In today’s episode of camper van craze, I’m here to help you navigate the age-old (I know it’s only been a few years, but it seems longer!) question: Should I choose to build out my own camper van DIY-style, or hire out a camper van conversion company to get the job done?
Over the last year, I’ve spent hundreds of hours looking through Pinterest, YouTube, and Google searches to help me figure out exactly what I should do when it comes to starting this new adventure in a camper van.
As someone who has always loved DIYing the heck out of everything, I was pretty heavily biased before the research process even started, but I think my journey through camper van life research, digital planning, and the like definitely made me change my tune.
But before you click away because you’re a hardcore DIYer yourself, I want to showcase the good, bad, and ugly of each option and then tell you what I would do if I decided to go either route as I’ve had experience renovating a home on wheels (my 1976 Airstream) before.
It’s time to buckle up and get down to the nitty-gritty about what to expect whichever way you eventually choose to go with your camper van conversion…
(**Side Note: Whichever build option you choose, we highly recommend you do some research before choosing an insurer for your campervan. There couldn’t be anything much more stressful than getting in a major accident and then finding out that your insurance carrier is not going to cover all of the costs because of your “unique” vehicle! Don’t let this happen to you.
The newest “kid on the insurance block” that you’ll want to check out? Roamly. It’s an insurance company built by RVers for RVers, to take care of many of the headaches you can potentially face with an RV insurance claim. In select markets, Roamly can provide coverage on DIY campervans and upfitted Class B’s that are historically very difficult to insure as an RV. Get your quote in 60 seconds today!**)
Things You Need to Decide Before Choosing DIY or Conversion Company
After doing your initial research for your dream camper van, you should have a good idea of what you want from Van Life. If you’re not sure what you want to do, even after hours and hours of scrolling online, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine what you want in an adventure vehicle:
- How often do you plan on using your camper van? Every day, on the weekends, or only a few times a month?
- Are you more interested in venturing off the beaten path or staying in “civilization”?
- How many people do you expect to join you on your adventures?
- What can you live with and live without inside a vehicle that’s also your home when you’re on the road?
- How much time/money/resources do you have to work on a van today, tomorrow, and in the future (because it’s not a short process)?
You might have many more questions come to mind, but these are really the important ones that led me to my personal decision. Here’s what my Van Life Profile looks like as an example:
Erin’s Van Life Profile
- Erin, 25 years old female solo traveler.
- Daily traveling companions = Rory, a 50 lb dog; sometimes an additional friend or family member, two visitors max.
- Ideally, I want to get out on the road as soon as I can, but I also don’t think I want to throw down an exorbitant amount of time or money to get it done as I’m working full-time right now in Arizona.
- I definitely prefer to be away from people as much as I can because silence not only helps me sleep, but also helps to focus on work every day.
- My only must-haves are bike storage and a stove/oven. I love cooking and I think a stove/oven is the key to making van life easier (aka I can throw a frozen pizza in there on a bad day and still not starve!).
Now take some time to create your own Van Life profile. You know what you can and cannot live without more than anyone else, so make a list and check it twice.
Once you’ve made your list, let’s move onto the DIY or Builder debate.
The Debate: DIY Van Build or Hire a Van Conversion Company
Before I dive too deep into each side, I want to say that there’s no right or wrong answer here. Either way, you’ll have a van that you can sleep, eat, and adventure in. Whatever you decide, just know that it’s not the end of the world and you can always dip a toe in and get a taste for each side no matter what option you start with.
DIY Van Build Breakdown
If you’re ready to DIY a van build, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Time: Most van builds take many hours of manual labor over several months.
- Money: Building a van on your own can be just as expensive as hiring a builder, depending on many variables. Make sure you have a budget and stick to it.
- Resources: You’ll need tools and a lot of them to get everything accomplished as a DIYer. In addition, you’ll need garage space (ideally) and probably some willing friends/family members to lend a helping hand.
The Pros of DIY Van Builds
There are many pros to building a van on your own. For starters, you can make your van as custom as possible. This is probably the best part of DIY van builds because not every builder will allow you to build completely custom. If they do, it will undoubtedly be more expensive than their “stock” options.
You can also take your time and only build out what you need, live in it, and then build some more after you’ve experienced life on the road. As you move through the build process, you’ll learn a ton about your van which is important in case you need to fix something while you’re on the road.
In my experience, DIYing a project always ends with a sense of accomplishment that isn’t always felt when you have someone build or renovate something for you. You really fall in love with the project, it becomes a part of you, and you find yourself looking back at the process positively for years to come after you finish it.
The Cons of DIY Van Builds
You’ve probably already put it together, but doing a van build on our own will take lots of time, money, and resources. No matter how you swing it, you’ll find yourself investing dozens and dozens (or hundreds) of hours, doling out more money than your wallet is comfortable with for longer than you expected. Yes, you’ll be purchasing unexpected tools and resources needed to get things done. That part can be emotionally exhausting and stressful.
