Written by Anais Moniq, Natasha Jain, Denise Meeker
Contributions from Vaughn Dabney, Candyss Love, John & Jayme Serbell, & Dustin Noami Grevenberg
Meet the van build panel
|John & Jayme Serbell|
|RIG TYPE: 1996 Chevrolet Express High-Top Conversion Van||BUILD: Self-built for full-time travel||Cost of van: $1,500 (100,000 miles at time of purchase)|
|RIG TYPE: 2009 Workhorse W42 Step Van||BUILD: Self-built for full-time travel||Cost of build: $9,500|
|RIG TYPE: Ram ProMaster||BUILD: Self-designed (carpenter-assisted) for full-time travel||Cost of build: $2,800|
|RIG TYPE: 0’6H, 14’L cargo Step Van||BUILD: Self-built for full-time travel||Cost of build: $8,000|
|RIG TYPE: 2019 Ram ProMaster||BUILD: Self-built for full-time travel||Cost of build:|
|Lovell & Paris|
2012 Nissan NV2500 Low Roof Van
Self-built for full-time travel
|Cost of build: 1,100|
Lovell and Paris Lee are Navy vets, full-time students, and Black digital nomads. They are currently building out their second rig and have an abundance of tips and tools for those who are thinking about – or are in the midst of their own van build. You can follow their build @lovellandparis on Instagram and reach out for consulting or van build resources at www.novelkulture.com.
Your Van Build Story
After saving for two years and researching for 10 months, I bought a 1996 Freightliner retired FedEx fleet vehicle. For a 10’6H, 14’L cargo step van with 270K+ miles and diesel engine, what was $10-$12K at dealerships, I paid $6K to the original owner.
During my build, I sold the roll-up garage-style back door, saved metal panels from the ceiling to use for the build, removed a metal runway from the cargo floor, and salvaged parts for a swing-style back door from a metal yard. I serviced my truck near the airport because there was more access to fleet vehicle parts. I saved $8K for my build: the top priorities outside of insulation, ventilation, and solar were a bed, a toilet, and a sink. I wanted to move in asap and build out my storage, tiny wood stove, and a writing desk on the road. Then the pandemic hit a year later and I didn’t move in until the 2020 election.
The advantage of building on the road is that I know I will have very few regrets with my design because I have experimented with so many ideas, as well that I have been gifted, and also have thrifted, so many pieces that should have been hundreds of dollars.
My biggest pro tip is checking in with yourself about what you personally want and need vs. what you see others doing. There is more than 1 way to “vanlife.” After realizing that I would save more by self-converting, a mid-grade vehicle would be the most value for what I wanted to achieve. So, I sold and saved for close to 2-3 years until I could trade in my Jeep for a new, empty Ram Promaster 2500, and paid the rest in cash. During the time period of saving, I had to figure out what kind of rig what right for my specific needs and wants that aligned with the lifestyle I intended to live, like the difficulty of terrain and travel environments, and all the ways that I wanted to dwell, be it city, boondocking, campsites, off-roading, or all of the above. I took my time and asked myself 12 life category questions adapted from a self-help seminar, which helped me shed light on my unique van life story needs. I then began to amend my lifestyle to transition to a life on the road as a digital nomad. I really enjoy that my rig can fit in a parking spot, and the Promaster is significantly cheaper than the Sprinters or brand new RVs so that I could buy new for a reasonable price. I tended to go to middle-grade and eco-friendly materials, and I am happy I could make this investment.
Do you want to download Natasha’s 12 life category questions to assess your vanlife needs? Click here
Our vanbuild journey started in 2017 when we faced the point of no return. Looking back, we would have been a fool not to move into our 2012 Nissan NV2500 Low Roof Van. Here’s our tour less than 2 months in the van (https://youtu.be/vJoELVfMR5Q) We allocated $800 to our first vanbuild and $1800 cash for our first, and very irresponsible, cross country road trip. The $800 was not sustainable but we made it work from April to June 2017. By July, we did a rebuild with $300 to make some necessary updates.
Come August that year, we started on our second build for $500. This build was a little bit better as the paint and hardwood floor were a bit more inspirational. You can check that one out right here! (https://youtu.be/bp-ilcWyCs4). We rocked with this build for nearly a year of school until we couldn’t take the poor ergonomics so it was time to do an effective rebuild. We needed more reliable transportation so we each got mountain bikes. We also needed a better sofa bed. Check out Kirsten Dirksen’s video tour of our 4th vanbuild here! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtQZDSwFYVQ&t=337s).
