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My New Van: Choosing the Right Vehicle
I have known for a long time that I needed to replace my old Ford F150 pickup. There are literally dozens of little things that are wrong with it and I suspect some big ones too. My guess is that getting them all fixed would be thousands of dollars and it just doesn’t make sense to put more money in it. It is a 1993 Ford 4×4 Super-cab F150 pickup with 245,000 miles. I bought it when I lived in Alaska and 4×4 was an absolute necessity. There is so much ice and snow you must have four-wheel-drive. Vans with 4×4 are very expensive and very hard to find so I bought a pickup instead. I wanted to be able to live and travel in it, and I had a very small budget, so I built a camper on the bed and lived in it for 2 ½ years.
Lesson #1: Know When to Get Rid of a Vehicle:
First let me say that it has been a wonderful vehicle!! I bought it with 133,000 miles on it and it was trouble free until 200,000 miles. It was a totally reliable and faithful companion. But, at 199,000 miles, things started to break. They were spaced out enough, and small enough, that I just fixed them one-by-one. So when the transmission went out I thought, “Well, it has been a great vehicle and I’ve fixed everything wrong with it, so I will just rebuild it.” So I spent a bunch of money on a rebuild. Then at 210,000 miles the engine started running really bad and a compression check showed one of the cylinders had lost all compression. What should I do? A rebuilt engine was expensive (I could have bought a decent used van for the price of a new engine) but I had already put so much money into it I hated to lose it all. So I put in a rebuilt engine.
Here it is at 245,000 miles and there is so much wrong with the truck it is not worth anything, so all the money I put into it is money down the toilet. In retrospect, I would have been much better off to walk away from it at 200,000 miles In the business world what I did happens often enough they have a name for it, it is called “Sunk Cost.” It’s like throwing money down the drain and then throwing more money down the drain to try to get that first money back. All the money ends up being lost (for a great explanation, go here: http://www.davemanuel.com/investor-dictionary/sunk-cost/). Getting rid of the truck when the automatic transmission failed would have been the only rational decision, but I made an emotional decision—I really love that truck! That was a very expensive lesson learned the hard way: if the needed repair is more than the worth of the vehicle, walk away from it and get a new vehicle instead.
Lesson #2: Don’t Overload a Vehicle and Then Use it as Your Daily Driver:
Most vandwellers have everything they own in the world inside their van with them. That often makes the van very heavy, maybe even over the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). That’s exactly what happened to me. My home-built camper was heavy and I had all my possessions in it. The result was that it was 1200 pounds over gross. Being overweight caused many problems with the truck. When engineers design a truck, they set a top weight for it and design everything around those weight limits. So the engine, transmission, cooling system, and brakes are designed to work with a set upper limit. Driving it over weight occasionally won’t do any real harm, but when it is constantly driven at 1200 pounds more than that GVWR, things break sooner than they should. The most obvious was that I had to replace the brakes much too often. Because I worked as a campground host in the mountains I drove the truck up and down big hills every day. That wore the brakes out and worked the engine really hard. That kind of abuse greatly contributed to all the money I ended up putting into the truck. My first year as a campground host was in Colorado, which has a very short camping season and pays low wages. After that first summer, I figured out how much I had spent on repairs for the truck and I was amazed to find I had spent more to fix the truck than I had earned.
Finally I realized that it just didn’t make sense to take my house and all my possessions on every trip with me. If I had a trailer I could park it in my campground and never move it again for the whole 5 month season I was at work. So I bought and converted my cargo trailer and did just that. I bought a cargo trailer because it was so light that even my tired old F150 could handle it.
Once I had the trailer ready to live in I took the old camper off the truck, and it was like I could hear it give a sigh of relief. Instead of being 1200 pounds overweight, it was 1200 pounds under the GVWR. Since then the major repairs caused by the abuse have greatly decreased, but the minor problems caused by the constant abuse and old age have dramatically increased. The net affect is I simply had to replace it.
Lesson #3 Buy a Vehicle Rated for the Load it Will Carry:
If I had a ¾ ton or 1 ton truck, most of my problems would have been solved because I would have been under GVWR. It would still be old and worn out, but I would not have thrown so much money away on repairs caused by over-load and abuse.
So when I went looking for a replacement, I was determined to buy a van that would laugh at the load I would be carrying, and not cry under it. I bought an Express 3500 van. That means it is a 1 ton van. It has a towing capacity of 10,000 pounds, and my trailer only weighs 3000 pounds. It has a cargo capacity inside the van of 4000 pounds and I will never carry more than 1000 pounds in it. In other words, when I am fully loaded to pull the trailer to a new camp, my van doesn’t even know the weight is there; it is insignificant compared to its designed capacity.
Lesson #4 It’s Good to Have a Daily Driver that is Different from the Vehicle You Live In.
This lesson is mainly for Boondockers like me, because it is hard to do this when you stealth park in a city. If you set up camp on Public Land, and are going to be there for a while, the best thing you can do is have a second vehicle that gives you better mpg and means you don’t always have to break camp every time you need to run an errand into town. Here are some ways to that:
- Carry a small motorcycle or scooter to use as a daily driver. You can carry it on your bumper or trailer hitch, tow it in a trailer, or even carry it inside the van if it is small enough. Many small bikes can get 80-100 mpg!
- Tow an economy car behind your van or RV. I could easily live inside my 1 ton van and tow an economy car behind it. I would only get 10 mpg in the van while towing, but when I parked it I could drive the economy car and get 35 mpg. Remember, it has a 10,000 pound towing capacity and most economy cars are around 2000 pounds. My van would laugh at that weight! Or I could tow a Jeep (about 4000 pounds) and get decent mpg and have the fun of four wheeling.
- Tow a light trailer behind your van or pickup. This is what I have decided works best for me. I get the extra room and comfort a trailer offers, and it is very easy to tow. That leaves the van empty so I can carry many things that I had to give up when I lived in the tiny camper. The extra room has made my life much more comfortable than it ever was before. It also has another advantage. While I love living in the trailer, I hate towing it. That’s not a problem when I stay camped in one location for long periods of time, which I usually do. But sometimes I get itchy feet and I just want the freedom to roam spontaneously and travel as I see fit. That’s something the trailer is terrible at. So my plan is to leave it in a storage yard and take the van on trips. For example, in the near future I want to drive up to the Canadian Rockies. In a van that would be heaven, but pulling the trailer it would be hell. I see towing the trailer with a van as having the best of both worlds: the spontaneity, freedom and fuel economy of a van for trips and the comfort of a trailer for extended stays.
Lesson #5 Always Take a Used Vehicle to a Mechanic Before you Buy it!
I had a mechanic check out my Ford F150 before I bought it and he said it was in great shape! The fact I got 77,000 trouble free miles out of it convinced me that was the best $80 I ever spent. So before I bought this van I also got it checked out by a mechanic. I hope it is also the best $80 I ever spent.