Our Van Conversion Cost, Tour, & Mistakes

WE DID IT!!!! After almost 7 months of blood (not much thankfully!), sweat (the Texas heat is no joke!), and many tears (most Kathryn lol), we FINISHED OUR VAN CONVERSION! And holy crap, we are in love!!! Back in January we announced that we bought a Sprinter van that we were going to convert into our home so we could travel full time. And we’re not going to lie, every moment since has been full of lots of learning, challenges, and stress. It has been an extremely tough experience building Brisket (our van’s name), but we are beyond proud of ourselves for tackling such a big project and it’s pretty dang rewarding to know that we built this with our own hands (and a HUGE help from Kathryn’s dad--we seriously couldn’t have done it without him!). To learn some of the details of our build, such as the biggest mistakes we made and our van conversion cost, keep on reading! Warning: This is the longest blog we have ever written, BUT it's loaded with info!

And to get the full van tour, watch the video below!

How long it took

We purchased the van on Friday, January 25 and finished the van on Sunday, August 25, exactly 7 months later. For the first 5 months of the build, we flew back and forth from Seattle, WA (where we lived) to Austin, TX (where Kathryn’s parent’s live) to work on the van. We built the van in Austin for a few reasons:

1. Kathryn’s dad has WAY more knowledge and skills and we needed his help
2. We had nowhere to build the van in Seattle
3. The van was going to have to be registered in Texas eventually anyways (due to it now being our legal address) and we didn’t want to pay the hefty WA registration fees just to switch it over later.

By building the van in Austin, we only got to work on it whenever we visited (every 1-3 weeks), so our 29 week conversion time is not working on it everyday during that time frame. Kathryn also had to work her full time job everyday when visiting, so our amount of time per day was limited. We had heard that everything takes longer than you think with a van build and everyone was right! We ended up finishing the van 3 weeks after we had hoped to due to a handful of setbacks and the brutal Texas heat slowing us down a bit.

Guides we used

We purchased two van build guides before starting our build, which helped us a ton! Van building is a massive undertaking, so finding resources to help us get started made our lives a lot easier. The first guide that we bought was Sara and Alex James. We used their van layout guide to help plan our layout (which is almost identical to theirs) and to also get insight into products they used. While we would’ve loved to have a super creative layout, what they had fit our lifestyle perfectly, so we didn’t want to add another challenge by trying to reinvent the wheel.

We also bought Dynamo Ultima’s van guide. While we didn’t copy their layout, we got some really good ideas from their guide, like how to build a bathroom with the Nature’s Head, plus some great product recommendations.

Mistakes we made

Although we tried to research the best we could, had a great resource in Kathryn's dad, and bought van guides, we still made quite a few mistakes during our build. We have always wanted to be transparent about this process and hopefully these mistakes can help someone else in their own build!

1. We bought things too soon. We got a little too excited at the beginning of the build and bought A LOT of things. Our plans of what we would work on next changed daily, so we wanted to be prepared and have it all on hand. But this backfired a bit. We unfortunately did not need everything we bought and by the time we realized this, it was too late to return the items. We estimate we wasted about $300-$400 on items we couldn’t return...ouch.

2. We insulated too soon. In most build videos that we watched, people insulated right away. So we thought “hey, this is easy stuff that we are capable of, let’s do it!” Unfortunately the insulation did not need to go up as quickly with the way we built our van, so it ended up being in the way most of the time. Going back to mistake #1, we also bought one bag too many of the wool, which was a bummer. We are sending it back to them though and will get all of our money back, minus shipping.

3. Our ceiling. If you watched our final van build video, you saw that we struggled with staining our ceiling. The first round was blotchy and wayyy too dark, so we sanded the entire thing and 6 hours later applied a lighter stain. It looks WAY better, but man, that was a rough experience!

4. Fan location. We put our Maxxair fan above the entry area because that was the only flat spot on the roof, but in hindsight, we wish we would’ve put the fan above the bed or added an additional one above the bed. Others do it, so it is possible, but with our solar panels and the shape of the roof, it would’ve been trickier.

5. Adding more t-vent windows. We have a t-vent window in our sliding door, but we would’ve loved to add more in the back for more ventilation by our bed. Unfortunately the t-vent windows are double the cost of the plain windows, which is one reason why we only have one. The placement of the one we have though will be helpful for cooking and the shower and we bought a mini fan to put by our bed.

