How to convert your van into a DIY camper
Ready to rip a van to pieces and convert it into a camper van? Unroll your tool belt and slap on the safety specs because the hard work starts here
According to the National Caravan Council (NCC), the number of motorhomes (including campervans) owned in the UK is rising. While there aren’t any official figures for campervans, the NCC’s Louise Wood observes that this sector is growing most quickly.
This rise in popularity is doubtless linked to their relative affordability compared with larger motorhomes, as well as their manoeuvrability. And an increasing number of would-be campers are getting the costs down even further by doing their own conversions.
Is it an expensive job?
One advocate of this route is Colin Grace, author of Camper Van Conversion and the website mycampervanconversion.co.uk. “I looked into buying a fitted-out campervan when my kids were young, but it would have cost about £50,000,” he recalls.
“I bought a van for £10,000 and converted it for £6,500 – that’s a big difference, even though I splashed out on the best fixtures – a top of the range fridge and sink, for example. You could easily do it for less than that.”
How to plan a camper van conversion
The key, says Colin, is in the planning.
“Before you start, it’s worth looking at a lot of campers so you can work out what kind of van you want to use, and the layout and fittings you want to put in yours. Really think about how you’ll use it.”
But, before you get too creative, remember you’ll need to meet the DVLA’s requirements, too.
You’ll need to factor in a door that provides access to the living area, a six-foot bed (which can be converted from seats used for other purposes during the day, but must be permanently fixed within the body of the vehicle), a water storage tank or container, a seating and dining area, storage such as a cupboard, locker or wardrobe, a permanently fixed cooking facility, powered by gas or electricity, and at least one side window.
Which can will make the best camper van?
The van you choose will be dictated by your budget, size requirement and maintenance skills.
Colin chose a second-hand Ford Transit minibus as it already had windows in, but any panel van can be converted. As well as the Ford Transit, popular models include Mazda Bongo, Fiat Ducato, VW Transporter and Mercedes Vito.
Now the van’s sorted, you can get to work on the interior.
Will I need to hire a plumber, mechanic or electrician?
If you’ve got no experience, you probably will need a bit of advice and help from the professionals.
You only need to do a quick Google search to see that there are plenty of fittings and fixtures suppliers for these projects.
And thankfully there are people like Colin, who have detailed their projects step by step so that other people can learn from them. Plus, there’s plenty of YouTube videos and a reassuring number of forums, too.
“I’d done a fair bit of DIY in our home,” admits Colin, “so I had a reasonable level of practical skill before I started – but I’m self-taught and just researched everything thoroughly before I started work on it.”
While he fitted his own electrics, gas and plumbing, you could always pay a qualified tradesperson to carry this work out. Whichever way you do it, you’ll need to get safety certificates issued for insurance purposes.
Should I insure the van during the conversion?
Many insurers offer specialist campervan cover for conversions, providing you meet the DVLA’s requirements set out above and an engineer’s report.
Some insurers also offer conversion cover while you are working on your van, but this is offered for a fixed time only, usually just six months.
A spokesperson from insurance provider, Adrian Flux, says: "Many variables can affect an insurance premium such as the value of the vehicle, age of the vehicle, engine size and so on. It’s worthwhile noting that any modifications specific to a motorcaravan conversion will not affect the price other than a log burner type risk."
Should I tax the vehicle while I'm working on it?
You could SORN your campervan as long as it's off the road while you’re working on the conversion – but bear in mind that you won’t be able to drive it anywhere for any reason during this period, except to a pre-booked MOT appointment.
Where should I convert a van?
It will help if you have a driveway or, ideally, a garage you can use – if not, it might be worth looking into hiring a lock-up for a few months.
“There were definitely times when it was challenging, especially trying to complete the whole thing outside over the winter,” Colin recalls, "but I’m really glad I did it.”
How long will it take to transform a van into a camper?
Colin’s conversion took him nine months, working on it in the evenings and weekends – but he explains that personal circumstances interrupted the project part way through. It’s probably more helpful to look at the number of hours he took, 299 in total, not including research and sourcing parts.
How to reclassify your newly transformed camper van
Once you’ve converted a van into a camper van, you’re legally required to change its classification to that of ‘motor caravan’ with the DVLA. This means your tax and insurance will be cheaper than that of a ‘standard’ van.
You can do this by sending in your V5C, along with photographic evidence to show it meets minimum requirements.
Selling a converted camper van
If you want to sell your van conversion the rewards can be enormous, with many selling for tens of thousands of pounds in private listings.
And obviously, the finer the conversion, the greater value it’ll command.
“We sold our conversion when the kids got bigger and space got a bit tight,” Colin explains. “But now I’m thinking of doing another one so my wife and I can travel around Europe after the kids leave home! I see there are more people doing it – it’s perfect for surfing, festivals, hanging out at the beach. It gives you more freedom.”
Katrina is a freelance writer with 20+ years of experience, creating eminently readable content for consumers.