5 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Van

By: Travis Wild
/ April 2, 2020
Purchasing a used van is a great first step into #vanlife, and in theory, should be cheaper than purchasing a brand-spanking-new vehicle… Right?

The big fear, however, is the potential of purchasing a lemon and ultimately taking a huge financial hit (breakdowns, days spent at mechanic shops, zero resale value).

I have personally seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to purchasing a used van.

There are some general rules of thumb when purchasing a used van, which I will get into later on. But first, I want to highlight some of the major, more mechanical, issues to look out for.

These tips will save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Here’s what we’re going to dive into:

Piston Blowback

Repair: New Engine
Cost: $10-15,000

How to test:

  1. Get the engine running and take it for a test drive to get it warm.
  2. Take it on a 10-15 minute test drive. Be sure to take it on the highway.
  3. The thermostat inside the car should read around 180 degrees and if it is lower or doesn’t go up, the thermostat sensor may need to be replaced and could be indicative of hidden coolant system issues.
  4. Regardless, the simple test for piston blowback is to keep the car running, pop the hood, and unscrew the engine oil cap about 3/4 of a turn where it’s loose but you don’t take it off. Don’t take off the cap as the chain inside will spit a little oil out which is normal, but if you have it properly opened that 3/4 turn it will only leak out the sides a little for easy cleanup.

✅Pass: The oil cap stays still or shakes just a little bit.

❌Fail: The cap shakes violently or even shoots itself off.

Reason: Healthy pistons are sealed and no gas is escaping around them during combustion. Unhealthy pistons have blown seals which cause the engine not to run correctly. It will only be a matter of time before the piston throws a rod, destroying the engine and possibly causing more damage, let alone leave you stranded wherever you are.

 

Blown Head Gasket

Repair: Replace Head Gasket
Cost: $3,000-10,000
(This is a frustrating one because the actual part and kit to repair the head gasket is only around $250-$450, but the labor to get to the head gasket is intensive and many parts could need to be replaced in the process.)

How to test:

  1. Warm-up and drive the car similarly to the blown piston test.
  2. Check for coolant leaks. Coolant leaks are likely to just be areas where hoses need tightening, a water pump that needs replacing, or a radiator that needs replacing, but they could be indicative of a pressurized coolant system as well – especially if the coolant reservoir is cracked and leaking.
  3. You’ll then want to CAREFULLY and slowly remove the radiator cap (aka the cap to the coolant reservoir). If it’s smoking excessively and/or coolant spews out, that means you have a pressure problem.

The true and unfailing test is to purchase a head gasket leak test. You put a rubber cone into the coolant reservoir to create a seal and suction the air from the coolant system up into the tube attached to the rubber cone.

✅Pass: The fluid stays blue. There are no coolant leaks. No white smoke. No cloudy oil.

❌Fail: The air passes through a chemical liquid that turns from blue to yellow when emissions pass through it. This yellow means the head gasket has failed and explains the pressurized system. If you notice oil in the coolant or cloudy coolant, this is also a sign.

You should not be driving the car after any of this and need to get it straight to a shop before further damage happens. The gasket can also fail the opposite way and let coolant into the engine, causing quick overheating in the engine, white smoke in the exhaust, and the oil from the dip-stick will appear cloudy.

 

Bad Transmission

Repair: New Transmission
Cost: $3,000-$5,000

How to test:

  1. If you have your own dipstick (there isn’t one in the engine area for oil) for the transmission you can check the fluid level and color. Usually, this won’t be super clean even if it’s just had the fluid replaced.
  2. A better test would be to take the van on the highway. If, when you cross from around 2,800 to 3,000 RPM, you start feeling a sensation of running over a rumble strip or a shaking in the engine, this could be indicative that the transmission fluid needs changing. It could also mean that the transmission is going bad, especially if you feel a slipping of gears around this time. However, it may just need a transmission fluid change and the problem will resolve.

✅Pass: No shake or rumble strip feel, but rather smooth throughout all RPM’s.

❌Fail: It feels like you’re on a rumble strip at 3,000 RPM on the highway going around 65-75 mph.

 

Carbon Leaks (aka Black Death)

The name black death is a bit dramatic, especially if you catch this issue early.

Repair: Pull fuel injectors, clean threads, install new copper washer
Cost: $1,000-1,500

How to test:

  1. Unscrew the bolts on the engine cover.
  2. Inspect the area around the fuel injectors.

It should be pretty obvious if there is a hard carbon buildup as it will appear like a hard coal type substance.

