This past year my wife and I had to buy a 12-passenger van. It wasn’t something we were planning on or thinking about when we started dating, but that’s how it worked out. Because dating turned to marriage turned to children. Lots of them. We’re fast approaching our ninth anniversary, and our seventh child is due in September. What can I say? We just both really really enjoy…responsibility.
So for all you responsible families out there, here are a few things I wish I knew about the world of 12-passenger vans a year ago, followed by what we actually did.
- 12-passenger vans are crazy expensive, especially to young families used to living on shoe-string budgets, driving cars purchased in the $1500-4000 range held together by duct tape and chewing gum. Unless you live in Salt Lake City, the likelihood of finding something under 200,000 miles for less than $10K is slim. And even then, you’re looking at spending $9K for something with 190,000 miles. So budget and plan and plan and budget.
- 12-passenger vans hold value. They wouldn’t be so expensive if they didn’t hold their value. Which means aim for the sweet spot. How long do you want this van, and how much value are you going to be able to get out of it when you’re done? If you’re like us, the answers to those questions are “Pretty much forever,” and “Something? Please?” But if you have the means and potential necessity to upgrade (to a 15-passenger van or a short bus or a Hummer Limo or whatever), that changes things.
- 12-passenger vans are ugly. In a world that followed God’s economy, the stylish vehicles would belong to the responsible (aka fruitful) people. But since this isn’t that world, you should start deciding on whether or not you prefer Weird-Euro-Space-Shuttle-Thing or Big-Euro-Cube-Truck-Thing. I guess some ironic comedian of a designer decided they could make these massive vans feel smaller and sleeker by making them poser-Euro-fabulous. But whatever. Just get used to the idea, that’s all.
- 12-passenger vans are awesome. Sure, they’re big and hard to park and inconvenient. But kids love them. They make for awesome road trips. And you can do so much more for friends and family. Own the awesomeness and don’t let your kids think for a second that the van is anything but a blessing sent down from heaven for your awesome family.
- 12-passenger vans are a hassle. Anyone who owns a pickup truck knows the story. Don’t be surprised when people want to borrow your van for a trip or the youth group wants it for a retreat or Johnny College thinks it’d be sweet if his garage band could drive it an hour to play to three people at a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. Establish your ground rules. Be ready to be generous. And try not to cringe when stuff happens.
By the time we needed a 12-passenger van, we had only been able to save about $10,000 to put toward it. And happily/tragically, we live nowhere near a large Mormon mecca. Which posed some problems for us.
In our case, spending that amount of money would take our emergency fund down so low that one major repair could be devastating. And banking on a vehicle that has over 200,000 miles not to need a major repair didn’t seem…responsible. Especially at the rate we’ve been able to save. And, as already established, we’re responsible people who love responsibility.
Which posed a dilemma. Should I, as a responsible thirty-something father of six…go into debt? On a vehicle?
I had never had a car payment before in my life, and that’s something I was kind of proud of. So I put off the question. For way too long. You know, to save up money I didn’t have, which wouldn’t make much difference anyway because we were inevitably going to finance it, while hoping for the perfect thing to fall into our laps. Because it made a ton of sense to drive two vehicles everywhere while I came to terms with financing a van and banked on a miracle solution.
Eventually I came to terms with financing. I drove hundreds of miles with my dad and with friends to check out different vans at different dealerships across the midwest. I spent a lot of time on the phone with a family friend who used to own a car dealership. And then, at long last, I did it.
I bought a 2015 Ford Transit 350 (low roof), I purchased it at $23,800, and I put $11,000 down. We now have our first car payment ever, at a modest $248/mo. And the van is still under warranty.
According to Car & Driver, the Ford Transit is “the alternative to contraception,” and the best vehicle in its class. It’s also the most affordable. For the responsible family, it’s practically perfect in every way.
This particular van was picked up by a dealership off a fleet auction. It had been used as a rental before. It was a little banged up and already had 30,000 miles on it. But it was only a year old and it would’ve cost me twice as much to buy the van new.
These fleet auctions happen every year, so you can expect to see last year’s models starting to show up at dealerships with 20-50,000 miles on them every October or November. We bought ours in December, despite knowing that list prices would drop by a thousand bucks or more come January.
Because our van was part of a rental fleet, it didn’t come fully featured. Surprise, no rental agency is stocking fully-featured 12-passenger vans. In fact, probably the only way to get a 12-passenger with all the features you want is to buy it new, to have it drop in your lap (probably wouldn’t hurt to live in Salt Lake City), or to prefer zero features.
So while we would’ve loved having Bluetooth, or at least a USB-in instead of the standard Aux-in, and LED passenger lighting, we ended up with a very basic vehicle. I would’ve at least liked to explore other engine options, too, like the EcoBoost engine (though I’ve seen mixed reviews). We’ve got the basic, FlexFuel engine.
But in the end, who were we to complain? We had just been looking at sinking a bunch of money into a potential clunker, and we ended up with a 2015 Ford Euro-Space-Shuttle that still offers a lot more than vans that are only a year or two older. At the end of the day, we’re happy with our decision.
Lord willing, we’ll have this van for a long, long time.
So for the features on the 2015 Ford Transit Wagon 350 that meant the most to us:
- Configurable seats. This makes it ideal for spacing kids and getting them in and out of car seats. Although we’ve not reconfigured anything…yet.
- Cargo space. We were able to get home from Christmas at Grammy and Grandpa’s house, Memaw and Papaw’s house, Granny’s house, Aunt T & Uncle M’s house, Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa’s house, and Nana’s house, with a week’s worth of luggage, the full load of toys, and all six kids for the first time in years. Enough said?
- Quietness. We can be heard at the back of the van while talking in normal tones. And we’re not loud people. That’s nice.
- Visibility. The windows on the Transit are fantastic, and make it a step up from just about every other van in its class excepting the Mercedez Sprinter, which is, uh, expensive.
- Back-up cam. It’s a really small video display. Too small. But it’s there, and it helps. I’d rather have it than not.
So what are the takeaways?
First the Transit is a great vehicle. I recommend it for all your big family transportation needs. If Euro-Space-Shuttle isn’t your style, and style is very important to you in a 12-passenger van, first, get over yourself. It’s a 12-passenger van for goodness’ sake. Then take a look at the Nissan NV—that was the other option we considered. But for us the decisive factors between the two were cost and visibility. Also the ability to tell kids at church that the van can fly. (Which it can. Look closely underneath it, and you’ll see where the wings fold up.)
Second, if you’re living on a tight budget and you see a 12-passenger van on the horizon, you need to understand how expensive these guys are (very), how much value they hold over time (a lot), and how difficult they are to find used (very). Then start thinking responsibly. Or book a one-way ticket to Utah.