Travel Tips Van Life

$3500 DIY Budget Van Build

van build before and after

In May of 2017, I bought a used Ford Transit and began converting it into an off-grid mobile home named Casper. The van build took about 2 months while working on it part-time and cost about $3,480. 

About the Van

Casper is a 2016 Ford Transit 250, standard length, low top Cargo Van, which I bought for $24,000 with a little over 18,000 miles on it. Casper gets on average 18.5 mpg and takes both ethanol and regular fuel.

Choosing the right van for my needs

I researched and test drove a Mercedes Sprinter, Chevrolet Express, Dodge Ram ProMaster, and a few other passenger and cargo vans. Many of the other vans I looked at were much cheaper (except the Sprinters which were much more expensive), but had low fuel-efficiency, already had a lot of miles on them, and were no longer under warranty. As a solo female traveler planning to camp off-grid in rural settings, safety was a high priority for me. Meaning, I didn’t want something that will be breaking down in the middle of nowhere, and if it did, I wanted to be able to easily get parts and service. I’m also concerned about my carbon footprint, so I wanted something with decent gas mileage and flexible fuel options.

In the end, I chose my van because it is flex-fuel, “stealthy”- it is a white fleet van, aerodynamic, drives SO smoothly (like a regular car), is American made and easy to get serviced anywhere, and was still under warranty.

I love my van, but if I could do it again, I would buy a Ford Transit high-top, so I could stand up inside and have more room for cabinetry and storage.

The DIY Conversion Process

The conversion was a somewhat sporadic endeavor, spanning 2-months, while working off and on with the help of friends and family. I didn’t keep thorough track of how many hours I spent working on the van build, but I’d guess about 100 hours of labor went into it.

I included a supply sheet of all the building materials and expenses at the bottom of this post. I also made a conversion kit, which includes products I used in my conversion that I highly recommend in your own van build. I purchased almost everything for the van on Amazon or at Home Depot.

I used quite a few resources to get started, mostly Youtube van conversion tutorials, Pinterest for design and layout ideas, and The Vanual.

DISCLAIMER: Even with all the preparation, the build consisted of a lot of trial and error- considering I had ZERO prior woodworking experience. This is an amateur van build, so feel free to take my suggestions and lessons with a grain of salt. In most cases, I chose the easiest, quickest, cheapest options (with the exception of the expensive solar battery system) because I was anxious to get on the road. I don’t claim that this is the best way to convert a van, but everything we built worked well for 3 months of full-time van life and about a year of part-time van adventures.

So without further ado, here’s how the van conversion went down…

ford transit van conversion

Casper, came quite bare, with these wood beams on the side, which I decided to leave on. It also came with a metal partitioner in the front, behind the driver and passenger seats, which I had taken out at the car dealership I bought the van from.

Step 1. Making the Floor & Insulating the Van

I started by insulating the floor.

I did this by cutting and taping together pieces of reflectix (with reflectix foil tape), until the floor of the van was covered. After I had the floor insulation mapped out, I used my reflectix blueprint to trace the shape of the floor around the wheelbases onto plywood, which I then pieced together like puzzle pieces to create a floorboard.

Then I gathered my mom’s tools and borrowed two saw horses from my neighbor, and we got to work.

We measured (twice), chopped, and screwed the floorboards directly into the van, over the reflectix insulation.

We used two pieces of 8′ x 4′ plywood to create 4 separate puzzle pieces around the wheelbase and side stairs.

Then we glued in some “wood” sheet vinyl for the finishing touch. We used Sheet Vinyl Adhesive, which is durable but dries quickly. So we did it in sections and placed bricks on top of the vinyl to help secure the vinyl to the plywood and assist the glue to set in.

After the floor was done, we insulated the walls with a layer of reflectix, and then on top of that, we added pure safety insulation rated at R15 (the white wool looking strips). Luckily the wood beams were already in place along the walls and made this process much simpler by holding the insulation in place.

Step 2: Building the Bedframe and Storage Spaces

We built a bed frame and storage units with scrap wood and with leftover plywood from the floor. We deliberately designed the layout of the van around a chuck box that my mom built with her dad. We incorporated the chuck box so that it would act as part of the support system for the bed and could be used as extra storage and a countertop for cooking on a portable stove when the chuck box is open.

I wanted to be able to access my storage spaces from multiple areas. So I left openings in the front and back of my bed frame, and a small side hole. For the driver side storage unit, we created two separate hinge doors, for top loading storage access.

