Updated: Jan 21, 2020
With so many different van options out there, I'll explain my thought process for choosing the right van for myself. While your needs may be different than mine, I hope this helps get you started on your search.
When the search first began for me I considered what was the most important to me and I came to the conclusion that budget and reliability would be my guiding criteria.
I'm a bit of a obsessive budgeter. As an auditor I love finances and spreadsheets. I always keep 12 months of a weekly budget so I can see my cash flow throughout the year. I evaluated my reoccurring expenses and which expenses would continue with me into van life at a part time salary. After running my numbers, estimating costs on the road I decided that I could afford about $400/month for a van payment (60 month terms). Even with that in mind, I still wanted to spend no more than $30,000 on a vehicle (after taxes).
By no means am I a handy girl. I was spoiled with a dad that could fix almost anything. So I knew that being on the road by myself, I needed something that I wouldn't have to worry about breaking down on me. With that being said, I knew I was going to want a newer model, with lower mileage. Of course, I could get AAA but you don't have cell service everywhere so the more reliable, the better for me.
Choosing My Van
And so the hunt began. I started online with auto trader by simply putting in the factors that were important to me - less than $30k, mileage under 50K, and no more than 5 years old. And a overwhelming majority of the vans that popped up were Ford Transits. The second most popular were the ProMaster vans. Personally, I just liked the look of the Ford Transits better and I've owned Ford vehicles before and because of that, I felt a sense of comfort around Ford. Mercedes Sprinter vans didn't match my criteria so that was easy to push out of the equation. I decided to move forward with the Ford Transit vans.
After deciding to go with a Ford Transit, I needed to decide on the style of the van - roof height, wheel base and model. Since I live in Indiana, van life is not common so I couldn't rely on checking out finished vans to help make my decision. If you are considering van life, I highly recommend going to a gathering/meetup to check out finished vans. Without that option available to me, I chose to
go straight to the dealership to check out all of the Ford Transit options. Before going I had already decided that I did not want a low roof or small wheelbase. Therefore, I would be trying to narrow down the length and height of the remaining options. After walking though the long wheelbase (148") and the extended wheelbase (170"), I made the decision that the long wheelbase (LWB) was the perfect length for me. The extended was too much room for just one person and a bit intimidating to consider driving that. So now that I knew the LWB was my length I needed to decide on a height. I'm 5'7" so I can comfortable stand up in the medium and high top vans. Understanding that I would most likely sacrifice on upper cabinets for storage if I went with the medium roof, I knew that it was a viable option for me if the price and mileage were right. However, the dream van was a high top LWB Ford Transit.
Now that I know which van I'm aiming for I hopped online and began to really search for my dream van - a LWB High Roof Ford Transit under 50k miles for no more than $30K. If you've done any searching of your own, you know that's a tall order and quickly I began to realize I would have better luck finding a LWB Medium Roof within those constraints. After a few failed negotiations I finally purchased a 2017 Ford Transit Medium Roof LWB in Akron, Ohio which was about a 6 hour drive from Indianapolis for $27,000 after taxes and fees. I was able to put about $4,000 down on the van. So after financing my van payment was about $400/month (I round up and pay a bit more).
Obviously, everyone has different criteria for finding their perfect home on wheels. Figure out what is the most important to you to help narrow down your search. Good luck!