So you want to build a camper van? Good choice – it’s a very satisfying experience. But before you start, you may want to ask yourself these questions. Do I realise what’s actually involved? Have I any idea how much it will cost? Have I got the right skills? And, have I considered just how long it will take?
Below, I am going to outline a few of the pro’s and con’s to help you decide whether to build a camper van… or buy a camper van.
Build a Camper Van
One of the biggest advantages of building your own camper van has got to be the low cost, especially if you intend to do all the work yourself. If done correctly, you can end up with a tailor-made camper van that’s designed around your exact needs, for a fraction of the cost of a factory built camper van.
There are a lot of options open to the self-builder. The choice of base vehicle, the interior layout, and which appliances and gadgets to include. You can take your time, and work on your camper van build as and when you’ve got some spare hours, spending as much money (or as little) as you can afford. The parts to use in your build are readily available, whether you’re buying new from a self-build supplier, or second hand from eBay or a caravan scrap yard.
I used a combination of used, recycled, and free parts in my conversion (above). Which meant that I only ended up spending around £500 on my camper van build!
I know from experience…
That building a camper van gives an enormous sense of satisfaction and pride. And this is something you don’t get when buying a ready-to-go camper van. Your camper van will be totally unique to you – a true one of a kind. You’ll discover skills you never knew you had. And by allowing your creative juices to flow as you think of inventive and ingenious solutions to problems, you’ll surprise and delight yourself. I personally found this part very rewarding. And because you’ve built the camper van yourself, you’ll know it inside out. So if you have any problems later on down the line you’ll be much more likely to know where to look, and how to fix them!
Tip: If you are going to build a camper van, I’d suggest reading our guide How to Convert a Van into a Camper Van for more information.
One downside when you build a camper van. Is the fact that you’ve actually got to build it! You’ll require commitment, patience, ingenuity, skill, and plenty of staying power. It’s easy to think of all the big jobs that need doing. But it’s usually all the little jobs that take the time! So don’t underestimate just how long it will take, I can almost guarantee that it will be much longer than you first anticipate.
Careful planning will also be required, or you could end up with a Frankenstein, mishmash camper van, that doesn’t really work that well. You’ll need to have a good level of DIY skills and a good selection of tools to do the job properly. And also an understanding of electrics and gas installation if you intend doing these jobs yourself. If this isn’t something you feel confident doing, then you’ll have to employ a professional, which can be quite expensive.
You’ve also got to consider safety when building your camper van. Proper ventilation is essential, especially around gas bottles, pipes, and appliances. (Installing ventilation requires carefully drilling holes in the vehicle’s floor pan or side walls, and you only get one go at this). Fitting windows is another one of those ‘measure twice, cut once’ jobs. Needless to say, if you mess this up, it can be costly.
More stuff to consider…
It is very important that you choose a good base vehicle to start off with, making sure it’s mechanically and structurally sound. There’s no sense spending time, effort and money, on converting a van that’s in poor condition. If your conversion doesn’t meet DVLAs requirements for reclassification, then you won’t be able to reclassify the vehicle. Which may mean that you’ll find it difficult to MOT and insure your camper van.
And finally, not to put too much of a downer on things. It’s good to be aware that if you ever come to sell your self-build camper van, it’s very unlikely you will get back the money (and time) you’ve spent on it. The resale value of a DIY camper van is always going to be much lower than a professionally converted camper van. Another point to consider is that some campsites won’t allow stealth campers, or amateurish looking camper vans on site.
So, maybe now is a good time to ask yourself what’s the main reason you want to build a camper van. Is it to save money? Because once you’ve bought a base vehicle and chosen all the fittings, fixtures, appliances and goodies you’d like to include in your build. (And weighed up the time it’s going to take.) Then building your own camper van may not necessarily be the cheapest option available to you.
Depending on how much you’ve got to spend, it may be just as cost effective (and certainly quicker and less hassle) to buy a decent used camper van so you can spend the summer travelling and enjoying the scenery, rather than being stuck at home trying to work out how to fit a 2nd auxiliary battery!
However, buying a new or used camper van also has its downsides. Like most things in life there are always going to be pros and cons to any decision you make.
Buy a Camper Van
There are many different types of camper vans on the market to suit every budget, from micro campers with just enough room to put your socks on in the morning. To the ‘all singing, all dancing’ motorhomes packed full of every conceivable extra you can think of.
So if you’re considering buying rather than building, let’s take a look at some of the options available to you, shall we?
Buying a Second Hand Camper Van
If you’ve got the cash and don’t want to build a camper van, then buying a used camper van could be the perfect option (without breaking the bank). You’ve only got to search websites like eBay for used camper vans, to see that the potential buyer is spoilt for choice, whatever your budget. As a general rule, the more you have to spend, the bigger the choice available to you and the better quality camper van you can buy.
