Here are the steps necessary in order to convert a van for cheap:
- Select the Right Van
- Get New Tires That Can Withstand Being Used on a Camper Van.
- Check the Brakes
- Gut the Van
- Insulate the Van from the Elements
- Building the Floor
- Building on the Bed Frame
- Adding Storage
- Cooking and Heat
- What to Do About Electricity
When most people think of converting their cargo van into a camper van, they think it’ll cost tens of thousands of dollars and take months, a year, or maybe even longer.
However, thanks to modern technology and some internet searches, a van conversion can actually be pretty economical and done in just a matter of weeks for as little for less than $5,000.
So, what are you waiting for? In this article you’ll learn what steps you’ll need to make your own camper van.
1. Select the Right Van
This is singlehandedly the most important step in the process. You need to get a van that is an inexpensive buy and also free of any major mechanical or structural problems.
When it comes to budget camper vans, it’s best to choose an American made van manufactured within the last 30 years without too many miles on it. Think Chevrolet Astro, Chevrolet Express (also sold as GMC Savana), and Ford Ecoline Vans (E150/250/350). These vans are relatively cheap, easy to work on, and parts are readily available all over the US.
Many people want to buy retro VW vans for conversions. While much cooler than these American vans, VW vans are extremely unreliable, and sourcing parts for them is very difficult.
Even if you find a cheap Volkswagen, the long-term cost and headache will be much greater than of American vans, and it’s generally not worth it for most people, particularly if you’re trying to keep costs down and plan on driving long distances.
The best places to look for a cheap van are Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Just go to your local version of either of these and type in “van” or “cargo van.”
You want to look for one made no earlier than the 1990’s that ideally has as few miles on it as possible.
Here’s a van I found on Craigslist after a quick search. This is one of the cheapest in the New York City area and only has 130,000 miles. Price will vary depending on where you’re located and the state of the used car market.
Once you find a van that meets your criteria, call the owner and arrange for a test drive. When you test drive the van, make sure it’s in good mechanical condition. Ask the owner about its service history as if it’s been in an accident or suffered catastrophic damage due to flooding or other issues.
It is a good idea to get the van’s VIN and run a Carfax or similar vehicle history report online prior to purchasing it. This report will show if there are any outstanding recalls as well as how many previous owners it’s had.
Carfax charges a small fee to see the report, but there are several sites that will compile this information for free. If the van is purchased from a dealer, the Carfax report will often be available for free.
This report will also show if there are problems with the title as well as the vehicle’s service history (although not all mechanics upload information to these databases).
If you’re not mechanically inclined, hire a professional to come inspect the car. You’ll want them to make sure there are no major problems with the engine and transmission and to assess what repairs, if any, will need to be done shortly after purchase.
You should also make sure to have them inspect the undercarriage for rust, particularly if you’re located near the ocean or in an area where salt is used to prevent snow and ice from accumulating on road surfaces.
Small amounts of rust are common and can be managed, but significant rusting of the vehicle negatively affects its structural integrity and value. Buying a van in such condition, while rather cheap, is extremely unsafe and will not be worth converting as it won’t last you very long.
2. A Cheaper Van May Need You to Buy Better Tires
So, you found a van that meets your criteria, but now you need to make some upgrades. It’s unlikely that a budget van being sold on Craigslist will have good tires. Maybe they will be sufficient in the beginning, but you will very soon need to replace them.
Getting new, high-quality tires is very important for safety; this is not the time to save money. You will generally spend between $500 and $1,000 for a new set of van tires. Get them aligned and balanced by a professional.
Keep the climate in mind. If you plan to do a lot of camping in the northern US and Canada during the colder months, winter tires are highly recommended. They are designed to grip the road well in ice and snow.
Since vans have higher centers of gravity than cars, it’s much easier to lose control while driving in extreme conditions. That’s why winter tires are especially important under these operating conditions.
3. Make Sure the Brakes Are in Good Condition
Another very important safety device is the brakes. Make sure that the brakes are working well. If there are issues, this is also not the time to cut corners.
Have a mechanic inspect the brakes and replace warn components if necessary, such as the brake pads. Like with tires, doing this right the first time will save you money in the long run as well as keep you safe when driving the van.
4. Gut the Rear of the Van
Now is the time to gut the van. If you bought a cargo van, this step will likely be very simple. You’ll need to sweep the back of the van and wash out what will likely be a large amount of dust and debris from its previous cargo use.
However, if you purchased a passenger van, you’ll need to remove the seats, seatbelts, and other components required to seat passengers in the back.
There will likely be other components, like seats, that you’ll want to tear out. This will make room for the insulation, bed, and storage containers which you will install later.
The items you tore out of the car have value, and you’ll be able to sell them as parts, recouping some of the van’s initial purchase price and adding to your materials budget when building out your conversion.
You could sell these torn out components on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, but you can also use sites like eBay where you’re more likely to find someone who’s looking for the exact part you’re selling.
This is because eBay has buyers all over the world, whereas Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are much more local. It might take a while for somebody on Craigslist in your area to be looking for rear seats for a 1998 Chevrolet Astra.
5. Add High Quality Insulation
The van you purchased was designed to be lightweight and practical for transporting goods or people, not as a home. Thus, the interior is not going to be very well insulated from the outside temperature.
Buying insulation is crucial for reducing noise from outside as well as keeping the inside of the van warm or cool, reducing fuel costs and wear on the engine as you find yourself idling for long periods of time.
