Should I Convert A Van? 10 Things To Know Before Deciding

Converted camper van parked on grass

If you’ve been looking around on social media and watching videos of other people converting vans to campers, you are not alone. It intrigued me as well and I became obsessed with the notion of converting a van.

Converting a van is very popular right now as many people have adopted this lifestyle and have made van life a trend. A converted camper van allows you to create a small living space that can be moved around from place to place, anywhere you would like to go.

It’s the ultimate travel vehicle and can take you to places you couldn’t normally go. When you are traveling in a van, you have it all at your disposal and you can live a somewhat normal and comfortable life even while traveling around the country.

When I was looking to convert my van, I considered many different options and finally settled on the van that I have today.

It has been an exciting adventure for sure and it has allowed me to travel in style and enjoy my journey. I feel as though when I travel, I have my little home with me and it has been designed and created just as I want it.

It’s a cool feeling looking behind you as you are driving and seeing a nice living space that has been designed and created just the way you want it.

It makes me want to stay in my van and go places where I can experience the joy that comes from staying for almost free in a world that isn’t always affordable.

Although I love the van that I created, there are many things that I wish I knew before I started converting it.

You can watch videos and dream about converting your own van but some may not mention some of the critical parts of this endeavor. I would like to shed light on a few things that you should consider before you decide to convert a van.

Why A Conversion Van?

First, let’s look at why anyone would want to purchase an empty van and then convert it when there are already great camping solutions on the market.

I asked this myself many times as I thumbed through image after image of van conversions on the Internet. I wasn’t sure why all the popularity of something that seemed like just a passing trend.

I am no stranger to RVs or the camping lifestyle so I know that there are nice livable options that can be purchased already done for you.

I concluded that there are a few reasons that people choose to take on the challenge of a van conversion.

After all of my research, I realized why I was taken in with the idea and understood why other people also wanted to be involved in this lifestyle.

1. It’s trendy

It’s very trendy to convert a van nowadays. With all of the DIY shows on TV, converting a van gives people something of a DIY nature in a smaller package.

It’s a very trendy thing to convert a van and then show off your work on popular social media sites. The #vanlife hashtag has become a major part of social media feeds and people have gotten an eyeful of this type of lifestyle.

It is trending on almost all social media platforms and people have taken notice. Any time something is trending like this, it’s common to want to be a part of it and do it yourself.

Trendy couple in van smiling

2. It’s cheaper than buying a ready-made RV

You could go out and buy an RV that is already done for you, but where is the fun in that?

An RV offers a great way to travel and live but a converted van offers the same with a cheaper price tag. You will probably pay less for your van and conversion then you will for a motorhome that offers similar living conditions.

3. The fun of creating your own custom space

At first glance, creating the living area of your dreams in a van seems fun. While it is fun if you are the DIY type, it is also a challenge.

Some people like challenges like this and want to take them on and then show off what they have done. It’s fun and satisfying to see the finished product after you are fully finished with a project of this size.

4. It’s the epitome of adventure

Getting into a van and driving across the country on an epic adventure is what van life is all about. When you have converted a van, you have complete freedom to go anywhere and do anything that you want.

The world is yours and all you need is a tank of gas and some other essentials and you can be on your way to discovering adventure that you have always wanted.

Van life rewards those who have worked hard and converted a van into a living space. They now have a mobile home that can be taken and set up anywhere. The natural world becomes your back porch, and your front porch as well.

Chairs sitting by the campfire outside camper van

10 Things To Know Before Converting A Van

I am not a negative person, quite the opposite actually. However, there is some advice I wish I had been given before I decided to convert my van. I feel compelled to share that advice with others who are moving towards the same journey.

I want others to know some of the realities of converting a van that they may not have thought of. Only someone who has gone through the grind of converting a van can give this kind of advice.

When you are just getting started or are excited about the possibilities, there are some things that you don’t even know that you don’t know.

If I were to write a list of 10 things that someone should consider before deciding to convert a van, this is what the list would look like.

1) It’s not as easy as you think

Inside view of a van conversion
Converting my van was like trying to put a puzzle together except none of the pieces fit.

When I first purchased my van, I thought it was going to be an easy process to start converting it. I have experience in building construction projects and doing small woodworking projects around the house.

I assumed that it would be a fun project for me to purchase a van and then fix it up exactly as I wanted it. I was inspired as I sat and dreamed of exactly what I wanted the inside layout to look like.

However, once I began the project, I realized that it was not going to be easy at all. To begin with, nothing in the van is straight or squared so the initial difficulty is first experienced when you begin to see how challenging it is to work with.

You must utilize all of the ingenuity you can muster up to complete the project. Just know going into it that it is not an easy task and you should not expect it to be a walk in the park.

