Tips on buying a used Sprinter van

Photo of my 2012 Sprinter van
My 2012 Sprinter van

Sprinter vans are fun as hell, look cool and can be customized in any way you can imagine. A brand new, completely stripped cargo van from Mercedes is only about $35k-40k from the factory, but building sleeping platforms and storage and kitchens into them can easily add $100k to the price or more. Over the last ten years a bunch of outfitters have popped up to build highly customized versions that can do it all, but they’re frequently in the $100k-$150k price range new and take 6-12 months to build. I remember Outside Vans as one of the first, but now in the Portland area where I live there are dozens of shops building these.

If you’ve got plenty of cash and you want it all, I would heartily recommend a brand new Revel build by Winnebago, which typically run around $150k and are filled with storage and creature comforts in an all-the-options 4WD van and the owners I’ve heard from all say it’s an amazing machine.

If you aren’t flush with cash, you can find Sprinter vans used in various states of build, from stripped out former work vans you’ll have to build up yourself, to every stage of already modified camping-ready Sprinters from people just looking to sell their old ones.

Typically, it’s not too hard to find used work vans for $20k-$30k and partially built up ones can be found for $30k-50k used. Sometimes it might be worth paying $75k for a used van if it’s everything you wanted and is outfitted and ready to go.

A little backstory

I’ve always loved Sprinter Vans. Initially they seemed exotic and European, these narrow, tall and long vans used by trades people. I probably saw my first camper version of one around 2005 at a bike race, and I was hooked. It looked so versatile, like it was ready for anything, AND you could sleep in it.

For the next dozen years, I dreamed of someday owning one. A few years ago, I got serious about it and started looking, and after 2-3 years of casually looking and about six months of totally seriously looking I finally found one I liked.

Since then, I’ve upgraded a bunch of stuff on mine to fit my needs. Friends ask me all the time about it, so I promised I’d write up some tips learned after researching these things for years, along with the lessons I learned after a year of ownership.

For reference, I own a MB 2012 2500 Crew High Roof 144 Sprinter that has about 160k miles on it and was mildly built up as a weekender type of van (no kitchen, or I’d call it a true camper), with two queen bed sleeping platforms in the back, seating for five, with a small collapsible table, an ingenious diesel heater that keeps the cabin warm when winter camping, and a house electronics system for camping separate from the engine battery. I paid about $35k for it used and put another $5k into engine and suspension and upkeep, and about $10k into upgrades since.

Decide the type of van you want that fits your needs

Vans come in a lot of shapes, sizes, years, and configurations. I’m going to ignore the Dodge Power RAM versions (I don’t like the looks or gas engines in them) or the Ford Transit series (mostly also gas engines) and focus only on Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (which also sometimes are badged as Freightliners, and for a short time, also had Dodge badges but forget I said all that).

They come in three different lengths and a few different configurations.

First you’ll need to decide if you want a 144″ wheelbase version or the 170″ or the 170″ extended version. The longest model has a couple feet more van behind the back wheels that gives it extended storage space for building out the interior. But driving either of the 170 models feels more like driving an RV to me. I wanted something more car-like that was possible to street park and easily drive around in cities, so I stuck to the 144″ length.

The next thing you’ll have to decide is if you want a low roof or a high roof option. I’m 6′ 3″ and though you lose a few miles per gallon by having a high roof out in the wind, I can walk around standing up tall inside it and the higher roof give more space to do things like put a bed in the back (mine fits two removeable queen beds stacked like a bunk bed).

You also need to decide on the configuration of the van. A Passenger van includes windows from front to back and four rows of seating for a dozen people (seats are easy to remove). The Crew van comes with two side windows and usually has a second row of seats while the Cargo version typically has no seats and no windows, giving you a clean slate to build from.

Passenger versions look most “normal” and can pass for a large minivan in any city but the windows along the side limit your options for building shelving or bed platforms, because you can’t screw into the walls when they’re all glass. The Cargo version is the most ready to upgrade but will require more work because they’re usually shipped as raw metal shells inside. The Crew version is a happy medium, with windows and seating for five, giving you the back half of the van ready to customize for storage and sleeping.

