A camper can easily be the best OR worst investment of your life. If you don’t do your research, you may get lucky and get one that’s in excellent condition, with minimal mileage. However, you may also purchase a camper that makes your life a living hell – constantly breaking down on you on the road.
Since this is going to be your home, at least for a while, you need to be sure that it’s 100% reliable.
This article will teach you about the types of campers out there, as well as how to properly inspect a potential buy. With the help of this guide, you’ll be able to determine which vehicle is right for you, as well as how to avoid making a purchase you’ll regret.
We have compiled this buying guide to help you get the most for your money and avoid the challenges that arise when purchasing a worn-down or unreliable vehicle.
Major campervan manufacturers
Campervans are the ultimate recreational vehicles. They provide the maneuverability of a passenger car paired with a variety of the comforts you would find in a home. Here are some of the major manufacturers:
- Mercedes-Benz: This is one of the most reputable brand manufacturers of campervans. It offers a variety of top campervan models for your camping needs. It’s Sprinter van is a particularly popular model.
- Ford: This company has recently gained recognition for many of its economical van options, such as the Ford Transit.
- Volkswagen: Volkswagen campers have been fairly popular for decades, think of the “hippie buses”.
- Airstream: This is an iconic name in camping trailers that offers plenty of campervan options.
- Winnebago: This iconic recreational vehicle manufacturer is Iowa-based and best known for its bus-like RVs. The brand manufactures a variety of Ram Promaster and Mercedes Sprinter campervans.
The type of campervan you buy will depend on your needs. Here are some campervans, organized by size:
1. Mini campervans
The models include:
- Volkswagen Caddy
- Renault Kangoo
- Holden Combo
- Toyota Tarago
- Volkswagen Caddy Maxi
- Citroen Berlingo
All of these vans are designed for easy storage and comfortable driving. They also have a lower price tag, making them perfect for people are don’t want to spend a ton.
With these models, you’ll save on the running costs, but you’ll lose on sleeping area and space. These vans can sleep a maximum of two people and won’t have much storage space, although some can have a little kitchen and a small toilet space.
2. Mid-sized campervans
A mid-sized campervan can sleep two to four people depending on the model, and many will have a fixed bed. They should also have a bathroom and kitchen space plus some storage. Here are some examples:
- Mitsubishi Express
- Volkswagen Transporter
- Volkswagen Kombi T3
- Ford Transit
- Kia Preggio
- Toyota Hiace
3. Large campervans
Spending extra money to get more space is useful if you have the money. Bigger campervans come with a toilet space, fixed seating, storage space, and kitchen. Vans this size can fit about eight seats and can usually sleep two to five people.
Some of the best models include:
- Volkswagen Transporter
- Hyundai iMax
- Renault Trafic
- Mazda Bongo
- Ford Econovan Maxi
- Mercedes Sprinter
- Volkswagen Crafter
- Toyota Coaster
- Renault Master
What should I know before buying a campervan?
Here are some of the essential things to keep in mind on purchasing any used vehicle.
1. Check seller credentials
First and foremost, you want to ensure the seller is legally entitled to sell the vehicle and all the official paperwork is in order.
2. Keep the original advertisement
The campervan must be legally described. If you later find out that it has no original advertisement, approach the seller or tell the DMV if you doubt the validity of the title.
3. Take a witness
Taking a witness with you will help to oversee the buy-in case the campervan, later on, proves to be faulty. Your witness should preferably be a car expert or mechanic, to help you ensure that you’re not getting a faulty vehicle.
4. Always check vehicle numbers & registration
It is essential always to check the vehicle’s details, including the numbers and registration against the logbook. This means checking that the logbook, otherwise known as the V5 form, matches the vehicle in front of you. Check that the license plate and color all match.
5. Check the vehicle’s history
Look out for the vehicle’s history, including the mileage and age. This will help you to get an idea of the general state of the vehicle, as well as how often it was driven. There also services that check the insurance and police database to check for unresolved HP payments, thefts, and crashes.
6. Inspect the vehicle thoroughly
Regardless of how cool the campervan may look, if it is mechanically undependable, your life in the van will not get off to a great start. Inspect the bodywork for rust or signs of rust spots being covered up with filler. A magnet will assist you in checking if any suspected areas are filled.
