Tips on buying a van for under $3000

How realistic is that price range in the US? More so in the $2000 range, but I can go up to $3000 at the moment. I’m willing to go even higher, but that means staying here for more months than I really want. I don’t need anything special. I just want something reliable for full time living. I’m looking for a passenger type van that isn’t going to break down in one year. The only thing, other than that it drives, is that it has room for a small bed. That’s it. I’m very much okay with the most basic living situation. I can always add to it later on.

Do you think I’m setting myself up for a lot of problems buying so cheap? How terrible is it if it has 150k or 200k miles on it? I’ve already noticed that’s about how much most of them have for that price and from my understanding, that’s when they’re pretty much “done” even though I also know that’s not always the case. There are some for lower, but they also look the most beat up that I’ve seen so far. I guess from being stored and abandoned somewhere not ideal for so long.

I really hate that I don’t know anything about vehicles because I’m very paranoid about buying a lemon. Depending on where I buy it (either in the Louisiana, Tennessee or Kentucky area), I may or may not have a mechanic friend to look at it before buying. It looks like there are better options in the KY and TN area, which is probably good because I have more friends up there than can probably help. I’m staying in Louisiana at the moment so if I do that, I’ll just have to hold on a little while longer to buy, which is fine since I want to save up a little more money anyway before hitting the road for good.

Anyway, any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Things to look for, etc.

I’m not an expert here as I’m currently converting in Europe but have bought and converted in a van in North America. It depends on a number of factors, but at that price there are gems out there however there will be a lot of duds on the market also. Once you’re pushing towards 200k you’re risking having issues and would definitely recommend getting a mechanic friend to look it over if the mileage is on the high side (tbh I’d get them to look it over regardless if possible), always worth having an expert eye involved if you can especially at that price range.

Id check out this thread from a week or so ago where a similar sort of thing was discussed, might be able to get some answers you need from there, if not I’m sure someone will chime in here with more info than I have:

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Hey Gee,

That price range is not out of the question. A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was in the car business.

The first thing that I would suggest is that you spend the money to have it looked at by a competent individual so that you know what the immediate issues are surrounding the unit. If it is a friend of yours they had better have some knowledge and experience working on these older vehicles so that this person may give you sound advice concerning the prospective vehicle.

Yeah, the mechanical issues begin to crop up when you get a hundred and too many million thousand miles on 'em; but, it sounds like that’s where you are headed. What you are attempting to do with the pre-purchase inspection is to minimize the percentages of problems.

In the beginning of the pandemic, used car prices plunged and then they skyrocketed. People were less inclined to use ride sharing and public transportation. Fewer vehicles were being traded in and people are relocating to rural and suburban areas out of large cities where transportation options are not as plentiful.

My guess is that if the car business gets really cranking because of pent up demand that it will probably still be some time before used car prices settle down because those car guys are pretty crafty. And you want a vehicle now.

It may not be something you want to consider; but, an older motor home will generally have pretty low mileage for the year (>100k), they are generally owned by someone who is older, comfortable financially and the units are usually well maintained. They are not uncommon at all. Motor home prices also spiked higher; however, an individual seller of said unit probably isn’t aware of the market and may be close to your range.

Those vehicles for this lifestyle have their own set of challenges that are well documented on this forum; but, they also have their advantages.

Back to the van. Vehicles in your price range have been pulled up in value by the market; however, not as dramatically. Also, a private individual may not be aware of the prices in the market. To them, it’s just a 20 yr old raggedy ol’ van. So, look everywhere you can for the individual sellers.

With regard to dealers and your van, most -but by no means all - new car dealerships won’t even consider carrying a $2500 van. BUT IF THEY DO these guys will own it for less money than any other place around. Now they will try to rip your head off on the price (as every good car guy will); but, they will own it for less than the used car dealers. It is up to you to negotiate.

Used car dealers may have some of these vans and they may ask the moon and a coupla stars in exchange for the privilege of buying it. Often they will make more money selling it on a “Buy here, pay here” sort of arrangement than they will from a cash deal.

New car dealers view an older unit as having a greater potential for problems with a lower profit potential and that’s why most don’t fool with them. Used car dealers are used to selling vehicles that have problems and finding ways to maximize profit from said units. I ain’t sayin’ you can’t get a good deal on a sound vehicle. I am sayin’ “WATCH OUT!”

In the price range you are looking at, it is best to give yourself leeway on how much so that you don’t pass on the best vehicle cuz it’s $500 more than you want to spend. Spending an extra nickle on the right unit is money well spent.