I also created the layout so that I could have a small bed with a table and couch, or I could convert it to a larger bed when I’m not using the table.

The chuck box is not a permanent fixture in the van (which was a part of the design), so after we created the bedframe and side storage unit, we took the chuck box out to make it easier to move around during construction.

I screwed in some plywood to make the top of the bedframe (on the right), and created hinge lids out of plywood for the storage spaces (on the left).

We also built, a cubby hole for my bathroom. That green bucket with the white lid is my toilet (in the picture below).

Step 3: Installing the Walls

I used faux wood wall paneling for the walls, which was simple enough to screw directly into the horizontal wood beams on the side of the van. I used this because it was quick and easy but still looked good. It’s worked fine so far, but I do plan to replace the wall paneling with real wood soon.

Step 4: Building the Kitchen

My neighbor John let us use his workshop and helped give us guidance on how to tackle the kitchen. At this point, I had already bought a refrigerator, so we built the kitchen countertop and shelves around those dimensions. Utilizing his drafting knowledge and his table saw really helped speed up the process.

I went through a few stainless steel bowls, attempting to drill holes in them to make my own sink, before giving up and buying a $20 Sterling Oval Single Basin Self-Rimming Undermount Sink from Amazon Warehouse (this sink was a bit small for my needs).

Once I had the sink I was able to saw out the hole in my kitchen countertop.

I then used the extra wood to build a table. I screwed in a table base that I bought on Amazon to the table, and another on the floor of my van.

I also created a plank that would complete my bed when I wasn’t using the table.

After I had all my pieces sawed out to the appropriate measurements to fit in the van, I sanded them, stained them, and left them out to dry.

Then I used silicone to seal my sink into the counter and drilled in my new hand pump faucet.

I installed my kitchen, with my side loading AC/DC fridge, my new 3-in-1 breakfast center, and my new table.

Step 5: Plumbing

I used two 5 gallon water containers for my plumbing system (one for input and one for output/gray water). I ended up storing my water output jug under the bench seat, and kept the input water jug directly under the sink.

I used braided vinyl tubing to connect my faucet and drain to the water containers and metal clamps, flex coupling and PVC bushing to secure them in place.Thanks to breckinridgeheatingandcooling.com/ I was able to do research on a few plumbing related skills I would need to achieve this. Teflon is your friend during plumbing projects!

Step 6: Making the Bed

I bought a queen size 6-inch memory foam mattress for my van bed. Which I highly recommend since I’ve been sleeping on it for months and getting some of the best sleep of my life.

I traced out the pieces with chalk, directly on the mattress, and then cut the mattress with a bread knife into 5 separate pieces that make a couch and a bed, or they can combine to make one large bed.

I picked out the fabric at Walmart and my aunt upholstered all my cushions for me.

Step 7: Installing the Roof

We saved the roof for last, because we had no idea how to tackle it.

We spray glued the insulation (reflectix and pure safety) to each other and then glued and taped it to the roof with reflectix foil tape.

Then we screwed in the same faux wood paneling we used for the walls. We ended up trimming the paneling around the fantastic fan with a jigsaw, and later cut out a hole for the FantasticFan air vent.

Step 8: Fantastic Fan and Solar Panel Installation

We hired people to install our vent and solar panels, because we didn’t feel comfortable cutting or drilling holes into the roof of the van ourselves.

I bought a FantasticFan on Amazon and took it to RV Renovators in Mesa, AZ to install. They did a fantastic job 🙂

We bought two 160 Watt 12 Volt solar panels, and my mom’s friend installed them on the roof of the van for us.

We then connected them to a Goal Zero Yeti 1400 Lithium power station inside the van.

Step 9: Curtains and Black Out Shades

For the final touches, my aunt hemmed some black out curtains for behind the driver and passenger seats and used the excess fabric to sew curtains for my kitchen area.

I hung all my curtains with tension rods, which I also used on my shelves to secure things while I’m driving.

Finally, I used excess Reflectix insulation to cut out window shades. I then spray painted them black so they don’t stand out as much from the outside of the van.

In the end, I spent $3,480 on my camper van build.

$1800 of that, was for the Goal Zero Power Station. So $1,680 was for materials, appliances and construction. The conversion could have been much cheaper, had I gone a different route on my solar electric system. But I didn’t have the skills to wire a plug outlet, an inverter, a battery and a display system together, so I thought the amateur user-friendly option was the way to go.

