Time for a Replacement Van. Struggling...

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VanFan

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My van is 27 years old. It is/was a very high-end low roof conversion van. It's been well maintained, including a number of mechanical upgrades, over the years. We have sometimes thought a little more height, a little more length, and something resembling an actual countertop would be nice. Oh, and let's add a swivel to the passenger seat and an air conditioner to the list. Our simple build has been fine-tuned over time, and it is just about perfect for our needs.

The issue is we have begun to lose confidence in it. No vehicle is free from risk of breaking down (neither are we!), but 27 is pretty darn old in car years. How do you know when "it's time?"

I am really, really struggling with what a good replacement vehicle for us would be. For the purpose of brainstorming, I've thrown out cost considerations. I've looked at all kinds of options, and have come full circle back to a van-based camper. Everything is a compromise. Newer conversion vans have fixed windows, and I don't see a way to add a roof fan. Besides, I hate to pay for all those seats just to tear e'm out. I like the old-style Roadtrek's, but seriously--I don't want to be an RV tech and have little use for many of the amenities. A cargo van can have windows installed, but I know I can't realistically finish the bare walls interior. It looks like outsourcing that (sound deadening, walls, floors) could run around $20k, just to start.

For the money to get a replacement, I could finance an awful lot of layovers and repairs, but there are, of course, other consequences to consider. What to do, what to do (wringing hands).

Thanks for "listening".
 

Overland One

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My van is 27 years old. It is/was a very high-end low roof conversion van. It's been well maintained, including a number of mechanical upgrades, over the years. We have sometimes thought a little more height, a little more length, and something resembling an actual countertop would be nice. Oh, and let's add a swivel to the passenger seat and an air conditioner to the list. Our simple build has been fine-tuned over time, and it is just about perfect for our needs.

The issue is we have begun to lose confidence in it. No vehicle is free from risk of breaking down (neither are we!), but 27 is pretty darn old in car years. How do you know when "it's time?"

I am really, really struggling with what a good replacement vehicle for us would be. For the purpose of brainstorming, I've thrown out cost considerations. I've looked at all kinds of options, and have come full circle back to a van-based camper. Everything is a compromise. Newer conversion vans have fixed windows, and I don't see a way to add a roof fan. Besides, I hate to pay for all those seats just to tear e'm out. I like the old-style Roadtrek's, but seriously--I don't want to be an RV tech and have little use for many of the amenities. A cargo van can have windows installed, but I know I can't realistically finish the bare walls interior. It looks like outsourcing that (sound deadening, walls, floors) could run around $20k, just to start.

For the money to get a replacement, I could finance an awful lot of layovers and repairs, but there are, of course, other consequences to consider. What to do, what to do (wringing hands).

Thanks for "listening".
A lot depends on your situation I think. Like can you do your own mechanical work and do you have the tools? If so, then there is really not much that can go wrong that you can't repair with the exception of (at least in my case) transmission or total engine failure. Make sure you have the factory service manual which you can download online, many times it is free or reasonably priced. I think I paid $16 for my 1998 dodge B1500 manual. In there is everything like wiring schematics, how to service and/or replace everything in the van mechanically and also the maintenance intervals for all the major components. I got my van at a good price with low miles (108K) for the year but, this means it sat a lot and sitting is hard on a vehicle on some of the components like exhaust pipes, cooling system, ac system, brakes and brake lines, etc. replacing/repairing many of these things is what I have been doing for the past 2 months hoping (fingers crossed) to make my van as dependable as possible. I have not really done much on the inside yet but will be installing my solar stuff that has been sitting here for a while very soon. If your van has been well maintained by you and you say it has, then this puts you way ahead of any other used van you might be able to buy as you will have no real idea of what has been done to it and when. Some people keep good records, most do not. When my engine was torn apart up front to do the timing chain (which was supposed to have been done around 80,000 miles) I replaced all the hoses and the belt which were all still serviceable but, I will keep them in the van for emergency use if needed. Same thing with the tensioner and idler pulleys and bearings. I did this as I had no idea when they had been replaced before or even IF they had been replaced. My fuel gauge never worked so I ordered an OEM fuel pump but later I discovered 2 broken wires underneath coming from the tank so I repaired those and now the gauge is fine but I will keep that new fuel pump with me and if the old one goes out, I can put in the new one wherever I am. Tires have brand new looking tread but are dry rotted in places but I will have to replace those after I am no longer paying rent. My point is that even if you stuck in a new/rebuilt transmission and/or a rebuilt engine, you would still be paying less than you could find a similar van in unknown condition that you would have to sink money into to make dependable. Things like wheel bearings and other odds and ends would need to be replaced according to the schedule or when they start to show signs of failure. Totally up to you of course but if it were me, I would stick with what I know instead of jumping into something with many unknowns. I have known people who have bought brand new vans that have had some serious issues on the road with them so, nothing is 100% guaranteed. Maybe if you shop around long enough you will find a "one in a million" van with low miles that has been maintained well with good documentation. then I think it might make sense to make the change. Only you can determine that. I wish you the best of luck in your decision making and I know this is not an easy one to make. Safe travels.
 

bullfrog !

