Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt?

by | Last updated Nov 2, 2020 | Van Life | 10 comments

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One of the first questions Paul and I had when considering buying a van to live and travel in was whether we should do a van conversion or just buy a prebuilt campervan.

There are many pros and cons to both, I’d say, but I can only really speak from experience from the pre-built side of things, as we ended up buying a used van that was actually made for traveling and living in.

We bought a Dodge 1990 Roadtrek Popular—not the bright-yellow or blue vintage VW as I had always dreamed. But, we’re so happy with our prebuilt camper van purchase and love our Van Rouge the Roadtrek to the moon!

Now that we’re official #vanlifers, I want to share our learned insights from this decision and process! It might help you decide whether to do a self-build van conversion or to buy a used camper van.

Here’s my guide on buying a van: pros and cons, cost breakdown, what to consider before doing a self-build van conversion, and what to check for when buying a used van.

Self-Build Van Conversion | Pros & Cons

As more and more people adopt a minimalist lifestyle, the more it seems people are seeking to convert a van into a camper van and become owners of tiny homes on wheels.

I mean, the attraction and perks are definitely there. But what are really the benefits of doing a DIY van conversion?

Self-Build Van PROS

There are two major pros here for building and converting your own van into a camper van.

You could save $

From what I’ve seen and heard from fellow van lifers, building your own camper van can pay off. Literally! If you’re not looking for anything fancy, doing the build yourself can save lots of money. Some folks have even converted their van for just $1,000.

You can control the style and functionality

With the hundreds of YouTube tutorials nowadays, learning how to convert a van into a liveable space is within reach. No need to be an engineer or architect to pull it off, although I’m sure that would help!

With a self-build van, you can put together your home piece by piece, unlike with a prebuilt van which might have an already funky style and aesthetic (that you might hate).

So if you want wood panels, a rustic sink, a garden, or solar panels, you’ve basically got an empty canvas to turn those van life dreams into reality.

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Popular self-build van models are Sprinters, Ford Transits, naked VWs, old buses, etc. Ours is a Roadtrek that has been built on a Dodge chassis. | Bucketlist Bri

Self-Build Van CONS

Every positive includes an evil twin negative, right?

You could also lose lots of $

A self-build requires some knowledge or skill with handiwork. For electrical, heating, propane, and so on, it’s wise to know that what you’re doing will actually function properly and endure.

It would suck to do a DIY conversion then suddenly have your electricity or your water pump stop working at the wrong place and time. Not to mention, you’ll likely have to buy new items (mattress, flooring, insulation, electrical, etc.) which can vary in price and quality.

Conversions will take more time

Although some people have managed to do a full van conversion within a month or less, that’s not entirely realistic unless you spend your days doing just that.

We had friends who had to work on their Sprinter van conversion on a public street in France and they rushed to beat their own deadline. In the end, they made it, but it wasn’t without working after hours. Because of the time crunch, they didn’t incorporate long-term functionality such as a sink, installed kitchen, compost toilet (which is optional anyway), etc. Bottom line: Conversions might take more time than you think.

If you’re unlucky and bought a bad van (mechanical-wise), you could very well end up spending more money than you budgeted for, although the same is true for prebuilt vans.

Summary: Self-Build Conversion Vans

A self-build conversion will give you more flexibility if you know precisely what style and functionality you’re after. For those seeking short-term options or for those who aren’t too picky on design and style should look into buying a prebuilt van.

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

My clothes “closet.” If we had converted the van ourselves, we probably would not have chosen this style storage for our clothes. But it actually works out quite nice and is easily accessible and fits loads. | Bucketlist Bri

Buying a Used/Prebuilt Van | Pros & Cons

Now on to the pros and cons of buying a prebuilt camper van. Woo! So we bought a prebuilt van in July of 2019 in Mexico and have since used it to drive from Mexico up through the Eastern U.S. and onward across Canada.

A prebuilt van is great for those who aren’t ready to spend the time and money needed for a DIY campervan conversion.

Prebuilt Van PROS

Here are a few pros and cons when it comes to buying a prebuilt camper van.

Prebuilt vans already come with the essentials, experience, and liveability

Simply said, prebuilt vans have already had someone living and traveling in them. Meaning, most prebuilt camper vans (or already-converted vans), have all the essentials you’ll need to travel and live on the road. Our van literally has gear (like underwater flashlights, a handheld vacuum, all sorts of nuts and bolts, etc.) we would never have thought of buying, but was included in the van.

Prebuilt vans usually have long-term features (i.e. mounted stove, sink, waste tanks, etc.)

Many prebuilt vans like our Roadtrek will come with long-term features. Most top-dollar Sprinter conversions will have a sink, a compost toilet, and so on.

Our Roadtrek is a little different because it’s a legit tiny motorhome disguised as a van. It has a full waste disposal tank system, a fridge, a connected stove and propane, and even a microwave for those popcorn movie nights!

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Our prebuilt kitchen that’s been aesthetically modified by previous owners for a more modern look! | Bucketlist Bri

Prebuilt Van CONS

We’ve also experienced some cons with buying a prebuilt van, although these are mainly aesthetic complaints.

