Buying a Van


Buying a Van is Tough. Here’s How to Decide:

Step 1: Set a budget.

Those 4x4 Sprinters are rad, but they’re not worth ogling over if you only have $10K to spend.

Step 2: Pick a van.

If you want a hightop cargo van, they’re very popular right now for good reason, and you should plan on spending at least $15,000 - $20,000 for a Dodge Promaster or Ford Transit, and $20,000 - $30,000 for a Mercedes Sprinter. Going lower than that usually involves expensive repairs or extremely high mileage. All 3 of these popular vans are available in a cheaper lowtop option, which can work for shorter people, or those who prefer stealth camping. Also, there are cool aftermarket pop tops and fiberglass toppers that can be installed.

If you’re thinking about a Mercedes, note that cost of ownership is significantly higher and most repairs will have to be done at a Mercedes dealership (not ideal when you’re out camping in the desert). However, if you have the cash, those 4-wheel drive options are sweet! If those numbers are out of range, there are many other great cheaper options, such as the Chevy Astro Van, the very similar GMC Sierra, the Ford Connect, Dodge Promaster City or a good old-fashion short bus.

Step 3: Budget for the Build-Out.

Once you have a van—and really, before you consider buying a van—I would recommend budgeting a minimum of $5,000-$7,000 for a quality build with a solar set up and appliances and be warned that many folks end up spending upwards of $10,000. Obviously, things can be done more cheaply with reclaimed wood, bargain hunting, excluding major appliances, or simpler designs.

Step 4: Get a mechanic to look at your van before you start building! $100 or so up front can save you major headaches and money down the road.

Stinson Vans Recommendation:

My personal favorite van and current full-time residence is the hightop Dodge 2500 Promaster. Here’s why:

Standing room in your van is a game changer! The Promaster is the cheapest of the hightop cargo vans, and once you have room to stand there is no going back to a lowtop.

The Mercedes Sprinter is beyond my personal price range and I’m terrified of breaking down out in the boonies and needing a tow to the next state over to find a mechanic. The Transit is a good option, but it’s more expensive, the beams supporting the walls are undesirably thick creating a bit of wasted space, and there are tricky curves in the roof. The Promaster also has the best turning radius when compared to the Sprinter and Transit.

Dodge 1500 vs 2500:

The main difference is 2 feet of cargo space. The 1500 has approximately 6 ft x 10 ft of cargo space and is around 18 ft bumper to bumper with a 136” wheel base.

The 2500 has approximately 6 ft x 12 ft. of cargo space and is just under 20 ft bumper to bumper. In 2018, it’s now being offered with either a 136” or or 159” wheel base.

At first, I thought I wanted a 1500 to be more agile, but then I test drove them both and couldn’t detect any difference while driving. Then I realized that as a full-time van lifer, the 2500 makes more sense because you get a 20% larger house with a 10% larger van. The difference between a 20-foot van and an 18-foot van is negligible—it’s still a big effing van no matter how you look at it. However, that two feet of extra space on the inside of the van makes a big difference when it comes to fitting appliances and provides more flexibility with potential layouts.

In summary: the 1500 is a great option, and I have seen plenty of sweet builds in them, but the 2500 makes the most sense for me and is my personal favorite.