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It sounds like you don’t want to or have all the skills to build out something new and don’t want to have to deal with the inevitable breakdowns and repairs on what you have that is old and about worn out. I would also venture to guess you don’t want to spend what it will cost to have someone else do it for you. My old age has caused me to have the same problems. A new high top van doesn’t “have” to be built out to work if you simplify. Just enjoy it and hit up some of the YouTube van builds if you run into something you can’t handle. Old vans will always have something about to break and if you don’t have the ability or desire to deal with it don’t do it. My wife and I grew out of vans years ago as our 3 kids got older. A van’s main advantage for us was size and carrying capacity without having to tow something. Towing a small camper/converted cargo trailer is a bother but it gives you head room, holding tanks that allow you to stay in Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA). And allows you to use the tow vehicle unloaded and unhitched as well as possibly haul a second means of transportation (UTV/ATV in the truck bed or small toy hauler camping/cargo trailer) all without overloading your primary means of transportation once you get to a destination. I can’t afford a new truck large enough to tow a toy hauler/cargo camper trailer or the new UTV to go inside it which all toll would be probably well over $100,000 at the cheapest and closer to $200,000 on the top end. What I could afford was to slowly get a 1987 Suburban rebuilt, build a 12’ camper and mount it on a home built 24’ flatbed trailer and still have room for my Suzuki Samurai which I restored. Lots of disappointments along the way with mechanics and quality of parts, but for less than $50,000 ($5,000 a year invested for the 10 years it has taken me to about get it done) I have something I believe will work for me till I’m done traveling. Keeping your old van on the road, having a good emergency fund and saving until you have saved enough money to buy new what you want or not if you are satisfied with what you have is what I would do. Life on the road is an adventure which involves lots of problem solving, keeping an old van going with a large emergency fund and lots of time or getting a new van you have to learn to live simply with is just part of it.
 

afblangley

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Newer conversion vans have fixed windows, and I don't see a way to add a roof fan. Besides, I hate to pay for all those seats just to tear e'm out. I like the old-style Roadtrek's, but seriously--I don't want to be an RV tech and have little use for many of the amenities. A cargo van can have windows installed, but I know I can't realistically finish the bare walls interior. It looks like outsourcing that (sound deadening, walls, floors) could run around $20k, just to start.

For the money to get a replacement, I could finance an awful lot of layovers and repairs, but there are, of course, other consequences to consider. What to do, what to do (wringing hands).

In a passenger van, the manufacturer has done some of the heavy lifting. They've installed the walls, flooring, windows, and HVAC. The result is better and cheaper than most of us could do or have outsourced. It's unequivocally easier to do a buildout starting from a passenger van.

Factory installed seating is a good thing. Removing undesired seats takes only a few minutes. And there's the flexibility to reinstall on an ad hoc basis. Or, if definitely never needed, sold for a not insignificant sum of money; Sprinter seats are worth about $2k. In my van, I removed all the seats, but covered the second row seat anchors in a way that makes them easily accessible when needed.

I knew that I wanted a van with simple/replaceable systems. I didn't want anything that I didn't know how to fix, and I don't know how to fix anything. While money wasn't a constraint, both time and skill (whether my own or outsourced) were.

Since I started with a passenger van, it looked professional right off the bat. There were phone holders, USB and cigarette ports throughout the cabin. The ducted heating and air requires the engine to be running and most of the windows are non opening. While not ideal, they are better than nothing. And it doesn't prevent further augmentation. I installed a diesel heater to maintain a comfortable temperature when the van is parked. There's nothing preventing me from installing a Maxx Air fan, except my reticence to create a massive hole in the roof.

I'm not a fan of the wood cabin aesthetics or fabric lined interiors seen in many DIY or custom builds. I like the look of the OEM plastic cladding on the walls surrounding the windows. They have a minimal insulating effect, preventing contact with cold or hot pbare metal walls. I believe there is some sound deadening material behind them, but I haven't checked. If I ever have cause to remove a panel, I'll stuff Thinsulate in before reinstalling the panel. The factory walls works well enough that I won't make changes until provoked.

Even with a $3k power station and $1k in window coverings, I have nowhere near $20k in my build. I can't imagine coming close to that, thanks in part to using a passenger vehicle as the foundation. The only advantage of starting with a cargo variant is when your desired options (like dual alternator or driver's side sliding door) necessitate custom ordering from the factory. FYI, the cargo variant of the Sprinter and Transit can be ordered with passenger panels and no seats. RAM does not make a passenger variant of the Promaster.

