed that her Ford diesel engine is built to last so the fact that she had already done over 260,000km was not a major concern.

 

What would I do differently now?

Not much really! I think for one person Josie is the perfect van. You can absolutely travel in Josie with two people but for long-term living I could see it get a bit tight (especially for someone likes me who needs space).

Sometimes I dream of having a van with a permanent bed so I don’t need to make the bed every night and turn it back into my lounge in the morning. But in reality it really only takes a few minutes and doesn’t bother me most of the time.

Getting the surf board racks built on the side of the van was a bit of a mission, mainly because Josie has a fiberglass top. But now that I have it sorted that’s not really a problem anymore J

My one big concern is rust! Ford Transit’s are known for rust issues (something I didn’t really know when I bought Josie so maybe should have done a bit more research…) and my lifestyle being so much about the ocean means Josie is constantly parked in the salty sea air which apparently makes the rust throw a party and invite all their rust friends. Right now it’s all just surface rust and the mechanic who did a service two months ago told me there is no structural rust I need to be concerned about right now but he also told me to start putting money aside as there will be rust repairs coming my way in the future. Well, at least I’ve had fair warning, right J

 

Tips for buying a campervan in New Zealand:

  • Where to look: TradeMe! There are a couple of other website and local notice boards but TradeMe is really where it’s at right now.
  • I’ve noticed big price differences between summer and winter as well as vans listed in cities vs. more remote areas. I bought Josie in Winter and picked her up from the South Island and I’ve since seen very similar vans going for $4-$7k more just because they are in Auckland and it’s summer right now.
  • Make sure your chosen van will comply with the new certified self-contained rules so you can get your certification renewed.
  • Negotiate: Most sellers are willing to go down a bit in price (within reason)
  • Ask van and motorhome owners. Maybe go to your local freedom campaign spot one day. Most van and motorhome owners are more than happy to have a chat and might even give you a tour of their van.

Alright, I hope this is helpful for anyone considering buying a van or mobile home. Feel free to reach out if you have any further questions.