Peter Lee’s guide to buying a van for personal use red van on the road

Peter Lee's guide to buying a van for personal use

Buying a van to go on holiday in or to support a hobby? Peter Lee offers his tips for buying a van for personal use.

DL4B: Can I buy a van for personal use? What sort of things should I consider when buying a van for personal use?

Peter: The first consideration when buying a van for personal use is how you plan to use it – is it for mixed use, predominantly carrying leisure equipment such as dirt bikes or fishing equipment, or for camping in? Before you start to think about the make and model, consider such points as how you'll need to access the vehicle. So, will you need side panel access or is rear entry sufficient?

Leisure users need to bear in mind the issues that affect all van drivers, like price, fuel economy, passenger space, access points, vehicle dimensions and weight. More specifically, you'll need to think about the internal set up – whether that's custom fixtures or buying a van that's already set up for leisure use.

If you're buying a van second hand or installing your own [internal fixtures] you'll need to carefully consider the weight distribution as this can affect the handling of the vehicle if done incorrectly. It's also really important to check the structural integrity of a van if it's been customised, paying particular attention to doors, roofs and seating. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, get an expert opinion before you buy.

Essentially, customisation for leisure vehicles is all about finding a balance between comfort and space. If you're expecting to sleep in the van, or spend lots of time in there, then you'll need to make sure it's warm enough and well ventilated. Overnight heaters, fridges and cookers are all available for vans, but they need to be properly installed and maintained to control the risks. A decent caravan dealer will check that everything is up to scratch – you should get someone to check it every year.

DL4B: What is the best commercial vehicle for private use? Should I buy a van that's purpose-built, or convert a standard transit?

Peter: The best commercial vehicle for private use depends on your budget, and how you plan to use it. Some people prefer to convert a standard van because it provides a blank canvas for installing an interior as they desire. It's important when installing your own internal layout that it fully complies with appropriate regulations and is safe, especially if you're installing gas cookers or new electrical access points.

If you are buying a van that has already been adapted from a standard interior, it's worth establishing who completed the conversion, when it was completed and whether it's been independently inspected.

DL4B: If I'm buying a van, do I have to tell anyone that I'm converting it?

Peter: If you're converting a van to a campervan, or maybe your own mini Winnebago, then you need to consider whether you want to re-register the vehicle with your vehicle authority.

You could choose to register the vehicle with the DVLA as a "motor caravan," though it's not a legal requirement.

However, if you're going to do this you need to ensure that your van meets a fairly strict set of criteria. This includes ensuring that the vehicle is fitted with permanent fixtures, including amongst a long list of other things:

  • A horizontal sliding door or an outward opening rear or side door
  • A seating area for diners to sit around
  • A water container (though this can be affixed under the chassis)

If you do end up making modifications, then you'll of course need to tell your insurer in case they need to update your van insurance. It's probably a good idea to also let them know what you're planning before you make the changes, to make sure you'll still be covered.

DL4B: I don't use my van for commercial purposes but have been told that I could still be fined for loading it. How does this work? It doesn't seem very fair if I'm just taking my family on a trip.

Peter: It's a little-known fact that every vehicle on British roads has a so-called 'plated weight,' of which it is illegal to exceed. This doesn't just cover commercial vehicles; it also covers cars and vans used for leisure purposes too.

Every van has an assigned Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) when declared roadworthy. This includes not only the vehicle's weight, but also the weight of anything you're carrying, be it camping equipment, bikes, passengers, fuel and the driver.

If you're considering buying a commercial vehicle for private use you should try and estimate the types of weight you will be transporting and purchase an appropriate vehicle. A compact van for instance has a pay load of approximately 500kg - 600kg, whereas a long wheelbase transit has a payload in the region of 1400kg - 1600kg.

The weight of a van is a serious consideration. Fines are payable if the total load of a vehicle exceeds stated limits. In addition to an initial fine, if the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) believe the vehicle is dangerous, because of too great a load or uneven weight distribution, they can fine the driver another £60 and give them three penalty points.

The police and VOSA also have the power to stop and weigh any vehicle on the road. Those seriously overloading their vehicle, or serial offenders, can be fined £5,000 per offence.

DL4B: I have a van for personal use and often sleep in the vehicle. Is it legal to do so?

Peter: It's not illegal to sleep in the back of your vehicle if it's not parked on the public highway. Sleeping in the back on the hard shoulder is a sure recipe for a conversation with the police. There are dedicated rest areas where it's permitted to park your van to sleep – think dedicated truck stops.

Away from public roads, such as a beachside car park, it's not illegal to sleep in your vehicle. Surfers have been doing so for eons.

However, it's becoming increasingly rare in the UK to find somewhere to park that doesn't have some form of restriction. This is in stark comparison to France, and much of Europe where there are numerous areas to park up for the night, and some areas even offer toilet facilities as well as water and electricity points.

DL4B: I've heard I can be arrested if I've had a drink and am asleep in the back of the van (not in the driver's seat)?

Peter: This is an area where leisure van owners should be extremely careful. If you're taking a weekend break to the beach and sleeping in your van, it's likely you may have a few drinks in the evening and return to your vehicle. You can be arrested if the police believe you have an intention to drive, so sitting in the driver's seat with the keys or even sleeping in the front of the vehicle could see you in serious trouble.

If you're asleep in the back, while parked up at a dedicated camping ground you should be okay. But this is an area where van owners should be very careful if they wish to avoid prosecution.

DL4B: How do you insure a van for personal use?

There are a few options when it comes to insuring a van for personal use, and it will depend on who'll be driving the van, and how much cover you want. Just like insuring a car, you can get comprehensive cover, or third-party fire and theft.

If you're only using the van for personal use, you'll need private van insurance. If you plan to use it for any kind of business – including commuting to a workplace – you’ll need commercial van insurance. If you're unsure about which kind of cover you need, give your insurer a call – they'll be able to advise you.

Remember, if you make any modifications to your van, you'll need to tell your insurer to make sure you have the right cover. If you plan on making more changes, it's probably a good idea to let them know what you're planning so you can make sure they'll still cover you.

Peter Lee is a leading expert on vans and the founder of the Transit Van Club. Visit for more information and here to find out about van insurance.

Van Insurance Peter Lee
Peter Lee

Peter Lee
Last Updated: 17 Feb 2021