Not that Handy: Adventures in Buying a Campervan

a van parked near a body of water


“I don’t think you can do it,” she said. “You’re just not that handy.”

As much as my own internal monologue urged me to disagree, I knew that she was probably right.

“If that’s what you thought then why’d we drive all the way out here to look at the bus?” I asked.

We’d just driven two hours west of our home on the Massachusetts coast to look at a 25 year old, 35 passenger school bus. My girlfriend and I had recently been talking about the idea of converting a bus. Well, actually, I’d been obsessing about the idea of converting a bus, and she’d been reluctantly listening to my fantasies – probably figuring it was easier to nod and agree rather than poke holes in my ideas.

But now we’d actually taken a day trip to see one. We found it hopelessly lodged in the back corner of one of the last existing scrap yards in this part of the country, sunken into the soft summer ground like a lost corner of Stonehenge. It had less than 100,000 miles on it, and to my untrained eye it looked in great shape. Sure, some of the windows had been broken out by local kids and there was a bit of rust. All of this seemed easily fixed and the idea of creating the conversion of our dreams and traveling the country in it seemed too Kesey-esque to be true.

“I didn’t realize until I saw the bus in person how much work it’s going to take,” Rachel, my girlfriend, said. “I don’t think you’d even know where to begin.”

The rest of our drive home was spent in silence.

As we rounded one of the final corners on our way home, a bulky silhouette appeared at the peripheral of my truck’s headlights. It was tough to make out exactly what was parked on the lawn of a neighborhood house but something told me to stop.

“Is that a camper?” I said, overly excited.

“Looks like it,” my girlfriend muttered.

I parked across the busy street from what turned out to be a 90’s camper van and got out to investigate. It was tough to see with only the flashlight of my phone, but what I could see looked like it’d been divinely placed just for us.

“I drive this road everyday on my way to work and this wasn’t here yesterday morning.”

“Did you write the phone number down?” she asked.

“I’m texting them right now,” I replied.

Just like that we’d set up a time to go see the van. With $5,000 or best offer posted on the for sale sign, this seemed like a way better deal than spending $3,500 on a school bus.

Even if it needs a bunch of work it’ll still be way cheaper than doing a whole conversion ourselves, I thought to myself.

We met the seller the next morning. She explained she’d bought the van only to drive her dogs out to Seattle since she was in the process of moving–it was a 1990 Ford Econoline 250, converted by Gulf Stream.

I tried to ask the seller appropriate questions about the van’s condition and its internal workings. She said she’d never used the water system, and had hardly used any of the appliances. Her familiarity with their workings and condition was shoddy at best.

None of this seemed like it required much further investigation than taking her word at face value. After a short test drive, I decided that this was a deal that we couldn’t afford to pass up. Why test any of the systems, lift the doormat in the entry way, or have someone who actually knows what they’re doing take a look.

After bargaining the price down to $4,000 I was ecstatic. And my girlfriend was happier, too.

“Now we’ll be ready to use it by next summer. There’s no way the bus would’ve been done by then,” she bluntly stated.

We drove the van home later that night and I spent too much time admiring it parked in the driveway.

The van sat in our driveway like a monument to our good fortune and ready for its maiden voyage.

When a friend called later that week and invited us to his birthday party in D.C. it seemed the perfect opportunity to take our first trip.

“Can I park my van in your driveway?” I asked.

He chuckled, “What? Sure, I guess.”

After some research I knew the basics of what’d we’d need to travel and self-sufficiently stay overnight: a full water tank, a working water pump, and a flushable toilet.

The night before the trip it seemed smart to start the van and test the water system. I pulled the garden hose over, inserted it into the hole labeled water tank, and turned it on. As it filled, I climbed into the van to investigate. It quickly became apparent that something wasn’t right.

“What the hell is that smell,” I said to myself.

As water continued to enter the tank, air was forced out the detached vent hose that smelled of nothing I had ever smelled before. It was like rotten eggs mixed with formaldehyde. I turned the hose off.

As I looked harder at the somewhat transparent water tank, I realized that it was already full – full of something that definitely wasn’t potable. But with the trip already planned, I decided we’d have to deal with the smell. I then checked the pump and the toilet and both worked well. And the smell was only bad when the water was running – we could certainly deal with that.

Rachel arrived soon after the ordeal was done and I gave her the official synopsis of the issue.

“It’s like there’s some sort of chemical in there. It must have sat in there for a long time. We’ll have to drain the tank.”

As I talked, she lifted the doormat style rug at the entry way to the van. Beneath it a 12” by 12” square of the aqua colored carpet had been cut away, revealing the particle board subflooring beneath.

And I’ll guess we’ll have to redo the floors at some point,” I added.