You are stuck with the interior design unless you pay more to customize

To make your van feel like home, it’s important to incorporate your style and preferences. Otherwise, it feels like you’re just renting out someone else’s van.

Customizing it to make it feel like home was important to us, so we spent roughly $500 extra to do small customizations and decorations. Our two biggest modifications probably were repainting and removing all the cupboard doors and replacing with natural woven baskets and rope barrier.

You might pay more for features you don’t need or want

Because prebuilt vans usually come with decked-out features (sometimes not), you might pay a higher price for aspects you won’t really use. For example, we don’t use our toilet system at all because it runs into a tank system that we’d need to empty extremely often. So instead, we use that space as a closet despite not being able to physically remove the toilet.

Summary: Prebuilt Conversion Vans

Buying a prebuilt or already-converted campervan might save you time and money if you are patient enough to find the diamond in the rough. Invest in a mechanically-sound van before buying into a decked-out interior. Aesthetic customizations cost less than engine blow-outs.

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Our “front deck” can rotate its seats, giving us table access which we use for breakfast and lunch. I didn’t clean up for this photo – sorry for the mess! | Bucketlist Bri

Buying a Van Cost Breakdown (Estimations)

Self-builds and prebuilt van prices can vary widely. What someone pays for a Sprinter van can be like 100x what another person pays for their van build. I’ve seen simple vans (like a bed and storage boxes) priced at around $3,000 to full-on luxurious Mercedes Sprinter converted camper vans selling at $80,000.

Buying a van price estimations:

  • A good van with no rust or major mechanic or engine issues ~$7-15k+
  • Customizations to prebuilt camper vans ~$1-2k+
  • DIY conversion on empty vans ~1k-10k+
  • Mechanic foresight/issues ~$1-5k+

As you can see, you can either keep it low-cost if you buy a good van with little-no modifications or mechanic fixes needed.

But if you sadly buy a shitty van and luck out, you could end up paying double what you paid just for the van. In fact, we just met a couple who bought a van for $4k and after two weeks of driving it, they had to replace the entire engine for another $4 grand. Ouch!

A good price range to buy a van whether prebuilt or not, I think for most people (I could be wrong here), is probably between $5,000 and $15,000 USD.

Under $5k just seems too good to be true and there WILL be mechanical issues. Over $15k and you’re looking at a decent or even fancy van.

Of course, this is just a huge “ball-park estimate” and will fluctuate depending on van style, year, model, make, conversion, etc. It all just depends on what you’re looking for.

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Our “bathroom” stores all of our toiletries. We ripped out the white cupboards and doors and replaced them with baskets and a natural rope to prevent sliding. | Bucketlist Bri

What to Consider Before Doing a Self-Build Van Conversion

So without getting too detailed, here are some questions to ask and some things to consider before buying a van that you’ll then turn into a converted camper van.

DIY van conversion things to consider:

  1. Are you planning on “stealth camping”? (parking overnight in cities without getting discovered?) If so, consider the type of van you want for that. A brightly-colored Westfalia might expose you.
  2. Do you have spare time and a realistic budget to build a DIY camper van?
  3. Will the van have long-term equipment and features built-in?
  4. Potty or no potty?
  5. Will you install solar power on the roof or use house batteries?
  6. How much storage and space do you need?
  7. Do you want to have a foldable bed-couch-table situation or a non-movable full bed?
  8. Think about the kitchen set-up. Sink, fridge, stove, where all that will go and how to connect it to the batteries or solar.
  9. Don’t forget everyday habits like peeing when you wake up or before sleep, how to manage your sink/kitchen waste, etc. And don’t forget about how and where you will work if you are a digital nomad!
  10. How good is the van itself? Consider miles, engine, tires, rust, windows, history, etc.

This list of questions and ideas is definitely not exhaustive, but I hope it helps at least to think about the DIY van conversion in a new light! What else is there to add or think about?

Now on to what to check for when buying a used van.

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Key features for us when buying a van were: 1. Overall condition of the vehicle 2. Functionality (could we be self-contained?) and 3. Steathability | Bucketlist Bri

What to Look for When Buying a Used/Prebuilt Camper Van

With a naked van, you just have to check for the van mechanics as you would when buying any new or used car. But with a prebuilt camper van, you must consider the interior features and functionality on top of the state of mechanics.

Here are some questions and ideas that we asked ourselves when we were going through the process of buying our van:

  1. First, consider the van’s history, miles, fixes, engine, etc., as you normally would
  2. How well is the kitchen set up? Is there a sink, and if so, is there an easy way to dispose of used/dirty water? How about refilling water? Is there a tank or do you have to buy water jugs?
  3. What is the bedding situation like? You’ll spend half of your time on the bed so you need it to be comfy!
  4. Is there a table for eating and dining in the van?
  5. Do you work online as a digital nomad and will you need wifi?
  6. What’s storage like? Storage is so important! Think about your closet, toiletries, shoes, kitchen items, food, important documents, spare blankets, tools, and so on.
  7. Are all the essentials there and in good condition or do they need replacing?
  8. Consider how you will manage on a day-to-day basis. What does that look like?
  9. Does the prebuilt interior feel homey? And if not, can you make small adjustments to suit your preferences?
  10. If you make a run-through of all your basic needs – kitchen/cooking, bathroom/peeing and pooping, driving and workspace, and bedroom/sleeping – are your needs covered?