I looked at all the options and knew I wanted a 144 High Roof Crew or Cargo van when I started shopping.

Decide which era of Sprinter to get

There are three major eras of Sprinter vans released over the years, and they have three different code names: T1N, NCV3 and VS30.

The T1N is the late 1990s to 2006 van that first hit the shores of the US. They’re very customizable but given they’re roughly 15-20 years old at this point, they tend to have a lot of miles on them. I don’t often see one with less than 200 or 300 thousand miles on the odometer. Sprinter diesel engines can go for 500k miles or more, but the T1N version is getting pretty long in the tooth and you might want to avoid them unless it’s a low mileage one.

The NCV3 model was sold from 2007-2018. Mine is a 2012 and it’s totally utilitarian inside, with few creature comforts. The 2014-2018 models embraced the Mercedes Benz label and offer things like heated seats, lane keep assist, radar cruise control, and blind spot warnings. There were other small changes during the run but mostly the NCV3 model falls into two eras within the model.

VS30 is the new and improved version, from 2019 to present. It’s very nice inside, feels almost like a high end modern SUV inside, and has better suspension and braking systems. Unfortunately, being new, they’re still quite expensive used.

If I had to choose a used Sprinter to look for today, I’d say a 2014-2018 model would be the best bet, and I would look for one with 100k-200k miles on the odometer.

A bit more about used vans and mileage

A Sprinter van’s V6 Turbo Diesel engine is pretty robust and bulletproof (and has decent acceleration that’s not far off from what a SUV feels like), while also getting pretty good gas mileage. Mine typically gets around 20mpg, which isn’t bad for something that weighs 7 thousand pounds. The engines are known to drive well into the 400k-500k range of miles and even if your engine blew up, there are plenty of replacements sitting around in wreck yards.

When shopping for used vans, I typically stayed away from low mileage vans due to price, as they are often owned by families that only occasionally drove them as their extra car. It’s easy to find clapped out work vans with well over 300k miles selling for cheap (sometimes <$10k), but you may have to spend a lot more on suspension upgrades and engine work to bring things back to working order.

Personally, I think the happy medium for a used Sprinter van is one with 100k-200k miles on it that wasn’t used in heavy industry (like plumbing, drywall, or electrical, which requires them to carry heavy materials that wear out the suspension). This is the sweet spot where you can find decent prices on vans that have a lot of life left in them.

Having owned one for a year now, I will say we don’t drive it a ton, using it for several camping trips a year, runs to Costco, and whenever someone needs to hang out inside it, like when you take your kids to sports practice while you work on your laptop inside on a table. We put about 5,000 miles on our van in the first year and I suspect that’ll be a normal average. With the way the engines hold up, buying a used one with some mileage isn’t a dealbreaker, since you’re not typically going to put tens of thousands of miles on it each year unless you’re doing the full #vanlife thing and traveling all over.

2WD or 4WD?

One question you’ll need to answer before you shop is if you want a two-wheel drive van or a 4×4. The four wheel drive model typically sells (even used) for about $10k more. If you live near mountains or deep snow or hope to get off the beaten path, definitely think about looking for 4WD models (keep in mind, this will limit your search results greatly). If you’re not going off pavement or live in a flatter part of the US, a 2WD van will work just fine. I will say that I’ve seen a 2WD Sprinter get stuck on flat ground when driving on wet grass. There have traction control, but with stock street tires don’t have much grip and there are no locking rear differentials.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably opt for a 4WD Sprinter if one was available. I wanted to save some money and I got a 2WD model but I put beefy all-terrain tires on it for better grip. I live near the mountains and still sometimes do get the rear tires to slip on gravel roads.

Figure out what you want to do in your van, so you know what to look for used

Before you start a search in earnest, figure out a list of things you must have, and what would be nice to have, and what might be a deal breaker. Think about how you’ll use it so you know what to shop for.

