Cargo van buying guide

Ford E Series vans are amazing assets and can be purchased used very affordably. We got our first van on craigslist in 2011 for $1500. Vans that we purchased 5 years ago for less than $4k are still going strong today. We now spend around $5,000 to $7,500 to get a presentable and very reliable van. Do whatever fits your budget but no need to lease a new one or buy one for $10k plus no matter what.

These can be used for all types of service businesses. They are much more affordable than pickup trucks and the contents of the van is more secure and safe from sun and rain.

The cheapest place to buy vans is Chicago. The problem with this is they are rusted out from the salt. Look for southern vans in Atlanta or Phoenix. Travel if necessary to get a good deal. Southern vans are usually in much better condition.

Extended vans are moderately more expensive but haul 25% more stuff. Buy one of these if you can. The E350s have V8 Tritons and can haul large box or open trailers (they get 10 MPG while E150s can get 15+). They have just as much power as a big pickup truck for hauling. Diesels are more expensive and harder to find but last longer and get better mileage.

This is our rough checklist of things to keep look for when buying a used van.

Questions for the owner before you visit:

  • When did you buy the van and who did you get it from?
  • What did you use the van for? Heavy loads wear out brakes, transmissions, engines and the suspension.
  • Have you done any work or maintenance to the van?
  • Did you get any problems at all with the van?
  • How are the brakes, have you gotten them worked on?
  • Have you had any engine, transmission or other work done?
  • Have you had any starter, radiator, alternator problems?
  • I’m thinking more like ($500-1000 under blue book). Would you take that price in cash? You are setting a baseline here gauging a price you know they would take. You can use things you find in the inspection to further negotiate and find their true bottom number.

What to bring with you:

  • Roll of paper towels
  • A bright flash light for visual inspection
  • A piece of white paper
  • A small hand held code reader ($40 on Amazon) like the Innova 3020 Diagnostic Code Reader
  • Another person to follow you when you drive and drive your vehicle home if you purchase it

The Code Reader:

Just plug it in, turn the key to the on position and wait for it to beep at you. It gives an easy to read green/yellow/red led light. If its green, no problems have been found. You’re good to go. If its yellow, look to see which emission monitors have not run. The instructions will tell you which black circle in the upper left side of the screen is blinking. Be wary, there may be a lurking problem such as bad catalytic converters or oxygen sensors. If its red, diagnostic codes are present, may or not be a big deal. Google the codes that pop up and see what you find.

The visual inspection:

  • Check all the windows for cracks. Especially front window.
  • Pop hood. Take a close look at all the belts and hoses on and around the motor. Look for wear and tear and for loose belts and dry rotted tubes.
  • Get under vehicle and inspect engine and transmission. Check bottom of engine for fluids. Look underneath engine area at the oil drip pan and bottom of the engine. Make sure there is no oil or fluids leaking or a dark colored sticky looking oil pan. Put your finger on the oil bolt and feel around.
  • Look all down the exhaust pipes. Make sure these aren’t rusty or brittle. Touch and feel around on this before you drive it because it will get hot when you drive it and you wont be able to mess with it.
  • Look at the shocks on each wheel and check the rods for rust around the axles. Some rust is normal but you want it to look pretty good. Get on back bumper and jump up and down to test the shocks. Make sure they are strong and don’t bottom out.
  • Check the tires and make sure they aren’t dry rotted with little bitty cracks all around the side wall and tread.
  • Check Ball joints. Its not possible to fully diagnose this without a jack but check front tires and make sure they are completely straight and don’t wobble at all when you kick them or push on them. A ball joint is what keeps the tires straight up and down.
  • Make sure all the doors lock and unlock including the rear doors.
  • Make sure all the windows roll up and down.
  • Make sure the front and rear wiper blades are working.
  • Check all of the front, rear and side (if equipped) lights are working, high beams, low beams, fog lights, turn signals, brake and reverse lights.

Checking fluids:

  • Check oil. Wipe the engine oil dipstick on a piece of white paper. Look at the color it should be a light brown. Dark brown indicates its probably due for a service soon. Look for silver-ish streaks or metal (metal in oil looks like glitter, it’s very sparkly). Indicates an internal bearing failure. Black color is bad. Means the oil is well past its service life and indicates a general lack of maintenance. Be very wary. An engine replacement or rebuild will run $3000+.
  • Make sure the coolant level is full and the overflow bottle is full too. It should not be clear. Clear means its largely water. Only water will rust out engine components and radiators. The exact coolant color will differ depending on the vehicle. Chrysler coolants can be orange or purple, GM is usually orange, BMW is blue, ETC. Doing a quick google search can probably tell you what color it should be. A radiator replacement will run $750+.

