Should You Convert or Buy a Van?

The Van Life culture is a growing movement that lures in people of all ages and income levels. The free spirit mindset that this lifestyle embraces is an indicator that people want freedom and simplicity in their lives. The question many ask when making a purchase is, “should we convert or buy a van”?

The inevitable question everyone asks is, “how can we do this”?

There are many things to consider when thinking about transitioning from the traditional full time work lifestyle to the Van Life style of living.

For this post, I am going to concentrate on the van itself and discuss whether it is better to buy a manufactured RV or to buy a van (or bus) and convert it to your personalized home on wheels.

The Van Conversion

I follow several people on blogs and Instagram that have done a van conversion or are in the middle of doing one. Many of the completed vans are spectacular. Every component in these vans are well researched and designed specifically for the end user of the van. Each of these vans is a one of a kind vehicle that captures the owners personality and their requirements for functionality.

Photo by Manuel Meurisse

Depending on the builder’s perspective, the process of converting a van that is an empty shell to a finished product is either an exciting adventure or an overwhelming chore.

Although I sometimes look at these conversion vans with awe because they are so beautiful, I know this process is not for everyone. When Gail and I started talking about getting a van and traveling, I was interested in doing a conversion. Gail wanted nothing to do with it and that really was the right decision for our lives.

One of the best reasons for doing a conversion is you can build it over time and pay for it as you go. Building a conversion van can make sense financially and the owners can still use the van for trips even if it’s not totally completed.

In considering whether to jump into a conversion, one has to assess whether they have the total skill set or the mechanical ability to get the job done. Carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills are all part of the build and the van owner must either know how to do all of these, learn as they go or hire others to complete some of these functions.

The other negative I’ve noticed in conversion vans is many do not have a shower or restroom area inside their units. However, I do sometimes see people who have designed an outdoor shower function.

All said, the conversion van is a good story that is interesting to show on social media. I do enjoy following those brave souls who jump into these projects. I always enjoy seeing the finished product.

Buying a Manufactured Van

Just to call it what it is; the darn things are too expensive!

After you get past the shock of the price, manufactured recreational vehicles make a lot of sense for most people.

The obvious advantage is the manufactures of these units have years of experience in RV design. They have it all figured out. Every nook in the unit is useful space and the potential buyer has a variety of floor plan options to choose from.

Our Sprinter van is an extended unit. The pro to this unit is more storage overall which we think is critical. The bathroom situation was an important element to us also.

The shower is not something we use daily. If we are in a campground with a shower house we will use it. However, there are times when we are in a spot where showers are not available. It is nice to have a built-in shower on those days. We have an indoor and an outdoor shower option on our Sprinter.

The toilet is not a fun topic to talk about but here goes. We have a toilet in our unit and only use it for liquid waste, otherwise, we find somewhere else to go. Emptying the waste is still no fun.

Unlike the conversion vans, manufactured units are not personalized to the individual user. People who decide to buy these vans are limited in their choices of color and materials. Turning one of these units into a one of a kind work of art is much more difficult to do.

Lastly, I think the warranty on manufactured units is important and helps give some peace of mind. There are actually two warranties on an RV. The chassis and the coach. One warranty covers the motor, the transmission and drive. The second warranty covers everything else, including the generator, the refrigerator, heaters, AC and the rest.

Buy or Convert a Van?

In my opinion there is no right or wrong way on how you want to proceed with your van. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages.

At the end of the day, it is all about the travel. Honestly, Gail and I want to spend most of our time outside the van. Alice’s main mission is to get us to where we want to go and provide us with a bed and a place to cook. Otherwise, we’d rather be standing on top of a mountain somewhere.

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