buying & Building a rig
Table of Contents
5 Things To Think About Before Buying The RV, Van or Rig of Your Dreams!
By Toyin Ajayi
When it comes to buying the rig of your dreams, it’s easy to get caught up in the dream of your rig and ideal future situation, and make impulsive decisions.
I can attest to this based on my own personal experience of purchasing my first rig. When I bought my camper van a few years ago, I did all kinds of research by way of YouTube, and I bought my rig within one month of starting my search. Looking back, it’s easy to see how much I had missed in making a solid, sound decision. This year, I bought my second rig to start my full-time RV lifestyle, and I can definitely say I did a lot more research and made a more informed decision. With all of this being said, here’s my list of things to consider.
Here are the 5 things to think about before buying the RV, Van, or other rig of your dreams!
How will you be using your rig? (Weekends, Part-time, Full-time)
As simple as this sounds, a lot of people don’t take into account how they plan to use their rigs or how many people will regularly be inhabiting it. If you’re just going to be using your rig on weekends or part-time, you may not want anything too big, and you may not even need a full bathroom inside. And for most who are weekenders or part-time, they usually have an additional vehicle for everyday use, or are able to tow a camper from time to time. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule, but these are just some things for you to consider in your rig buying process.
On the flipside, if you’re going to be in your rig full-time or traveling with a lot of people, comfort really comes into play. You’ll want to think about the following:
- Sleeping arrangements
- How or where in your rig you’ll be able to get work done
- How or where you plan to cook: indoors or outdoors
- How or where you want to shower and use the bathroom
When I purchased my travel trailer, one of my major deciding factors was being able to have a residential sized refrigerator in it. I knew that I would be cooking regularly and would need a place to store everything efficiently. I also gave a fair amount of consideration to the many varieties of toilets; in the end, I wasn’t against having a blackwater tank, so that narrowed down my options in the buying process even more.
Let’s dig into some other factors.
Where will you be using your rig? (Rural Areas, Cities or a Combination)
I pose this question a lot to newbie vanlifers and nomads, mainly because most of them have been watching tons of YouTubers emphasizing the need for being stealthy. But the truth is, being stealthy is not a necessity for everybody.
If you’re someone who wants to get away from cities, and you have the ability to, you may not even need to factor in stealth. And that keeps your options open in a lot of ways. Not needing to be stealthy means you could consider a Class A or C RV, Skoolies/Buses, Travel Trailers, and more. This also means you would most likely be staying at campgrounds, BLM lands, and boondocking, for the most part.
Now, if you are going to be staying strictly in cities or a combination of cities and rural areas, being compact or stealthy may have to be a major factor for you to take into consideration. For most, smaller buses, camper vans and Class B RVs can be great options for this. There are some adventurous people who do SUV or Car dwelling successfully as well.
What’s your lifestyle like?
I ask this question because it can make a big difference in the style of rig you end up choosing. For instance, if you are a person who spends a lot of time outdoors or outside of your rig, you may not mind if your rig doesn’t have a tall ceiling and lots of standing room. There are plenty of people who live full-time in rigs that they can’t stand up in; if they’re not homebodies or spending most of their time in their rig, it tends not to bother them. For me, even though I’m only 5’3”, I knew that I wanted something that felt roomy from top to bottom and side to side. I wanted to be comfortable and have any “guests” feel comfortable: if I had any, lol. Taking it a step further: don’t forget to ask yourself if you’re a person who doesn’t mind the idea of taking your whole home with you everywhere you go. If you don’t, then a van, bus, Class A, B, or C RV would suit your needs. However, if you like the idea of setting up your camp and having your home-on-wheels be more separate, you may be best off considering a truck camper, teardrop camper or towable RV. Being able to set up camp and leave for adventures was another reason that I went with a travel trailer this time instead of a campervan.
What are your wants and must-haves?
I think this is a really important question because it forces you to be honest, and it can give you structure in your search. If you ask yourself this question upfront, it allows you to focus your search on rigs that will actually meet your needs.
Searching for your dream rig can be a really exciting time, but it’s also very easy to become overwhelmed with all the options. Making your wants and must-haves list will help with that.
Some of my wants and must-haves included:
- Queen sized bed
- Separate toilet and shower
- A dinette to work at
- Adequate storage
Used or New? What’s in your budget?