All in all, I love the way Casper turned out. It’s not perfect, and I plan to upgrade some things here and there, but I am proud of how cozy and functional my little mobile home is.

A big shout out to everyone who helped me convert this van-especially my mom! I’m so grateful and I definitely couldn’t have done it alone!

**March 2019 Update: I had a high-roof-extension (24″ fiberglass bubble top) installed by Fiberine ($5,000) and had the entire van remodeled by RV Renovators located in Mesa, Arizona. I upgraded many features of the van after determining what I liked and disliked about this DIY build.**

A few parting suggestions for your own van build:

  • Buy a van you can stand up in! (biggest mistake)
  • Invest in a top-loading DC compressor refrigerator (not imperative if you’re on a budget, but will make your life easier)
  • Use LED tube lights for your lighting- they are very energy efficient and create a great ambiance!

If you have any questions that I didn’t cover here, feel free to email me at anna@spintheglobeproject.com

Otherwise, feel free to check out the cost sheet/supply list below, and browse through the products I used that worked out well for me in my van build.

 

Van Build Supply & Cost Sheet

Insulation:

Flooring, Walls, Ceiling, Bedframe, and Storage Units:

  • 2 x Sheathing Plywood 19/32 in x 4 X 8ft – $40
  • Canyon Yew 32 sq. ft. Wall Paneling 5/32″X4’X8′ (Home Depot) – $75.88
  • Luxury Vinyl Sheet for Flooring (Redwood Acacia 12’ x 6’) – $61.44
  • Miscellaneous screws, hinges, and metal brackets- $25 (approximately)
  • Sheet Vinyl Adhesive– $5.99

Plumbing System:

Appliances:

Table:

Bed:

Interior Design:

Total Cost of Building Materials, Interior Design & Appliances: $974.52  

Solar Electrical System:

Total Cost of Solar Electric System: $2,186 

Labor Cost:

  • Fan install and electrical wiring (@ RV Renovators)- $220
  • Solar Panel Installation- $100 

Total Labor Cost: $320 

Total Cost of Van Build: $3,480

Shop for my recommended Van Build Products.

Avatar

Anna French

Anna is an optimist with pessimistic tendencies who enjoys making a short story long, her coffee black, and watching Friends re-runs. These days you can catch her in her natural habitats wandering through forest roads in her van or hiking to a waterfall or glacial lake.

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33 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Awesome guide! I love how you mention the mistakes you made, it’s helpful for a newbie like myself. The process seems so daunting to start!

  2. Avatar
    Hilary says:

    brilliant build = and beautifully planned out. thanks for all the details. I love it!

  3. Avatar
    Margaret A Friedrichs says:

    I am impressed with your build. I am hoping to start a build on a Transit in 18 months. Did I miss what you are using for heat? Thanks for sharing.

    1. Avatar
      Anna French says:

      I have tried a few heaters that don’t work great on the solar battery, so haven’t found a good heat source yet. On very cold nights I sleep in my down sleeping bag.

      1. Avatar
        Steve says:

        There is a kid who travels the country in a converted Honda Element. He has solved the heating problem. Here is his website.

        http://www.elementvanlife.com/

        What I want to know is how do you stay cool? Have you considered installing a small ac unit?

  4. Avatar

    If you are ever interested in upgrading to a shower, I can share with you how I have been using a propane, portable, tankless water heater since 2013 in my minivan. For many of us, the only difference between van living and a residence is instant on-board hot water and showers.

    1. Avatar
      Anna French says:

      Hi Jack, I’m just seeing this now, I’m thinking about including a hot water heater in my remodel, any tips?

  5. Avatar
    Anthony says:

    Excellent write-up; the links to products is very useful. In parting, the spelling for ‘foe’ is actually ‘faux’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faux .

  6. Avatar
    Nancy Riley says:

    Lovely build, Anna. I want to model my van build after what you have done. Thank you so much for sharing all the great details.

  7. Avatar

    I love the idea of turning a cargo van into a camper. My dad loves camping, but he doesn’t have enough money for a camper. However, there are some great cargo vans for sale in my area, so this might work for us. I especially loved how you glued wood vinyl to make the floor look great. Thanks for sharing this great article!

  8. Avatar
    Bob says:

    Great build. Very economical. Too bad about the expensive Yeti. I just made my own 100 amp – 12 volt power station for about $350. 1400 watt inverter with 2 AC plugs, 4 USB, solar input, 2 lighter plugs all in a battery box. I used a sealed deep cycle lead-acid battery, so we will see how it holds up versus lithium. However, a new lead-acid battery is only $230. Pretty simple to build. Got everything on Amazon.