After the end of 2018, we decided to go to Bob Well’s RTR in January of 2019. We had a great time, met more #BlackVanlifers and learned alot, like how not to camp off the grid. (https://youtu.be/Ib00kN_A16Y) Weve got a lot of links as we tried to document as much as possible.
By that summer, we traveled to my(Lovell’s) dads place to build our fifth and last build in the Low roof nissan, It was a huge improvement and was born of three years of aches and pains in my neck and lower back. That build can be seen here! (https://youtu.be/jn3d_zZZNlc)
Now, in 2021, we are on our 6th total van build with the sprinter.
Where and how to find the perfect rig for you
Imagine the life you want first and design a rig to fit your dreams. Approaching vanlife was a step towards my long-term goal to buy land and my short-term goal to have constant access to travel while I work. I wanted to be safe, cozy, and self-contained. Great city parking wasn’t a high priority for me, but I knew I would be looking for industrial areas when urban camping. I wasn’t worried about commuting anywhere quickly, but going up a mountain, I do cap out at 35-40mph.
Size, parking preferences, and daily routine will determine whether you buy an RV, school bus, Step van, or whether you buy a shuttle bus, cargo van, or SUV. Once I purchase land, I will already have a 90sqft tiny home to live in during development, with the option to repurpose it later.
Avoid buying from car dealerships but use their prices as the max. cap for what an owner could charge for a rig and work you way down from that price. Facebook Marketplace has endless options to filter through and is far less of a headache than sifting through the wastelands of Craigslist or taking risks with online auctions.
For each negative discovery you make, mark off $250-$500 from the asking price and be firm as these are problems you will have to fix. Walk away if they are unwilling to negotiate at all.
- Use all available resources to commit to your layout and rig needs: make a plan, draw sketches, pour over Pinterest boards and YouTube vanlife videos.
- When viewing vehicles, take a notebook and if possible and wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.
- Write down your 5 non-negotiable needs and your ideal budget range. If you are a solo woman buying a rig, you should plan to get under any truck you really like, even if only as an intimidation factor to the seller; they think you don’t know ANYTHING.
- Check for any leaks on the pavement or any shiny buildup under the hood. Check for light leaks inside the cargo or holes underneath the truck. Kick the tires and make sure there’s still a deep thread in between its grooves. Listen for odd sounds when test driving. Rev the engine while parked; if you see dark smoke from the exhaust, that’s bad.
Before beginning your search, you’ll want to identify your budget, whether you need to finance in installments, have a trade-in, are putting money down payment, and/or paying in full upfront. Gently used vehicles and keeping your options open to the vehicle type will open up more options for lower-cost options. Other factors to consider are whether you are open to doing a full or partial build if you will be doing your own maintenance/repairs, and how stealthy you need to be for the kinds of areas you plan to inhabit. While considering these options, it’s helpful to browse places websites like Craigslist (search: “campervans for sale”), Sprinter forums, YouTube (search “van for sale”), and even social media like Instagram (search: #vanforsale) or Facebook Marketplace and believe-it-or-not, even eBay. Around your local campground, you may find new and used RVs sales lots hoping to appeal to campers.
When considering a purchase, start early, so you aren’t tempted to make an impulsive purchase outside your budget. Factor in the vehicle’s mileage, engine’s capacity, and longevity, any necessary repairs, as well as Gas vs. Diesel. These factors will directly affect your monthly budget in terms of fuel, maintenance: imported parts, repairs at public vs. private dealerships, and resale value. Ask yourself, what will I need to change to make my rig livable?: Exterior Additions, Height, Stealth, Climate-specific Insulation, ventilation/windows, child seats, etc. Building as you go allows for financing your build over time rather than all at once, investing time and patience while allowing you to learn your tiny home needs.
When negotiating a used rig, express a modest interest (you don’t have to be grumpy), take your time doing a thorough inspection in front of your salesperson verbally noting any body-damage, dings, rust, wear-and-tear, and any concerns you have about needing to finance making those repairs, large or small. Often these rigs were the owner’s beloved rig, and they want to know it will be going to a good home and more willing to negotiate. If buying from a dealership, ask about whether they can make the repairs before you purchase or how much they are willing to take off so you can make the repairs on your dime and time. Don’t underestimate the emotional aspect of building a relationship with your seller; If folx know you’re interest and your genuine concerns, they are subconsciously more invested in making the deal happen.
John & Jayme
Remember that many mechanics in North America will know how to work with American vehicles, e.g., Ford, Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge – some mechanics won’t touch a Sprinter van! Older vehicles will likely require more maintenance/ 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. You can find many mid-2000s and earlier for $5000 and under.
