The search for our future ‘Road Trip USA’ van began well before we landed in the land of opportunity. We began researching makes and models in our price range of around $2000 on the craigslist website. We planned on doing several thousand miles so we needed something that was reliable and got good mileage. We decided the van best suited for us would be a Chevrolet Astro with a v6 engine. It had enough room for a bed but was still small enough to be easy to drive and not be too costly with fuel. We would be arriving in Los Angeles so we were searching for vans in the LA area. There seemed to be plenty of Astro’s available at decent prices so we were confident finding one would be no problem.
We arrived at LAX in high spirits and were sure our plans would go accordingly. We headed for the Avis rental lot as we had pre-booked a car for ourselves until we found our van. After a few days of being tourists in the Hollywood area we decided it was time to start the search for our own vehicle. We began looking on craigslist once again and was able to find some vans that were within an hours’ drive from where we were staying on Melrose. What we didn’t realize or have knowledge of was the amount of people in the area that spoke no English. This hampered our quest dramatically as we could not communicate with many of the sellers who only spoke Spanish. This crossed off over half the vans on our list that we were interested in. We had three left on our list to go look at on the first day of searching and thought for sure one would be our future home.
The next day we set out on our mission to check out the vans. The first van on the list was a 2001 Astro for $1800. The van seemed to look in good shape and match what was said in the ad however after taking it for a test drive it seemed like it hadn’t been driven for a long time. The engine was running rough and the breaks were worn. When I spoke to the seller on the phone the previous day he assured me that it was running fine, that he had the title and the van was currently registered. It turned out it was not registered nor did he have the title. At this point I knew there was no way we were buying this van. I did a lot of research on buying before we embarked on this trip and one thing I knew was not to buy a car without the title. If the seller does not have the title the car could potentially have been stolen, financed or may have been a right off in which case could lead to problems when trying to register the vehicle so we moved on to inspect the next vehicle.
The second van we went to look at was a 2002 Astro for $2200. We arrived and parked across the road from where the van was parked. The van looked in really good condition with nice paint and fairly new tires. The interior was also clean. The van started up right away and sounded fine. I took it for a test drive and everything seemed good whilst driving under 20 miles per hour but as soon as I put my foot down the gear box began to slip jumping from gear to gear and making all sorts of strange noises. I knew straight away that the gear box had major problems and we did not have enough money to deal with something like this. The seller who was in the passenger seat insisted that the van had never done this before and it was running fine yesterday. Yeah right!
Driving in LA traffic is very stressful and a lot more time consuming than we had anticipated but we had one more van to look at. It was now around 3pm and we were feeling a little discouraged. Long story short we were not lucky third time around either. The van was a 2000 Astro for $2700 which was a lot more than we had budgeted for. The van was running well but the interior was disgusting! We were willing to negotiate as the main thing we were looking for was a strong engine but the seller would not budge on his price and declined our offer of $2100. Feeling exhausted from a long day sitting in traffic and dealing with dishonest sellers we headed back to the backpacker hostel.
We spent the next couple of days searching for vans on craigslist but it seemed like there were not as many available as there had been before we left Australia or they were out of our price range. We looked at a few but they all didn’t seem to run very well unless they were over $3000. After a few more days and no more luck finding the van we had set our hearts on we decided to look at other options. We still had our rental car plus we were paying a ridiculous sum of money to stay at the hostel so things were beginning to get stressful. We made a decision to leave the hostel and found a beautiful campsite in Malibu overlooking the ocean.
Looking again at craigslist there seemed to be a lot of Ford Windstar's available at reasonable prices so we decided to check a couple out. Once again we had issues with sellers that didn’t have the title or vans that were a little dodgey. Starting to think we may have to go a little longer than expected without our own van (which we should have been living in by now and saving cash for the road trip) we turned our attention to car dealerships. This was hard to do as I am suspicious of used car dealers, they are always overpriced and have sneaky fees but at this point I was willing to give anything a shot. We came across a 2000 Ford Windstar from a dealer who was asking $2000. He was located in Huntington Beach about 2.5 hours away from us. After speaking to him he assured me that we would have no trouble with this van. Taking his word we decided to drive down to Huntington hoping for the best. We arrived at the dealers office and the van was there waiting for us. We test drove the van and it ran well with no immediate issues or problems I could find apart from a small oil leak coming from the engine but this wasn’t enough to deter me. Even though this was not the ideal van (a lot smaller than what we wanted), it was a van and we were getting desperate. We made an offer of $1700 but the dealer said he would take no less than $2000. He then told us there would be a dealer fee and we were to pay for registration which would be an extra $300 dollars. He was now asking $2300 drive away but never mentioned these fees to us prior. This made me unhappy and reminded me why I didn’t deal with used car dealers. We tried to negotiate some more without success. Our final offer was $2000 and the dealer to pay for registration but he was not impressed so I said never mind and began to walk away. The moment he realized we were actually leaving he changed his tune. He said “wait a minute, I can do $2000 drive away for you guys and I will pay for the registration.” I was surprised he gave in but relieved knowing that this whole buying a van ordeal would soon be a memory. After we paid him the cash he took us to the registration office and transferred the van into our names. He took us to an auto insurance company so we could get insurance and drive back to Malibu legally. The only downside to all this was we had to wait two weeks for the new plates and the title to be mailed to us. Other than that we were now the proud new owners of ‘Elena’ the Windstar.
Want to know what you should consider when buying a vehicle in the USA? Read this post for a guide to buying a car in America.
By Jamie Nicholson
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Two Aussies road-tripping across the USA. Our goal is to discover America's wild places and vibrant cities... and make the most of every moment. Read more