Personally, I didn’t want a big camping build. I didn’t want to worry about water storage, or worry about the drain on batteries from a built-in refrigerator. Some builds even have a full bathroom, but I didn’t want to lose interior space to that. Those were deal breakers for me.

I knew I wanted seating for at least five (a removable 3rd row for hauling more people somewhere was a nice to have), I wanted sleeping for at least two people (with sleeping for four as a nice to have), and I wanted plenty of storage for bikes and camping equipment, along with a table to eat at and front chairs that swiveled back.

I eventually found a build closest to what I wanted, with not too many things I didn’t want. It was built well, didn’t seem rough or DIY, and I added things later that I felt was missing.

Tools to look for used vans for sale

Everyone will tell you to search on Craigslist, but with me being in the Pacific Northwest, Sprinters are always in high demand and good deals don’t last long on the service. I found the prices high and if you watch listings for a few months you’ll start seeing the same people that flip these vans, sometimes for too high of prices with minimal additions to old work vans you likely saw for sale on Craigslist earlier.

Twice when I was ready to buy something, I had to work against other buyers, and I lost. Once I was five minutes away from test driving a van I really liked on paper but they called to say it was sold to the person that arrived an hour before me.

It’s a good idea to look outside your area, and Auto Tempest is a (somewhat hacky, desktop only) nationwide Craigslist search engine you can use to track Sprinters for sale all over the country. Since they’re hot where I live and in places like Utah and Colorado, I looked for Sprinters in other areas and found a few good deals I seriously considered. I don’t know if I’d fly to Florida just for a test drive, but if the build was exactly what you wanted, and it much cheaper than a west coast van, it might have been worth it.

I also tried options like OfferUp and Sprinter Forums and other classified ad type services, but my best luck was Facebook Marketplace. I found a great deal on a van for thousands below what it’d fetch on Craigslist simply because not as many people use FB Marketplace for car buying. While Craigslist felt like a battle to email a seller first and test drive a Sprinter as soon as you could, the van I bought sat on FB Marketplace for months without a bite, making it an easy low stress sale.

Things to check in a test drive

When test driving a Sprinter van, go with a plan and a few tools. Before you meet, ask the seller for the VIN so you can look it up on CarFax (this costs a few bucks but it’s worth it for vans you’re seriously considering). I did this and found info about all three previous owners of the van, I saw records of a small fender bender I could look for signs of, and I learned what industry the van was used in before it was reused for camping (environmental testing) as well as what states the owners had all lived in.

Take it for a test drive and note how easily it starts (keep in mind you should turn the key halfway, wait for the diesel coils to warm up after which a yellow curly light goes out in the dash, then you start it) and when you drive it off, check how the brakes feel and drive it a few miles. Is the turbo functioning? Can you floor it and get it moving pretty well? Does the heater and A/C work? Do all the lights work?

Listen for squeaks and movement, as these vans can sound like an old RV sometimes. This usually gives you an idea of how well it was built and how it is holding up. Look for any water damage on the headliner inside, and look for any warning lights on the dash.

When you finish the test drive, bring a bright LED work light (I use a handheld bar like this one) and use it to look around for rust in the doors and at the bottom of the body and underneath on the frame. Check over the engine from above with the hood up, and most importantly, from below. Lay on the ground and put your LED work light up to inspect the bottom of the engine. Do you see a bunch of oil everywhere? Is it black and shiny from a fresh leak? Is it a big leak or a small one?

I mention this because this is typically what you look for in any German engine from a luxury brand, but especially in the NCV3 era of Sprinters. If you see oil at the bottom of the engine and you see oil stains where it was parked, you may have a oil cooler seal leak. It’s a popular problem and people on Sprinter forums say they can fail every 100k miles or so. The 2010 and newer NCV3 engine was redesigned to fix this, but mine still had this problem even though it was a 2012.

The bummer is this gasket leak only requires about $100 of parts to fix, but it’s at the very bottom of the engine and requires about $3,000 in labor for two full days of mechanics working on it as they tear the engine down to the block to fix it. The good news is it’s not a deal-breaker, if you spot this you can ask the seller to take $3k off the asking price to get it done later on from a sprinter mechanic familiar with it, but it’s good to know what to look for so you aren’t surprised later on.