It can be quite overwhelming when you think of the van as an overall project. The key to a successful conversion is to take one section at a time and do not stress yourself by thinking about the entire project.

If you are a beginner and have never worked with projects like this, you may be in for a challenge. Although, I believe that anyone can make it happen, don’t expect this to go as smooth as you might imagine it will from scrolling through social media posts.

2) It’s not as cheap as you think

Like many people, I started my van conversion with a budget in mind and for a while, I was right on target. I had a nice spreadsheet with everything filled in all nice and neat.

Everything was running along just fine and I thought the entire process would be just like that.

The problem is, you don’t know what you are getting into with a van conversion and there are all types of small costs that add up that you never planned for in the beginning.

There is always a specialized bolt to buy or an odd-shaped bracket or something to spend money on that adds up throughout the entire build.

These little costs don’t seem like much at the time but over the course of the entire build they can add up to hundreds or even thousands of extra dollars that you didn’t plan for in the beginning.

My initial budget was set to $6000 for the entire build.

When all was said and done and the conversion was 100% complete, I had spent around $11,000.

Some of the added costs came from me wanting to improve on my original plans or add things I didn’t plan for in the beginning.

However, know that going into it, you are going to spend a lot of money on the van conversion. You can get by much cheaper than I did but in the end, you may end up spending more than you thought you would.

Plan ahead and make sure you budget for an additional amount beyond what you think it will cost.

Piggy bank with money

3) Additional costs add up

Besides the cost of converting the van, there will be additional costs that you may not think of in the beginning. The excitement of purchasing the van and getting started with the conversion can sometimes make you forget about other costs.

Your van will need to have insurance on it at all times and you will have to pay yearly registration fees and taxes on the van. If you live in a place where vehicle inspections are required, you’ll need that too.

If this is a weekend type of vehicle for you, these costs can be an unwelcome addition to vehicle expenses you may already have.

There are also maintenance costs that you will have to consider in your budget such as regular oil changes, tire rotations, tire replacements and other preventive maintenance measures that you will need to stay up on.

This is similar to any vehicle and you would have to do this no matter what type of vehicle you have. However, if you are converting a van and it will be an additional vehicle that you own, it will be an additional cost to what you are already paying for vehicles.

If this will be your only vehicle and you plan on living in it, this may not be such a big deal for you.

4) It will take a LOT of time

Converting a van is a very time-consuming process. If you think that you are going to purchase a van and then convert it in a few weeks and then be on your way, you may be in for a big surprise.

It could probably happen this way if you spend all of your working hours on it and you know what you are doing. However, the reality is that it generally takes longer than you expect to take.

My van took me over a year to get to the point to where I could say that it was completely finished. I initially thought that the process would take me six months. This timeframe was with me working on it nearly every weekday for 3 to 4 hours and then spending the majority of the weekend working on it.

I could have probably done it quicker if I had chosen a simpler layout but a simpler layout is not what I wanted.

You will need to dedicate a lot of time for a build like this. The work involved is difficult and it’s a learning process along the way. The time you spend working on something may have to be undone after you realize you’ve done it the wrong way.

This happened to me a few times and it always added additional time that I would have to spend figuring out a new way and then making the new way work.

Time is valuable so if you do not have a lot of it to spare, the van build may take you a very long time to complete.

5) Cargo vans are used and abused

Cargo van with ladders on top

If you are planning on purchasing a used cargo van, you should know most of these are owned by companies and used as work vans. These companies have many different employees that use and abuse these vehicles.

I know because I used to work for a company that owned a fleet of vans like this. There were many different employees and they each pushed the vans to their limits. Since the van was not theirs, they abused it more than they would their own personal vehicle.

You can also expect this if you know that your van has been used by a rental company. People do not treat rental cars very nice since they do not own the vehicles.

Be sure and do your research and make sure you have a mechanic look at any van that you are considering purchasing. You will be glad that you had an expert look at it for you in the long run.

6) A camper might be a better choice

Camping trailer parked in the woods

With all of the talk of camper vans and #vanlife, people have forgotten about the good old-fashioned campers. A camper is already done for you and you can make it work just as you would a van.

If you have a vehicle capable of towing a camper trailer, a small trailer might be a better option.

For one reason, the camper is already done for you and you can purchase it and then start your journey of enjoying it. There will be no stress of having to convert one unless you want to improve it or you have purchased a used one that needs remodeling.

Another reason is that a used camper trailer will probably cost you less money and require less yearly costs and maintenance.

If you do not mind towing a vehicle and are not looking for a stealthy van set up, I would consider looking at other options before you make your final decision on purchasing a van.

Although trailers may not be as trendy as converted vans are, they are every bit as useful and livable as a van will be.

