As you’ll have noticed here and here, I’m already operating quite far from my comfort zone as I research and learn about stuff for this campervan conversion project. I don’t know anything about diesel engines. I don’t know much about campervans (I’ve rented them and I like them, that’s it). I’m not a ‘grey nomad’, travelling Australia and using my bodgy, McGuyverish skills to fix an X with a Y.
I mean, I’m not a TOTAL amateur. I’m fairly crafty and useful with my hands: I recently fixed a wobbly toilet, blockmounted a poster for $7 when quoted $80 to do it commercially, and I made my own curtains because to buy them would have cost several hundred bucks and I’d just re-watched ‘Fight Club’ so I couldn’t buy anodyne Ikea shit and still comfortably look myself in the mirror.
In short, I CAN make stuff.
And I do crafty stuff all the time…
But DIYing a campervan conversion was very much NOT in my wheelhouse of skills and knowledge until a few weeks ago. And even just the first stage, buying a diesel van (or any vehicle at all for that matter) felt pretty damn intimidating.
And so. I did what my generation is good at: I got on YouTube and watched a TON of instructional videos about how to buy a van, what to look for, what to ask and what to check. This took several days.
The single most useful research website in Australia, I think, is Carsales. If you look at the site from a computer rather than mobile device, and click on the ‘research’ tab, this brings you to a valuation site linked to redbook in which you can plug in the make, model, and year of any vehicle you’re looking at buying. This will give you a ballpark for what it’s worth, and a sense of what its odometer might read at a given age (and, so, whether yours is high, average, or low). For example:
So I did a LOT of dancing around online. Then, from all this research, I put together a Van checklist with space for writing in the details as I saw each van. This checklist contained all the research I’d done around book values as well as a ‘what to look for’, so I knew what price I should be paying for each model/year/km permutation, assuming the vehicle itself checked out OK. This was to give me ‘but it’s RedBook value is only X’ type leverage against salesmen (which in the end I didn’t use) but it was good to know what I should be paying, more or less, for each van.
This research also helped me dodge a bullet. One of the things I’d been looking at was high roof vans, of which there weren’t many around that met my other criteria (primarily, they were all crazy high mileage and most were pretty old vans). But there was one promising looking van up on the central coast, a high top Vito, a private sale. But it was a 2006 vehicle (so, 11, almost 12, years old), and the guy wanted $23k for it. But I’d done my research, and it just wasn’t worth what he was asking. It seems most people wildly over-estimate the value of their own vehicles. I found this out using the research tool:
This meant that his asking price was obviously ridiculous, as it was DOUBLE the value of the van. I messaged him accordingly, offering to come down somewhere in between what he was asking and what it was worth:
But no dice. Ah well, this saved me a trip to the central coast, at least. It also meant I was back to looking at dealer vans and adding a poptop if all I could get was a low roof.
So I printed this checklist out five times, one for each of the five vans available in Sydney that week that came closest to my wishlist, and I contacted the dealers and arranged to see all of them on a Friday, knowing that I probably wouldn’t get around to all of them, but better to apologise afterwards than try to arrange it all on the hoof. I don’t work Fridays and I wanted to avoid, and get a jump on, the weekend crowds.
And so, armed with a red clipboard, my checklist, my newfound van-buying know-how, and my friend Mikki for moral support, I showed up at the first of five dealerships on a Friday in early October. I also brought along tissues (for wiping oil off dipsticks and grime off hands), a torch (for getting under vehicles and looking for signs of leaks), a measuring tape (to check interior dimensions – this isn’t actually for checking a vehicle’s worthiness, just to check I was getting the right specs from the internet), and a magnet (to stick to any dodgy-looking bodywork to see whether it’s metal or e.g. a fibreglass repair – though I didn’t need this). I also brought along a pen and a spare, because I am nothing if not organised 🙂
I should probably have started with something other than what, on paper, seemed to be the best van, but hey ho, I didn’t. I started at the top. Mikki and I parked my little Honda Jazz around the corner, lest we be judged on the puniness of my existing vehicle, and as we walked to the dealership I realised I had butterflies in my tummy. So nervous. Such a charlatan. So very green.
