Updated: Jan 21, 2020
If you came to this blog post to get advice on how to DIY a van build… I’ll stop you now. Unfortunately, that is not my area of expertise as I did not build out my own van. I hired a company to build out my van for me. And while I may not have built my own van, the company I went with was 100% custom so I still had a huge role to play in this process. So below is some advice based off of things I did well, or maybe could have done better during the van build.
1. Research, research, research
If you have the ability to check out several van builds in person then DO IT! If you can make it to a van life meet up it will help you tremendously in learning what you like and don’t like. I did not do this, however, my friend Sydney (@divineontheroad) let me fly out to LA and spent a long weekend with her in the van and that helped guide me a bit. Additionally, I spent hours and hours going through YouTube van tours and videos of van lifers explaining what they like/dislike about their van build. I also created a collection on Instagram full of van life inspiration.
2. Got your van? Go camping before building
One thing I did that I highly recommend is taking your van camping before building it out. Just get an air mattress and figure out where you want to place your bed, do you want benches to convert into beds, where will the kitchen be, etc. If you want to take this a step further I would recommend taping out where you will want everything to be. That way you get a better feel for how much space you actually have. After I took my van to my builders they did this but instead of just taping it out, they also put cardboard boxes in place with the correct 3D dimensions so I could walk through the van and approve the measurements.
3. Organize your inspiration
This is especially important if you go to a custom builder. Some builders have more of a standard build for you to pick from – similar to a cookie cutter home so this may not be quite as relevant to those builders. I communicated all of my inspiration through email. However, if I were to do it again, I would create a binder with printed out pictures to present to my builders. I had pictures of my color scheme, the type of hardware I wanted to be used, the faucet, ideas such as open shelving and layout options. I then discussed these items with my builders and made selections from there. My builders would joke that they weren’t creative but if you gave them a picture of something they could make it happen – so visuals were very important.
4. Purchase as much as you can
The reason that I recommend that you purchase items on your own is because you will know what you’re getting. I purchased everything except for the raw materials such as wood, nails, wiring, etc. I recently had a friend ask for the same exact electrical system as a previous build out that she liked. When the builders installed the system they decided to use a cheaper inverter with the same amount of watts and voltage but charged her the same price as the higher quality inverter. When she picked up her van she discovered that the installed inverter would not allow her to use an induction stove top even though her friends inverter never had any issues with an induction stove top.
Additionally, if you are a responsible credit card owner, you will get thousands of reward points for yourself, which will help you save a lot of money.
5. Constant communication
While I think I had pretty good communication, I wish I would have spoken up about a few things I was unsure about and made it clear that no changes were to happen without running it past me. For example – when I asked for the bed layout with the 2 bench conversion I assumed that my dining table would be used as the platform in between the benches. DO NOT ASSUME. Speak up and clarify. With all of their previous builds with this layout they had done that method. However, they decided to try a new method of using slates to pull across the benches to create the platform in between the beds. What this meant was that my table no longer had a place to go while the bed was made. And this flows into my next point…
6. Speak UP!
You are spending way too much money to not love absolutely everything so if you don’t like something, SAY SOMETHING. When I first saw the slate method of the bench to bed conversion I was concerned. I immediately thought – where will the table go? And although I asked this question, I should have trusted my instinct that this was a bad idea. My table sits comfortably on the floor in between my benches, so it appears to be tucked away and hidden while in bed mode. However, there have been multiple times where I’ve had to stop quickly and the table has gone flying down the center aisle of my van, crashing into my partition wall. My wall, table, and floor have so many scratches and dings now. This is probably the most disliked feature of my van. I can’t stand it!
Another example of speaking up that I DID do correctly was my shelving above my countertop “kitchen” area. At first they had more of what I would consider a cabinet. The back side was wood and it was solid at the end. This did not look like anything I had shown them, and I very much disliked it so I spoke up very quickly about it. Thankfully, they were able to change it to the more open shelving that I love. It shows the backsplash behind the shelf and you can see the wood ceiling as well. It’s 1000 times better so I’m very happy that I spoke up about that.
7. Stick around after you pick up your van
This is something I would recommend to anyone – whether or not you DIY or hire someone to build out your van. Inevitably, something will go wrong. So stick around for a few weeks and put your van to the test. Before crossing the country, make sure everything is running appropriately. When I first picked up my van the electricity kept shutting off. I went back to my builders, and upon further inspection they realized I had a faulty electrical breaker. Luckily, this was an easy fix but I was glad I hadn’t already set off on my journey before I noticed.
Hopefully this advice will help you throughout your van build process. Comment below if you have any additional advice!