It is also unimportant which manufacturer’s van you are looking at. At that age it is the individual vehicle that is important. I don’t know when/if they stopped but the 1/2 ton Ford E-150 van used to be heavy enough that it was made into the ambulance package. Chevys and Dodge had to use the 3/4 ton chassis for the ambulance package.

As for cargo van vs passenger van that debate has been well chronicled.

I think you can find a great vehicle in that price range. You can also find a real piece of junk. Get some help before you buy it and look everywhere. Good luck.


Thank you for your reply. I definitely plan on getting anything looked at before buying, and I think I’m going to look specifically in the Tennessee and Kentucky areas just because I have friends up there that know what to look for.

I am very paranoid about buying from car dealerships in general, and I’m going to try to stay away from them if I can. I just never trust anything they’re saying to me and more suspicious about what they’re selling, so just overall more uncomfortable looking in that direction. I’m pretty much only looking at individual sellers at the moment, and honestly, probably won’t budge on that even if it takes longer to find the right van. Though it’s possible if a trusted friend who knows their stuff can reassure me a van from a dealership is fine. I also refuse to use any kind of financing, which is why I will only buy something I can pay upfront in cash.

I really don’t want anything too big. The smaller the better for me, as long as it’s not too small. I can upgrade to something bigger later on and I’m sure I will once I become more comfortable with driving a van in general and get more used to the lifestyle and know what to expect and learn more about the limitations and advantages of each vehicle and what will work best for me in the long run. I am an anxious person in general, and I’d like to get some real life experience on the road and with the vanlife (especially to know if it’s something I truly want to continue with) before upgrading to something bigger. When first starting out, I’d be much more comfortable knowing I can go and park pretty much anywhere with no problems or hassle. Later on, once I know what to really expect with my preferred destinations, I can make a more informed decision best suited for me. So really, even just getting about one or two years for $2000-$3000 in the beginning isn’t such a horrible thing to me. I still plan on working and can buy a new vehicle when the first one finally dies.

I know that in my price range, finding a van that lasts me for years is going to be an incredible long shot and shouldn’t expect it. The way I see it though, even I were to spend $3000 on a used van every single year, that’s about a quarter of a year’s worth of rent. So, I’d still be saving money, which is kind of crazy to think about. Obviously, that would be far from ideal and total hassle to have to deal with that, but for me, still better than the alternative. Which is, always being exhausted from working long, physically demanding hours most days of the week with no time left to ever do anything. Coming home to some crap apartment with no backyard or fresh air and feeling stuck and in a rut the rest of my life haha.

Anyway, thanks for your input!

Thank you for your reply! That thread was very helpful. I think the most comfortable I’m willing to go is possibly 150k. Do you think you can squeeze out a year or two from that? I know I said I don’t want something that will just break down in a year, but when when I really thought about it, having to shell out another $2000 or so in a year for a new van would still be cheaper than paying rent for that year. Not ideal, but still better in my eyes than to continue doing what I’m doing now, which is making me absolutely miserable.

I don’t plan on traveling the entire time. There will be times where I’ll basically be staying in the same area for a few months at a time, but still a lot of driving considering I am first going across the country, starting in the South of the US. My plan for now is to go out West and make my way up to the Northwest, where I will work for a couple of months then move on to a new location and do the same. I can’t afford the constantly on the go lifestyle unless I can land a more “work from home” type of deal. But honestly, I actually prefer manual labor or more physically active jobs over sedentary ones so I doubt that’s something I’d even want to do. I also like the idea of really experiencing a particular place for a couple of months rather than going to for a week or few weeks then leaving, though there will definitely be some of that too.

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Sounds like you’ve got a plan and that’s most of the battle. Depending upon how many miles/yr you drive and the quality of the unit, I’d expect you can get more than just a year.

Also, I neglected to mention that different regions of this country have different preferences. For example, in western North Carolina, pickup trucks are generally in huge demand because of the high density per square mile of rednecks wanting one. It just seems that there ain’t enough trucks to satisfy.the demand.

The kinds of vans that you’ll be looking at have fallen out of favor, with the notable exception being nomads, so your competition for finding a good one is rather limited. I think you’ll do well.

