Budget Campervan Conversion: How To Choose The Right Van
Travelling by road is absolutely the best way to experience the diversity of a country and see beyond the tourist hotspots. Whether it’s by bicycle, motorcycle, public transport, or using your own car or campervan, the hours spent watching rural landscapes flash past beat the alternative time spent in airport lounges, hands-down.
A self-driven road trip is often one of the cheapest options too, especially if you have the desire and means to fix up and run your own vehicle. That’s why, for my upcoming tour of the vast and magnificent country of Australia (it starts in October!), I knew a campervan was the ideal choice. As the trip needs to be as low cost as possible, a plan to convert a van into an original camper was born.
If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know that I am a huge advocate of budget travel, but I also like to be comfortable and include the odd home comfort in my plans every once in a while. This style of travel was essentially my brief for converting the now finished camper; a budget renovation that would provide a functional, yet cosy and comfy, mobile abode.
The end result was exactly as I’d imagined and you can see the before and after photos here! Then pop back to this post, as it’s the first in a series of step-by-step blog entries showing you exactly how my partner and myself took a dirty old van and transformed her into a road trip ready home, called Roma.
How to find the right van for you
There are a number of popular van makes that are used for campervan conversions. These include the infamous old-style Volkswagen and large Sprinter vans as most common. When choosing the right van for you though, there are a number of things to consider:
Reliability – Is it a reliable make?
Our campervan is a Mitsubishi Express. In Australia, this is a common van used by tradies (labourers etc.) thanks to its reliability, so we knew it would be a good choice for driving long distances and being on the road for four to five months.
Age of the van (also impacts reliability)
Whilst old Volkswagen campers look dreamy in an Instagram photo, we can’t overlook the fact that they are old and because of this, might not be the best choice for climates that are challenging (this is the part where Volkswagen camper advocates protest out loud, no offence meant guys!).
For example, in Australia the temperatures regularly reach as high as 40 degrees, so a van that doesn’t cope well with heat is a big no-no for us. Whilst you can buy new Volkswagen vans like the T4 and T5, these do come with a more upmarket price tag.
Mileage (affected by age and use)
When we were on the hunt for Roma, our general rule was to find a van with less than 200,000km on the clock. According to my partner, from this point onwards things are more likely to go wrong with the vehicle.
Previous history and number of owners
It’s important to obtain as much service record history as possible for the van you are looking at purchasing, so you know how recently or if ever a major service has taken place. Of course, the fewer previous owners the vehicle has had, the more likely you’ll have a complete record of its service history. It might also mean the vehicle has been used less overall.
When we found Roma, we were thrilled to find that she had only been owned by a single owner and was used as a backup business vehicle. This meant she had a complete service record and that she’d had prevention maintenance done, including a change of cambelt, so we only needed to consider a few minor services to tyres and so on.
Even if all of the above considerations look positive, you absolutely must, must, must take the van you are viewing for a test drive. Check for:
- Easy engine start
- A smooth drive (very important for long journeys)
- No white on the oil cap (sign of head gasket blown)
- Working radiator (doesn’t overheat)
- Leaks in the exhaust
- Wear on the brake pads
- Scores on the discs
If any of the above seems an issue, this could indicate underlying problems, which means a headache and potentially extra cost for you from the very start of your trip. Perhaps steer clear (no pun intended 😜).
Things like worn tyres, an expiring road license, or cosmetic issues like dents to the bodywork or dirt, can all be fixed at a small expense, so don’t consider these reasons not to buy.
Knowing that you’re planning on living in this van for weeks or months on end, the practicalities of the van are super important. Consider things like:
- The number of windows – how much natural light or privacy do you want?
- How the doors open – are they sliding or open outwards in the rear? Which do you prefer (consider how you could use them)?
- Size of the interior – The reason many people like Sprinter vans as campers is the large size, which allows adults to stand easily inside and also provides ample room for storage. For me though, a Sprinter van is just a little too large for parking and manoeuvring, so I wanted something a more quaint and traditional in campervan size.
The last point, but of course the most important is how much you’re willing to pay for the perfect van. Keep in mind that after the outlay for the van itself, you will then need to invest in fitting it out and any servicing requirements. Do the maths against the cost of renting a ready-made campervan and ensure you are actually choosing the most cost-effective option in the long run. Don’t forget though, that once you’re done with your camper you can sell it and recoup the costs, potentially even making a profit, whereas hiring from a rental company at an extortionate rate is saying goodbye to money you’ll never get back.
As a guideline, we spent just AU$1600 on the van itself, and then a further AU$1400 on fitting it out. Once we factor in the new tyres and minor servicing we had done to ensure our time on the road will be as trouble-free as possible (fingers crossed), we’re looking at a total spend of AU$3700. If we were to rent a campervan for five months in Australia, we’d be looking at a minimum of AU$43 per day, which is just over AU$7000 total! That’s AU$7000 gone, never to be seen again, versus a potential retail value of AU$4-5000 for our own converted van.
So, whilst I don’t claim to be an expert in vans or mechanics, hopefully, this guide has given you some basic considerations to think about when looking for your own van to convert. Coming next is a post on stripping and starting to fit out the interior of your new van. Stay tuned and sign up to be notified when the next post goes live!
Got questions about choosing the right van for your own conversion project? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help!