Deciding whether or not you should build a van or buy one already built-out
Buying an RV has the advantage of driving off the lot fully loaded and the option to be renovated quickly, if necessary. Buying an empty vehicle has the advantage of complete customization. Building without experience might mean several renovations to reach your ideal layout or requesting volunteers and hiring help if you do have time restrictions.
Use a few weekends to scout OfferUp and Habitat for Humanity locations to find second-hand furniture like cabinets, drawers, sinks, doors, tile, and more. With a good foundation of insulation, you only need to focus on mounting each thrifted piece to the van’s body. If time is a non-factor and you want to build from scratch and get ready for 500 hours of YouTube University and a lot of outreach to the Instagram community for advice. Consider hiring someone for any project you are too hesitant to approach, like electrical or welding.
Pros and cons of both:
Peace of mind (at least for a while), warranty, roadside assistance, Loans, and up-front costs, Long term maintenance, learning new skills, making additional customizations for functioning according to your needs, being able to get up and go, learning how to make repairs, inheriting issues or broken parts, used or older rigs are usually more affordable (ideal if you have some mechanical knowledge), engine replacement, sourcing parts out of stock or date, looking stealthy, matching existing aesthetic when making alterations, upfront honest information about, getting up to date records on rig’s health/maintenance, not having to buy/rent/borrow tools, or having someone else build out your rig for you! Time and money.
Learn what aspects of a van-build you can DIY vs. purchasing pre-done: If you are buying a partially built rig, find out if it is insulated according to your needs. If you need more windows, this may be difficult to do on a built-out rig after the fact. Plumbing and electrical are 2 of the most challenging parts of the build. Insulation is step number 1, cutting out any roof vents for fan/skylight, etc. Solar is another element of electrical that can take some time and effort to get onto your rig. Framing is another heavy project, though you can achieve it with time, patience, and guidance. Cosmetic carpentry and décor can come later and can more easily change as your needs do (i.e., Clothing storage, toilet, and gadgets). There are so many ways to live in a van, essential being shelter (insulation), a place to sleep, food, water, and gas.
If you don’t have the time, skill, or willingness to learn skills, you are better off searching for a local carpenter like @candyss.love are going with a full service like Dave and Matt/Nomadik Customs and everything in between. This is a big question, and we would be happy to speak directly to answer any van build considerations. You can contact us at @lovellandparis
What’s a low end cost for a minimal electric set up?
1 battery (lead-acid deep cycle $300-$400) 1 solar panel cables inverter charge controller all brand new: $600-$800 total (but buying used can be a great way to go even cheaper)
John & Jayme’s Estimate:
If all you need is to charge phones and laptops, you could just connect one deep cycle battery to an isolator and use 12V chargers for your electricity and stay in the $300-$400 range. You would have to drive periodically to charge your battery. Side note: all for cell phone boosters! Have gotten full bars even in spots where we would’ve had 1 bar (they don’t create service from nothing, however).
Dustin & Noami’s Estimate:
We have 200AH AGM battery and 300W of solar as two full-time digital nomads (charging devices, running a fridge, etc.)
|Wool Insulation||$$$ (R-Value: 13—16) (Cost varies depending on R-value)||Made from shearling or the wool from, you guess it, Sheep! With that said, the material smells like a barn, which could be seen as a pro or a con, though the scent tends to be covered up well when you build your walls. This is an eco-friendly, air-purifying, bug-resistant, moisture-regulating, relatively sustainable option that is fire and mold resistant, and easy to work with. If you have any allergic reactions to wool, you may want to reconsider this option, as this could take a toll on your health overtime. It tends to sag overtime, so consider how this will stay in place, as you may need to source more materials like adhesives, tape or string. My dog loved the fragrance, but I couldn’t justify the cost when I first started my build. Requires special order, not found as often at local hardware store.|
|Denim Insulation||$$ (R-Value: 6—13) (Cost varies depending on R-value)||Made from new or recycled denim, which is resistant to water, and fire and would not sag over time. The denim is relatively eco-friendly, and free formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals. A great option for stuffing into small holes that get missed with rigid materials. This option is vegan-alternative to wool, and cleaner/safer than fiberglass, and has little to no scent. The higher R-value options can also help quite a bit with sound-deadening. You can opt to use spray glue or take a greener approach by lightly taping or securing in place with twine. Can find with lower R-value at hardware stores (usually a 6 R-value) and higher value through special order (around a 13 R-value)|
|Foam Insulation||$+ (R-Value: 3—10) (Cost varies depending on R-value)||Rigid foam insulation is a great option for flat surfaces that could otherwise sag overtime or will have some weight, and is easy to find and a relatively low-cost material. Expanding spray foam insulation is the liquid-to-solid form of this option, and is an effective for filling in gaps that may be otherwise hard to fill, which will give you an even higher R-value. The down sides are that spray foam is difficult to remove and chemical based, which is something to consider when living in a small contained space, as you can inhale the fume-less chemicals that can become airborne especially in hotter temperatures. Foam insulation board is easily and most commonly found at hardware stores nationwide. Spray foam insulation is pricier as it requires a professional install, so you will need to set up an appointment where the price of materials is included in the install.|
Final thoughts on insulation
This is what I suggest investing money and some thought into.