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I think unless you’re unlucky you should easily get a couple of years out of that but as farmboy said it depends on a lot of things such as the mileage you do and how well you treat it once you own it. Definitely a great idea to get a friend to look so you can have some peace of mind that you’re starting off in the right place. (And someone to blame if things go wrong :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:). Also you many find you want different things from your van in a couple of years any once you have a better idea of how you live this lifestyle and your individual needs because everyone does it differently and you can only get that knowledge from experience. If you can sell your first one on or salvage some parts of it for the next build then bonus! Still so much cheaper than rent and you’ll gain that freedom while you work out the finer details

I think you’ll find you’re similar to a lot of people on the road when it comes to work. Some do remote online work others like myself stick to short term jobs. I do seasonal work as and when I either need to financially or just want a break from travelling. I love spending 2-3 months in a place and working there as you really get to see it as a local in that time + you can put a bit of money away then when you get itchy feet hit the road again. Best bit about vanlife is your next adventure is around the corner

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Hey Gee,

TransitEuro has nailed it. It is extremely important to have "someone to blame if things go wrong)!


I appreciate your feedback. I really do think I’d be fine with very little, at least in the beginning. I’m very low maintenance and the idea of not really having anything other than a sleeping area and a little storage space doesn’t bother me in the least. As long as I can sleep in there with my legs stretched out, I’ll be fine.

I also have to think of how I’m going to power stuff when the van is off, as I would like to be able to charge my laptop and also be able to keep a fan on when I’m sleeping as I need ambient noise to sleep. Of course my first thought were solar panels but then after reading more about it, I’m seeing that may not actually be the best option. I really only need enough in the beginning to charge a laptop and keep a fan running but would be nice to know that I could power more than that if need be.

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Happy to be of help and there’s nothing wrong with a low-key set up at all.

I’m a big fan of solar panels but if you’re only wanting to charge a laptop and run a fan you may well be able to cope with a much simpler (and a lot cheaper) system. You can always add to it if you need/want later on

It will not be easy, but can be found. Just be ready for repairs. A 20 year old van with 150,000+ miles may not have issues for years, but might break down tomorrow. The good news is repairs will likely be cheaper on an old E series ford, B series Dodge, or G series chevrolet than anything newer. But you have to plan and be ready for it. The same goes for any vehicle out of warranty really, but the older the vehicle, the more there is a chance for it to happen. You can buy it and drive it for years, or have the engine blow tomorrow. I wouldn’t buy a vehicle that I was planning to live out of unless I had a few thousand set aside for repairs. Being able to do some repairs on your own is a bonus, and most of these older vans are not that complex to work on. A v8, auto, rear wheel drive van from the 90s or early 2000s is fairly durable, but they will need work at some point. Buying a well cared for, inspected, example will be better than making repair after repair on a run down model.

Here is an example of something in that range from the Dallas, TX area
For a little more

If you can find a conversion van (or RV) as someone else pointed out, you might find a better deal because these have lower miles and were generally owned by folks who spent some money (at least initially)

Don’t get in a hurry and look, the deals are still there but harder to find. Show up with cash, offer less, if you want to buy for 3000, look at $4000 vans, especially if they’ve been for sale for a while.

I had a full class B van with a generator, still most of the time I powered things from an Anker Powerhouse. It was just easier and quieter than running the generator which was overkill for anything other than the air conditioner

Hey Gee! If you have auto auctions in your area check them out. You will not be able to get into dealer only auctions but all others are fair game. In 2006 I went to an Air Force auction in my area and bought 2 identical 2002 Oldsmobile Alero’s with 30k miles on them for a total or $8k out the door. One drowned in a flood a few years back and the other I just traded in on a 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan.

Here’s another auction option. If you have a Anaheim Auction house in your area try to get a job there, part time or full time. If they like you they’ll help you get a rig even though their auctions are mostly dealer only. Some car dealers also have auctions or participate in small local auctions, so don’t be shy about asking!

Beyond that, you got a lot of good feedback in this thread. Good Luck!

Hey thanks for your input! After much consideration, I decided to wait just a little bit longer so I can save up some more money and buy a better van. I still won’t be able to afford a new one or anything, but I really need to try and get something in better shape and with less miles. As someone who can only check and refill oil and coolant, it’s not a smart move to buy something that will likely need a lot of repairs right away. I do plan on learning more about this stuff, but it will take time and experience. Instead of leaving in about two months, it will probably be more like four or five. I need to practice a little more patience and do this right. I was just so excited about it, I felt to the need to get out there ASAP. But by waiting, I know I’ll be glad I did in the long run and I’ll have more money in my pocket when I leave so I won’t have to find a job almost immediately after leaving and can enjoy myself for about a month or two before settling in a town for temporary work.

I’m definitely going to look for auctions when I’m looking to buy again. Thanks for the recommendation. I decided to wait a little longer so I can save up some more money and be able to buy a better van, but I’m still dead set on doing this. I’ll just be where I’m at for a few extra months. I think I can manage ha.