Planning a camper van conversion
So you’ve decided to convert a van into your home and camper. Good call! But if you start your build without planning it you’re doomed. Well not quite doomed but prepare to uninstall and re-fit appliances, waste time and plenty of money. It’s essential to plan your camper van conversion before you even buy your base vehicle. This post is intended to help you through the process of planning a camper van conversion and avoid some major build errors.
Van life considerations before you start
Do you know what living conditions you want in your van? Perhaps you’ll use your camper in fair weather so need a small interior with plenty of storage for your outdoor gear. In contrast, you might want to use your camper in winter conditions so prefer a large indoor space. Think about how many people your van needs to accommodate and the head and leg room they all need for comfort. Do you want a shower and toilet onboard. Fixed beds are terrific but are you happy with a rock’n’ roller bed you need to make up each night? Think this through to help you decide what size van you need to buy.
Camper van appliances
Have you thought about the appliances you want installed? And how will you provide power to them? A basic cold water system needs at least a 12v electrical supply for the pump. So does the fridge. What cooking facilities will you install? A hob could run on bottled gas or even diesel and both systems need a different set up. You can have as many or as few appliances as you want and the amount available on the market is extensive. Just take a look at the motorhome department on Amazon. There’s thousands of products available. Planning your camper van conversion before you start will help keep you focussed and your budget on track.
Storage in your camper van
How much storage do you need? You need kitchen utensils, clothes, a few electronics and some camping gear. Perhaps more, perhaps less but where are you going to put it all? Are you planning to build the storage cupboards yourself or do you need to find a tradesman to help? And what materials are you using? Don’t forget to consider how to secure the contents either. Don’t expect your best china to survive for long in a moving vehicle unless you’ve secured it well! We do a lot of rough tracks and off road drives in our camper van so have packing down to a fine art. So much so, when we had Mowgli on her side on a Moroccan mountain pass we only disturbed a few scatter cushions. No breakages!
How much does a camper van conversion cost?
The budget is one of the most important factors of any camper van conversion. Chances are you’re building your own van at least in part to save money. Even if you’re handing your van over to a coach builder, your spec will affect how much the build costs. A camper van conversion could cost as much or as little as you want. We’ve seen luxury conversions costing up to €250000 and others built for 2 sticks and a balloon. How much you spend is up to you. It’s your money, your van and your van life.
Estimate how much its going to cost you
The first step then in planning a camper van conversion is working out how much it’s going to cost. You need a base vehicle, utilities, fixtures and fittings, tools and space to work. You can keep costs down by choosing a smaller, older vehicle and basic set up. The newer and bigger the vehicle or more sophisticated the set up, the higher the costs.
We start planning our conversion budget with a high level spreadsheet. More often than not we fill it with guesswork and a little wishful thinking!
Shop around for the best price
Then we breakdown each of these areas into specific components we need to buy. This is critical for us because we’re rubbish at our initial estimate. For example, our detailed spreadsheet looks something like this for the water system:
You can see our detailed estimate increased from £1100 to £1500 and all we did was price up the components we needed to buy. If we hadn’t planned this out before we started the build, that extra £400 would be an unwelcome surprise. We go round this process a few times for every part of the build until we’re content we’ve got most things covered. Make sure to shop around too and don’t forget to add postage costs!
Refine your budget and track it to the penny
We’ve pulled together a detailed budget as part of planning our own camper van conversion. As the build progresses, we record the actual spend in the same spreadsheet. This allows us to compare our detailed estimates to our actual spend, so monitoring our budget. The actual price of some components will vary from the estimates. We’re relaxed about variances so long as our budget for each area is on track. Here’s an example of the spreadsheet we use to track and help manage our budget.
We are meticulous in tracking our conversion spend. We don’t want costs to spiral out of control and every £50 overspent is a day of travel lost. And the only reason we’re converting our van in the first place is to travel so we don’t want to a spend a penny more than planned on the build.
Planning the order of tasks on a camper van conversion
Once you’ve costed the conversion and bought your base vehicle, the fun begins. It’s an exciting but busy time and the time to start spending money, hand over fist. If you’ve planned out the build order of each conversion task, you’ll save rework and money. Here’s a high level plan for any camper van conversion.
- Plan your costs and timescale (that’s this step)
- Buy your base vehicle
- Insure your base vehicle
- Design your camper van layout, including electrics and water systems
- Make sure vehicle is mechanically sound, rust free and water tight
- Modify your vehicle where necessary (extended fuel tanks, winch, new tyres and wheels etc)
- Prepare vehicle for respray (cut holes for ventilation, snorkel, water filler etc)
- Re-spray vehicle
- Fit electrics and lay cables (solar, hook up, split relay)
- Install water tanks and pipes
- Insulation & ventilation
- Fit wall, floor and roof lining
- Install bathroom
- Make & fit furniture
- Install appliances
- Complete the legal process
- Shakedown trip
- Hit the road!
You may not need to carry out every task on this list and you may need to add others. There are also some jobs from each that actually get done in parallel. Regardless, it’s a starter for 10 so you can start planning your own camper van conversion.
We’re compiling a diary of our camper build. When we’ve finished, we’ll share it with you so you can see the exact order of tasks we did during our build.
Tools & materials for your camper van conversion
Planning a camper van conversion involves deciding on build materials. The choice of materials will affect weight of the vehicle, total cost and quality of the finish. The list of materials in a camper van conversion is a long one. You need insulating materials, electrical components, plumbing bits and furniture built. We’re writing a list of every component and all materials we’re using in our conversion. We’ll post it when we’ve finished.
As we planned our Sprinter van conversion, we looked for a definitive list of all the tools we would need during the build. We wanted to make sure we included the costs of any specialist tools we didn’t already have. We couldn’t find a definitive list anywhere. So we’ve started to compile the exact list we were looking for. By the time we’ve finished our build, we’ll have a full list of all the tools you need for a camper van conversion.
Do you have the skills needed to build your own camper van?
Some of the tasks involved in the build of a camper are easy. With patience and time the majority of people will have no trouble completing them. For example, insulating the interior of the camper van is an easy job. Sure its time consuming. And you need plenty of patience too but it’s not a skilled job. In contrast, installing the electrics needs a good level of electrical know how.
Building a camper needs lots of skills. A competent DIYer won’t have much trouble with most of it, although there are some skills you may need to get help with. If you have skills in plumbing, electrical, mechanics and carpentry you won’t go far wrong. If not, you may need to get help from others.
A word of warning on camper van insurance
In the UK, when you buy your base vehicle, make sure you check the body type on the V5C. Unless it’s already a camper, its probably registered as a van or in Baloo’s case, a minibus. You must notify the DVLA of the change of body type to a motorhome. Expect to provide photographic evidence of the conversion.
When you insure the van (or minibus), you want to get a policy that covers the conversion. The money you’re planning to spend on the camper will add value (you hope) to the base vehicle. As such, you’ll want a policy that takes this into consideration on the value covered. Most conversion insurance are specialist policies. They insist the DVLA register the body type as motorhome within a specified period. Ours is 3 months so we need to crack on. Yet we don’t need to complete the conversion, only meet the minimum standards. As a result, we do some jobs sooner than we would otherwise to ensure our insurance policy remain valid.
Interesting read: all you need to know about camper van insurance
Here’s the link to the DVLA pages outlining the minimum standards.
Rules often change so check the latest regulations governing camper van conversions at the planning stage.
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