6. Painting the cabinets. Oh boy, besides the ceiling this was probably the worst part of the build. Painting cabinets is SO much harder than it sounds. We used Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint, which is supposed to be self-leveling, but it is really hard to get it to look smooth. Our cabinets have an orange peel texture in certain lighting, which bums us out a lot, but we decided that it wasn’t worth redoing because we didn’t think we could do it much better. If you can spray your cabinets, do it! We hear that is the best way to get a super smooth finish.

7. Flooring. While we may have ordered too much insulation, we didn't order enough flooring, which was a very big setback our last few days of the build. The flooring we bought was only at Home Depot and we didn't have enough time to order more. We tried to order the same kind off Amazon for wayyy more money, but we got sent the wrong type of flooring. In the end, we chose to go with the incorrect flooring, which we could get at Home Depot for a great price. However, we aren't sure if we will keep the floor. While we love the look and color, it is peel and stick vinyl, whereas our original flooring uses a GripStrip. A few of the floor pieces aren't wanting to stick very well and when the sun hits the floor, the pieces kind of start to pop up. So for now we will use this flooring, but we will possibly swap it out next time we are in Austin.

8. Not calculating our power needs correctly. We thought we had finished the van on August 20, loaded it up with all of our belongings, washed it, and were all ready to film our van tour. But we had a BIG problem--our batteries were overdischarged and shutting off overnight due to our refrigerator (which is a big power suck) and our inverter running at the same time. We realized that while we had a lot of solar panels, we may have needed more batteries to power everything. So just two days before we planned to leave, we dropped another $900 on an extra 100 Ah Lithium battery. 🙁 We're glad we figured this out before we left, but having a setback right as we finally thought we were done was tough (and not fun on our wallet).

9. Underestimating how hard van building is. “Let’s build a van, it’ll be fun!” we said 7 months ago. We knew it would be hard, but we definitely underestimated how hard it is, especially when you have zero skills and have a budget. We tried to make some things ourselves, like all of our window covers, but when you have zero sewing skills, it can be incredibly frustrating to do everything yourself and have it turn out nice. So if you have some room in your budget, hire some people to help. We had someone make our cushions and it was the BEST investment we made! We ended up buying one nice window cover for our sliding door and while it sucked to spend the money, it was worth it since it will last much longer than the crappy homemade one we made.

Total cost

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for...our van conversion cost! Disclaimer: this cost does not include the actual van, which was around $55k after taxes, title, fees, extra warranty, etc. This total does include all supplies and labor. And the grand total is…..

$23,374

So in total, our new home cost us about $78,374, which is definitely cheaper than a house in Austin or Seattle and is what we spent on rent for one year in Seattle. We financed our van, so we do have a payment every month, but we paid for the conversion out of pocket. To give some perspective on our van conversion cost, we had gotten quotes from a few van build companies that were around $100K for everything we wanted (that DOES NOT include the van...yeesh!). We got everything we wanted, plus a design that fit our style much better, for WAY less by doing it ourselves! We definitely could’ve done the build for less and we did go over our initial budget, but we tried to use high quality materials that would hold up over time, help us reduce weight, and also maximize the space. We are super happy with how the van turned out and think it’ll fit our lifestyle perfectly and give us the comforts of a real home!

Cost breakdown

So now that you know the total, we wanted to share what exactly made up this cost. Below is a breakdown of our van conversion cost by category, as well as some of the main products we used. We hope that this helps you get a better idea of what your van conversion cost may be, as well as what products we recommend!

Note: this blog post contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we actually use during our adventures and think you can benefit from too!

Insulation- $512

We insulated our van with Havelock Wool, which is 100% sheep’s wool from New Zealand. There are tons of benefits to this type of insulation, which we outlined here.

As we mentioned above, we bought too much of some items and unfortunately Havelock Wool was one of them. We ended up using 3 batts of wool for the walls, ceiling, and floor of the van. We are sending back our 4th bag, which we never opened.

Havelock Wool Van Conversion

Exterior- $3,830

We made a handful of modifications to our van exterior, including adding a ladder, fan, solar panels, and windows. You can learn more about our solar, fan, and ladder set up here. And to see step by step instructions on how to install Sprinter windows, check out this blog post!

Aluminess Ladder

MaxxAir Fan

Passenger rear windows

Back door windows

Driver rear windows

Sliding door t-vent window

Window covers

Sliding door window cover

Electrical- $5,032

Electrical is a tricky beast, but we tried to find other van lifers with a similar lifestyle to ours (working full time on the road) to get a decent idea of what we would need. We would rather have too much power than not enough.