Things to fix or upgrade

If you’ve found a year, model, and configuration you like, and you’ve driven it and you end up buying it, know there are endless options for what to do after to tailor it to your needs. I happen to live near the Sprinter Store, one of the biggest online sellers of aftermarket parts. I’ve purchased tons of replacement and aftermarket parts from them to date. They have everything. There are half a dozen other similar online stores.

I’d suggest putting a modern stereo with CarPlay and Android Auto into your Sprinter for adding Google Maps and streaming music that can also work with the existing stock Sprinter backup camera. If your view out your back windows is obscured (mine has a bed in the way and blackout shades on the windows) I really love this second rear facing camera that replaces your rearview mirror with a monitor shaped like your mirror. It greatly adds visibility and driving on freeways and in cities is much easier and the van feels safer to drive. The kit on amazon is about $300 and a good stereo installer can put it in for a few hundred more.

If the van you like is raw metal in the rear, know that insulation, flooring, and wall paneling kits can cost quite a bit, even before you start putting in beds or cabinets. I’ve seen them go for $5k that cost $10k in labor to install (or you can do it yourself over a few weekends, there are tons of YouTube video how-tos). Interior storage can be pricey as well, I added a shelf above the front seats for storage that lists for around $500 for a piece of metal with a couple small brackets. I’ve seen storage shelves go for thousands, but if you look for deals on eBay or know your way around a woodshop, you can save some money.

My van came with recently replaced front struts, but the rear of the van was bouncy and squeaky and would sway when taking turns. I complained about it to my mechanic who suggested I put in new high end Koni rear shocks with a bigger sway bar in the rear. I got both things from The Sprinter Store and the van drove like new after. It turned easier and faster, was quieter and more stable in the rear. It was only about $1200 for parts and labor and made it feel like a new van again.

I also put a roof rack on mine you can walk around on, along with a ladder to get on top, side mounts for paddle boards, and new front and rear bumpers, all from Aluminess with some additional high-powered LED lights for driving on dark mountain roads and in dense fog. My van came with an awning, but if you don’t have one, it’s a great way to always have shade when camping. Inside, I’ve updated basics like a new cabin air filter and I replaced a broken heater fan (they fail every couple years and replacements on amazon are much cheaper than a dealer). When I first got it I also hired a specialized sprinter mechanic to do full fluid changes, conduct a thorough engine check, and do full tune up on the engine. I also put new wheels and off road tires so it wouldn’t get stuck so easily in the mountains and be safe to drive in the snow.

What else you can do besides go camping

Sprinter vans are great for camping and travel and biking and any outdoor activities you can think of. It’s like having a bedroom on wheels and I’ve pulled into rest areas before to nap in the back. It also makes outdoor sports easier because you have an entire room where you can change clothes privately, rest, and eat, and still bring everything you might need.

After owning one for a year, I’ve found it surprisingly useful for lots of other things. It’s easy to help friends move, especially if it’s raining so you can put their TVs and furniture inside a van rather that out in a truck bed. I’ve fit a 12′ tall xmas tree in mine easily, and could have fit half a dozen more stacked on top. I’ve hauled 14′ lumber on the floor reaching all the way to the front passenger section with the rear doors closed. In a 170 Sprinter, I’m sure you could fit full 16 foot long lumber inside. It’s a dream vehicle for sporadic Costco runs to buy tons of food in bulk, it’s strong enough to tow small boats, and you can fit pretty much any stand up paddle boards inside.

Mine has a little table that the second row and front row can all sit around (the front rows swivel back), so eating as a family on the road is fun and easy (especially useful during COVID with closed restaurants!).

Overall, I’m happy with my purchase and all the upgrades I’ve done to personalize it and optimize it for how I use it. If you’re in the market for one, figure out what you want, see what’s out there, and make a smart purchase, and finally, enjoy the heck out of your Sprinter van and go see the world in it.