For me, having an unreliable vehicle is worse than having no vehicle at all. I make plans and depend on my vehicle to get me where I need to be, when I need to be. Right now I'm sitting around unable to do what I want to be doing because my vehicle is in the shop. Being fiscally responsible is important to me, and so is having a vehicle that doesn't cause problems or inconvenience.
 

tx2sturgis

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For the purpose of brainstorming, I've thrown out cost considerations. I've looked at all kinds of options, and have come full circle back to a van-based camper. Everything is a compromise.

Since you want to stay somewhat close to what you have, I suggest you look at converting a cutaway-cube van, often called box vans. You will have nice straight walls to work with, you can DIY what you are able to, outsource other jobs, and there is plenty of room depending on the size of the box.

Since you ruled out 'cost considerations' you might want to look at a new (or newish) box van that can be (eventually) registered as a motorhome or private vehicle in your state.

Some ideas:
 

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Happy Camper

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The main thing I read in your post is this. You know what you like about your current van. And you've made the adjustments and upgrades that work for you. And you feel it's a pretty simplified build overall.

That means you can find something that has your base requirements, and do what needs to be done from there.

You mentioned it started life as a high end conversation van. What parts of that are still used and what has been removed or replaced with something better?

You also stated that you need or prefer the interior walls to be finished. If you buy a passenger van, it will have finished inside walls. But will it be the material or setup you like? You might need to improve on what's there. But that's easier than making it yourself from scratch.

I was going to itemize things further, but I do have a question to ask first.
Do you love your current setup?
Outside of the age of the van, would you change anything else on it?

If you feel like you'd really love to keep your current van, you can allocate funds to refreshing it. You did mention making some mechanical upgrades, so there's also those things you'll want to take into consideration.

You can replace and refresh entire sections of the mechanicals over time. Just break it up into sections.
Refresh or replace:
Front suspension
Cooling system
Engine
Transmission
Axles
Etc

All told it would come out to less then buying a new van and building out.

If you had the option of buying a new van and building it out, or buying your current van in new or almost new shape as it's built currently, what would you buy?
 

rruff

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The issue is we have begun to lose confidence in it. No vehicle is free from risk of breaking down (neither are we!), but 27 is pretty darn old in car years. How do you know when "it's time?"
Seems the point that needs resolving is... what do you have exactly, and what is the mileage and condition? Is it giving you signs that it's about to need expensive repairs? One nice thing about old vehicles is that fixing them is usually cheaper and easier.

First step I think would be to find a good mechanic you can trust, and pay him to do a thorough check to see if he'd deem it reliable. If he says it's on the verge of disaster, then get a 2nd opinion... ;) If they agree then you need to spend money, and if not... don't worry, be happy, keep chugging along! :p
:D
 

VanFan

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Once again, all of you have been generous with your understanding and suggestions!

When I bought the van, I did some work on it myself. I do have a complete set of shop manuals along with a Chilton's for photos. At the time, I weighed under 100 pounds (yep... been awhile, LOL), and found a torque wrench to be very empowering. I no longer have any inclination toward fixing it myself. Fortunately, I do have a reliable mechanic and we do our best to keep ahead of problems.

Many items have been replaced and/or upgraded. The front end would probably be next on the list. The few breakdowns we've had have been mainly "little" things, but show-stoppers nonetheless. (As someone pointed out, a non-running vehicle can sometimes be worse than no vehicle.) Parts and service are readily available, and most repairs are not all that outrageous, but some things in a really old van are just hard to deal with (electrical issues come to mind). Updated safety features would be nice, too.

I would transfer my build components to a newer passenger van if only the windows could be opened! That's something I just cannot compromise on, which means either a converted cargo van (with T windows) or a purpose-built Class B. Before reading replies here, I had no idea the self-build van trend had evolved so much! There are now kits available for finishing out walls and floors, which would help a lot, but it's still more than I can reasonably do. I do see a few custom van builders out there that I might be able to work with, but am finding there are (of course) issues with both Promasters and Transits.

We definitely don't want to tow. The box truck is intriguing, and something I had not really considered before, but too big for us.
As much as I agree that RV's are largely over-priced, disposable units, I've always had an attraction to Roadtreks on the Chevy 3500 and, somewhat against my better judgment, have not ruled that out. (Buying an older, domestic van with what little money I had was against my better judgment in 2007, but it has given us both unimaginable joy!)

You've opened my eyes to a number of questions and answers not really thought through before. There is a lot to consider. In some respects, the same questions are surrounding our primary residence: we have a nice enough house that is cheap to live in and maintain, but are feeling it's time to move on. Many options are expensive (more for less, and usually way more than we want or need) and every place is a compromise. Stage of life?
 

rruff

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Stage of life?
You don't say how old you are, but ya... dealing with this stuff gets progressively more annoying with time! If you wait too long, it'll be hard to find the motivation for any big projects. There really isn't an easy answer.
 

afblangley

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I would transfer my build components to a newer passenger van if only the windows could be opened! That's something I just cannot compromise on, which means either a converted cargo van (with T windows) or a purpose-built Class B.
OEM windows can be removed and replaced with aftermarket windows. It's not cheap (if you're paying someone to do the labor) but it is possible.
 