Solar Panels (4)

Solar Charge Control

Inverter

Batteries (3)

Outlets

Light Switches

Lights

Battery Monitor

Heater

DC to DC Battery Charger

Safety- $300

Safety is a HUGE thing for us on the road! We want to be able to monitor our van and Kona with a camera, be notified if anyone breaks the glass, as well as detect the temperature if we leave Kona in the van to run into the store.

Simplisafe

Carbon Monoxide Detector

Internet- $500

Between corporate jobs, freelancing jobs, and our blog, we will be working tons in the van and needed to ensure we had the ability to get internet the majority of the time. We have two hotspots--our AT&T unlimited data plan with our phones and a Verizon unlimited data plan with a jetpack. We also have a WeBoost, which helps boost our cell signal (ex: can take it from 2 bars to 4 bars).

WeBoost

Verizon Jetpack

Bathroom- $3,500

Having a bathroom in the van was a MUST for us! While we are simplifying our life in so many ways, we still wanted some comforts of a home. A toilet was crucial so we don’t have to scramble to find a bathroom, especially at night. And the shower is a nice bonus for quick rinse offs when we can’t take real showers at a gym.

Shower Pan

Shower Door

Hot Water Heater

Water Pump

Shower Head

Shower Mixer

Compost Toilet

Water Tanks (13 & 23 Gallon)

Water Hose

Tank Level Monitor

Grey Water Ball Valve

Interior- $1,600

From paint to flooring to cabinet items, this section covers all of the items that help make the interior functional and in our opinion, beautiful!

Vinyl Flooring

Butcher Block

Dark Walnut Stain

Cabinet Hardware

Cabinet Lifts

Cabinet Latches

Bug Screen

Blackout Curtain

Headliner Fabric

Kitchen- $3,300

While our kitchen is much smaller than the one we had in Seattle, we are pretty pumped about how we used the space and for the many meals we will cook with a view!

Faucet

Backsplash

Refrigerator

Stove Tops

Trash Can

Tea Kettle

Burr Grinder

Pour Over

Bed/Dining- $1,700

We chose to go with a layout where the seating area converts to a bed and couldn’t be happier! We love having multiple uses for the space and the bed is super comfy!

Cushion Fabric

Cushion Foam (4")

Cushion Foam (2")

Table Swivel

Wood- $2,100

We got the majority of our wood from Fine Lumber in Austin, TX, with a few pieces purchased at Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Supplies/Tools- $1,000

We were very fortunate that Kathryn’s dad owned a lot of tools that we used for the build. It saved us a lot of money! It would be impossible to list all of the tools we used, but here are some of the ones we used many times and consider to be must-haves!

Plate Joiner

Electric Sander

Router Bit

Jigsaw

Mitre Saw

Table Saw

We are SO excited for our new life on the road and cannot wait to share it with all of you! If you have any questions about our van build, van conversion cost, van life, or any of our travels, let us know! We’re always happy to help!

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6 Comments

  1. Suzanne on August 25, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    So much useful information that took a lot of time and effort to put together. You are so thorough! Great job!

    • Kathryn Frazer on August 25, 2019 at 4:35 pm

      We really hope this can help someone else on their van build! Thank you!

  2. Kevin and Taylor on August 27, 2019 at 9:35 am

    Kathryn and Adam – this is an amazing post and love what you guys are doing! My wife and I just started our van build a month ago and we are taking a very similar approach. We bought Sara and Alex’s van guide layout and plan to build out the outdoorsman layout, in hopes to finish by June 1, 2020.

    So far we completed the backdoor windows, the ceiling fan, and back up camera. Next up wee have our side panel windows as well as the t-vent sliding door window, then the roof rack.

    Thanks for providing the lessons learned/mistakes you made along the way, it definitely helps us as we move forward on the build.

    I may be reaching out via Instagram for further questions as we get deeper into the build (if that’s ok)!

    Thanks so much,
    Kevin

    • Kathryn Frazer on August 27, 2019 at 11:09 am

      Kevin, thank you sooo much!!! We are so glad that this helps a bit and you can learn from our mistakes. Feel free to DM us or email us anytime, we are happy to try to help 🙂 The scariest part is cutting the holes in the van and y’all already have some of those done–woo! Good luck to y’all!

  3. Sarah on September 22, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Congrats on the finishing the build out (and officially starting van life)! For whatever it’s worth, the ceiling looks gorgeous. That extra work was totally worth it!

    • Kathryn Frazer on September 22, 2019 at 9:11 am

      Thank you so much Sarah! We are SO happy we redid it! It was worth the crazy shoulder workout we got lol!

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