I know most people usually like to start with this question, but I feel like it can sometimes strongly sway people’s decisions. Some people buy on impulse because the price seems too good to be true. If you’ve seriously asked yourself the previous four questions and assessed your answers, you can better avoid buying the wrong rig for your lifestyle.
So, firstly I like to ask if you want something brand new; or, are you okay with buying something used? Both have their pros and cons, and I don’t think any one answer is right for everyone.
Pros of buying new:
- You’re the first person to use everything
- Everything in tip-top shape
- Ability to customize it how you want, without having to do the work
- Higher price
- Potentially higher vehicle repairs depending on the make and model
- Cheaper price upfront
- You may not have to build something from scratch (if it’s a van or custom build)
- Can cost more money to fix in the long run
- You don’t always know if the custom work was completed up to code (in the case of a custom build)
- Maintenance and upkeep costs
- Gas costs and mileage efficiency
- Cost to repair
- Insurance costs
My Final Thoughts
I hope that you found this guide helpful and that it can help expand your horizons on things that you may not have previously considered in your rig buying process. At the end of the day, whether your rig is for leisure or a lifestyle, you work hard for your money and you should love what you buy. I wish you the best of luck on your journey to finding the rig of your dreams!
I’d love to hear about your buying experiences, and if there are any other tips you would add to this list.
Find Toyin on Instagram @yourlifeafter25, and download her new app: Outdoorsy Black Women (@outdoorsyblackwomen on IG ; outdoorsyblackwomen.com. Read more about Outdoorsy Black Women in our Essential Apps section of the BIPOC Guide!
All photos courtesy of Toyin Ajayi.
Buying and Building A Van: An Overview
By Mohit Kaura
Congratulations on deciding to live the #vanlife!
Choosing The Right Van
Before you get started on this wild ride, it is essential to choose the right van that fits your needs and wants, and figure out whether your priorities are lots of space, a low budget setup, weekend camping and/or full-time stealth camping in cities.
Before You Buy Your Van
Some factors you should keep in mind before buying your van:
Van life can become uncomfortable pretty quick if you feel congested all the time. While adaptation kicks in quickly, understanding your space requirements well and choosing a van accordingly can ensure comfort and a smile on your face (and your van-mate’s if applicable).
You will, no doubt, drive your van A LOT. So, it would be beneficial to have a decent fuel economy. Vans aren’t the best fuel savers and the bigger you go in size, the more gas your rig will guzzle.
A well-maintained van can last you 300,000 miles or more. Yes, old vans are cheaper, but the chances of it breaking down on you also increase with its age. It is crucial to review the maintenance records before buying a used van, and getting it checked thoroughly by a mechanic.
You might want a ready-to-move-in van, or might want to get your hands dirty and build your own dream house. Empty shells are often cheaper, but partially or fully converted vans can save you a lot of trouble, especially if you are not tool-savvy.
Types of Vans
Once you have figured out the basic necessities you want in your house on wheels, choosing the model of the van will become significantly easier. There are a variety of vans to choose from, such as:
The most common choice for aspiring van-dwellers on a budget! Vans such as Ford Econoline, Chevy Express and Dodge Ram combine the benefits of fuel efficiency, inexpensive price tags and in many cases, stealth camping. The big disadvantage is the lack of extra headroom and storage space.
Regular cargo/passenger vans with extra high headspace are a favorite among van dwellers. Without shelling a fortune on a Sprinter or a Transit, you can have the comfort of additional headroom, giving you not only the space to stand but also overhead storage space. They may also come with sweet-looking folding furniture, depending on the model and type of build you buy.
The Big Three (Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit and RAM Promaster)
While expensive, these three models are the ultimate vehicles to convert into a home on wheels. The demand for these rigs has led to skyrocketing prices for these vans, but if you play smart and are willing to spend some time looking around, buying older models of these vans could turn out to be pretty economical.
While RV and Skoolies are the most comfortable vehicles to build a mobile home in, they are extremely heavy, limited in their ability to navigate the beaten path off-road and big-time gas guzzlers. Regardless, they make excellent homes for families with kids or for couples needing the space to walk around their home on wheels. Old school buses particularly can be found for relatively cheap.
Before You Build The Van
If you are comfortable building out the van yourself and have access to basic power tools, then you should totally build it out yourself. After all, it’s YOUR home and there’s no better feeling than having built your abode with your own hands.
However, should you not feel confident with connecting electrical wires or any other specific build process, it is always advisable to seek help from a professional or even an experienced friend.
