Finding and purchasing the right base vehicle for your soon to be campervan can be an overwhelming process so we've pooled all our van shopping experience together and broken it down for you.
What make and model van should I go for?
Let’s kick off with some initial questions you should be asking yourself when deciding what model to opt for as these will ultimately define the direction you go in.
What will you be using it for? Day trips, short trips, long trips, full time living, office space.
What are your priorities? Fixed bed vs seating space, storage vs extra room, bathroom cubicle vs hidden portaloo/external shower, standing room vs easy parking, big kitchen vs removable camp kitchen, off grid vs campsites, summer vs year round, bulk head vs cab space.
How many people and pets will be travelling in it?
We always recommend to folk to rent a campervan (or three) to get an idea of how different layouts and different van sizes work for you. We also recommend you have a look on the Quirky Campers sales and rental pages to look at how others have laid out their own campervans. You can pop in some of your criteria (e.g. 3 berth) and it will bring up all the campervans in that bracket.
Once you’ve got an idea of how much you want to fit in in to your van you can start comparing make and model stats. Things to consider are:
Each van model is defined by length and height. For example a Citroen Relay L3H2 is a long wheel base and high roof and an L4H3 would be extra long and extra high. Length is also determined as SWB, MWB, LWB & XLWB (short, medium, long & extra long wheel base). All manufactures vary greatly when it comes to their sizes so for example a LWB Caddy (the Maxi) will be a very different size to a LWB Sprinter.
Payload is the load carried by a vehicle, including passengers. So for campervans this also includes the entire conversion, fuel, water, food, luggage and gear. It’s important to know what payload your van can handle as overloading a vehicle is not only illegal, but incredibly dangerous. This is something that is really important to consider when choosing your vehicle as vans vary considerably in what their base weight is. If you know you need to add a lot of weight (ie you have a lot of family members, you have heavy gear, you know you want to use heavy materials) you might need to be considering lighter base vehicles. If you are comfortable and confident with what weight you’ll be adding then heavier base vehicles will be no problem for you.
Load space naturally will be your living space and is often measured in litres or in square metres, however, if you are looking at a van's width dimensions, the space between the rear wheel arches will be narrower than the load width by about 40cm. Some models are wider and squarer than others which can give you lots of extra space without having to go longer.
We find commercial vehicle size guides like this one from Arval really helpful when it comes to comparing.
We are mostly opting for Citroen Relays now as they are wider, squarer, lighter and offer a much bigger load space for the lengths of their vehicles. They are also galvanised steel which means they are not prone to rust issues like a lot of vehicle models. Everyone has their preferences, these are ours.
Buying your van
So you know what van you want, now you need to find one. First up, work out your budgeting and what age and mileage you’d be happy with. Remember mileage is just a number and that it’s often more important that the van has been well cared for and well driven rather than the number of miles it has travelled.
We like to to use Auto Trader when shopping for potential vans as every vehicle listed has already gone through a five-point background check which covers whether the car is stolen, has been scrapped, written off, imported or exported so you can shop with a certain peace of mind.
First up, do a free vehicle number plate check at gov.uk This will tell you it’s current mot and tax information.
From there you can look at the full MOT history. Read it through and look at failures and advisories, what work has been done, if any problems have been ignored or if there are repeated issues popping up.
Do a HPI check to be certain. Especially if you are buying from a private seller or a dealer which hasn’t been listed on Auto Trader. The HPI Check Report will alert you to any worrying information held against the vehicle by finance and insurance companies, the DVLA, the Police and other industry bodies. We have had ‘legitimate’ dealers illegally not providing information about vehicles they are selling which we have uncovered with HPI checks. A small upfront fee can save you a lot of time, hassle and money in the long run.
Ask the seller if you can have a copy of the service history before looking at the van. You’ll want to be seeing services at regular intervals. Intervals are either determined by year or miles and vary with manufactures so check what’s recommended for this type of van.
The most important question for me is what was the van used for in its previous life? Has it been looked after, what was it used for, how many owners did it have etc. Vans which have carried heavy items which weren’t loaded equally may lead to axle issues, vans which have been used for wet products may have damp/rust issues, vehicles which were delivery drivers may have spent most of its life in and around town, with lots of short journeys, stop-start traffic and a crew of different drivers putting greater strain on the clutch and brakes.
The most important thing to check on a van’s bodywork is rust. Rust is most obvious on wings, sills and below bumpers, but it can also be found under the wheel arches, around the door frame and at the corners of the windscreen. If you find rust, press on it gently. If you hear cracking sounds, there may be corrosion below.
Look for changes in colour in the body work or orange peel effect as these are indicators that the van has been re-sprayed. Not necessarily a bad thing but it may be a sign of past damage. Ask the seller if it’s been re-sprayed, it would be illegal for them to not tell you if they are aware of it.
Ensure the tyres are the correct ones for the van and that the wear is even across the front and rear treads. If not, there could be a problem with the suspension or wheel alignment. The tyre depth also needs to be minimum depth of 1.6mm to be legal in the UK.
A general test of the suspension can be carried out by pressing down hard on one corner and seeing how quickly it bounces back. It should return to its original position quickly and smoothly if the shock absorbers are in a good condition.
In the loading space assess the ply lining. If it’s new it means they’ve replaced it for a reason. It may indicate there is extra work to be done cleaning and treating the metal work below. If it’s the original ply and has signs of damp or mould it may indicate what work will be needed underneath.
We always check the air conditioning and heating as well as any obvious electrical faults.
Currently due to covid dealerships are not allowing test drives. We’ve bought our last two vans without test driving beforehand which is rather daunting. The plus about dealerships however is they tend to come with a 3 month warranty so they will pay for any problems to be fixed during that period.
If buying privately then test driving is an absolute must. Start up the van from cold and look out for black or blue smoke pouring out of the exhaust, as well as any engine warning lights that stay on. Listen out for any weird rattles or banging noises, especially when you accelerate. Pay attention to squeaks, knocks or grinding – especially when you brake. The steering should feel responsive. If the van wants to weave all over the road or there’s a lot of play then that’s a warning sign.
If buying privately then getting the AA to to do a pre-purchase check could be a great shout. They will send an engineer out to run diagnostics and check over the van to make sure everything is in order. When we sold our first campervan our buyers had this done and it gave all of us peace of mind for the sale.
We have found that there is little to zero wiggle room on vehicle prices at the moment so take that into account when working out your budget. Gone are the days of haggling.
If you can’t get a reduction in price try and get some extras instead like an extended warranty or a years worth of breakdown cover. Places are often more keen to add on a few things which won’t cost much to them but could be really helpful for you.
Often vans at dealerships will come with a years MOT and recent service, if not in this case, see if you can add that on as an extra.
Dealerships are generally accepting payments now through bank transfers so if you are going to look at a van and keen to drive it away that day you may need to chat with your bank to make sure you can transfer the full amount over on the day.
Phew! And hopefully after all that hard work you've now found yourself the perfect base van for your new camper. Now the really fun part can begin!