Choosing a van
Choosing a van to convert into a camper is arguably the most exciting part of the build. Do your research on which suits your needs/budget the best, and which vans have the best reviews in terms of reliability and cost of repair – because if you’re buying a van on a budget, there will be some repairs.
Take into account the size of the cargo area – if you’re a tall person or simply value your space, the height and width of your camper van is going to be important. Other questions you might consider when shopping around – do i need a 4×4? What cargo van has the best MPG? Windows on the back, sides, or neither? Below is a quick visual list of common vans to convert into campers, but know that there are other make/models out there that will serve you just as well.
Buying a van
You’re ready to start building your campervan NOW. Well, easy cowboy, because finding a cheap and mechanically reliable van to convert into a camper van takes patience and diligence. First and foremost, check Craigslist, but there is also good deals to be had on eBay or r/VanDwellerMarketplace.
If you’re searching Craigslist, you can copy/paste this “catch-all” search parameter to see a more comprehensive list of whats available in your area:
(ram van|1500|2500|3500) | (sprinter) | (astro|safari) | (e-150|e150|e-250|e250|e-350|e350|econoline|transit) | (express|savannah|savana|savanah 1500|2500|3500)
Just know, it is very possible to find, say, a solid 2004 Econoline E-350 van for under $4,000, but you may have to expand your search radius and be prepared to make a trip out of it. Offers in Southern California (where we bought ours) differ greatly from just over the state line in Arizona. We purchased a ’02 Dodge Ram Van 2500 for a mere $2500. It has high miles, but the engine and transmission were recently replaced, and frankly, we were willing to take the risk. We have emergency money saved up, and the converted van will serve as a 4-week vacation mobile during our honeymoon, and a weekend warrior for camping and spearfishing trips after that, so we’re not trying to get another 100k miles out of it.
That being said, your situation may be quite different. Money might be tight, and you may be looking to live in your new camper conversion van full time, for years of adventuring. In retrospect, I do wish that I had shopped around in nearby Arizona, where there are a lot of folks trying to get rarely-used cargo vans off their hands. Know your budget, and be sure to take the van to a trustworthy mechanic for an inspection before handing over the cash. I brought two different vans for inspection prior to settling on Jean-Claude (Van Ram), both resulting in having to politely tell the owner that since I needed reliability, I was no longer interested. The inspections cost roughly $80 each time, but seeing as they both saved me from buying problematic vans, I saved thousands. Lastly, be prepared to spend roughly another $1-3K on the van conversion (whatever you dont spend out of that $3K should be saved for repairs).
Now, on to the van conversion
Now, the real camper van conversion begins. Every converted van is a special snowflake, and there is no right/wrong way. What I will say is focus on YOUR main purpose. Are you living in it? Make the bed the top priority and plan everything around that. Is this your adventuremobile and you need to keep gear like a mountainbike or surfboard alongside you? That takes a little more thought. Check Pinterest for inspiration and ideas on layouts and designs.
If you’ve got a nice empty van and you’re ready to start building, continue on!
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