Dan B got lucky—his obsession with campers began long before vintage vans became a trendy lifestyle purchase a few years ago. Back in the ‘90s, he traveled to snowboarding competitions in his friends’ VW campers, before buying a 1966 VW Westfalia of his own. He has since owned two more vans from North America, and one he bought online from Vienna, Austria. Dan looked to Europe for his latest van because supply is greater, and demand isn’t driving the price up.
“The market has gone crazy in the States, and the demand for vans has skyrocketed,” says Dan, who credits social media for their increase in popularity. “If you look on Instagram, there’s an infinite number of people traveling in vans, which is encouraging people who have always wanted one—and are in a place in life to afford one—to buy them.”
Dan says the combination of these people, and the community of enthusiasts who have been buying vans for decades, has created more demand for them than ever, so he’s taken to looking further afield for affordable campers.
“If you go back 15 years, these campers would cost you around $10-15,000,” says Dan. These days people can spend anywhere from $25,000 for a reasonable van, to $60,000 for top-of-the-line. “I can’t afford that,” says Dan. “That’s why I looked to Europe to buy my new van. There is greater availability, and a culture of keeping vans alive and working well. After all these years, I know what I want, so I’ll go to extraordinary lengths to get it, and will take on a bit of risk along the way.”
If you’re looking to buy your own vintage camper, Dan says it’s important to have one thing saved up: patience.
“I spent a few months obsessively searching several European websites, trying to find the perfect van,” he says. “I had to learn a bunch of lingo associated with these campers, and definitely made Google Translate my friend along the way. There were also a few times where I’d find one that I wanted, but I wouldn’t get it. Some sellers weren’t willing to spend the time on an overseas buyer, when they could easily sell the van locally.”
So, if you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a vintage camper online, Dan says you’ll need a fair amount of money saved to play around with. Here’s a list of every expense you’ll need to prepare for.
“The reality of buying a camper online is that you never know how much you’re going to need, and you might need it in a heartbeat,” says Dan. “I personally got lucky—I kept my 1966 VW Westfalia for 17 years, and sold it for a lot more than I paid for it. I squirreled that money away in the bank, and was ready to pull the trigger when I found the van I wanted.”
Dan says that a camper in really good condition, with very few problems, could set you back up to US$25,000. “You might not spend that much, but you never know,” says Dan.
If making this dream a reality is on the cards for you, be prepared to save a chunk of change.
Inspection and logistics
As the demand for vintage campers has increased, so have side businesses that cater to buyers. To get his van from Vienna to Washington state, Dan leaned on his friends in the camper enthusiast community to find a local expert who could inspect the vehicle before he paid for it.
“These guys will act as a go-between,” says Dan. “They will handle all your money, do a thorough inspection on the van, and ship it anywhere in the world. However, it’s pretty nerve-wracking to wire money to a person you’ve never met, for a van you won’t see for another 3-4 months!”
Dan says that this level of trust can only come from being part of a community that helps its own. “I know people who used the guy I went through—they swear by him, and now I do, too. I paid him around US$2000, so it was a roll of the dice, but in the end, it was worth it.”
Shipping and customs fees
“Shipping costs vary by boat, and by port,” says Dan. “My van was in Vienna, but had to get to Belgium to be shipped to Tacoma. When I was quoted the price by the shipping agency, they apologized, but it was way cheaper than I expected. I spent $2500 on shipping, and around $300 on customs fees.”
Replacement parts and maintenance
Unless you’re buying up a mint condition van, you’ll need to set aside some money to get your vehicle roadworthy, and ready to sleep in. If you have mechanical know-how, you can fix things yourself; if you don’t, be prepared to visit a specialist mechanic for help with your camper. Dan says that keeping around $1000 aside for general maintenance is a good safety net for when your van arrives.
If you’re interested in a camper with a pop-top, there’s a high likelihood of needing to replace the canvas. “The canvas is almost always rotten, unless you find a camper that’s been garaged its entire life,” says Dan. “If you don’t get it fixed, you can often see right through the canvas when you open it up. Try and sleep with holes in the canvas, and it gets really cold, really quick.” Aftermarket canopies are available online for around $500.
“Over the years, I’ve had numerous calamities in my campers,” says Dan. “There have been times the campers have needed truck stop repair, and other times where they’ve needed to be left behind or towed home for new parts. I carry a full tool kit in the van, and need to start carrying a few more spare parts, like wheel bearings. They are 30-year-old vehicles; you can’t expect them to run like a brand new car.”