–oh, hi, yeah, we spoke on the phone. I’m here to see the Renault Trafic?
–ah, yeah, it’s out the front here, let me show you.
And the three of us, Mikki, me, and Fred the dealer squeeze thru a closely-parked phalanx of what would have been, up until a week ago, identical-looking white vans. Now, though, these massed ranks take shape in my head: look, there’s the iLoad, and there’s a Ducato, and that’s a LWB Sprinter, isn’t it enormous? I realise, after so much research, that I’ve become a van viewer, a watcher of vans, maybe even a van connoisseur. I can pick a Hiace from a Mitsubishi at fifty paces, and I know to sneer a bit at the boxy chutzpah of the Transit. I don’t speak this confidence, but it creeps over me as Fred unlocks the Trafic and opens the side door.
I hand Mikki the tape measure and she climbs inside and starts jotting down measurements while I pop the bonnet/hood and start running thru my engine checklist. Fred starts with a bit of sales-speak but we are ignoring him, just running through the checklist, and after a few minutes he wanders away, leaving us to it.
We get into a groove, with Mikki calling out numbers and dent locations while I jot things down, and then I wriggle under the front of the van with the torch while Mikki takes the clipboard. After half an hour, we’re done. With all the visible things listed and noted, I have a couple of questions for Fred. So we go back up to his demountable office-shed, where he’s lounging on a reclining armchair watching a movie. And suddenly I’m sounding all knowledgeable, asking about after-market modifications to the battery setup and the questionable grease in the passenger footwell, noting that there’s an issue with the rear roofrack post. Fred makes the correct sounds about all of these, and then we’re organizing a test drive.
Mikki and I then clamber into the drivers cab and turn out onto Parramatta Road and we’re driving IN A VAN and it feels — easy, actually. The Trafic just feels like driving a biggish car. I rent cars a lot when I travel, so I’m fairly used to driving vehicles I’m not used to (if that makes sense), and this feels just like that. We take it around to a side street where I try reversing and braking hard and other things YouTube has told me to check for. And then we bring it back to Fred and I make him an offer.
I offer the full asking price.
This isn’t because I’m naive, although, who knows, maybe I could have knocked a few hundred bucks off, I don’t know. Instead, this is because the price is fair compared to the book value, and, rather than bargaining over a few hundred bucks, I’d rather bargain for other things that are more valuable to me: a dealer warranty, and for them to fix all the things that I’ve noted are wrong with the van. (These are little things, like part of the driver’s mirror is missing, and one of the reversing lights is out.) I also say I’m going to get an NRMA check on the vehicle, if they’re OK with that? And they are. Anything the NRMA raises, I propose and Fred agrees, the dealership is also going to have fixed for me. This is worth more to me than a few hundred bucks.
And so I put $500 down as a deposit and I book an NRMA inspection from my phone. And the NRMA guy, John, comes and does the inspection the very next morning, then leaves me a voicemail to say that if I have any questions to just call him, but he’s sent thru his report (which he has). And so I call Fred with the list of the small things that need doing (re-gassing the aircon is the big one, but a few other little bits and pieces besides. Basically, though, the NRMA report is good.) And he says, yes, no problem, they will fix all those things for me. And, they do.
And so, the next Friday, I get a bank cheque payable to the dealership and I take the train west to pick up MY VAN. Then I drive it home, stopping at the RMS to transfer the rego and at my local council to pick up a parking permit. And I park it up in my street and I realise: that was SO MUCH easier than I’d thought it would be. It seems I CAN DO THIS.
I feel ridiculously empowered and proud of myself, and, to celebrate and thank her, I buy Mikki breakfast at a fancy cafe in Clovelly.
AND IT SEEMS I JUST BOUGHT A VAN.