7. Always test drive the vehicle
Before you acquire the campervan, you should take it for a good, long drive. This is probably the only time you’ll be able to run the car before purchasing it, so you must give it a good try. The aim is to test the camper in as many situations as possible to try to find faults.
Turn the radio on. Accelerate quickly to see whether it drives smoothly without hesitation. Assess whether the brakes stop in good time. See whether the steering is operating properly by driving in a circle in both directions, as well as driving on urban roads.
This will help you assess how smoothly the gear changes. You’ll also be able to note whether there are strange vibrations within the vehicle or whether the car idles quietly in traffic. If there is anything you feel suspicious about, get it checked by a professional mechanic before committing to the purchase.
8. Paying with PayPal can offer you some protection
If you are buying the campervan from a private seller, it will offer you some protection. Take screenshots of every interaction that you had with the seller before and after buying. PayPal usually favors buyers, so they’ll likely refund you in the event that you get scammed.
Of course, it’s best to avoid this in the first place.
How to inspect a vehicle before buying
Regardless of whether you buy your camper from a private seller or company, you should always inspect the vehicle before purchase. If you fail to do this, you could end up with a vehicle that doesn’t work. As a result, you’ll be forced to pay expensive repair bills or buy a new camper altogether.
I recommend paying a trusted mechanic to inspect the vehicle for you. Here are some things to look at:
Engines are difficult and complicated to check. Unfortunately, they’re also costly to fix. Be sure to check the vehicle for these things:
- Engine noises: Even if you have not brought a mechanic with you, there is still stuff you can do to determine whether the vehicle has any engine issues. Open the bonnet. Ensure that it lifts quickly and that the support bar effectively keeps it open. Start the engine and make sure to listen for any odd noises. You should also look out for smoke or rattling. You want to ensure it starts easily and sounds healthy, with no major problems.
- Oil leaks: Now check the coolant, engine oil, and steering box. The oil should be at acceptable levels. Low levels could indicate a lack of maintenance or a leak, both of which can imply other mechanical issues. Check under the vehicle for any signs of dripping oil.
- Worn timing belt: Also known as a cambelt, the timing belt is an essential part of the engine. Unfortunately, it also is one of the most destructive things when it breaks. The timing belt should be changed every 60,000 miles, but many people fail to do so. Therefore, make sure to look for the sticker on the engine that indicates when it was last changed. Some people may also mention it in a service book. If it is due for renewal, you should consider this when bargaining. Engines with timing chains instead of belts, such as Mercedes models, typically don’t need to be changed as often.
- Old radiator: This is located in front of the engine. It should be undamaged, free of rust, and milder. Older radiators begin to fall apart at the bottom, so be sure to look out for this.
- Steam & smoke: Check for steam and smoke originating from the exhaust. If you see any of these – it’s usually a bad sign. However, keep in mind that diesel engines usually produce some smoke.
- Low oil level: Use a dipstick to check the oil level. If the previous inspection finds no leakage, but the oil level is low – this indicates the owner has not adequately taken care of the vehicle. Buy at your own risk.
- Blown head gasket: This is a costly repair. Look for white smoke from the tailpipe, as well as bubbling from the radiator. A white deposit on the oil dipstick is an indication as well. Another sign of a blown gasket is an engine that is overheating.
- Damaged hoses & pipes: Check that all the pipes and houses are clean. The metal pipes should not be rusty, and the rubber hoses should not be cracked.
- Damaged roof: Take your time to assess the whole campervan to look for any damages and symbols of rust. This includes checking the condition of the roof. You can get ladders, if necessary, to get a detailed view.
- Damaged wheel arches: Check the inside of the wheel arches for any damage or rust. The wheel arches are a hot spot for moisture retention and rust.
- Corrosion along floor edges: Another area to look for the general condition and rust is underneath the edges of the floor. Ensure that it has no rust and that it is well maintained.
- Damage around doors: Inspect all around each door, mainly the hinges on panel vans. Rust is costly to fix, particularly in older vans such as VW camper vans.
- Chassis: Go under the vehicle and probe the chassis and underside with a strong stick. If it pits or crumbles, then there is some unsuitable rust going on.