The next day we proceeded with our trip and it couldn’t have gone better. Sure, the smell was unpleasant. But the freedom to be “home” when traveling was well worth it. When the other party goers piled into the basement to sleep off the drinks, we walked out front and climbed into our van, opened a bottle of wine and relaxed in peace and quiet.

As we drove home the next day, I noticed water dripping from the receptacle at the bottom rear of the van, which I assumed is where the sewage comes out.

The next day, as I drained and attempted to bleach the smell out of the water tank, I noticed the back of our toilet was leaking bleach water onto the blue carpet that surrounds it, turning it brown. There were far more issues to deal with than just smelly water.

We decided that the best course of action would be to take the van to a local camper supply and repair store. I called and explained the problems and they not so assuringly said that they could probably fix them.

The next weekend when we arrived at the store to drop the van we explained to the man behind the counter that, at the very least, we needed the leaking sewage tank and toilet fixed.

“Did you pump it out?” he asked.

“I figured you’d do that,” I answered, confused and increasingly frustrated with all the issues.

“We don’t have a sewage pump out, you’ll have to bring it to the KOA,” he told me. “Our tech will be pretty angry if he goes to replace the valve and that tank is full.”

He supplied us with a hose to attach to the sewer connection and sent us a half hour down the road to the KOA. I fumbled with the hose clamps as my girlfriend watched videos instructing us on the proper way to pump the tanks. I managed to pump both tanks, getting away with a minimal amount of excrement on my hands. As we loaded back into the van, it stuttered a bit when I tried to start it back up. After a few tries, it started up, ominously.

We dropped the van back at the repair store and were told to expect the work to take around a week.

A few days later my phone rang.

“Hi, so we got the toilet and valve fixed, but we can’t get the van started,” said the man working the desk.

“Did you try hitting the gas while turning the key?” I asked.

“Yup, nothing.”

“Okay, I’ll come down tomorrow and check it out,” I said. “How much for the repairs?”

“Six hundred,” he said. Unbelievable.

I arrived the next day at the repair shop and tried myself to start the van–no dice. After calling a local tow company I sat in the bed of my truck and waited the hour they told me it would take for the tow truck to arrive. While I waited, the person performing the repairs approached me.

“How much you pay for that?” he asked.

Around $4,000,” I replied, trying to make it clear I wasn’t looking to chat.

“Oh, you got ripped off,” he said, nonchalantly.

“Really?” I countered, obviously put off by his bluntness.

“Everything works fine. That water tank is probably ruined, and you’ve got some particle board rotting above your fridge. I wouldn’t use the fridge till you fix that. And the van is 26 years old. I wouldn’t have paid a dime over $3,000.” His commentary wasn’t helping my mood. I shrugged it off and sat back in the bed of my truck to wait for the tow truck and the repair tech returned to the camper he was working on.

After more than an hour waiting on the tow truck, he looked up and yelled, “Man, I hope you didn’t buy someone else’s headache.”

The tow truck driver arrived soon afterward.

“Damn, I bet you have a lot of fun in that,” he said.

“Not yet, we just bought her,” I answered, happy to hear something positive. He got in the van to put it in neutral and pull it onto the flatbed.

“It smells like someone’s been having sex in there for weeks,” he exclaimed as he jumped out.

“Yeah, we had some stale water in the tank,” I told him. Not only had they not been able to get the smell out of the tank, but the act of attempting to clean it had caused the whole van to reek with the smell of rotting water. Who knew stale water could smell so bad.

He dropped the van at our local auto repair shop. It turned out the problem was a failing 26 year old starter and it was easy enough to fix.

We spent the rest of the winter researching and fixing the many hidden problems in the van. The rotting particle board above the fridge turned out to be the back half of a countertop which needed to be entirely removed and replaced. A half sheet of hardwood plywood, a sheet of laminate and lots of chipped edges later and we’d built a better replacement.

I was proud of how well the countertop turned out and gained the confidence to take on the rest of the projects myself rather than pay the absurdly high rates for repairs charged by the local camper repair store.

We bought Pergo floors and removed the old, dingy carpeting from the van. Whoever thought it was a good idea to carpet around a toilet probably isn’t in the van conversion business anymore. After quite a bit of scrubbing we were able to get most of the black mold and ammonia smell out of the subfloor beneath it.

inside of the van
Fruits of our labor.

As winter wore on we continued to work on repairs, running the proverbial hamster wheel as we went. As soon as one thing was fixed, the next would break. We replaced the water pump and the sink began leaking at its base. We replaced the water tank and the shower faucet began to drip. We sealed a leaky window just as the window next to it began to leak.

Finally, with spring arriving late in New England, most of the vital repairs were finished. We were ready to get on the road, explore the country, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Learning from our experience in the fall we booked a campground for a night in Vermont, only two hours away from our home. Should anything go wrong, as it most likely would, at least we’d be close enough to limp home.

A few days before the trip I notice the van running hot and word is that there’s a late season nor’easter on its way…