Not sure whether you should try and self build your camper or buy one pre built? There are advantages and disadvantages to both but knowing which option is best for you could end up saving you precious money and time.
WHATS THE DIFFERENCE?
When someone says they built their campervan themselves rarely does it mean they actually built the vehicle itself. They didn’t design the length, height and width of the van nor did they choose the size of engine, the distance between the wheels or go through arduous testing to get the vehicle approved as road legal. The van itself would of been brought, either as a normal panel van or car or possibly already converted but not to the new owners taste or design requirements and will therefore be stripped out. To put it simply, self building is the process of converting an already existing vehicle into a camper using your own hands. Sure, you might get a professional in to help you with electrical wiring or a friend to help fit some of the heavier more awkward items but your not handing the whole process over to someone else.
Pre built campervans are what they sound like. They are campers that are either already converted by someone else when you buy them or have been designed from new to be a campervan, like a motorhome or RV. What’s already inside them is going to depend on a number of things, not least the cost and size, but generally speaking pre builds are going to have at least a bed, kitchen area, dining area and storage along with all electrics and plumbing done
SO HOW DO I KNOW WHATS BEST FOR ME?
By knowing the advantages and disadvantages to the two options will help you decide which one is right for you. Lets start by looking at self builds.
My last to campervans have been self builds. I’ve designed and built both with as little external help as possible and for me, doing a self build is always my preferred option. By self building your campervan you gain two major advantages straight from the off over the other two options. First, the layout is EXACTLY how you want it. Your new campervan will be designed to suit your needs precisely. Lets say you’re a surfer and plan to take six boards with you. By self building your campervan your be able to build a storage area to the exact size of your boards or incorporate a wet area somewhere to allow wetsuits to dry. Secondly, by building it yourself you know everything about your van. By this I mean if something goes wrong inside, lets say the light over the bed keeps flickering, then you will know exactly where that wire is. So long as the initial design was good, your be able to find the wire and fix the problem quickly instead of pulling away panel after panel trying to track it down.
Cost is both an advantage and a disadvantage. I have found that the cost of doing a self build is cheaper (so long as you budget well) than buying a factory built model or getting a company to build it, sometimes considerably so. My second campervan cost me just under £3000 to buy and I spent around £6000 on the conversion. There where vans on the market similar in design to what I wanted but were priced close to double what it costs me to build my own. Plus I wanted room to store my bike and climbing equipment inside and nothing I could find would allow me too. Building my own allowed me to save money and fit in everything I wanted. It can be a disadvantage though if you don’t keep track of your budget. The small things, screws, paint, electrical components can really start to add up and have you seen the price of a boilers lately? Also if you’re planning on doing changes to the outside, adding extra windows in for example, then be sure to factor that in. Make sure you budget well and stay within it. Running out of money half way through the build can spell disaster for your new adventure.
There will be times when you’re twisted and contorted in all manner of positions trying to get that screw in
Self builds allow you to very creative with your design. For instance in my last campervan I built in three secret storage areas that only I knew about. These I never planned but when I started building I’d find voids I didn’t think I’d have or see opportunities to incorporate something. The vans long gone now so I’ll let you in on where one was. When I built the wardrobe, I was able to incorporate a false floor. It was only around 1.5 inches deep but could hide away my laptop nicely. If you were to look at it you’d never know the panel moved. It was precisely cut with no gaps around the edge to give its true meaning away. To allow access to the compartment underneath, I drilled a 0.3mm hole in one corner and attached a very fine but strong piece of fishing ling. A quick tug and the floor would pop up. I kept all of my shoes on top of the false floor so sure, it might take me a minute or two to get to the laptop each time, but I could be safe in the knowledge no one would discover it. Break-ins to vans tend to be smash and grab affairs, tearing the place apart and grabbing anything of value. Thieves are unlikely to spend time testing panels for false compartments that aren’t obvious.
But there are disadvantages. To build your own camper you will need to have access to a wide range of tools, from circular saws and drills to pipe cutters and soldering irons to name just four. On top of that you are going to need to be competent in using them all. Campervans need to be built to withstand the bumps and knocks of driving, if you’re inexperienced in woodwork or adopt a ‘ that’ll do attitude’ when things aren’t going right and you cant get that fixing to work because it the wrong size, then it won’t be long before things start falling apart. Think further into the future too. If you’re planning on going away for a few months or years and then selling your van, if its just been thrown together or is starting to fall apart then you might struggle to attracted a buyer.
You’re also going to need somewhere to build it. Sure you could do it on the driveway but what happens if it rains and those freshly glossed cupboard doors are drying outside, not to mention you’re going to drive everyone in your street mad with the noise of a skill saw going all day. Having somewhere you can park up under cover is going to make things a lot easier. Having a small to mid sized van is probably going to fit into a normal garage but if you’ve chosen that 20ft beast with the extra high top then you’re ideally going to need something bigger.
