Van Conversions: What to Know Before You Start

a yellow van with its trunk open

Ready to start traveling and enjoying the world around you, but also have a budget to stick to? Converting a van for your traveling or even living purposes may be just what you need. But before you get started, there's a lot to consider so that you have only happy travel stories to share.

Start With a Layout and Budget

Before you even begin shopping for a van, it's best to have a layout and design in mind. This way you can find the right van to convert for whatever needs you'll have and be able to develop a budget.


Every person that converts a van will have a different layout due to their own unique requirements, such as whether you'll be cooking in it and need a kitchen, or simply using it as a place to sleep. When you're drawing out your layout, remember to incorporate multiple functions for each part inside. For example, your bed can also be your couch and storage, and your kitchen area may be your dining spot as well as your office. You want to squeeze all you can out of the tiny space you have.


A converted van with a wood ceiling and a bed.

When designing your conversion van, consider what "look" you're going for. Adding some flair by making a tapestry ceiling or old burlap bags may be what you want, or maybe a cleaner look of real wood paneling that you create yourself is more to your taste. Consider early on what your design aesthetic will be so you can begin collecting the materials you'll need, as well as give you an idea about your budget.


Once you've figured out your layout, design, and materials, you can create a budget. Include in this an approximate cost for the van itself. A good range to keep in mind is an average of $3,500 for your van and another $1,000 or more for tires. Add in $3,000-$5,000 for materials (not including a generator or ac/ heating unit). This makes for a total budget of around $8,000-$10,000. According to those that do van conversions for a living, that number may be on the low side, but this is including the fact that you'll be doing most of the work yourself and using some repurposed materials.

Once you think of everything you want the van to have and get some approximate measurements in mind, you'll know what size van you need. Can you get by with a Volkswagen or will you need a cargo van?

Tips for Buying the Right Van to Convert

Now that you know what your van will be used for and how much space you will need inside it, you have a better knowledge of what style of van to shop for. For most van conversions there are two types used most often and those are the Volkswagen van and the cargo van.

Volkswagen / Camper Vans

Volkswagen vans are often thought of as the go-to camper van, and as such the most sought after for van conversion, especially since they already have some conversions done to it. The cons are that they break down often, parts are sometimes hard to come by, and they're not very stealthy. (You can pretty well tell when someone's living in one.) As for price, older Volkswagen vans can be found for as little as $1,000, but just keep in mind the cost of repairs and that if you're living in it, the space is really quite limited.

Cargo Vans

A camper van office setup looking out onto a lake.

Cargo vans are the popular choice for van conversion by those who have done it. The pros include a lot of space, ability to handle heavy terrain, and stealth—when parking among other vehicles you blend in and it don't look like you're living in it. Cons are not many, but the largest one, and a big one for any traveler, is the gas mileage. You're not going to get any more than 12-13 mpg with a cargo van. Cargo vans cost more than other van, but can usually be found for under $3,000-$5,000. Keep in mind that most cargo vans will have a lot of miles on them and should be checked out thoroughly by a mechanic.

When you've found a van you're serious about converting, you should always hire a mechanic to check it over so you don't end up broken down while out enjoying a mountain view. However, there are a few things you can look over yourself. Ask the owner if the van has been around a lot of salt to know if if will have rust issues. Next, make sure that the wear on the van and the odometer reading appears to match up and that the engine and transmission sound and run smoothly, especially when shifting into gears. If it lurches into gear or has a delay, there's likely an expensive transmission issue.

Legal Considerations

Don't forget the legal aspects to converting a van. Converting a van to a camper van may require you to get an inspection and reclassification by your transit authorities. Every county and state has different rules and laws governing what is allowed and not allowed for legal road travel, so be sure to check with them before you start. Also, you'll need to call your insurance company to find out how much the rates may be affected. A final consideration is if you have the right type of license for driving your newly converted van. Check with your local department of motor vehicles to see if your current license class is suitable for the type and size of vehicle you're driving.