Building a Conversion Van for $4000?
Updated: Aug 3
It seems impossible to buy a van for under $4000, especially with the skyrocketing market, but with some factors thrown into the mix, you can get your feet wet in the van life without breaking the bank or dipping too much into your savings.
Let's start by saying, $4000 is not cheap, I get that. However, if you've spiraled into the world of building a van, it's safe to assume you probably think you need a lot more money. It's important to remember this lifestyle, any lifestyle for that matter, is not one size fits all. If the outdoors aren't your thing and you couldn't imagine living in a van you can't stand in, this might not be the article for you. But if you're ready to hit the open-road with the freedom to roam as you please without making the long-term commitment of building a $50,000 home, let's go!
Stick to your budget
When I gave myself a budget of $4000, I thought I'd be lucky to just find the van. After searching and scanning, I quickly realized I couldn't afford and didn't need a high-top van, which kept me within my budget. By eliminating so many options, I was able to narrow it down to a Chevy Astro or GMC Safari model. These are extremely fuel efficient, only a little larger than a standard mini van and priced accordingly. Alas, Gus (my van's name) was found.
Gus is a 1998 GMC Safari purchased at 153,000 miles from a local seller the day he hit the market. After about 2 months of patiently waiting and a lot of deals that fell through, this van landed in my lap and I jumped on it before anyone else could. The van was $2,200 and I got three spare tires for $200. Total cost: $2,400.
Ask yourself what you need vs. what you want.
Almost every person you ask will say you need a high-top van but that is truly a want. This life (for me) is not about luxury, rather about the ability to travel, experience the outdoors and spend as much time as possible out of my van. I chose this life for the ability to live nomadically, not for the ability to stand up in my van.
Without the element of standing inside comes the convenience of not having to build a kitchen, proper sink or shower. This not only saves time on your build but also money. I know what you're thinking, NO SHOWER?!? Yeah, no shower (inside at least), but that's another article.
Without a shower or a formal sink, you help cut the cost (and space) of water tanks, a pump, heater and excess elecrticity to run it all. Remember, this is an article on how to build a van for under $4000, you'll have to ask yourself what is truly necessary or worth raising your budget for.
What do I need?
A comfy place to sleep - Bed placement is totally up to you however without a high top, I easily settled on a fixed bed. This prevents me from having to set up/breakdown my bed in a small space.
A place to store your food - A cooler gets messy and expensive in the long run, not to mention the amount of food I've lost due to melted ice. Pop up shelves work well in a cooler to separate food from ice but overall, I purchased a SetPower 32qt fridge for about $265 and I absolutely love it. I also have built in cabinets for the remainder of my food storage.
Electricity - This is definitely a loose need however, basic setups are easy to do and you can take them with you anywhere. I have a Yeti500x for my battery system and a WindyNation 100w solar panel attached to my roof. Altogether this powers my fridge and all my technology to continue working and making content on the road. Total setup cost: $900
Source scrap material
Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist both have free sections to source some unused material. I got my floors from someone who redid their bathroom and had leftover. My cieling was made from an old fence I found lying by the curb and all of my building wood was from a construction site with extra material. My van is insulated with spray foam scraped from a company that had an extra case and my bed is three scraped RV cushions, saving me on buying a custom mattress.
Sometimes it's worth asking around and people might not need all of what they already purchased. Don't be afraid to get your hands on things and replace them as you go. Remember, this lifestyle isn't about luxury or glamour, it's about the ability to live freely and travel full time.
A lot of this article has been about cheap/free items however, I personally purchased the following:
Subfloor/walls: $55 for 1/4" plywood to line my van.
Countertops: $65 for two large 3/4" pieces of wood (maple). I cut to size, sanded, stained and coated with polyurethane for the counter/tabletop in my van.
Hardware: $50 for nails, screws, hinges and handles.
Reflectix: $40 for one 48" roll covering all four of my back windows.
Investments: $68 on paint, glue, sandpaper and other things I now have in my tool box.
Water tanks: $20 for a 6 gallon to refill and a 2.5 gallon to drink from.
Solar Shower: $18 for a 5 gallon outdoor solar shower.
Throwing in all of the logistics, the van cost with the build has me around $3,900!
Research, research, research!
*You do not need to be living in a van to do research on how to live in a van! It's step one of the entire process. Find what works for you, how you want to live, what you need vs what you want and be ready with answers once you're ready to move forward. You have to understand what it takes physically and mentally to commit to this lifestyle full time.*
Don't just buy the first van you look at, especially when buying an older model. Take it to a mechanic, get the history on the vehicle and don't waste money on something that's going to cost you more in the long run.
Know what you're buying and why. Some companies charge so much for name brand material when another company with less of a marketing budget is just as good. (I.e. Some other fridges run directly through solar power or with an in-source battery [they don't turn off when unplugged]. Overall, opting out of these extra features saved me about $700 on some similar models.)
Figure out what kind of living on the road you want to be doing. Are you a camper? Do you need to be in a city? Are you willing to travel with the seasons? All of these questions will help you decide on the type of build you will need to make yourself happy.
Hiring someone to do your build costs extra money. Youtube, blog after blog and a lot of questions helped me build a bed, slide out table for eating/cooking and full cabinetry/countertop. Needless to say, we are a lot more capable than we think.
Your build is truly yours to do with as you please. Throw in an old dresser, a futon, a cooler and hit the open road if that's what you choose but be sure to do your research, stay safe and have fun!
Check out some of my other articles on how to get on the road!