Unlike buying a used car, a camper van will generally only have been used for weekends away, or summer holidays. And unless the previous owners are constantly on the road, you should find that quite a lot of used camper vans have relatively low mileage. Shop around, there are some good buys to be had. Especially if you buy at the end of the season (or in winter) rather than at the start of summer.
Tip: When buying a used camper van, make sure that the vehicle has a long service history, and check over the MOT for any advisories that may need dealing with when the next MOT is due. Before parting with your cash, get the camper van checked over by a professional, and personally check that all the appliances work as they should – don’t just take the owners word for it.
When buying a used camper van, you’re not going to know its history. Any issues the vehicle may have (mechanical or otherwise) will only come to light once you have bought it, and have actually used the camper van. In comparison with a car, there are potentially a lot extras/appliances that can go wrong and malfunction (fridge, water heater, water pump, air conditioner, charging unit, etc.). These can be costly to replace, and if the camper van is quite old, replacements could be difficult to find.
If you buy a used camper van from a dealer, then you should make sure that it comes with some kind of warranty. Then if you do have any problems, at least you’ll have time to find them and get them fixed. However, if you’re buying privately then you’ll be buying ‘sold as seen’ with no warranty and no guarantees.
Like caravans, certain camper vans (with fibreglass or composite bodies) can suffer from damp issues, especially if there has been damage to the outside. Make sure to check the corners, underneath the seating area, showers, toilets, etc. for any signs or smell of damp, as this might indicate that water has penetrated the camper vans body shell – if in doubt, walk away!
You’ll see many DIY camper conversions on the market – the good, the bad and the ugly. Be careful when buying someone else’s self-build project. Just because they have spent hours on the build, doesn’t mean that it’s been done well, or safely – or that it’s actually worth the asking price.
Tip: when buying a used campervan, check to see if the vehicle has any outstanding loan payments. You can use this HPI check tool to find out.
Buying a New Camper Van
You don’t need me to tell you that buying a new camper van is the most expensive option available to the wannabe traveller/explorer. However, if you can afford to buy new, then there will be some major advantages.
The main advantage of buying a new camper van is that everything is brand spanking new. The cooker, fridge, shower, toilet, bed, etc. are all unused and will come with the manufacturer’s warranty (up to 3 years). Everything will be fitted by professionals, so you know it will work. No dodgy wiring, no leaky pipes, no poorly fitted units. Plus your new camper van should be fitted with the latest technology.
You’ll have peace of mind that all the mechanical side of the vehicle, such as the engine, gearbox, brakes, tyres, have not been driven hard or abused in any way, giving you reliability and miles of carefree travelling. A new camper van should also give you maximum fuel efficiency, which with the price of fuel these days is a serious consideration.
Generally speaking, buying new gives you more choice; you can shop around and pick a model that has just the right amount of space and storage you need. If you are considering buying a new motorhome, it may be worth attending a motorhome show. Dealers will often have special offers to entice potential customers to place an order there and then. However, if possible, pick a dealer that’s close to home, just in case there are any teething problems. It will be much more convenient for you to drive a few miles up the road if you have a problem.
Tip: Before committing to buying a new camper van, try and find a hire company that hires out the same camper van you’re considering buying. This could save you a lot of money, as you’ll never really know if the camper van you’ve got your eye on is going to work for you, until you actually use it and live in it for a week or two.
The biggest disadvantage of buying a new camper van has got to be the resale value. As soon as you drive the camper off the forecourt, you’ve lost money. Some makes of camper van will depreciate faster than others. So I would suggest researching which camper vans are the most popular, based on reliability and build quality. Buying a good quality camper van should mean that it will hold its value for longer and make it easier to sell on in the future.
Another disadvantage of owning a new camper van is the ‘scratch factor’. Recently, on holiday in Devon, we were following a brand new shiny camper van driving up a narrow single track road. The guy driving the camper van was being super careful not to scratch his pride and joy against the overgrown hawthorn bushes, when suddenly from around the bend, came three cars. The guy in the new camper van slammed on his brakes and just froze for what seemed like ages. His only option was to pull further over against the hawthorn bushes to allow the cars to pass. Or to reverse all the way back down the road to a passing place (not possible, as there now was a queue of vehicles behind him).
Everyone just sat there, waiting for someone to make the first move. Until eventually the camper van had to tuck his wing mirrors in and try and squeeze past the cars. I really felt for the guy as the hawthorn bushes scraped down the side of his new camper van – ouch! I can only imagine how he must have felt.
Whether you build a camper van or buy one. One thing is for sure, a campervan will be a great addition to your life. If you just want to get on the road as quickly as possible and you have the money to buy a new or a good used camper van, then yes, this is an option that I’d seriously consider. However, if you have a smaller budget or you’re looking for a project to get your teeth into, then building a camper van can be an excellent thing to do. Just decide on a budget. Pick a good base vehicle. Take your time and plan carefully. And most of all – enjoy the process!