Misadventures in Van Procurement

I was walking back towards the wife. I knew she was going to be sad. She’d had her heart set on it – or at least on this van search being over. And I was about to burst her bubble.

Noticing my slow, sorrowful stride, the mechanic pulled up next to me on his way out of the complex’s parking lot. “Cheer up,” he said. “You passed on a total junker. That guy was a scammer!”

I nodded and smiled, and stood a little more upright. He wasn’t wrong. But, I knew that wouldn’t make the wife feel any better.

The Evening Before

I left work early. I had to – in order to make it down to San Ysidro in time to check out a 90’s era high-top class B RV. That trip turned out to be a miss, because the Chevy G20 high-top wasn’t actually high enough to stand up in. And my wife – being the considerate one that she is – decided that I should probably be able to stand upright in our future home. In her words, “It’s not worth you being a hunched over old man just because we spent a year living in a van you couldn’t stand up in.”

So, onto our next option: another class B RV in Temecula, but this one a Ford conversion with lots of head room. In rush hour, and in the rain (not particularly favored by San Diego drivers), it took us 90 minutes. That was plenty of time to get our hopes up about this “great deal” we’d found – what was advertised as a 1991 Ford E350 RV conversion. The vehicle ended up being a 1990, but that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to “accidental misinformation.”

Matthew gave us a little tour of the van. The interior looked great – it was clearly well taken care of from a cosmetic standpoint. We thought, well, since the interior is in such good condition, the mechanics must also be great, right? I guess this brings a new interpretation to the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” 

The coach battery was dead. (The coach battery – distinct from the car’s starter battery – powers the vehicle interior accessories, such as the interior lights, sink water pump, microwave, etc.) Matthew assured us that “everything works fine; you just need to charge or replace the battery.” The overdrive switch also needed to be re-installed and the generator was somewhat disassembled. Oh, it also didn’t have a current registration – the last smog check was 2017. Surprise!

Look, we know that any decades old used car sold by a private party likely needs some work done. You’re paying for something with a history. But, that is even more reason to do your due diligence on understanding that history! It being older and cheaper to purchase is not an excuse to pass on your homework. It’s shocking how many people purchase used vehicles without a professional (or at least very knowledgeable) inspection of the mechanics. The seller is not on your side, no matter how earnest they seem.

Even though it had those issues and irregularities above, we thought, “Man, this is such a great deal, maybe it’s worth it. Let’s take it to a mechanic.”

Here was our first sign we should have walked away: Captain Scammerpants tried his hardest to prevent any pre-purchase inspection to occur. He stressed that he had another buyer coming by the next day at 10:00 a.m. so we would not be able to take it to a mechanic. If we wanted to buy it, we had to do it that night. Luckily, we didn’t have $6,700 in cash with us. Matthew suggested we borrow it from someone… Yes, 90 minutes from home, at 7pm at night, we’ll just call up a friend and borrow $6,700 in cash. And, in case you’re wondering, PayPal and Venmo and Chase Quickpay wouldn’t work either because he also doesn’t use the internet. (Side note: just the amount was also a matter of contention: the OfferUp posting = $6,700. The OfferUp description = $7,600. Matthew’s verbal price = $7,800.  Accidental misinformation, indeed. We made him stick to the $6,700 posting!)

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Woah guys. This has ALL the tell-tale signs of a scam. Rushing a purchase? Shady pricing changes? No traceable payment methods?!” In hindsight, we 100% agree with you! But in the moment, seeing the vehicle, seeing the possibility of checking off “buy a van” from your to-do list, remembering all the other crappy vehicles you’ve seen for ambitious prices, it’s hard not to get pulled into the trap, to stay for the slim chance that it might work.

In our back-and-forth, Matthew promised up and down that we would find nothing major wrong with the vehicle. He stated the next-morning-10am guy was an RV expert, so we would be able to count on that buyer’s inspection of the van (and then what, go into a bidding war??).

In the end, we resolved to have a mobile mechanic inspect the vehicle in the complex parking lot tomorrow at 9:45 a.m. – with Matthew pledging to schedule the other buyer for 10:30 a.m. so that we wouldn’t have any awkward overlaps. There was also a lengthy discussion on a “priority buyer deposit” but I’ll skip the details — luckily for us, that didn’t happen.