Your van experiences heat transfer all the time, and keeping this to a minimum will make it easier to maintain your desired temperature inside of the van.
When selecting insulation, it needs to have a high R-value, which is a measure of a material’s resistance to heat.
It should also withstand vibration (fiberglass, for example, is not a good choice) and should be resistant to mold and other moisture-related problems. It should also be non-toxic as you’re going to be in a confined space for long periods of time.
Unlike in a house, you won’t be placing drywall to hide the insulation, increasing your exposure to the insulation’s components.
You can buy insulation at a home improvement store like Home Depot or online, particularly if you’re interested in non-synthetic insulators. Sheep’s wool is a common choice as it has a high R-value and is natural. You should insulate all exterior surfaces – the walls, ceiling, floor, and doors.
When you’re insulating the floor, leave several 4 by 12-inch gaps evenly spread throughout the floor. These will be for 2×4 pieces of wood that you’ll install as support for the floor’s upper layer.
You’ll want to lay the 4-inch side down flat so that you’re only making the floor about 2 inches tall as you don’t want to lose too much headroom inside the van.
6. Build a New Floor Over The Insulation
Whether you purchased a cargo or passenger van, the original floor won’t do. In a cargo van, the floor will be metal and uneven. In a passenger van, although the floor will be relatively even, the original carpeting will be disgusting, and you will want to get rid of it anyway.
Since you just insulated the floor of the van, you’ll need to build a slightly elevated platform that will become the new floor.
Once this bottom layer is complete, you can buy thick plywood and use screws to attach it to the 2x4s. We’re keeping this extremely simple, so once you finish the layer, you can add rugs on top to finish it, or you can paint on a wood finish. This is probably the least expensive way to create your floor.
As long as the wood is of high quality, this floor should do the job of supporting you, your bed, and all your belongings being stored in the van.
7. Build a Bed Frame With Storage Space Underneath
Once the floor is finished, the decisions you’ll make about the bed will affect the comfort and usability of the already limited space inside the van.
I recommend building an elevated bed frame. You’ll have space underneath the bed for storage as well as help insulate you from the temperature of the floor, which could get quite cold in the winter.
You’ll want to use 2x4s for this build as well. You’ll need to build the stilts that will hold the bed in place. These stilts should line up with the 2x4s that were placed throughout the insulation. This will reduce the load on the insulation as all of the bed’s weight will be distributed amongst a few points on the floor.
You’ll then attach 2x4s to the horizontal section of the frame right underneath where the mattress will be. This will support the mattress.
You could leave it at that and put the mattress on top, or you could also add a plywood layer on top. I don’t think this layer is necessary as many bed frames you might buy for your home will simply have wooden planks as the primary support for the mattress.
You may elect to add some elevated 2x4s on the perimeter of the mattress to hold it in place. You will likely want to use a full size mattress as a twin mattress might feel too small, and a queen size mattress won’t fit in the van.
The size of the mattress is especially important if you plan to live in the van with another person.
8. Buy and Install Storage Containers and Shelves
If you’re keeping your setup as cost effective as possible and don’t mind foregoing some luxuries, the rest of your van’s components can be purchased pre-built.
You can store most of your items in plastic containers. There are many options to choose from online as well as from specialized stores, like The Container Store. Stores like this carry containers as well as shelves and other home goods.
Check out the sizes available in advance to make sure that what you buy fits your build. You can also get a container to mount on the roof of the van to store items that you won’t need to frequently access.
9. Cooking Equipment and a Carbon Monoxide Detector
Many camper van conversions you’ll see on YouTube include high end finishes and a built-in stove. This is very expensive and not essential if you want to keep costs low. You can buy a camping stove and propane canisters at a camping store like REI.
These canisters can also be connected to heaters to keep the inside of the van warm in the winter. If you chose to do this, ensure that a window is open in order to ventilate the space and monitor the carbon monoxide levels in the van with a detector.
10. A Power Inverter to Use the Van’s Electricity
You can buy a power inverter for less than $100. This is a device that you can plug into the van’s existing 12V DC power outlet, and it will invert that power to 120V AC, allowing you to charge your phone, computer and run other electric appliances while drawing power from the engine. This is much cheaper than a dedicated generator and high-capacity lithium-ion batteries.
Since your cooking and heating needs are taken care of with propane canisters, you’ll primarily use electricity to power your phone and computer as well as the lighting inside the van.
You can set up various battery powered light sources throughout the van, such as camping lanterns. If they’re rechargeable, you can charge them whenever you drive around along with your phone and computer.
You could also purchase some basic, low-cost power banks that you can save for instances when you aren’t driving the vehicle for several days.
Even with this simple build, you’ve added a lot of value to the van. It went from a purely utilitarian vehicle to something you can call home. If you keep up on the maintenance and repairs, you’ll be able to sell it for a healthy profit when it’s time for an upgrade.
A quick Google search for “converted camper vans for sale” reveals a plethora of sites where people are selling their already converted vans, with prices ranging from $10,000 to even over $100,000!
When it comes time to sell, you’ll be able to do so for a healthy profit, much like if you bought a dilapidated home, renovated it, and put it back on the market, ready for somebody to live in. You can’t underestimate the value of DIY renovation.
There you have it. If you’ve been thinking about jumping into van life, now is the time! With the cost of living rising in the US, you can save money and have a big adventure on the road with your own van conversion.