7) You will probably lose sleep at night

Man laying in bed having trouble sleeping

I had many sleepless nights during my van conversion. Being the perfectionist that I am, I would think of how I was going to do things throughout the night.

I would be lying in bed with my heart racing, trying to figure out the best way to make something work.

I would often get out of bed and write something down or sketch something out on paper in an attempt to ease my mind.

I wanted to make sure everything was done right and it was cutting into my rest time at night. This became a problem later on in my build as I began to lose more and more sleep thinking about how to do everything.

It was a stressful time for me and was hard to lay down at night without thinking about something related to the conversion.

8) You will live in constant frustration

I was frustrated more often than not during my van build. I cannot count the times that I thought I was done with it. I wanted to list it for sale so that someone else could take over the project and free me from it.

There were so many things that were frustrating along the way and piecing together different parts of the project was sometimes overwhelming.

I was the only one working on my van so it became a struggle as I juggled ideas around in my small brain. It may not be as frustrating for you if you have others that you can bounce ideas off of and have as a helping hand.

Don’t let the frustration get the best of you because you can finish the project. I finished my project and I kept going even when I was frustrated but there were times along the way when I was close to giving up on the whole project.

9) Your local home improvement store will know you by name

Man buying wood at home improvement store

I was a regular at my local Home Depot for the entire year that it took me to convert my van. Just when I thought I had everything I needed, I would run across an area that needed a special bolt or something I didn’t have or had run out of.

I was always searching the aisles, looking for that perfect part that I needed. Oftentimes, I didn’t even know what part I needed. I was hoping that it would reach out to me as I walked down aisles.

I was at Home Depot at least a couple of times per week during the year that I spent converting my van.

10) It’s not going to be as glamorous as you might think

It’s a glamorous lifestyle until you begin to live it. After spending a little time in a small van, you’ll see that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It looks great on camera but the things you don’t see on the camera are the things that might make the lifestyle a little less appealing to you.

You have to experience the sweaty, hot summer nights or the cold, freezing winter nights to understand this.

How about using a portable toilet in your van or taking a cold shower? The times when you are out on the road looking for a place to park and sleep for the night or looking for a place to fill your water tanks or dump your portable cassette toilet.

These are just a handful of non-glamorous activities that are involved in living in a van. I tell you this because if you are expecting a dream world once you get out on the road with your van, you may be surprised.

Cassette toilet on grass

Should I Buy A Conversion Van?

What if you do not have the skillset required to complete a van conversion? After all, converting a van is not for the faint of heart and is a challenging undertaking.

Buying a van that has already been converted by someone else might be a wiser decision.

Whether you purchase one that was self-converted by someone or you purchase one that was professionally converted by a conversion company, the idea might be appealing to those who don’t want to go through the trouble of doing it themselves.

Not everyone has the ability or even has the place to do the work that is required for a van conversion. You may be forced to work out on the street if you live in the city or you may not even have a space in which to work.

A word of caution, if you are planning on purchasing a van that someone else has converted, you run the risk of purchasing something that was not done properly.

There may have been subpar work done on it since most people who convert vans for personal use are not experts in doing so.

Buying a converted van is a risk and there may be fixes associated with doing it. It could become more of a headache in the end than just starting from scratch and doing it yourself.

One good thing about having done it yourself is that you know everything about the van. You understand the systems that you’ve built and you know where to look when something goes wrong.

You develop a mental picture of everything installed in the van as you go so when troubleshooting is needed, you will find it much easier on something that you have personally built.

What my van conversion taught me about life

Despite the long conversion time and some frustration along the way, the final product I ended up with was well worth the struggle. For me, it was a learning experience that I will take with me into other parts of my life.

I’m no stranger to adversity or life experience but this van undertaking helped me to put some things into perspective.

The most important lesson I learned throughout my conversion was the importance of chunking large goals down into manageable tasks.

I have tried to live by this principle for most of my life but this venture helped me solidify it. With a project this large, you can’t think of the whole project or it will overwhelm you.

As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

How do you convert a van? One small task at a time.

The other thing I learned was to believe in my abilities and trust the process. There were so many times when I was close to giving up on the project. Instead, I kept going as I focused on how it would feel once the project was complete.

I believed that I could make it happen and I created small tasks and slowly accomplished them. In the end, I had created something to be proud of and it feels great to hit the road in something I created with my own two hands.

So if you are looking to purchase a van and convert it, just remember that you can do it but it might not be easy. Just stick with it and chunk it into small steps that allow you to see constant progress.

In the end, you’ll be glad that you stuck with it and accomplished something to be proud of.

Dan Collins

I consider myself an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel and go to places that most people don't get a chance to go. I want to see it all and live life to the fullest while I'm alive. My camper van is helping me to do just that. I write about my experiences to help inspire others to do the same.

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