Top tips for buying a campervan on a budget in the US

You probably have visions of cruising along the California coast in a vintage, pastel VW Campervan - so did we. But with a budget of around US$3,000, we were never going to get that. Instead, we prioritised finding something reliable and reasonable, rather than the model and where we bought it from leading the search. And I would advise you to do the same!

Unless you have US$30,000 plus to spend, say goodbye to your VW dreams

Unless you have US$30,000 plus to spend, say goodbye to your VW dreams

STEP 1: THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOUR TRIP

  • Obtain an IDP (International Drivers Permit) before you leave. This will be useful when buying insurance and at international border crossings.

  • Get the cash out before you leave your home country. ATM’s will not let you take out thousands of dollars, neither will banks that you are not with. By taking the money out at home you can also research the best exchange rate. (We didn’t think about this at the time, and had all our cards blocked as result - nightmare!)

Step 2: Where to find your CAMPERVAN?

Luckily, where to buy our campervan from, was the only thing we knew about the process. We’d rented campervans from Escape Campervans in America and New Zealand over the years and always loved the way they were kitted out and built and never had a major problem with one. When we found out some of the older models were up for sale, this is where the campervan-owner-dream begun.

A few years later we returned to Escape, in Los Angeles, to buy our own campervan. California is a great place to buy your car, as it’s one of the most popular destinations where people begin and end their roadtrip, so there is an abundance of dealerships and mechanics in the big cities; this helps keep costs a little cheaper. Buying an old car in California will also mean the car will have less rust due to the warm climate, so has experienced less wear and tear from the elements.

As you’re starting your search, I’d definitely recommend checking out Escape Campervan’s online listings. Then just before you arrive, book a visit, physically view the stock, take a few for a test drive and go from there.

We’re not anyway affiliated with Escape Campervans, incase you think I keep banging on about them! We just had all good experiences with them, not to mention they sold us a great campervan.

We’re not anyway affiliated with Escape Campervans, incase you think I keep banging on about them! We just had all good experiences with them, not to mention they sold us a great campervan.

What else to consider?

  • Anything that’s under the US$5,000 mark is not going to be perfect, with definite potential for mechanical problems, so buying an American car, preferably a Ford or Chevrolet is best. If you run into problems on the road, "domestic" parts are much more readily available, whereas European and Japanese car parts are harder to come by and may have to be ordered in, halting you to a stand-still for a few days.

  • Whilst buying from a dealership, where the car comes with a warranty is more reassuring, it might only be covered for repairs if you can get the car back to them. Not that useful if you’re in Yellowstone and LA is 1,000 miles away.

  • If you’re buying privately (which is how we ended up selling ours), you can go on CARFAX to check a vehicle’s history for extra peace of mind.

Just for info (and to share our love and joy for a year!), we ended up buying a 1998 Chevy Astro Van, that we named Jelly. She was vintage in her own non-VW way and had racked up over 300,00 miles already (slightly worrying!), but drove with not too many worrying noises. As her new owners, we did long, 500-mile drives some days across all types of terrain. Jelly ran great, all year round, in temperatures as frozen as -35°C in the depths of winter to a sizzling 45°C when driving through the Las Vegas desert.

Jelly the Campervan in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Jelly the Campervan in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

Step 3: Legal Documents

You've found your car - yay! But now there’s a lot of paperwork to complete. You will receive most of the paperwork the day you purchase the car but then you must take these to a DMV office in the state to complete this. The laws vary by state so make sure you look up what is required in your state. There are 4 major things you need before your car is roadworthy:

  1. Title: this is a pink piece of paper that shows ownership of the vehicle. To sell the car, you will need the title As this can take up to 3 months to receive, it may not be possible to sell your car in the 3 months after first buying it.

  2. Registration: this shows the car is legally approved to operate in the state. When purchasing a car, you'll have to register it somewhere (In the states of New York and California, they want a physical address, not a post office box as some people used to use, so bear this in mind). For the first 30 days, you are issued a temporary tag, but within this timeframe you will need to stop at a local DMV office to get the registration transferred to your name, which requires a proof of address in the state.

  3. Inspection: Checks will be required to ensure the car is not stolen and it meets environmental regulations. Roadside assistance is another option and may be piece of mind, but the costs are now quickly adding up.

  4. Insurance: Almost all states require you have at least minimal liability insurance. On a 20-year old car with minimum liability insurance, expect this to cost around US$100 per month. Some companies will require you to pay 12-months upfront and then you will be refunded the difference if you cancel early. Other companies allow you to pay month-by-month. You will also have to pay auto-insurance broker fees which are around $100-$200 one-off charges.

    Beware: Read the small-print of your policy, and find out that it actually covers you for driving. The first policy we were almost sold, only covered the car when it was on the drive at the address!? Totally useless.

*Extra advice: We bought our car in California and used CaReg.com as they offer vehicle registration and titling services online, so it’s not always necessary to go to a DMV office.

Step 4: Selling the CAMPERVAN on

You will need to sell the car when you leave. If you’re visa is close to running out or you have a flight booked, you’re on a limited schedule and may have to sell the car for a huge loss. Or worse case, you can't sell it at all. In Los Angeles, you need to provide the new buyer a smog certificate. The test and certificate costs close to US$50 and takes about 20-30 minutes.

We contacted 10+ used campervan dealerships to see if they were interested in buying it, but no-one was - it was either too old or their asking price was ridiculously low. We bought rainbow chalk markers from Staples for less than US$10 and wrote all over the windows of the car. We also posted a free ad on Craigslist (the oldest looking website ever), uploading it a few days before we arrived in the area to get some viewings booked in. I think we had a combination of good luck, good advertising and buying a vehicle that had good sell-on potential, finding a buyer within 3 days!

I really, really hope her next owners, as well as the many more after that, were treated just as kindly in the best Chevy Van since 1998.

How to sell your campervan in Los Angeles, California, America/USA

Read my article on the pros and cons of of renting and buying a vehicle for your roadtrip here.