Start up the van and listen to the start. It should be strong and clean without knocks or noises. You should not hear any abnormal sounds. Abnormal sounds include, knocking, tapping, clicking, ETC. all of which indicate differing degrees of problems. Note, some engines may make excessive noise at initial start-up but quiet down after a minute or two. This is normal. If the noise is still heard after the engine has idled for a few minutes there is an internal problem. As long as no abnormal sounds are heard, its time to check the transmission fluid.

  • To check transmission fluid pull the dipstick out. Usually printed on the dipstick are instructions on how to check the fluid level. I.E. it may say “check with engine idling in neutral gear”. Wipe the dipstick on your piece of white paper. Look for a bright red/pink color. Again do a quick google search to see what color it should be. Most vehicles have a red/pink color. Dark red is ok. Again look for silver/gold streaks and signs of metal.  Brown indicates fluid is due for service. Black is very bad. Usually means the transmission has been overheated and will most likely need a rebuild. This is several thousands of dollars! Make sure this fluid doesn’t smell burnt.

A transmission rebuild or replacement is going to cost around $3000+.

The test drive:

Put your foot on the brake and shift the van all the way through all of the gears. Do this with the center console taken out of the van so you can see the transmission. Listen closely to it as you shift. It should not make any loud noises. It should shift smoothly.

The brake pedal should feel firm. If it drops all the way to the floor with little effort or is hard as a rock, there’s a problem and I don’t recommend driving it. 

Drive the way you normally drive and see how the vehicle responds. Try to drive over bumps to see if it makes noise over bumps. Also drive around in circles to test the steering effort. At slow speeds turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. Should be smooth and easy.

Drive the van and while at about 20 mph shift it from drive to overdrive to 2 to 1. Listen closely to the transmission and how it reacts.

Have the person behind you following look for different colors of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. White is normal when it’s cold until the vehicle warms up. Blue, black, white (after warm-up) all indicate internal problems with the engine.

Test the brakes with strong stops and long slow brakes. A pulse or a wobble means the pads or rotors are out of sync and likely need service. Sometimes it only pulses or wobbles at greater speeds. Squeaks aren’t good but can sometimes signify dust on the rotors. Most likely it means you have metal on metal which means the pads are toast. A full brake job on a cargo van with pads and rotors is going to run $1,000+.

An easy (but not perfect) way to check strut wear: Get the van up to 15 mph then hit the breaks hard. The nose should go down then return to level. If it goes down, then up then down again to level the struts are worn and likely need replacing. Same works in reverse.

Get the van up to at least 55 MPH on a local highway. Accelerate quickly and slowly and feel for wobbles or noises while driving full speed.

Don’t forget to turn on the air conditioning (if equipped) and the heater. Make sure it gets hot and cold. Also should work in all positions (forward vents, floor, defroster, ETC).

When you get back to the lot shut down the engine for a few minutes. Do the fluid inspection under the truck once again.

Make sure the title is clean and run the VIN number online.

Should you find any issues, have it professionally inspected or simply walk away. Especially walk away if they do not agree to have it professionally inspected.

Negotiate hard and offer an all cash price. Use cosmetic blemishes to negotiate discounts. Use other concerns that came up during this inspection to find their lowest number.

Call your insurance company and get it added before you drive away.

Touch up:

If you shop in the $3k and under range or even higher in the North you will have some rust to deal with. Get white spray paint and black spray paint along with some sand paper and primer.

Sand the rust off the bumper and primer it and paint it black. Sand the rust if possible on the body and do the same with white paint.

Remember that a nice vehicle decal is a great investment so don’t be afraid to spend a few hundred bucks to get your logo real nice and big put on the side in vinyl. If you get a nice used van you think you will have for a while spend $1500 or so and get it fully wrapped.

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About Me

I started the Sweaty Startup in December of 2018 because I believe the Shark Tank and Tech Crunch culture is ruining the real spirit of low-risk entrepreneurship.