Overall, the amount of time, money, and resources you spend is probably the biggest con of DIY building. I know we planned for a hard budget last time we renovated the travel trailer and still went over by the end of the project (most of which was unavoidable).
Bottom line is that you should always expect that it will take you longer and cost you more than you initially expected, because a project like this never goes exactly according to plan. Trust me on this one.
In addition, you often don’t have the knowledge needed to build out everything in a van. For my particular situation, I have no clue about hooking up electricity to solar power and that’s one big reason why I knew I wanted someone to take care of that portion of my build even if I chose the DIY route. It’s often better, and less expensive in the long run, to ask someone for help and get it right rather than doing it yourself and running the risk ruining expensive equipment and components along the way.
**Remember also that camper van conversion kits, which I covered here, is an option that will give you the hands-on experience of DIY while providing the confidence of knowing that you have everything you need upfront. It’s definitely an option you should not overlook in this decision-making process as it sits between the DIY and Builder options.**
The Pros of Hiring a Camper Van Conversion Company
Hiring a professional van conversion company has plenty of benefits, especially for those who want to get on the road sooner rather than later. Hiring a van builder allows you to go about your life and wake up one day to a fully built van that’s ready for the road, and this normally happens on a predictable schedule.
Not only will you have a van that’s ready to rock and roll, but you can feel comfortable with the work that’s been done instead of wondering as you head out if every electrical hookup is done properly.
A van builder gives you the opportunity to create a custom van plan in some cases, too, though it will be more expensive than kits and stock options. This option makes it ideal for those who want something to perfectly fit their lifestyle without having to source out every single item on their own dime and time.
The biggest thing about hiring a van builder, for me anyway, is that you can often obtain a single loan to include the purchase of your van and its conversion. Since living in a van is just a smaller version of RVing, you can register your van as an RV and shoot for an RV loan (normally 10-15 year terms, depending on amount financed).
This will provide you with more manageable payments and not require a huge lump sum payment upfront for the conversion itself. So be sure and check into this before rushing out and getting a vehicle loan just for the purchase of your van.
Cons of Hiring a Conversion Company
Not all builders are created equal. Like anything else, you’ll want to make sure you’re picking a trustworthy and reliable builder. Sometimes the most reliable builders are busy months in advance though which means you’ll have to wait it out for a short period of time before your van will be ready to roll.
Hiring a builder can also mean that your build won’t be “fully-custom” despite the fact that builders showcase their builds as that. Most builders only source materials from a few places so you won’t always have the option to source something you’ve been dying to have unless you source it yourself and bring it to the shop. And even then, installation by the builder can get more expensive because it will usually take up more of their time.
Builders also charge a bit more for their work, and rightfully so, which means you’ll normally be paying a bit more (for their time and expertise) than you would if you were DIYing a build. This is definitely where DIYers compare the numbers and realize they can do it cheaper, but you can’t expect builders to work for free either!
My Personal Choice
Now that you have all the pros and cons, what would I pick, you ask?
I’ve spent endless hours and days over the last year trying to decide what I wanted to do. In the last two months, I finally decided I wanted to use a camper van conversion company for several reasons.
My biggest reason was that I wanted to build out my van correctly and also be able to get on the road in a short amount of time. As someone who spent 8 months renovating an Airstream years ago, I knew I didn’t have that kind of time to get my life together and on the road. If I could get a builder to knock out the build in a matter of weeks, I would choose that over slaving away in the Phoenix summer heat for months on end.
I have huge respect for builders out there after renovating my Airstream, so paying the extra cash not only makes sense to me, but also allows me to keep working and creating cash flow to cover the cost of the build simultaneously.
Another reason I decided to hire a builder is that I would be able to source the van and wrap the conversion costs into a single RV loan. As someone who plans to live on the road for a longer period of time, I wanted to lower my overall monthly payment and still get the quality I needed to make this lifestyle work for me in the long run.
In the end, your choice and my choice can and will be completely different on any given day, month, or year. There’s no right or wrong answer here when it comes to building out a van as long as you have fun with the process, you can afford it, and you are happy with the results.
Choose whatever works for your situation to help you get out there and adventuring as soon as you reasonably can!
Stay tuned for more van life posts coming from me in the months ahead as I go through the process to get a van built and then hit the road full-time! It’s going to be an adventure, for sure.
Erin Maxson is rooted in South Dakota, but wanders every chance she gets to see the beauty that nature holds. From hiking to climbing, there’s not an adventure she’ll turn down.
After renovating her 1976 Airstream Argosy, Erin knows the ins and outs of living life on the road and trailer maintenance.
Whether she’s on the road with her dog and partner or at home curled up with a good book, Erin is always planning her next adventure because life is meant to be lived outdoors.