Prior to building, draw out a layout plan in advance. This will help streamline your build process because you don’t have to plan what to place where, at every step of the build.
Step 1: Measure EVERYTHING (and measure twice)
- You cannot plan the size of your bed, kitchen or floor without having the measurements of the van interior. Measuring the van dimensions will help you in sketching the layout and determining the size of your build components.
Step 2: Sketch a layout
- Make a list of furniture (bed/couch/table/counters) you want in the van and play around with object placement and interior design until you decide on a final layout.
- Things to consider while designing a layout:
- Number of people living in the van
- Multi-purpose/Foldable/Murphy bed vs a fixed bed
- Portable Toilet vs Doing your business outdoors
- A fixed kitchen counter vs a pullout kitchen in the back vs outdoor cooking with a portable stove.
- A DC fridge vs an Ice-Box.
- A fixed vs a pullout vs foldable vs stow-away dining/working table
- Things to consider while designing a layout:
- Make everything multifunctional and compact. Small sized living asks for creative and multiple uses for the same object.
- Things to consider while finalizing your design:
- A dining/working table that could be converted to a bed.
- Foldable/Stow-away tables/sitting areas
- Pullout drawers could save a lot of space accommodating anything ranging from your clothes to the whole kitchenette.
- Things to consider while finalizing your design:
Step 3: Get your electrical system sorted
- Figure out your power requirements.
- Some common appliances power requirements are mentioned below: Add the wattage of each device you’ll use and you’ll know what are the total Watts of power you’ll need.
- Fan – 50 Watts
- LED lights – 10Watts (depending on the type/number of bulbs etc)
- Charging Phone- 10 Watts
- Charging Laptop — 60 Watts to 90 Watts, depending on the size
- Charging Camera/Drone batteries – 40 Watts
- Fridge: 60 Watts (For a DC fridge), 250 Watts (AC)
- Choose the size of your battery and solar panel accordingly.
- Things to consider are:
- A DIY Lead-Acid/Lithium-Ion Battery Setup vs an Electric Portable Power Generator. While DIY battery packs can usually pack more power at a cheaper price, they are extremely heavy and have to be fixed. The portable electric generators are usually lithium-ion batteries, which are expensive but lightweight.
- A DIY setup will require you to understand how electricity works, the difference between DC (12V) and AC (110V/220V), thorough knowledge of electrical equipment like inverters, fuse boxes, charge controllers and wiring. Commercial electrical generators such as those made by Goal Zero or Jackery will have these devices in-built, requiring you to only connect the solar cable to the charging port.
- Portable Solar Panels vs Fixed Solar Panel on the roof.
- Choosing the size of your solar array depends on how much and how fast you want to charge your batteries.
- Things to consider are:
While You Build The Van
This will be the most fun but tedious part of your initiation into vanlife. Here are a few tips that could make your van build journey relatively easier.
- “Measure twice, cut once” is the golden rule to avoid wastage. Additionally, it is always better to cut something longer than your preferred dimension, because you can always trim the length down later
- Building out the skeleton (structural beam support) for your entire layout first, gives you a better idea how your design would turn out. You could then add on the plyboard sheets to add the exterior finish to the skeleton, followed by adding paint/polish.
- Cut out the components to be screwed/glued/nailed and try to build the skeleton outside the van for ease of work. You can then take it back in the van and ensure it fits well.
- It’s always a good idea to use self-tapping screws to ease the drilling process.
- Be vigilant that the wires going through the inverter/solar panel/batteries are joined to the terminals properly without the opposing terminal bare ends touching each other.
- Lastly, try to distribute the weight evenly to avoid higher chances of tipping over at high speeds through sharp curves.
Van Build Top Tips
Contributions by Vaughn Dabney, Candyss Love and Noami Grevemberg
Enjoy this assortment of budget-friendly top tips covering some FAQs about buying and building a rig!
- Identify why you’re doing this and what you need to operate efficiently, effectively and happily. Make sure you have at least a clear sketch of what you want to do before you start to help identify your goals.
- Limit yourself to 3 major priorities (i.e. off-grid capabilities, big bed, storage space) before you start building and focus your build around those. Try to take your rig out for some test trips throughout the build process to figure out what you want to modify.
- Establish a budget before you start.
- Do what’s best for you! Don’t get caught up with what’s happening with other people’s builds, or what you see on social media. Just do you!
