Buying a VW Caddy Maxi for a self conversion
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
In Spring 2021, we bought a VW Caddy Maxi to convert to a camper van!
Buying a secondhand vehicle is a often a long nerve wracking experience, so I thought I'd write a blog with absolutely everything that we've learnt about buying the VW caddy maxi over the last few months, from asking many many friends who work in the car industry, research online and our own experience. Some of the content here will be good for beginners into buying a second hand car and some more advanced. With so many also buying vans to covert with potential travel restrictions, there is never a better time to have the freedom of a van!
Why did we buy a van?!
I've wanted a camper van since I was about 8, since watching the Wild Thornberrys and it's been top of the bucket list since. The first real taste I had of van life was when we camped in the back of Lee's Mum's Subaru Forester in Australia and the freedom it gave us made of the happiest times of my life. Wanting and needing very little, and being able to wake up on a new beach to the sound of the ocean is heaven to me. We've been casually dreaming about van life since.
We unfortunately chose to act on our dream in the same year that apparently everyone else wanted to get a van, as van prices have rocketed. Apparently this is due to the double whammy from camper conversion demand but also the huge increase in online shopping & delivery jobs- which is leading lots of people to buy vans.
We realise buying a diesel vehicle is not eco friendly. However, we decided when Lee got his job in Scotland in Feb 2020 that we would make a concerted effort to travel within Scotland and the UK as a priority over flying overseas for holidays. This was to allow us to explore the UK but also the number of flights we take (which would never be zero as our families live on opposite sides of the planet). Of course, we'd have much preferred to get an electric vehicle- but that was way beyond our budget this time. If an electric vehicle ever comes into our budget when we next buy a vehicle, we'll certainly do that (VW have some electric vans now if that's within your price range). I also need a vehicle for work, so we can't be vehicle-less.
We chose to buy a Volkswagen for their reputation and history for doing lots of miles and the longevity of their vehicles. Ford/ Vauxhall are cheaper to buy and fix but have a reputation not lasting as long (in years or miles). We wanted to buy something that would last and hopefully not depreciate too much. What you choose is of course, entirely up to you and what resources you have available. When looking at a van in terms of actual miles done, it's important to also contextualise those miles. How well the van has been cared for (what is it's MOT history and service history like?) Who has been doing the miles? Has it been a fleet vehicle with a restricter? 100,000 miles on a VW is probably better than 100,000 miles on a Ford, but really it just depends on the vehicle. Once you buy your van, it's really important to take care of it- because if you do it will last well into the 200,000's, if not more.
VW Caddy Maxi or VW Caddy?
We started off wanting the VW Caddy. It has a shorter wheelbase and is normally cheaper. To start with wanted the shorter van to make it easier to park/ drive and also more compact. We read that with the bulkhead in still, it's not long enough but once that's taken out and the seats are forward it's OK. I'm 5'9 and laid in the back of the first VW Caddy we visited and my feet went right to the door. Sure, without the bulkhead you might get more space but either way it's just adequate to lie comfortably. Lots of people do the VW Caddy conversion and seem to like their van short term. Straight after visiting the VW caddy we saw a VW Caddy Maxi and the back of the van was sooooo much better. Much less claustrophobic and so much more space. It was an easy decision for us but I really recommend you checking this out for yourself and actually having a look in the back of the vans. We would have loved to have stuck by the short wheel base, but are really excited to be able to have a full bed.
We were recommended to buy the 1.9 litre vw caddy maxi. A VW dealer told us the injectors are less likely to fail than the 1.6l- In 2021 4 new injectors costs around £600-700 so not a cheap fix if they do go wrong. However we found 1.9l vw caddy maxi's hard to find! We absolutely lucked out finding one, they're rare, so keeping your eyes peeled. Will Evans has a youtube video on Caddy Maxi 1.6l and injectors thats interesting and worth a watch if you do decide on a 1.6l.
We chose an ex British Gas van, a popular choice for the camper conversions. This is because ex British Gas vans have service histories and are well cared for in the years it's with them, as well as having a limiter to 70MPH so you know the van hasn't been driven at high speeds- putting wear on the vehicle. You can easily spot the British Gas vans as they are bright blue. Similarly, the ex AA (roadside assistance) vans are well cared for (you'd hope so being an AA van!) and they are bright yellow. RSPCA vans come with a service history, but they can be harder to spot as they're standard white. Sometimes the back of the van will be a give away for it's past use. Always ask what the van was used for, how many owners it has had, if it's got a service history- and ask to see it.
Where to Buy
We looked at a number of sources to purchase from. Private sellers, auctions and dealerships. There are pluses and minuses for each that we found:
Private seller: Should be cheap- but not always. Always do your market research on price. You may get a good deal and you may find people trying to sell at dealership price without the benefits- something happening a lot recently as vans have been making really good prices. Private is riskier, as once bought the van might break down around the corner- but equally of course you could get a great van. It depends how good you are with mechanics- whether you can check over the engine well before and repair if there is a problem. Alternatively, if you're happy taking a risk, go for it!
