Monday, June 28, 2010

Choosing a Van

There are many things to consider when choosing a van or a vehicle to convert. Budget, models, how much time you have, what fuel they use, stealth, and what condition they're in.

I lucked out with my van: A 1985 Dodge Ram B150 in nearly perfect mechanical condition, already stripped out and carpeted by the previous owner. But before more of that, a quick rundown of each of the different factors involved.

What is the budget you're trying to work with? Have you saved up for a while, putting aside a few grand for not just the van but whatever you think you'll need in it, or have you found yourself in an emergency situation where you need shelter right now? This is a big factor when it comes to Vandwelling and choosing your van. Sometimes you can buy a brand new cargo van or conversion van from a dealer, or you may have to scour craigslist to find a beat up clunker.

While ultimately people can (and do) convert every type of vehicle imaginable, certain vehicles tend to lend themselves to conversion better than others. In America, the most common vehicles are newer Ford E series vans, followed by some older Dodge Ram B-Series vans, Chevrolet G Series vans, and older Ford Econolines. On the shorter end of the scale, Chevrolet Astros, Ford Windstars, and Toyota Hi-aces seem to be popular as well.

Overseas, the two vehicles sought after the most tend to be Ford Transits and Mercedes Sprinters. Volkswagen Westfalias and buses also are popular choices but can be expensive due to their cult status.

How Much Time You Have
How much time will you have to convert the van? Will you be able to work on it leisurely or will you need to sleep or move into it that night?  Once again, certain vans are better than others. If you have the time and can find a good deal, it may be easier to get a good deal on a passenger van and strip it down to the metal interior before building up. You can purchase a cargo van that's already stripped to aid in this process, but it can still take a while to build up. If you need something immediately, many passenger vans will have a fold down rear seat that turns into a bed, and you can add other amenities later.

One might not think it, but vehicles that run on certain types of fuels may be better suited to your needs than others. There are four main types of fuel that vehicles today use to run, with advantages and disadvantages to most of them:
  • Gasoline - Easy to find, easy to fill up. Can be a little more temperamental than diesel and require a bit more maintenance to keep running well for longer. Every gas station has gasoline.
  • Diesel - Better fuel mileage, better reliability, easier to work on, and last forever. A properly maintained diesel engine will have the car it's sitting in rot out before it even thinks of giving up. Diesel engines also have the added bonus of being able to be converted to run on bio-diesel or straight vegetable oil. Not all gas stations have diesel, however.
  • Propane/Natural Gas: Unless you have knowledge of these vehicles or working on them, I would stay away from them
  • Electric - Very, very rare, can be host to a ton of other problems and the least ideal for a van conversion
Another incredibly important factor, depending on where you want to park. If you park in a city or suburbs, you'll want to make sure your vehicle doesn't stand out. Cargo and work vans that have been converted are much better for this, although any van that has a relatively clean look can park just about anywhere. You don't want a vehicle that draws attention to yourself, either from people who just don't get it, thugs looking to break in and steal whatever is inside or the vehicle itself, or from the police. There's alot of things you can do to remain stealthy which will be covered in this blog, but making sure your vehicle doesn't stick out like an eyesore is the biggest and the easiest.

Mechanical Condition
This is the most important factor by far. Bodies can be painted/patched up, interiors can be redone/reupholstered, tires can be changed, but if the vehicle you're buying doesn't have a strong powerplant and drivetrain, every bit of work you do could go to waste in a heartbeat when the engine dies. This van may end up being your home, so make sure you get a vehicle that you know runs well and strong.

Craigslist and public auctions can be hit or miss, as anyone who has bought a vehicle from them knows. Stay away from impound/tow yards, as whoever the original owner of the vehicle was didn't see it worth enough to get it out of impound. If searching craigslist, try to find vehicles that are part of estate sales, people who are moving out of state, or fleet vehicles.

Fleet vehicles are usually good bets. Companies like Fedex, DHL, anything government owned, and a few others usually retire their vehicles at a certain mileage and put them up for sale. Most of these will still be in fantastic condition having received maintenance throughout their service lives. Most of these vehicles will be purchased by contractors and private parties when they go to market for small businesses or individual ones.

Ultimately, you have to feel comfortable with a vehicle you chose, and make sure it's strong and reliable.

Why Vandwelling?

One of the greatest questions I get asked most frequently is...

 "WHY!?!? I mean, couldn't you get an apartment with friends, move back in with your parents, do something else, anything else, besides living in a van?"

People live in their vans for a variety of reasons. Some are forced into it because of bad circumstances, like I was. Some pick it up as a lifestyle for a few months to a few years in order to travel the country. I never understood the stigma with this, as many people do this only in an RV or trailer. Some people do it to save money or get away from the grind of working to live and living to work to afford the mortgage payment. There are many different reasons for it, but one thing all Vandwellers have in common is an incredibly positive attitude and outlook on life, which is a key element to making it work.

As for my own situation, I had ended up finding out the house myself and a few friends were living in was about to be foreclosed on, something very common in this economy. Two roommates decided to get a condo, one roommate decided to move back with his folks. I didn't have either option, so I ended up with this crazy idea to create a rolling home out of a van.

I did alot of research online and found a ton of information, but alot of it was scattered. Vandwelling seems to be a niche. The closest communities that seem to have more popularity are people who convert school and transit buses into RVs, and those that live fulltime in their RVs. This combines the two, just on a smaller scale. This site hopes to rectify that a bit!

Whatever the reasons for vandwelling, it IS a viable lifestyle that you CAN make work. I've done it for over a year now and my attitude towards it went from being cautiously optimistic to loving the freedom its given me. I've met dozens of other people either online or in real life who feel the same way. The most liberating aspect, I believe, is learning to just let go of a ton of stress and having a simpler, but no less successful, lifestyle.


Welcome to my blog!

Hey everyone!

After many people pressuring me to do it, I finally set up a blog about my Vandwelling. For those not in the know, Vandwelling is the act of living in your van, either for short terms at a time or using it as your permanent residence. Vandwelling has come a long ways from the days of a beanbag chair and a futon mattress in the back, and can actually be a fairly rewarding lifestyle, if not a unique one.

I want to welcome the folks from Facebook, /o/, CS, Skoolie, and the yahoo Vandwellers group.

I hope to use this blog to not only catalog my travels, but also to give details about Vandwelling in general, from picking a van, to deciding what you need, how to construct it, etc. I'll also post links to some incredibly helpful websites that have been a gold mine!

Until then, watch this space!