Severe cases create quite the scene and look like solid black foam is covering all the fuel injectors.

Subtle cases are seen by gasses escaping around the base of the fuel injectors, possibly visible to the naked eye, indicated by a “pfft pfft pfft” sound that increases with pressing on the gas pedal (you’d need a partner to help as you want to be looking at the injectors when this happens).

You can even mix a little soap with water to spray around the injectors to see if bubbles from the escaping gas come up.

Any of these signs from hard carbon buildup to gas escaping (which might mean the previous owner cleaned up the carbon buildup but didn’t fix the problem) mean that a copper washer seal has failed at the base of the injector and needs to be replaced.

The injectors are known to seize and need a patient and knowledgeable mechanic to take their time using lubricants that will break up the carbon in the threads of the fuel injector. Often, this is done by warming up the engine (should never be done cold!), turning the injector a quarter turn, loosening and tightening to break up the carbon in the threads and then spraying a solution that will creep down the injector to break up the carbon before safely removing. Simply torquing on the injector may snap it and create a bigger and more expensive job.

If not taken care of, carbon can creep further down into the engine causing damage and more issues.

✅Pass: No carbon leak or buildup.

❌Fail: Carbon leaking and building up from the fuel injector head.

 

Accurate Mileage and Clean Title

Repair: Run a Carfax Report
Cost: $80 for 5 reports

How to test:

Purchase a Carfax report and run the VIN. It’s super simple and should be done for ALL car purchases, ever. Knowing as much as possible about the van before purchasing will arm you with the knowledge to negotiate a better price.

My personal experience with Carfax

I have saved myself a few times, thanks to this report. The first, the van was listed at 120,000 miles and all checked out for purchasing. I ran the Carfax report and a big red ! was next to “Mileage not accurate” and it showed back to back odometer readings of 210,000 miles and then the next reading reported was 110,000 miles. The actual odometer in the van read 120,000 miles and the owner had just bought it from a car auction. He said he had not run a Carfax report and seemed genuinely upset by the news, but he could have been lying. Either way, I backed out of the deal.

The second time was another low mileage vehicle that all looked good until the title came back as a complete loss salvage on Carfax, but the title on hand was not a salvage title. So something shady happened because it shouldn’t be possible to go to a salvage title and back again to a normal title. Due to the complications, this would cause insuring the vehicle as well as possibly ever reselling it, I kindly backed out of that purchase too.

✅Pass: Everything checks out

❌Fail: Untrue statements made by the seller

 

Other General Tips

Rust

Be sure to check for any signs of rust! Older vans, especially when not well-maintained, will carry a lot of hidden and rusty gems for you to find. This article goes into detail about how to find and remove rust from your van.

Don’t settle

This new set of wheels may be one of the most expensive things you’ve ever purchased. This might even be your next home!

If you’re feeling a lack of trust with the seller, or there’s just a feeling in your gut that’s telling you this isn’t the one… “Thank you, next!”

In saying that, if you find “the one”, don’t let it get away. Well-maintained vans get snatched up QUICKLY!

 

Conclusion

In many cases, buying a used van can be a huge cost-saver, with the caveat being that you’ve done your homework and the deal isn’t “too good to be true”. Do your homework and bring along people that you trust and can help you poke around and ask all the right questions.

And of course, whether you’re buying used or new, I do recommend for the vanlife community to have emergency savings on hand for repairs.

 

One final note

A hugely important resource to me has been Million Mile Sprinter. He’s the guru for Sprinter fixes and will even consult with you for a $30 30 minute phone call.

Joel, who runs Million Mile Sprinter, doesn’t know I’m writing this and this is in no way an advertisement, but just a testimony that his expertise has given me peace of mind and saved me a lot of money. He is also good at indicating if you could fix something yourself or should hire a mechanic. Also, he shares lots of educational content on his YouTube and Instagram that will help you maintain your Sprinter for the long haul. If you’re in Philadelphia you should stop in and see him. A super cool dude who’s brain probably has more Sprinter knowledge than anyone else on the earth. He can fix your Sprinter too, but due to his talent and expertise is often booked out for months with bigger jobs.

Travis Wild
Wanderful Contributor
Writer, athlete, photo maker, friend. Equal parts empathy and adventure. Ayla is my boss.
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