Why Did We Choose a Sprinter for Our Van Conversion?

Choosing a van is the first tangible step to building your own home on wheels. Cue the weeks or months of craigslist ad stalking and used van dealership searching!

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Hint: Your van won’t cost $10

What factors were important to us?

  • High top
    • We’re not tall people, I’m 5’2″ and Dom is 5’8″, but we wanted to be able to comfortable stand in the van after losing a few inches of room with the furring strips, paneled ceiling and finished floor.
  • Price
    • Used Sprinter cargo vans are all over the US market and can be found from $8k-28k (depending on year, condition, mileage). But they are considered to be on the pricier end of van options.

Everything is basically sold for a premium in California, especially the Bay Area. So buying a vehicle here is more expensive, but it also retains more value if you resell in the same area. We could’ve flown to Kansas or somewhere to buy a Sprinter for cheaper and drive it back, but we didn’t have the time to do that.

  • Reliable
    • Based on other people’s reviews/recommendations, Sprinters are well-engineered vehicles and last for years and years.
    • Note: People seem to have more complaints about the models after 2007, related to the changes in the exhaust system to comply to federal regulations.
  • Lifetime value
    • Sprinters (diesel) have an advertised life of up to 500k miles, so we were looking for one in the 100-200k range.

About our van

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  • Dodge Sprinter 2009 model, cargo van
  • High top, 144″ wheelbase, RWD
  • 150k miles, 1 previous owner
  • $16.3k ($17.9k with taxes and dealership fees)
  • Great condition – new tires, new brake pads, no exterior rust, well maintained. There’s a dent in one of the rear doors, but we decided to leave it there because Dom says, “it’ll deter people from driving too close to us”!
  • Purchased near Los Angeles, driven back to San Francisco

Finding “the one”

I was searching for a van for about 3 months. And…it was disheartening to say the least. It was hard enough finding ones with a high top and 144″ wheelbase, but most had too many miles, or required major repairs. That, or the ads posted on websites were so outdated the van was long sold. My radius was mostly in California or Southern Oregon.

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We inspected a few in-person, with the private sellers. However, I am glad we ultimately decided to buy through a dealership. They handle all the title transfer and DMV paperwork. Additionally, the dealership we used in LA (FamVans), helped put our minds at ease. They dropped the van off for a pre-purchase inspection (by a third party shop), and when some fixes were identified, the dealership fixed them without changing the total price (although they made a mistake we later had to pay for). After another check to confirm the fixes, we flew down to LA and completed the purchase.

What were our other options?

As beautiful as the Volkswagen bus is, it is just not practical, and too expensive. The only vans we seriously considered were:

  1. Dodge or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter (the winner)
  2. Ford Transit
  3. Dodge Promaster

Dodge or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

A Dodge Sprinter is the same vehicle as a Mercedes Sprinter, just branded differently due to a manufacturing agreement between the two companies.

Ford Transit

  • Reliable – well reviewed
  • Easy to repair – mechanic shops that can work on a Ford are everywhere in the US, where we are based
  • Customizations – lots of choices for roof heights, body lengths, engine types. The medium roof has an interior height of 6 feet, and high roof has 6.8 feet.
  • Gas engine option – easier to repair gas engines than diesel, and gas refill stations are everywhere, vs not all stations have diesel. However, gas engines typically last somewhere in the 100-150k range.
  • Price*
    • Ford Transit (full-sized cargo vans) have only been sold in the US since 2015. So there are not a lot of options for buying one used. What I was able to find were mostly vans with gas engines, with 80-100k miles on them, selling for $24k-28k (in California). It likely would’ve only lasted another 50k miles or so, and the price did not seem worth it. Comparatively, they are all over the UK and Europe and much cheaper to buy there.

We would’ve probably chosen a Ford Transit if it were not for the price.

Dodge Promaster

  • Good shape – Sounds like an odd thing to consider, but the Promaster is basically a big square, making it easy to do insulation, and wall/ceiling paneling. Comparatively, the Sprinter has curved walls, and weird shapes crevices that are hard to insulate entirely.
  • Price – Used Promasters are cheaper than used Sprinters
  • FWD – Useful for certain terrains and in the winter (but we likely won’t van travel to snowy places)

The thing about Promaster that really put me off was how badly reviewed it was. Tons of people seemed to have problems with it breaking down often, which would make repair expensive. In the end, we decided we would rather take the chance with expensive repairs, than frequent repairs.

Current Opinion

Few points of reflection/feedback:

  • Van length
    • SO glad we got the 144″ WB, and not the 170″ (extended) version. While traveling, especially through cities, parking has been much easier because our van fits in a standard spot.
  • Certified mechanics and shops are hard to come by*
    • We were struggling up hills and the van would basically go limp if it was steep enough. Then the check engine light come on, so I called probably 25 shops that said they either:
      • 1. Don’t have a shop with a high enough ceiling to work on the Sprinter
      • 2. Don’t keep Sprinter parts in stock
      • 3. Won’t work on a diesel vehicle
      • 4. Won’t work on a Mercedes built vehicle (or don’t know how)
      • 5. Won’t work on a vehicle with a check engine light (Not sure why – maybe they didn’t want the blame if they couldn’t fix it??)
      • 6. Only had appointments 2 weeks out (impossible for us since we were moving through states fairly quickly)
    • We were probably partly to blame, since we tried calling normal mechanic shops. From now on, won’t waste our time and go straight to Mercedes-Benz certified shops. Luckily, Firestone read the diagnostic code for free, and said it was related to a code P0299 – turbobooster/boost sensor, which essentially confirmed the issue we were seeing with going up hills. It wasn’t urgent to have fixed so we drove a few weeks with it until we found a shop with an opening in Massachusetts, which brings us to the next point.

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  • Repairs are expensive
    • Oil change & top off of fluids (@ 10k miles service interval)  = $300
    • DPF clamp & bolts = $300
      • While slowing down or idling, our van was also making a loud rattling noise. The mechanics said they were not properly secured last time someone worked on it (the dealership we bought it from).
    • Inspection & Boost sensor replacement = $325
      • At least we can make it up hills now
  • Do small repairs yourself
    • So far, we’ve replaced the wind shield wipers and the front lights with parts from Walmart / Flying J’s, and saved some money there.

Prior to purchasing, we were aware Mercedes repairs would be much more expensive to fix. It was listed as a major disadvantage for Sprinters, but we decided to take our chances, and fingers crossed we don’t run into problems even pricier to fix!

Overall, we’re happy with our choice, and our van (Bernie) has traveled 15,000 miles so far. Here’s to many more!

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