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  • Writer's pictureKorey

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Updated: Mar 15

I will start off by saying there is no secret to building a budget camper van unless you plan on doing all the work, and even then, it can be very expensive.


Materials tend to be 1/3 to 1/2 of a build costs.  We get a lot of calls where customers who want a Porsche 911 on a Honda Civic budget.  It just can't happen. But like this example, they both are cars, they both drive down the road well, and for the most part do the same thing but there are compromises and in some cases significant ones. This article will focus on a Honda Civic (used) budget.


What Makes Your Budget Camper van? 

We feel 3 most fundamental things are needed:

  • Van - preferably with walls and headliner

  • Bed-you need a place to sleep

  • Ventilation-you need air to get in/out of the van; it can be really hot

  • Power-to charge phones, run a fan, and possibly a fridge


Van-buy the right one; It will save you a lot of money

This is where a lot of people make a mistake picking the wrong van. You can save a small fortune by sourcing a van that has walls and if needed rear seating. Some examples below show how quickly costs add up with you start with a empty van.


We recommend a "crew" trim as one of the optimal vans trims to purchase or if a Sprinter a Passenger van works well as well. Transit passenger vans have very limited up fit options, we generally do not recommend those for a complicated build due to all the air bags and plastic wall panels are not campervan friendly. 


If you buy a cargo van with nothing inside, you might think you are saving money, but in fact it will cost you a lot more in the end due to the lack of walls, headliner, and possible flooring.  These items can easily run you and extra 5-12k.


Rear seating needed?

If you need rear seating, try to purchase a van with rear seating, it is very expensive to add rear seating that is DOT approved and safe. The seating can easily add $6-15k on a build cost especially if a custom floor to fit the seat mounts is needed. 


We recommend purchasing a crew trim or passenger van if this is a requirement.


Walls

If you van does not have any walls or headliner, this can be $1-8k depending on how many walls you need. You can build your own walls and headliner or buy kits and DIY it, but its can still easily be thousands, not hundreds of dollars


Flooring

Flooring can be expensive and time consuming. You can go to pre-fab commercial flooring that will range around $1-2k, do a DIY floor for under $1k, or floors for seating run about $7-8k


Bed

You need a bed to sleep on and your gear will likely be stored underneath. You can DIY a bed for under $500 but its not going to do what the fancy adjustable beds do or look like but it would work.  Beds in higher positions require support structure under the walls that will add significant build costs. 


We build very simple clean beds that are starting around $2200, have removable panels, and are very clean looking.  You can do a bed with a dinette, your best option if at all possible is to purchase a prefabricated sofa bed  from a company like RB Components however there are disadvantages to using one of these and they do cost a bit more than a normal paneled bed and there is no room to store gear. These range from $2000-4000. Wall bracing is needed to mount these in a van.


As costly as these sound they actually are a very economical solution to a sofa bed vs a custom build one.


Simple 3-Panel Bed

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Sofa Bed with storage boxes

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Ventilation

  • One of the most overlooked parts of a van build. Its hard to sleep when its hot so you need somehow to get the hot air out. Start with some windows with screens and a fan helps to get the hot air out of the van however those require power and you do not want to run a fan off your starter battery as you will end up with a dead battery eventually. Vented windows can be expensive $600-$800 just for the parts, but they are a game changer. Ideally you need to insulate the van to manage temperature control as well as that makes a huge difference. Even with a fan and windows on a hot day you will not be able to keep your van cool. If you are a budget you can use a battery operated fan to move the air in your van before adding a roof mounted fan.


Aux fan, moves 600 cubic feet a minute of air; a must have in our opinion

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Vented factory OEM look Window

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Power

  • This can be one of the most expensive parts of a build. It can be super simple (but limited) or very complex. There is no way to shortcut $ this area properly. You cannot do a budget electrical system and have it do what the expensive systems do such as run a hot plate, microwave, and fridge for any extended period of time. If you are on a budget an inverter option to run AC power is really not in this price range generally speaking on a budget. You do need aux power to at least run a fan and maybe charge a phone. A single battery is just fine for this, but you have to have a way to charge the battery either by the alternator (preferred) or solar. Adding alternator or solar charging is expensive.

There are significant limits to power stations (good and bad) but for basic power option that requires no install they can work. We don't use them in professional builds, but they are work great for running a fan or basic power needs. They are no replacement for a properly featured power system in a van in our opinion but are ok as long as you understand what they can and cannot do.


Yeti Goal Zero, the larger ones can run a fridge 2-3 days and they do have built in inverters. The smaller ones however are VERY limited in the power range.

Building A Campervan On A Budget

Proper aux DC power system in hood- charged by alternator and solar. These are around $3000

Building A Campervan On A Budget

This system below has shore power, inverter, solar and alternator charging, accurate battery monitoring, and 270ah of lithium battery power (heated).  Super nice, but this type of system to run your microwave or hot plate can easily get into the 12K + range, but is superior in every way to a Goal Zero Yeti or Jackery system.


There is no comparison in performance and long term viability. These batteries alone in this "basic" system were $3200. They will last 4-6 years, work in the cold, and can easily be replaced unlike in a Goal Zero Yeti.


This photo is a system that is in the final stages of install and is ultra compact that has an inverter, battery monitor, complete fuse panels and power shut offs for both AC and DC power, and set up to charge with shore power, solar, and alternator with very high quality lithium batteries that have a 10 year warranty.


Totally different level of power system compared to a Yeti/Jackery, or a AGM battery system referenced above for $3200. Its not however needed in 95% of the builds. Cost is 3-4 times as much as well.

Building A Campervan On A Budget


Budget Camper Van Conversion: How it Adds Up

What does a budget professional build look like, assuming we start with a Crew or passenger van? (preferably a Sprinter) Keep in mind that this is not the same as our nice demo builds.


Similar functionality, but the demo vans are examples of fully featured and very well done modular builds, this list is much simpler with limitations. Our typical build is between $16-30k. However, this does get you glam camping in a functional manner with the ability to add on in the future.  You could DIY this type of build for about 1/2 if you do all of the work yourself.


$7-13k

  • $2600-4500 Basic 3 panel bed or sofabed, not exceeding 23 inches in height, removable panels, modular

  • $300-$1000 Mattress - simple to very nice

  • $600 - A few wall panels if a crew van

  • $1300-3000- vented windows; replacing non vented factory ones; this varies depending on need and location

  • $1000-1300 aux fan depending on location

  • $1200-4000 -Aux power; you can go from just a simple power station to a full on proper aux power system



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1 Comment


Jonathan Lui
Jonathan Lui
May 05, 2023

Excellent write up as always... “Porsche 911 on a Honda Civic budget” 🤣

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