Choosing a Rig
- Something to consider is that large majority of mechanics in North America will know how to work with American vehicles e.g. Fords, Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge – some mechanics won’t touch a Sprinter van!
- Older vehicles will likely require more maintenance and be susceptible to breakdowns but have lower maintenance costs whereas the inverse is generally true for newer, more expensive vehicles. There is no right answer – it comes down to your needs and your budget.
- Look for something that has been well maintained, not necessarily just the lowest possible mileage.
- Also, it can be worth sending a mechanic to look at your rig before purchase to make sure it is mechanically sound.
- Identifying your goals, needs and budget will help you choose your rig. Consider paying a bit extra upfront for a rig that won’t give you any major issues – it can save you money in the long run!
- Test driving is really important. Make sure your rig is safe & comfortable to drive for you and any travel companions.
- Look for something with NO RUST!
The Perks of a DIY Build
- Huge perk of DIY: it’s so much easier to fix/tweak/customize your rig – even if you don’t know what you’re doing when you start! Pre-builds generally mean you’re going to inherit some problems you may not immediately know how to fix. It depends on your priorities though: if you need to live in something ASAP, then pre-built could be a good way to go. You can also go somewhere in between and travel in a minimal build set up at first. Also, pre-builds will be more costly than shells!
- You can do precisely what you want if you do it yourself. That being said, even if you don’t physically build it yourself, it’s good to be as involved with your build as possible. The more you know about your build, the better your ability to troubleshoot will be.
- Top tip: reach out to local carpenters! They can do amazing work for substantially less than the bigger conversion companies, and it’s an awesome way to support a local small business!
- Sketch out your ideas! Whether you are well versed with Sketch or Illustrator or you’re just using paper, it’s really important to have the core designs and measurements before you begin. You’ll save yourself a lot of time.
- Maximize the space! It’s important to have your hands on your build to help you determine how much space you need for what you need.
- Top tip: Go into the van and put down painters tape and/or cardboard boxes, cut to exact planned measurements. This is an amazing way to visualize your build inside your vehicle.
- Electrical is the “heartbeat of your conversion” so if you can, save the money for the electrical first — that way you won’t have to troubleshoot nearly as much later. Definitely consider the costs when making your initial budget.
- You can do electrical work gradually depending on your budget: it is totally possible to get by just on an isolator and house battery if you need a minimal electric set up (for charging phones, running lights — the minimum!)
- Even though you should install your system early, you can always add components later!
- Even though you should install your system early, you can always add components later!
- Insulating the entire van is very important – don’t skimp on the insulation!
- If you’re spending time mostly in hot weather, ventilation and shade are the most important factors.
- Standard roof fans, USB and 12V fans are budget friendly (you don’t need a Maxx fan/ Fantastic fan). Most important thing in ventilation is to create a cross breeze: somewhere for air to come in & somewhere to go out (create options for flow of air).
Tips On Insurance
- RV insurance is a great way to cover your vehicle and belongings. If you’d like to be covered as an RV (as your vehicle and home) you may have to shop around to see which companies will cover you.
- Renter’s insurance on top of regular auto insurance is another option.
- Top opening/chest style fridges are more energy efficient (allow less cool air to escape). Plus you can really stack stuff up in there.
- Top Tip: You can get a small chest freezer and rig it with a temperature controller to run as a fridge which is a great budget option that can be done for under $200.
- Some new budget fridges don’t advertise power draw/usage or don’t have warranties; can be an iffy proposition. So, if you go with an RV fridge, it’s better to go with bigger brands (with better warranties and customer support).
- Super Budget option: have none! Have a poo shovel/pack out all waste and use a pee bottle or other sealed container. Many, many vanlifers get by on this when off grid, and by using pubic restrooms in cities and towns.
- Budget option – casette toilet. You can find options for under $80 that actually have detachable compartments for holding water to flush, and for waste
- If you are willing to pay a premium, there are compact, fully composting toilets that many vanlifers choose.
We hope you found these tips helpful! If you have further questions, feel free to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org, or DM us on Instagram @diversify.vanlife!
Find Candyss on Instagram @candyss.love to learn about her Emotional Healing business, and support her Natural Skincare business @sashaflowersskincare!
Find Noami on Instagram @irietoaurora, and support her Nomads at the Intersections Podcast (@nomadsattheintersectionspod)
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