Auctions: Normally cheapest. however some auctions will only allow trade buyers. During covid-19 all are online, so they're not possible to view before you bid! ALWAYS read the reports on the vans thoroughly before you bid, a good family friend of ours that buys vans regularly through auctions talked us through some vans- and pointed out some major faults with the vans that we hadn't spotted and would mean the van wouldn't have even driven home. If it's got a misfire for example, that might mean new injectors- expensive. You may or may not get warranties, double check with all auctions. Some auctions to try- Shoreham Auction or Manheim.
Dealers. Probably the most expensive way to buy secondhand- for a reason. You will get security of buying from a business that deals cars. If something goes wrong you should have warranties (but dependant on dealer). They might have done the MOT, services or checks over the vehicle before selling. We chose to purchase with a dealership that had done all the checks and changes before we bought it, but we did visit dealerships that sold similar vans at a similar price with absolutely no service.
You will find dealers and private sellers on the car buying sites. Look carefully at who is selling, as the price difference is important when warranties or break down cover might be included. Car selling websites we searched were eBay, Autotrader, Motors.co.uk, gumtree and facebook marketplace (but we were slightly more wary of the last two). We found that vans came online at the weekends and normally sold extremely quickly after that.
Check the Vehicle History
The government website has a search function to check the MOT history of a vehicle and also see if it's taxed. This was actually the first thing we always checked when we thought we saw a good van. Check through the history as it's an excellent indicator of the van's major problems. It seemed to us that all vans failed at one point on headlights (perhaps the law changed for which direction they faced?) Major faults are a red flag, minor faults are normally just part of the wear on a vehicle, but it's worth noting if advisories (non major faults that don't equal a failure) have been fixed between MOT's. We were also recommended to check over for minor faults throughout the MOT history that indicate poor care.
It's certainly better to try and buy a vehicle with a service history. The ex British Gas vehicles normally have this paperwork (depending who has had it in between) and this is normally why they are so popular. We spoke to all of our engineer/ mechanic/ car lover friends, who all said we must check if the cam belt (timing belt) has been changed if it's got a high mileage. This is essential and costs around £400 if you need to do it yourself. Most have had the work done, but check the service history to see when it was last changed and when it would need changing again.
HPI check. We didn't really think about this, but it's really important. If you're buying a van privately, I cannot recommend doing this enough. If a van is still in finance (someone has bought the van and is paying back monthly to the dealer) and you buy it privately from them, it could be reclaimed. HPI will give you lots of details bout the van too, including owners and when it was bought last. One van we looked at only recently had been bought and he was reselling, so we questioned why he was selling on so quickly, perhaps it has a fault. Certainly worth asking why they're selling and use your intuition. Most dealers will have done an HPI, but always check.
The RAC has a fantastic guide for buying a secondhand car and what to look for, I thoroughly recommend using that, we studied the check list before visiting vans. One thing we particularly looked out for (as a complete novice) was checking the liquid levels, like the washer liquid. This is important as can indicate how well a car has been looked after, ie. levels lower than minimum doesn't reflect well. We visited one van that had a few problems that we were worried about and how it had really been cared for, and once we saw the levels well below minimum we decided not to buy the van- as basic care hadn't been kept up. When you're checking lots of MOT's you'll start picking up on what would potentially fail it, so can avoid to save some costs. For example, check all electrics work when you sit in the vehicle, check for cracks or chips in the windscreen
Doing a test drive is normally an essential aspect of during a used car. During covid this hasn't been possible. If you can, jump in and test all the electrics- basically everything you can without driving. But do ask to do a test drive if you can!
We ending up buying our van at Vans Today. We were really excited to buy with them, as they're a small business and send their vans out in good condition. They also did loads of work on the van before we got it, including giving it an MOT, a new cam belt and fixing up some little scratches (very normal on older vehicles). We did have a small hiccup with the van after buying it but Vans Today were absolutely great at helping to get that sorted. They were very attentive, friendly, asked those awkward questions we had (and knew what we were talking about). I do recommend them- you might also choose to get your van converted at the same location, which they share with the epic Dirty Weekenders. Check them out!
So that is everything we've picked up whilst spending 3 months purchasing our van. The whole process was quite tiring, stressful and at points disappointing, but once you get your van it's all worth it! We viewed 5 vans in total until we found one we were comfortable with from a place we were happy to purchase from. We spent hours and hours searching online (so did our family). We had bad dealership experiences, bad gut feelings and good experiences with dealers but just not the right van. If you're looking for a van to convert at the moment, good luck!
Our next blog will include what we did next after actually buying the van with details for all the products and process of the van conversion.