I went to bed early that night – exhausted from both attempting to schedule logistics and the emotion that came from finding what we thought at the time was a steal.

The wife spent that night researching how to purchase a used vehicle in California – the requirements, the laws, and the paperwork. This is where she discovered that it’s illegal in California to sell a used car over 4 years old that does not pass the SMOG test (very possible, given our current subject). So, if the vehicle didn’t pass SMOG, the sale would be illegal and thus null. But, did we want to rely on legal rectification? Heck no! It was just more reason that we had to do our due diligence.

The Next Day

Early the next morning, we made the drive back to Temecula and withdrew the cash. The teller was very excited for our plans. Cash in hand, we returned to the parking lot.

Enter our savior: Rod the Mobile Mechanic. With decades of experience, Rod detected burnt transmission oil with just his olfactory sensors, and heard the engine knock of a burnt valve just by using his ears. After looking around the around the truck and taking it for a drive, Rod assured us that the van was a complete piece of junk. Worse, he said we’d spend ~$9,000+ in repairs, making this a very bad deal.

Now, I believed him that the E350 was indeed garbage. What took me a bit was believing that a guy like Matthew was trying to pull one over on me. That is, I didn’t think Matthew was Matthew the Con Artist until a few weird things happened that sealed the deal for me.

  • The other buyer showed up promptly at 10:00 a.m. To which Matthew commented, “Oh. I told him 10:30.”
  • That other buyer looked a lot like Matthew. Really – same height, similar frame, same Italian olive skin. Let’s call him Wehttam because he’s a mirror image of Matthew.
  • Matthew had shared ahead of time that Wehttam was a mechanic. But this guy showed up in clothes you wouldn’t expect a mechanic to wear – at least not when inspecting a vehicle purchase. The clothes were too nice, too expensive, too new for any experienced mechanic to wear, knowing he was going to inspect a decades-old RV.
  • Then, Matthew allowed Wehttam to test drive the vehicle by himself. We were not afforded the same offer or trust yesterday.
  • And then finally was the image still seared into my retina. Upon popping the hood, Wehttam “the mechanic” unscrewed the oil cap and inspected the bottom of it, smelling it. Hilarious. For those of you not familiar with the automotive world, this is something that doesn’t make any sense, unless you’re into weird things – no judgment. But it was weird to see.

We Didn’t Buy the Van

Naturally, we did not end up buying the 1990 Ford Econoline 350 with 90,000 miles for $6,700. But, we did spend $250 on a mobile mechanic inspection – which was worth every penny.




By spending $250, we saved $6,700. Thank the Gods for Rod the Mobile Mechanic.

Of course, not having a van made my wife sad – and therefore I was sad. But, I’m writing this to help console myself (and her) – and hopefully others out there. I’ll console the world by saying this:

It’s the process that matters.

After the entire misadventure, we were sitting in a Del Taco parking lot in Temecula. I saw the sad, disappointed look on my wife’s face. So I said this:

“I’m proud of us. It was hard work, but we did it. We did everything right, and we did everything we needed to do. We did a good job today.”

Of course, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. We didn’t end up with our next home, we could not check off the box and move on with our agenda. But, it could have turned out a lot worse. We could have bought a piece of garbage.

It’s About the Process.

It’s the process that matters. You research vans. You find a van. You inspect it. You negotiate. You do your due diligence. And if you do all that, it might work out. And if doesn’t work out, you do the same thing all over again.

And if it doesn’t work out, you do it again. And guess what happens next? You guessed it! If it doesn’t work out, you do it all over again.

No matter what happens, you need to give yourself credit. Each time you do the process, each time you do the hard work, give yourself the metaphorical pat on the back. Because it’s not the end that matters. It’s the process. It’s about the journey.

And if we stick with this van hunting journey that we are currently on – if we keep doing the steps that need to be done – then we will get the van that will lead us onto the next part of our journey: our drive to Panama City.


So, what do you think? Was Matthew a scammer, or just an amateur salesman who almost got us? Do you have a similar story?

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