How to Buy a Van

So you’ve got dates booked across the country and all you need are wheels. Buy or rent? Do the math: downtown Halifax is about 6,310 kilometers from downtown Vancouver. Double that for the return trip: you’re up to 12,620. Add about 100 zigzag and getting lost kilometres per date (you’ve got 15), so that’s another 1500, for a total coast-to-coast-to-coast trip of 14,120 kilometres. It’s a freakin’ long drive.

Renting a van for a cross-Canada tour makes little sense: the mileage charges alone will crush you. So here’s a quick and dirty guide to buying a van — your home away from home on the Great Canadian Tour. There are two cardinal rules. First, don’t cheap out. Figure out what you can afford to spend, and spend the most you can afford for the best wheels. What you don’t pay for up front will cost you twice as much in repairs somewhere on the road, when you can least afford it in terms of cost and time. Rule number two: buy the smallest wheels that can comfortably accommodate your band, crew and gear. It will be cheaper to gas up and maintain, easier to drive and (this is important!) easier to park.

Measure the volume of your gear before you go shopping and be ready to jettison the gong and any other non-essentials. A typical four-piece travelling with merch person/road manager can fit in a standard cargo van, but not if both guitarists insist on Marshall stacks. Look for a van with a movable rear bench seat, and make sure it has belts for each passenger and double rear cargo doors. Building in an upper bunk with a mattress makes a world of sense: it protects the gear underneath and gives you mobile sleeping space. A word of caution on 15-passenger models: provincial license regulations may require each driver to have special certification or a bus license to drive a 15-passenger vehicle even if it is not carrying 15 people.

Assuming you don’t have cash up front, there are a couple of different ways to finance a vehicle purchase, typically in the form of a "chattel mortgage.” ("Chattel” is a legal term meaning goods that can be moved around, as opposed to real estate.) Chattel mortgages can be secured or unsecured, meaning the bank will require you to put up ("mortgage”) your other property as collateral for the loan. Secured loans usually require real estate, your life savings, or some other chattel that’s worth at least the amount of the loan. (Note: RRSPs cannot be used as security for a loan.) For unsecured loans, the bank looks at your general net worth. If you default on the payments, the bank goes after whatever you might own — including repossessing the van itself — to get the loan back.

Because they have stronger security in a piece of real estate or a savings account, banks offer much better interest rates on secured loans: often prime rate or better. For an unsecured loan, expect to add two or more percentage points to the rate.

Shop around for the best rates and negotiate your loan (purchase price plus sales tax, less any cash you kick in) before you go shopping so you don’t waste time looking at wheels you can’t afford. Private sellers will want a certified cheque for the full amount. Dealers offer in-house financing, sometimes at good rates if the dealer does volume business with a particular bank. You’ll still need to be approved as a creditor by both the dealer and the bank. Dealer-advertised rates can be a bit misleading. An ad stating "1.9% OAC” doesn’t mean everyone who comes through the door will get the advertised rate: it means that richy-rich types with top credit will get the loan "on approved credit,” whereas a schmuck like you is stuck with prime plus three percent. Additionally, dealers may tack on a finance fee. Try to negotiate out of this. Do not do business with a dealer who tells you they don’t accept outside bank financing: that’s a bullshit tactic.

Great deals can be found on cargo vans coming off the rental fleet of major agencies like Budget, Discount, etc. These tend to be low-mileage and well maintained, but the fleets don’t keep them in service once they’ve seen a certain amount of wear. If you have time to shop around, phone up the major fleets in your area to let them know you are in the market. It’s a convenience to a fleet manager to know he has a prospective buyer and you may get a call before the van goes on the public market.

Once you’ve bought the van, make sure you have adequate insurance. Do not tell the insurance company you’re using it only for personal use to get the lowest insurance rate: if you go off the road while on tour, your insurer may refuse to cover the damages. Some insurers will make special arrangements for tours provided you pay an extra premium. All drivers must have valid licenses to be covered by insurance. Drivers should buy a CAA or an equivalent auto club membership: CAA membership attaches to the driver (not the van), so she’s covered in whatever vehicle she’s driving. At costs ranging from $75 to $100 per year, it’s well worth it, given that a tow from St. Ignace to Thunder Bay will set you back twice that.

Always take the van in for a basic plugs, points, brakes and fluids check before you hit the road. Bring any drive train or other warranty documents with you. Follow the oil-check and maintenance requirements on the road or you may void the warranty. Fix any little things as they come up — that white smoke means you’re boiling the engine, so pay attention.

Make a packing list of all your gear before you head out, and check it every time you take the gear out or load it back in. It’s a good idea to make one person responsible for gear-check and packing: drummers are usually the packing stars of the band. Take down gear serial numbers with photographs, then keep one copy with you and leave one at home. Post a crew list with emergency contact numbers somewhere visible in the van in case of a serious accident.

No matter how great the show, don’t start drinking until your gear and your van have been safely stowed. If the gear is staying in the van overnight, take turns sleeping with it. If the designated sleeper has been drinking, take the keys away until morning. And last, do not ever drink or get high and drive.