- Front and rear sections: Check the rear and front box sections of the vehicle for marks of an accident.
- Turn the vehicle on full lock: While under the vehicle, look at the transmission. When running the vehicle, you should go to a car park and turn the vehicle on full lock. If there is a banging sound, the steering knuckle most likely requires replacing.
- CV joints: CV joints are used to connect the car’s transmission to the wheels. Make sure the CV joints are complete and are not split.
- Get under & grab the prop-shaft: If the prop-shaft is loose, it requires new bearings. However, this normally means a whole new driveshaft, as well as a complete unit.
Choosing the right campervan for you
In any circumstance, there are some things to consider before going all-in on a buy or build:
1. What are you going to use your campervan for?
Understanding how you will use your campervan is critical in knowing the vehicle layout that will work best for you. While some like hitting the road with all their gear in tow, some, a campervan, offers a peaceful retreat during camping. Choose the best layout depending on your needs.
2. How many people will be sleeping in your van?
If you are traveling by yourself, a van will usually have ample space for you to sleep in. However, for families and couples, figuring out a sleeping layout can be challenging. For sideway layout, confirm whether the members of your family are short enough to fit comfortably. If anyone can’t stretch out completely, this IS a big issue.
Most campervans can fit sleeping two people without a problem but add in a kid, and you may have to convert a bench into extra sleeping space for children.
3. Do you need a bathroom?
For several people, the idea of going camping without a bathroom sounds unimaginable. For other people, hot having a bathroom is a major space saver. Whatever you decide, this is a crucial question to consider. If you want a bathroom, you may have to consider a larger campervan.
4. Do you want a high-roof or low-roof?
Regardless of the type of campervan, most companies usually offer a high and low roof option. Low roofs are more modest when driving and can fit in most garages. High roofs offer more standing space, but they limit your ability to park in certain locations.
Plus, they stand out more, especially in residential locations.
5. Do you want a pop-top roof?
The next question you want to ask yourself is whether you will pop the roof of your camper. This can be a great compromise between the high and low top roofs I discussed above. Just keep in mind that during cold weather, you will likely need to place additional panels over the upper windows for insulation.
6. What kind of weather will you be using it in?
Another question to consider is how well the campervan is insulated. If you stay in a cold-weather climate or travel, having good insulation is vital for your comfort and safety. Tires are also an essential consideration. Additionally, you may want a four-wheel-drive option to handle all types of terrain.
7. Will you buy new or used?
This question applies to anyone looking to purchase a manufactured camper and those hoping to convert their van. Use vans are cheaper but have more miles and wear-and-tear. Newer vans can be bought without chairs, so that you may customize them in your own way.
However, they also come with a higher price tag.
8. How will you power your van?
Depending on the type of camping you’ll be doing, you can either go entirely off the grid or hook up your camper at RV parks. If you plan on installing solar panels, it may be beneficial to look for a van that already has this installed. It’ll save you the trouble and money.
If you plan on hooking up your van, you’ll have more options.
9. Are you going to build the van yourself or purchase a manufactured one?
Already-built campers usually cost a fair bit more, especially if they’re custom. Building a camper yourself is more affordable, but is more labor and time-intensive.
10. What is your budget?
Finally, set a budget. If the previous questions did not help narrow down the categories for the type of campervan you want to purchase, you should narrow down your selection according to your budget. After considering a possible van, write down any possible repairs or modifications that you’ll need to do.
Also, take into account the costs of insurance and tax.
Even with a low budget, it’s possible to score a great camper. Consider buying secondhand on a website like Craiglist.
If you need a campervan, don’t make a purchase until you’ve inspected the vehicle and you’re absolutely sure that it fits your needs. If you have any doubts, don’t buy the car. Your intuition is usually right. Always consider getting the advice of someone else before you make a purchase, including a professional mechanic.
I hope this buying guide was helpful to you. If you found it useful, feel free to check out my other guides on buying a campervan. They cover everything you need to know, so you’ll get the peace of mind that you’re making the right decision.
NOTE: If you're looking to purchase a new tiny home, but aren't sure if it's right for you, be sure to check out Escape Campervans. They allow you to rent unique vans and RVs all around the US. Book today!