Van conversion – options to make your dream a reality

There are four van conversion options. Self-conversion, conversion company, prebuilt or conversion kit? Which one is best for you?

So, you want to live in a van down by the river. How will you make that happen? You have four van conversion options. First, a self-conversion. This takes a lot of time but can save you money. Second, a prebuilt conversion van. It saves you time but costs more. Third, hiring a conversion company. This is likely the most expensive option, but you don’t waste any of your time and you get a quality product. Fourth, buy a conversion kit and install it yourself. This saves time over a self-conversion and could save money over a conversion company.

But which one is best for you? Let’s take a closer look at all four options to help you decide.

Self-conversion

There are three big factors to consider when deciding if a self-conversion is right for you: time, experience and resources, and inclination.

Time

Time is a valuable resource. Depending on your situation, a van self-conversion might take more of your time than it’s worth. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, check out these articles:

Bearfoot Theory chose to have both her van conversions done professionally. During her first build, she was working 60+ hours a week. Also, she didn’t have the tools, experience, or space for a self-conversion. Therefore, a van conversion company was her best option, saving her time and frustration.

clock and money
You know what they say, time is money!

Experience and resources

Building experience goes along with time. The less experience you have, the longer a self-conversion takes. You’re also more likely to make mistakes along the way. These mistakes can cost you both time and money

Let’s say you have building experience but lack the space for a self-conversion. If you live in Manhattan, finding a place to build out your van presents a major challenge. Therefore, a van self-conversion might not even be an option. Even if you have the space, weather could limit you. For instance, my husband and I did little work on the van during the summer. The mid-Atlantic heat and humidity were too much for us. After that, we had two months of good weather before the temperatures dropped. Then our building hours became limited to the warmest part of the day.

Some folks see their lack of tools as a non-starter for a self-conversion. However, this is an easy fix with a few purchases. Don’t think you need to spend a lot of money buying tools. My husband and I spent less than $500 on tools. Most of them we bought off Craigslist, which saved us an incredible amount. On the other hand, you can also make do with fewer, less expensive tools. For example, I saw a van build completed with nothing but a drill and handsaw.

Inclination

Regardless of time, experience, and resources, do you want to build out your van? From the moment van life went from a fantasy to a real possibility, I knew a self-conversion was the only option for me. I wanted everything about Mark to be mine, from the layout and design to fabrication. Even starting with zero experience, Mark is one of my proudest accomplishments. However, it wasn’t easy. The thought of a self-conversion might not appeal to. And that’s okay because you have three other van conversion options.

plywood clamped together to make a seat box
We didn’t learn about the wonders of pocket holes until the end of our build. They came in handy when building our seat boxes!

Conversion company

Conversion companies specialize in outfitting vans for your desired purpose. As a result, they already know the best layouts for skiers, surfers, mountain bikers and more. But this comes at a price. The starting cost can run anywhere from $15k – $35k. Starting cost. This is usually for pre-designed layouts. The more custom your build, the most it will cost. However, the high price tag may be worth it.

With many of the conversion companies you can either bring them a van or order one through them. You could be thinking, “Sweet! I’ll buy an older, cheap van to save money so I can spend more on the conversion.” However, some companies only work on certain types of vans. Or there are companies like Outside Van who will work on any type of van, but it must be a 2007 or newer.

Something else to consider is time. While hiring a conversion company doesn’t take up any of your time, it still could take a while. We’re talking up to or over a year. On the bright side, you’ll have a custom, well-built van. Also, don’t rush your van conversion, whether it’s DIY or hiring someone. Therefore, if time is of the essence, these last two van conversion options might be for you.

screenshot of explore vanx list of conversion companies
ExploreVanX has a page dedicated to conversion companies. You can filter by state, van type and more.

Prebuilt

If you’re eager to start van life, a prebuilt is the way to go. You’ll have a move-in ready home on wheels as fast as you can buy a van. In a previous post I talked about different vehicle options. One the options covered was either a Class B motorhome or a pop top van. Most of the ones out there are prebuilt. Also, they’re likely to cost less than hiring a conversion company.

There are two prebuilt options, one professionally converted, or one converted by someone like me. The biggest difference between the two is quality. The quality of a professionally built conversion van is likely higher. They are also easier to insure. On the other hand, a self-converted van is bound to be cheaper. The glaring disadvantage of this van conversion option is lack of customization. What you see is what you get. But many pro prebuilt layouts are well thought out. Therefore, there’s a chance you’ll find a layout that works for you.

prebuilt camper van
A prebuilt is the fastest way to start van life.

Conversion kit

Kits are a great van conversion option to save some money, a lot of time, and get a quality product. However, kits are vehicle specific. Thus, they limit your van choices if this is the route you go. But the limited vehicles selection allows conversion kits to be mass produced. This is what makes them more affordable.

The kits are designed to utilize existing holes and structures in the van. Therefore, you can remove the kit whenever you please and go back to an undamaged cargo van. Additionally, conversion kits are modular. You can pick and choose which options you want to install. If you can’t afford a full kit right away, this allows you to buy in piecemeal. Also, if you’re undecided about a feature, you can go without it. If you feel like you’re missing out, add it later.

zenvanz logo
Zenvanz – Sprinter van conversion kits.

Conversion kit companies

Which van conversion option is best for you?

Money is the biggest reason folks lean towards a self-conversion. Plenty of van lifers out there have converted their vans on a tight budget. However, if you have more financial freedom, one of the other three options might work better. Above all, don’t rush your conversion!

Have you decided on a self-conversion? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

Need more help getting started with van life? Check out our How to Start Van Life guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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