VanFan

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OEM windows can be removed and replaced with aftermarket windows. It's not cheap (if you're paying someone to do the labor) but it is possible.
I haven't done an exhaustive search, but some of the aftermarket windows specified that they can not be used to replace factory installed windows. (It would be a nice option to consider, so I will look further.)
 

Overland One

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None of my large side windows on my conversion van open. These look like they have a slide window on the bottom, but they do not. Just for fun I looked around to find possible replacement windows that fit and had the bottom sliding opening window and I found one that would fit, but just one window was like $450 just for the window. I decided my 3 large windows are fine as they are, ha ha. At least I have the 4 pop outs and the two windows up front that open.
 

RoamerRV428

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this stage of life? I hear ya on that one :) If you are more interested in a Class B and you found one you do like, it could easily be a step forward for you. Key to me on the whole thing is what is your future time on the road? If you are sparingly out there and driving on trips is way more limited and you don't want a ton of time using your vehicle out there, etc, I would just keep replacing mechanical work needed on the old van and take my chances. If you are 'really wanted out on the road' and NOW require safety/less chance of breakdown of that issue I would go new 'already done' like the Class B and call it a day. But of course you are you and your personal preferences on how to move forward but time on the road and safety/good condition vehicle would be my top priority.
 

maki2

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You don't say how old you are, but ya... dealing with this stuff gets progressively more annoying with time! If you wait too long, it'll be hard to find the motivation for any big projects. There really isn't an easy answer.
Fortunately getting older often brings an increase in patience with doing task. The motivation thing is entirely personal and not based on age range. But one thing that can happen at any age is a change in goals and feelings about how much is enough. Also a young adult is equally as capable of feeling demotivated as a person in their late senior years. In fact a frequent complaint of parents with teens is that their child is lacking in motivation. Many of the persons who are full time did not begin their renovation projects until after retiring at 65 so age is also not related to that.

You will just do what interest you or what you feel you must do or can do given your personal circumstances. There is no wrong time or right time other than what works for you as an individual.
 

Happy Camper

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Regarding the windows, I think it's just a matter of what can you want to buy. You can find aftermarket windows for just about any model.

Can you post a pic or two of your windows so we know what you're looking for?

This is a generic RV/Van slider window.

Here is a smaller universal.

You can Google "conversion van side windows with vent" and get a good idea of what the options are. These are closer to the older big window with the small screened vent slider on the bottom that mine had.

If you had to pay $3k (give or take, random number) for the windows and installation, just budget it when looking at replacement vans.

Ultimately it just comes down to keeping things simple. If you know you're going to spend that money, then it's not in addition to the purchase price, it's already factored in.
 

LargeMarge

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a) re -- factory RecreateVehicle windows
[cough, tilts head to look over the top of my glasses, one eye-brow arched]
.
If I was me, I would fabricate a metal panel to fit the space, then cut it to install a small dual-pane slider designed for a stand-still house.
These come with a screen.
.
.
b) We owned several vans similar to a Roadtrek, including an ancient Winnebago MinnieWinnie wide-body with a pop-top.
Heading for remote mountain lakes or Baja beaches, we are hard on equipment.
SCUBA gear is gently placed in cushioned comfort, then rattled off the walls on the way to the next spot.
Vehicles come and go.
.
I turn 71 in a few weeks, so hunched while getting dressed is a toughy.
(Getting un-dressed in a hurry -- I have plenty of practice doing that...)
Accordingly, for full-time live-aboard, we went with a delivery truck with extra headroom for extreme insulation.
Part of our insulation package is acoustic, although admittedly, that reduces our ability to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.
 
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Headache

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I completely understand your concerns. My van is 31 years old and I'm about to turn 180k miles on it. I just keep fixing things and eventually it'll all be newer. Then I'm giving it to my uncle so he can continue his long awaited van living.
 

Overland One

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If by chance you can see a bug screen in that bottom section, then they do have either a sliding or a pop-out panel.
Nope, no screen or any track for a slider. I checked very carefully as I was surprised they had no way to open as they look just like the ones that do open. They have that cross bar running horizontally about 3/4 of the way down the window near the bottom but, evidently, that is just some sort of trim piece. I admit I have not tried to pop anything out and had not thought of that but there are no levers or releases or anything that resembles my other "standard" van window pop outs. No gasket material around that area either. I will go look again to triple check as that would be awesome but I just think they stuck that trim piece on the glass of the window to make it appear like an opening one.
 
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