Tips on buying a new vehicle from a person (not a dealer)


First, thanks to all of you who steered me away from the Vanagon. With such seemingly great advice, I’m coming back for a second round.

So I think I’m going to go the route of an old full conversion van. I’ve looked at a few online, and I think that the space is just about right, and with a little modification, I can make a really top-notch travel vehicle for myself. After doing some research (and mailing some questions to a few sellers) I learned that the average mileage will only boost my monthly gas spending $50-$80 a month. Not bad.

However, I’m trying to buy on the cheap. I guess I got spoiled when I paid $1500 for my current little pickup, and it’s lasted a full 6-8 years, but I bought it from a very reputable dealer. Unfortunately I’ve moved since then and don’t know of any here in KC.

So a few tips would be great:

Anything I should pay attention to when test-driving and checking my van out? Are there common problems that plague them?

Should I do anything on the pro scale, such as doing a Carfax check or taking it to be inspected by a certified mechanic?

What kind of mileage is passable for a van to be able to last quite a few years, but without spending more than 2-3k. Any particular engine or problem van I should stay away from that has a nasty history of breakdowns?

Anything else you can think of?

Tons of thanks in advance!



I used to have an 88 Dodge Ram 350 school bus, and it was built like a rock. Aside from some rust problems, it was pretty near perfect.

First, rust is a killer on full size vans. Fortunately, I got my bus from a bus line, so they had plenty of spare body parts, and I’m good friends with a mechanic, so it wasn’t such a big deal. But I would caution against any van with even minor rust.

But, on the plus side, these vans are built tough, and they last. So long as they were not abused, and regular maintenance was performed, it should be alright. However, you should definitely get a potential purchase checked out by a reputable mechanic (you can find local ones in CarTalk’s Mechanics section) and if they seller will not allow you to, then walk away.

Also, I would suggest looking for the best vehicle mechanically. A broken microwave or table in the van might be an annoyance, but a blown transmission will make a trip a nightmare.

Ultimately, though, look around for a while. Don’t be in a hurry to get a conversion van.

Also, something else to consider: What about a full-size cargo van? Obviously, it wouldn’t have all the amenities of a conversion, but often times it’s cheaper to buy a relatively new van and add in any amenities you want later. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more and better cargo vans for sale than conversion vans. Good luck.


By the way, I got the 88 school bus in 98 for $900, with about 180,000km on it, and it ran great for 5 years, until I got rid of it because the brake master cylinder wasn’t working right, when it had about 320,000km on it. The engine and transmission were still going strong, and I got $300 for it. A pretty good deal, I think.

Something else to consider, to: The bus had a vinyl floor and seats, which made cleaning a breeze - I often would mop the bus out. But, if you should get a bus, it’s not terribly hard to remove the bus seats, leaving a cavernous interior, and a heavy-duty vinyl floor.

One van, by the way, you might want to steer clear of is a Ford with a 5.4L V8. I know in the trucks there is a tendency for the engine to spit spark plugs, I imagine the same risk is there for the vans. But Dodge made great vans until 2003 (I think) when they changed to the Sprinter, which isn’t, I think, as good as Dodge’s earlier vans. Chevy/GMC, as far as I know, makes fine vans.

If you do look at used buses (and I recommend you at least look), then you have a number of more options, but with them you need to have the suspension checked very carefully, as replacement heavy-duty suspension parts are expensive and can be hard to find for some buses. Oh, and at least in Ontario, you don’t need a special driver’s licence to drive an ex-bus as a personal vehicle, so long as the bus is within the size and weight limits for your licence.


Expect about 11MPG-14MPG out of a van.

The major tip is try to find a single owner who has proof of maintenance records(difficult). However more importantly pay a trusted mechanic to checkover before final purchase.


How much are you willing to spend? You should be able to get price info from the newspaper, eBay, and Craigslist if you live in an area they support. Look around, get comfrotable with pricing, and drive a few. You’ll soon know enough to be a good judge of the vans you encounter.