Nothing beats the freedom of driving along the open road in your own campervan, and you’re looking to turn that dream into a reality. Rather than just buying a ready-made motorhome, you’d prefer to convert a van yourself.
It’s an ambitious task, but a rewarding one. Converting a van yourself will allow you to create your dream home on wheels. You’ll get to design everything yourself and ensure it ticks all of your boxes. You’ll also get to enjoy the fruits of your labour, and feel immense pride each time you take your beauty out on the road.
First things first, we recommend trying campervan travel before you invest any more time, energy or money into your conversion dreams. Too often, people forget this step. While we think nothing is better than travelling in a campervan, not everyone would agree. So hire a campervan for a weekend to test it for yourself. Ideally, aim to hire a campervan similar to what you’re looking for. Even if you’re certain that you want to get your own van, this will allow you to see what features you like in the van, or anything you’d hope to avoid.
Then it’s time to find your own van! Here’s how to choose a van to convert.
Things to consider in a van
It can be tempting to go for the cheapest van you find or for the one that looks best in photos. But there are a lot of things to consider in choosing a van to convert. Here are some things you should determine before you even start looking.
Size and height
People often get so excited about the possibilities that campervans bring that they go for the biggest option. They want a large home on wheels. That’s understandable but might be something that you come to regret in the long run. Larger vans can be more comfortable and perfect for rainy days spent indoors, but they also present their own challenges. You need to consider that you’ll always need to find parking for this van. You might drive it in rural areas or within cities.
The size of your van should depend on the following factors:
How many people will usually travel in it? Don’t plan for the whole family if 90% of the time it will just be the two of you.
Will you need to park it in urban areas? Or in a parking garage?
Will you be going on short or longer trips? If you plan to live in the van, or spend weeks in it, then you might wish to be able to stand up. But if you will only spend a weekend in it every now and then at most, then this really isn’t a priority.
Will you be bringing certain equipment with you? Perhaps bikes, climbing gear or surfboards?
Will you be installing a toilet (or shower)? Consider how much you’ll actually need this if you’re staying at campsites, or if a stowaway toilet is possible. There are many options for motorhome toilets.
Are you comfortable driving a larger van? Here’s all there is to know about driving a motorhome.
- Where will you be driving? If you plan to go off-road or deep into the countryside, you’ll struggle in a larger van.
Aim for a van that suits all of your needs without going for something unnecessarily larger, this will also help you to stay within your budget.
Before you get caught up in all the van adverts out there, consider your budget. It’s helpful to have a rough number in mind before you even start looking.
Remember that the cost of the van isn’t the only cost to consider. You’ve got to take a bird’s eye view and focus on the total cost of your conversion. We recommend the following equation for this:
Total budget = ⅓ conversion cost + ⅔ vehicle cost
About two-thirds of your budget should be spent on the vehicle, and about one-third on the conversion costs. This is because you need a good-quality van to start with. There’s no point spending thousands on converting a van that will only last two or three more years at most. You need a strong foundation to build upon.
It will be tricky for you to find a van with low mileage. There’s simply no way around that fact. But sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you settle for slightly more than you’d like.
Consider how much you expect to use your van. Will you be driving across the UK each weekend, or spend months driving across Europe? If you think you won’t use an exceptionally high mileage, then you can compromise for a slightly older and more used van. If you plan to really go the distance in this van, then you might want to spend more on a van with lower mileage.
Ideally, you’d find a van with a mileage of less than 100,000. If you manage this, then it’s worth spending a little more on it. But like we said, this would be a rare find.
Vans will always need a bit of maintenance over the years, but the extent to which they’ll need it can vary greatly. Consider whether you’ll be doing repairs and even the entire conversion yourself, or if you’ll go to a garage. Keep in mind that some older vehicles or niche brands can’t be fixed at every garage, and might involve sourcing difficult parts. This can be costly and time-consuming in the long run.
Tips for choosing a second-hand van
If you’re looking on a tight budget, or simply happy to go for second-hand, then there are a few things to keep in mind. We’ve rounded up a list of the things to check when purchasing a second-hand van:
Mileage - Older vans have likely racked up a higher mileage, consider the wear and tear that this will have on the vehicle.
Locks - Check that the windows and doors shut properly, as this will be expensive to fix. You don’t want to risk investing in your van only for it to be stolen. Check out more tips for motorhome security.
Rust - Take a look at the bodywork, under the van and the wheel arches for rust. This is a bad sign for a van and can suggest deeper issues.
Electric components - Is everything in order? Will you have to rewire the entire electrical grid?
Air conditioning and heating - Not a must, but certainly nice to have. If it’s advertised as having these, check they work. If you’ll be adding this later, consider that cost.
Tyre condition and tread - Check the state of the tyres, which will also give you an insight into how much it’s been driven recently.
- Age of the vehicle - Older vans can work well, but something to check is the availability of parts. It can be difficult to find garages that work with and have the parts for certain older vehicles.
Naturally, you should take a test drive before agreeing to buy the van. On your drive, check the brakes to ensure they work well. Listen for any abnormal noises from the engine. Drive for at least ten minutes to determine if it’s just the engine warming up or an actual issue.
Also, see how comfortable you feel driving the van. If you’re purchasing with your partner, make sure you both drive the van and feel secure in it.
Check out more tips for buying a second-hand campervan.
The best van models for campervan conversion
Okay, now that we’ve got all the boring practicalities of how to choose a van for conversion out of the way, it’s time to look at some potential models for your campervan conversion!
This is likely what comes to mind when you even think about choosing a van to convert. There’s something truly special about VWs; they’re like an exclusive club. Volkswagens are great for converting, but they tend to come with a lot of maintenance. They’re a good fit for DIY mechanical work, as they have minimal electronics. You can also opt for a pop-top roof to provide more height in the van. But they’re not the most spacious option available.
This is likely going to be the most expensive option on the list. It’s a full-sized van, available in 4x4, with a roomy interior. It’s honestly ideal for converting, and the price reflects that. If you’re looking to go full-time van life or really invest, then you should go for a Mercedes Sprinter.
Consider this to be the slightly smaller, little brother of the Mercedes Sprinter. They were designed to compete with it, and they come at a lower price. But the Ford Transit is also newer, so you won’t find as many older and discounted vehicles.
This is one of the cheapest options on the list. The Citroen Berlingo is an affordable van that is easy to convert, and you’ll find plenty of tips online for this. It’s affordable to run and easy to maintain. It isn’t the most spacious option, but it can work well for solo travellers or couples.
This one is similar to the Citroen Berlingo in terms of size and structure, but slightly more expensive. One of the main perks of the Renault Kangoo is the ample storage space included, which is ideal for longer journeys or van lifers.
With car-like features, this is a great option if you’ll be driving in cities and looking for parking. You can even get pop-top options as well. However, it is a smaller option, so not ideal if you’re travelling with the whole family or your pup as well.
There you have it, everything you need to know on how to choose a van for conversion. We hope that you’ve got plenty to work with and that you can start scanning ads for your dream home on wheels.
Once you’re done choosing a van to convert, the hard work begins. Check out our full guide to DIY campervan conversions, including plenty of #vanspiration!