I’m sure I’m leaving some stuff off, but you get the gist! Basically, just ask yourself every question in the book and try and write down a concrete answer.

We optimized to accommodate our cat in the van, but we really didn’t do a good job when it comes to our trash; it’s always in the way, or full!

Buying a Van: Self-Build Conversion or Prebuilt? www.bucketlistbri.com Bucketlist Bri #vanlife #vanlifers #vanconversion #diyvan

Van Rouge BEFORE we took out the cupboards, repainted, and moved into the van. August 2019 | Bucketlist Bri

Buying a Prebuilt Campervan VS Doing a DIY Conversion

SO, what will it be? Do you think you would prefer buying a van and doing a self-build conversion? Or would you rather shave off some time and buy a prebuilt or already used adventure van?

Let me know your thoughts and comments below! I’d love your feedback and will be happy to read your suggestions! 🙂

xx Bri

Follow Van Rouge on Instagram @vanrouge_roadtrek

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10 Comments

  1. Dan

    Dang your Roadtrek looked pretty nice inside even before your mods! Love the tile in the kitchen.

    Reply
    • Bri

      Hahah thank you!! Yeah the faux tile makes it look good! We got super lucky with this van overall. Can’t wait to get our hands back on it again!

      Reply
  2. Linda

    This was very helpful. I am 69 year old single female thinking of purchasing a pre-built used camper van. Do you have any more suggestions to help me. Also best brands and where to start my search to purchase one. Thank you

    Reply
    • Bri

      Thanks for reaching out, Linda! I would recommend looking on sites like Facebook groups Marketplace, Craigslist, etc. for deals on used vans. I would also recommend you join the PanAmerican Traveler’s Facebook group for advice on overland travel. Your budget will determine the quality, but a pre-built/already converted Sprinter or Ford Transits will offer the type of van lifestyle most are after. Any type of cargo van. We love our Dodge Ram Roadtrek. Lots of Roadtreks are available and if you can find one with no rust in good shape, it’s already got everything ready built-in ready to roll. : )

      Reply
      • Marie Wilson

        Hi
        I just bought a Dodge Ram pro master to convert. I’m actually going to return it because I’m freaking out about the cost ($35K) and what it will look like when it’s done. Your post was very helpful. I think I’m going to just look for something premade. I love your Van as it’s high enough to stand in and not the very high top like the one I’m going to return. My biggest dilemma is actually finding something. With this pandemic everything is in short supply. Can you tell me the exact model of your Van? Thanks.

        Reply
        • Bri

          Hi Marie, thanks for writing! Yes, self-conversions can be tricky and costly so I know how you feel! Our van is a 1990 Dodge Ram Roadtrek. The Roadtreks have different models/years but the 1990 year is the one we have. It was already “remodeled” inside when we bought it so that’s why it looks more modern. Roadtreks are made to be like mini motorhomes that pass as a vehicle, so super cheap for tolls/parking/etc. and they fit in one parking spot! We’re really happy with our Roadtrek. They’re everywhere in Canada, as that’s where they’re made! You might have some luck searching on the west coast and the southwest USA for one. Best of luck to you! x 🙂

          Reply
  3. Randall Hill

    Our university had a 1-ton Dodge 15 passenger van they wanted to auction off. It needed a very little work but was basically mechanically sound. The lady in charge of purchasing asked me if I was going to bid on it and I said I hadn’t really thought about it. She encouraged me to, so I said what the heck, and bid $100 dollars on it. Three weeks later they asked me when I was going to come get my van. I was the only one who bid on it! I had a 4Runner and really didn’t need the van, but I kept it a few months and then sold it for $1200. I’m considering a conversion these days and wish I still had it. It was huge, like a small bus.

    Reply
    • Bri

      Whoa! That’s crazy no one else bid on it. What a steal!! I’d love to try a conversion too – our van is already equipped but it would be fun to get creative and kinda start with a blank canvas. I wonder what the new owner decided to do with it when you sold it? Sounds like it would’ve been great for van life ahah. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  4. Steven Siliani

    I just wanted to say that this information was very informative and clear the question I have is I live in Pennsylvania was wondering if there are any suggestions on where to buy a brand new empty van that you could park in a parking lot not be discovered but live in it the reason why I asked that question is I want to be able to buy in Pennsylvania

    Reply
    • Bri

      Thank you so much, Steven! I really appreciate that! The best vans for “stealth camping” in my opinion are Ford Transits and Sprinters. You can search local Facebook Buy/Sell groups for vans in Pennsylvania and also your local Craigslist! I’d also recommend you use the iOverlander app (once you get a van) because it will show you where you can camp for free and it’ll also show you nearby amenities such as gas/water/propane/etc. When stealth camping we tried to rotate our location so we wouldn’t be suspicious by staying in one place too long. I hope that helps!

      Reply

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