How to convert a van on a budget
Before #vanlife started trending on Instagram, most people’s concept of nomadic life was far from glamorous (think: van down by the river), but now there are van conversions that cost more than some family homes. With the current state of the world, van travel may be the only way to safely satisfy that inner wanderlust. You may be asking, how can I do the vanlife thing without selling a kidney? Well, it involves getting cozy with power tools and acquiring a nail gun obsession. Up next: How to face your fear of power tools.
STEP 1: FIND A SENSIBLE VAN
If the road were a runway, Sprinter vans would be the Kendall Jenner of vans; however, in exchange for their elite status, they are more expensive to buy and repair. Not to mention it takes longer to get parts in, leaving you out of commission for days. Buying a used van that is both in good shape and easy to repair will serve you and your wallet better in the long run.
Create a couple of lists for your van search: your non-negotiables and your wants. Remember you’re going to be living out of this thing, so taking your time to find the perfect van will pay off. A few things to consider are headspace, clearance, mileage, age, windows, AC… the list goes on. Once you’ve gotten an idea of what you expect out of a van, set a realistic price range and stick to it.
Whether it’s on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, when you see “the one” do not hesitate! When it comes to buying vans, when you’re late to the game, you’re out of the game.
STEP 2: RESEARCH AND PURCHASE MATERIALS
YouTube is your first destination. Get an idea of what kind of floor plan and creature comforts you want in your van. How are you going to approach storage? Are you going to buy an extra solar panel so that you can have a real fridge? These are all questions that should be answered before you buy your van. Now is the time to answer the questions you never even knew you would ask, like “Where am I going to use the bathroom?” and “How long can I go without a shower?”
Once you’ve got an idea of the things you’re going to want in your van, you can start making a list of the things you will need and estimating the cost of your conversion. Apologies in advance for the headache that is researching the lowest possible price for value for every single item you’re installing in the van.
Some things that saved me money: using Havelock wool as insulation. It smells like a barnyard during installation, but it’s flexible, flame retardant, and has a great R-value (oh yeah, you’re gonna learn about R-values).
Another tip is to be kind to Lowes employees. There are always items that are “damaged” that they can sell to you for an insane discount. I got my kitchen cabinets at 65% off, which was cheaper than the materials I would have needed to build them myself. Try to thrift and repurpose as much as possible. I found some planks of cherry wood for free that I repurposed into my countertop. I chose to use a cooler to store my food instead of wasting energy on powering a fridge 24/7 to cut costs on solar panels and batteries.
Planning out and purchasing your materials ahead of time will help you save money and time.
STEP 3: CALL UP YOUR FRIEND WITH POWER TOOLS
Van in hand, it’s time to get to work. Demo day (my personal favorite day) is your opportunity to turn your van into a blank canvas. If you’re the kind of person that has power tools, this next part requires a lot less groveling. If you’re not (like me), prepare to sweet-talk your friends or family who own power tools into the favor of a lifetime: not only teaching you how to use scary and powerful machinery, but helping you as well. Building a van on a budget requires lots of hands.
I soon learned there are more kinds of saws than I could have ever imagined. I was lucky to have access to some really top-of-the-line power tools, but having access to at least a miter saw and a hand sander will make the conversion go a lot faster (for reference, I converted my van in 3 weeks as a total novice). Nail guns will be your new best friend, but be careful, or else you’ll get drunk off of the power.
Once you’ve demoed, you need to take lots of measurements and finalize your floor plan. You want to start from the ground up and make sure your van is moisture-tight.
STEP 4: KNOW WHEN TO ADMIT THAT YOU’RE IN OVER YOUR HEAD
Learning a new skill always comes with its ups and downs, but it can become slightly more existential when you’ve got lots of money and time wrapped up into something that requires learning lots of new skills at once. I hit a wall (literally) when it came to installing the walls of my van. Vans are not made with straight edges and my carpentry skills, nor that of my friends’ were up to snuff. After wasting time and money (on more and different kinds of materials in last ditch efforts to make it work), I realized that it was time to enlist some professional help. A carpenter is absolutely more expensive than doing something yourself, but when you consider the cost-benefit analysis, getting the walls of the van completed was worth every penny. An unfinished van or a van with shoddy workmanship inherently has less value. So knowing and admitting the things you can’t do early on will save you money and hair loss in the long run.
STEP 5: DRIVE OFF INTO THE SUNSET
You did it, you built a home! And you didn’t spend $150,000 for it (yes that is seriously what some of these luxury vans go for). Now other people will look at your digs with van envy. Whether it’s your vacation vessel or your new home-on-wheels, there’s no better feeling than to wake up a couple of feet from the trailhead, and to not have spent a fortune for it.