After months of research, I went with denim insulation ($$) and a layer of Reflectix. I was looking for non-toxic, cruelty-free, sustainable materials. I was able to find R13 rated denim insulation made from recycled second-hand jeans and jackets, which I sourced from a company called (Soundproof Cow). If nothing else, I would have a somewhat temperature-controlled shelter to call home, no matter where I decided to travel.
For refrigerated food storage, there are several options: a chest-style fridge, an upright fridge, a cooler, or none at all.
The number of people dwelling in the vehicle and the space allotted for a fridge will determine what size fits your needs. A chest-style unit will be more energy efficient as cold air will sink and remain inside the fridge. They can range from $400- $1400 depending on the capacity and brand. An upright fridge will release every time it’s opened but has the advantage of being easier to organize. Mini fridges start around $70 and larger 12V upright fridges can go up to $400. A cooler can be a hassle to refill weekly with ice, but is a good budget-friendly option, under $150, that’s also portable for camping or kayaking.
Not buying a fridge at all means eating out more and storing more dried or canned food. Without a fridge, you can buy fresh items if you know they’ll be cooked or consumed immediately, but colder climates can extend the storage of fresh food when necessary.
I chose to start vanlife with a cooler for its multiple uses and cost-efficiency. When I upgrade to a chest-style fridge, I will still use my cooler as extra seating and portable food storage.
I went with 2 coolers, I fill up ice every time I get gas, about every 3 days. Works well for my lifestyle and food needs.
I also have Dometic dual zone, I am vegan so need option to freeze stuff. I cook a lot since I can’t eat out as much. Whatever fridge you get, do some basic calculations on how much your fridge/freezer will demand energy-wise, how much power you’ll need, how efficient is the fridge etc. Every electrical device has a “power rating/output”- it should be on the box. If it’s not DC (12V), you need to look at power rating of inverter. You can find fridges that will have better power ratings; it really depends on your budget.
Coolers didnt work for us, In our 5th van build, we put up the money for an Alpicool CX40 compressor fridge and its been a game changer. If space is limited, go with at least an Alpicool C15.
5. In terms of getting on the road, power is a huge consideration. At RTR 2019, we were sitting ducks. Battery isolators are useless when you dont move your rig. In our old van, we were up to 3 100ah agm batteries and that was not enough! The point is, pay particular attention to and invest in your power system. We now have just 1 300ah lithium iron phosphate battery and its working well!
Reasons to ventilate your rig:
- Regulate internal climate
- Combat humidity and condensation
- Combat odor and pollutants
Do not skimp out on ventilation options! There will be times where you need ventilation but might not want to have your windows down or doors open.
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). AC is very expensive (cost and energy-wise).
John & Jayme:
Fan can help suck condensation out; we always have theirs running! Roof fans are the way to go.
Dustin & Noami:
12V fan makes a huge difference on hot days!
Items we love & recommend:
Some other folx currently building to check out
Van build on a budget live event
Wait, theres more!
|For more tips about insurance, electrical systems, tips about where and how to start your van build, and more, you can check out our van build on a budget resource:|
- from van life on a budget online event:https://diversifyvanlife.com/events/
- DualEx Van builder https://youtube.com/c/DualEx2x
- Garry Pullen, Van Builder @Whatz.hiz.faze YT https://youtube.com/channel/UCCMIX3CN3ourNuAsyG-FgWg
- TinyHomeTruck’s Unoma Haus Design https://instagram.com/unomahaus?igshid=18ob53o6mac65
- Lovel & Paris — Budget consultants https://instagram.com/lovellandparis?igshid=1da7as0i9z5fp
- PDF resource https://diversifyvanlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Van-Build-on-a-Budget-A-Resource.pdf