  9. […] Spin The Globe Project: Anna French was the first person who made me feel like doing vanlife solo wasn’t such a crazy, inconceivable idea. Her linked website has a great post about a budget friendly conversion, which includes a list of supplies used and a shop with affiliate links. Her website also talks about many other forms of travel – it’s really well rounded and not just for the vanlife traveller. Her instagram depicts worldly photos with captions that capture the deeper meaning of travel. […]

  10. Avatar
    Rick says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It was very interesting and inspiring. Blessings, R

  11. […] Spin The Globe Project: Anna French was the first person who made me feel like doing vanlife solo wasn’t such a crazy, inconceivable idea. Her linked website has a great post about a budget friendly conversion, which also includes a list of supplies used. Her website also has a shop and talks about many other forms of travel – it’s really well rounded and not just for the vanlife traveller. Her instagram depicts worldly photos with captions that capture the deeper meaning of travel. […]

  12. Avatar
    Steve Ashley says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I have an Astro Van that I will be using some of your ideas on. This is a solid build and one of the absolute best write ups I have seen. You can catch a few of my additions to it on my Instagram. @silver_stacking_steveo

  13. Avatar
    Brian says:

    The fitting on the bottom of your sink looks to be cross-threaded

  14. Avatar

    You mention the vehicle getting 18mpg before the build. What is your fuel economy like after the build?

    1. Avatar
      Anna French says:

      Oddly enough better. I’m getting a little over 19mpg these days. All the materials I used are relatively light weight though, so I don’t think it is affecting my mileage too much.

  15. Avatar
    Henry says:

    Great job on the conversion.

  16. Avatar
    Phil Gillespie says:

    Well done Anna. Great to see you did it yourself with a little help from your mum and neighbour and now inspiring others. I’m am a permanent traveller, currently travelling Australia in a 1996 Ford Transit. Fully kitted with solar, fridge, toilet, kitchen and bed for a bit under Australian $3000 including the van!
    Safe travels and peace and happiness

  17. Avatar

    I saw that you wrote your biggest mistake was not getting a van you can stand up in…after you’ve had time to adjust, do you still want a hightop?

    1. Avatar
      Anna French says:

      Hi Kate, The answer is YES (for me), but everyone is different. I actually just recently got a 24″ bubble top installed from a company called Fiberine based out of California. So now I can stand up and have a lot of space to build in cabinets for extra storage. Like I said, everyone is different though, and if you’re outdoors most of the day, then it’s easier to adjust to a lowroof van. My plan is to use the van as my long-term home and stay in one spot for long periods of time while I finish up some projects. With that all in mind, the lowtop was just no longer an option for me as far as comfort is concerned. But now having invested in a high top extension and starting my conversion all over, I wish even more that I had just bought a high top van to begin with.

  18. Avatar

    Can this be insured as an ordinary van or does it need camper and insurance?

    1. Avatar
      Anna French says:

      Hi John, It is currently insured as a normal van, however I am working on getting it insured as a Class B motorhome after my remodel is complete.

  19. Avatar

    Great team work guys really impressed. You do mention using glue while installing the roof. I would also recommend a coating Rv Roof Magic. This single coating will protect your roof from leakages and work wonders.

  20. Avatar
    Tracey says:

    Thank you for sharing all of this. I am curious what it cost you to build your second van. Definitely following you as I look for my first van!
    Tracey

  21. Avatar

    Great team work guys really impressed. You do mention using glue while installing the roof. I would recommend a coating of RV Roof Magic. A single coating of RV Roof Magic will protect your roof from leakages and punctures. It’s an ideal roof sealant.

  22. Avatar

    Excellent point of view Here! Thanks for the information. sounds so great and helpful. Kudos!

  23. Avatar

    Well worth a read. Got great insights and information from your blog. Thanks.

  24. Avatar

    Stunning, Thanks for the excellent outline

  25. […] Spin the Globe Project: A Ford Transit conversion for $3500! […]

  26. Avatar

    Good article & an excellent way to articulate. Keep it up. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Avatar

    Beautiful van! You did a wonderful job. I converted my Nv200 into a simple campervan, but not as amazing as yours. I noticed that you had an Iowa State jacket. I’m from Iowa and I spent alot of time in Ames, before traveling to Texas for the winter. Hopefully our paths will cross some day.

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