If I was to pick the main disadvantage to self builds it would be that no matter how good your skills are, I promise it wont be easy. There will be times when you’re twisted and contorted in all manner of positions trying to get that screw in or spend days getting that one panel to fit because there are a 101 different angles to take into account.
No matter how good your skills are, I promise it wont be easy
You spend hours and hours making templates to try and match the exact curve of the van and spend sleepless nights worrying if you have run all the wires you’re going to need. But when everything comes together and you’ve got the van of your dreams, built entirely to your needs, its a pretty good feeling.
Speaking from a UK point of view, there are rules and regulations to building a camper and you have to re-class the vehicle as a campervan if your converting a van. This means a certain criteria will have to be met. It will need a bed, whether fixed or expandable from the sofa for example, a table and a cooking area to name just a few points. Failing to re-class the vehicle may result in insurance claims becoming void. Reclassification can normally be done over the internet, uploading photos of the changes and showing the vehicles purpose has been changed from a commercial van to a camper. In some cases though, you may have to take it to an examiner to get the vehicle documents changed. There are advantages to getting it reclassified too, such as cheaper road tax. Always check with your countries driving authority to see what’s required.
I have a whole series of step by step articles on how to self build your campervan planned for the near future, from the initial planning stage to the finishing touches, so keep an eye out for them appearing on the Article’s page soon.
If the process of building your own campervan sounds to much like hard work or you’ve not got the time and believe you lack the skills then buying a pre built campervan might be the best option. The number one advantage to pre builds is that your going to be able to move straight in. Everything is going to be done for you. If you’re buying a vehicle that was designed from new to be campervan, such as a motorhome or RV then you can be pretty sure everything has been designed and built to a good standard. The layout designs have changed massively over the years and your be surprised at the amount of storage companies can squeeze in and how well they’ve utilized the space. Pre builds from new are also already classed as campervans so no need to go through the task of getting the classification changed. Even vans that may look tiny on the outside can be surprising spacious inside thanks to clever designs and multiple use items (like sofas that convert into beds) that can be hard to make yourself. If its a campervan that’s already been converted by someone else then great, the hard works done for you. Just make sure the classification has already been changed before you buy.
The market is flooded with examples of pre built campervans. If you’re after a motorhome type camper then your find dealers across the globe offering new and used versions as well as online. If you want a panel van that’s already been converted then searching on websites such as eBay and Gumtree will bring up plenty of choices. Going down the pre built route is a lot quicker than a self build but don’t rush your purchase.
The disadvantages are going to include things like cost. Generally speaking, if its a campervan built form new to be as such, even if its not new now, then its going to set you back more than a basic self build. Vehicles such as motorhomes and RVs tend to be quite big and a lot of the time, wider than a panel van. Make sure you check that you can legally drive such a vehicle on the driving license you have. If not, then your end up racking up further costs attending additional driving courses to allow you behind the wheel. Buying a pre built van that’s been converted by someone else however may well be cheaper than a self build but be careful. I have seen many examples on the road where the quality of workmanship is pretty poor not to mention dangerous. Your new home going up in flames because the previous owner got his wiring wrong would be rather upsetting to say the least.
No matter if it’s been converted by someone else or designed from new to be a camper bare in mind you get what you get. By this I mean the things like storage and position of areas like the kitchen have already been decided for you. Its going to be near impossible moving all the gas and water pipes for example to reposition your kitchen so you can extend your bed to fit you. If you did, I guarantee your end up having to strip the entire van and your be off down the road of a self build, exactly what you didn’t want to do. Sure you can re-upholster the sofa or put in a new carpet but your changes will be limited to the finishing touches.
Being able to walk around, check the storage, measure up to see if bulky items like surfboards will fit is a massive advantage.
If you do decide on a pre built camper then make sure it’s one that’s big enough and spacious enough to meet all your needs. Can everyone traveling in it fit? Is there sufficient storage to fit everyone’s belongings? Your trip is soon going to become hard work if you’re constantly having to move around boxes of clothes from the bed to the floor because you ran out of room. Above all, shop around and look at all the different models within your price range. Ideally you want to see the campervan yourself, don’t just rely on pictures online. Being able to walk around, check the storage, measure up to see if bulky items like surfboards will fit is a massive advantage.
Oh, one last point, campervans that have been around a while tend to acquire a certain, how can I say it, pong, especially if the previous owner liked to take away their dogs for example. This smell may not come out no matter how much you scrub without a complete re-upholstering of the van. You wont know just by the pictures online.
Ultimately the decision is going to be yours. If you’ve got the time, tools and skills to build your own then you can create something that’s completely personal and unique to your needs. You wont find many pre builds with a 40inch projector screens that roll’s down from the roof but choose a self build and it will only be your imagination (and possibly your skill level) that will stop you. But if time is of the essence and the thought of planning a conversion sounds like hell, then a pre built may well be your best option.