We will be adding to this article as time permits to the most common questions we get that we spend time explaining. Most of this is concentrated on the most technical questions we find we explain the most.
Q: How expensive is a camper van to build?
A: It depends on what you want. We have a specific post on this. Costs are based on time/materials for each feature/product you want. Our typical builds range from $15k-35k starting with a van that has walls and flooring. This can greatly exceed this if you don't have walls and flooring. Even our simple builds take over a hundred hours to complete. You cannot build a 60k dream van on a 20k budget. (if built properly) It's just simple math. Usually, build materials costs, tools, and parts are about 60-70% of the total build cost depending on the component. The more complicated the higher the labor costs. This is especially true with electrical work which is very time-consuming. Bolt-on items like racks, suspension, and steps are easy to put on which is why most people put those on first because they are easy. Do you build in proper sequence, do not make the mistake for example of putting a roof rack on without first doing your electrical work if you are running lights, solar, fan...
Q: How much does a camper van cost if I want to add upper storage? Why is it so expensive? (Van Essentials Storage Lockers, Adventure Wagon Mule Bags, Van Wife storage lockers, Cabinets)
A: Simply put time/parts. Many ways to do this but it is at least a full-day project if you have a factory headliner. Much longer for DIYer not including other work. (fan/electrical/lighting) This is an involved process that does require depending on the location(s) your entire headliner (roof of inside of van) to be removed and install bracing support behind your walls. Behind your headliner, there is no support. Support has to be built behind the headliner so that the L track can be mounted safely to support the L track that your cabinets need to be secured to. There are several ways to do this. From a DIY perspective you can get braces from companies such as Adventure Wagon (you have to buy a full interior kit for 15-20k) or a support kit from companies like RB components for $500 plus additional support needs to be added for side L track as well. Typical costs to run bracing in a factory headliner ranges, but generally this is just above $2000 for bracing and L track if we already have your headliner being removed.
When this is done since your walls are down this is the proper time to run electrical lines, put in your roof glands for electrical, insulate and sound deaden, and add your LED lighting. It's like taking your drywall down in your kitchen, ideally, you need to do all your plumbing/electrical/gas lines/support structures while it's down otherwise it's going to cost you a lot more in the future in money, time, and headaches. It is very time-consuming, dealers can charge $2000 just to remove your headliner! If you have a cargo van with no headliner then you can do this before you put interior panels and trim pieces in.
You need to get your van down to bare metal to do this project, here you see the beginning of our insulation package, electrical wiring started, fan cut out installed, as well as roof glands installed to run electrical for solar and other rooftop accessories.
Support structures have been installed and L track installed for storage cabinets
Finished with storage lockers
Q: Do I need to have a house auxiliary battery?
A: If you are running electrical components and do not want to risk draining your starter battery down yes. This includes such things as fans, heaters, and especially refrigerators. Your Auxiliary battery should be isolated so if it does drain down you can still start your camper van.
Q: How do you charge a house battery?
A: We recommend always charging first with an alternator, then solar, and if your system alloys a shore power connection might be helpful if you have AC to power that. We do not recommend solar-only charging as often this just is not enough to recharge your house battery fast enough or there is a lack of sunlight.
Q: How big should my house battery be?
A: This varies depending on capacity requirements. Most of our camper van builds for sale do not need more than 200ah of AGM batteries running a fridge, fan, and heater with alternator and solar charging. When using an inverter much more power is usually recommended as well depending on location we may recommend a lithium battery set up if outside of the engine bay.
Q: Do I need Solar?
A: The general answer to this is no unless you are using things that require power all the time and/or if you are not charging for extensive periods driving your car (many hours). A refrigerator is a really good example of when you need solar and to a lesser degree fan or heater.
Q: How much Solar?
A: This depends on the space available for panels if you also have alternator charging, overall power needs, and how long you go without driving the car and driving via alternator. Typically we find around 200w is perfect for the weekender type vans we build
Q: Do I need an inverter and what is involved?
A: Generally no, if you are only charging phones, tablets, and even a laptop computer then you only need DC (12v) current. A simple small inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter can charge your laptop, but it will not be sufficient to run anything larger. For larger appliances (coffee makers, hair dryers, blenders, microwaves) an inverter of 2000-3000w is recommended. This however requires it to be located within a few feet of your battery bank to get the proper power voltage to run the inverter properly so if your house battery is in your engine compartment this would not be recommended due to extreme heat. We then put the batteries inside the van or outside under the van to avoid high temperatures.
Q: What about power banks like Yeti Goal Zero or Jackery?
A: For DIY occasional use these can work or be a great alternative for a DIY solution. They do have their limitations and we do not recommend them for a professional-level camper van build that will get used frequently. There are a lot of downsides to these systems, however, they are an easy plug-and-play DIY solution that is less expensive than a "normal" house battery system. There is a very good reason professional builds do not use these systems due to their limitations. (Servicing, charging capabilities/speed, ability to handle many electrical connections, compatibility with some electronics) The largest mistake we do see with these people is purchasing them greatly undersized. You cannot pay $1500-3000 and think it will do what a $10k electrical system would do. They are great if you are on a very limited budget and want to plug a fan into it or maybe run some AC appliances as long as you understand what they can and cannot do well.
Q: Do I need vented windows?
A: Yes, one of the most passed parts of a build because it's not very exciting. You can't sleep when it's hot and you need to have a way to get hot air out of your van and keep the bugs out at night. This should be one of the first things you do in your build along with a bed/sleeping solution.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make with their DIY builds?
Underestimating costs. Just like a home remodel, it's always 2-3x more than you budgeted for. Make a budget and understand the true costs of what you want in your van. It's super common to grossly underestimate costs. Getting costs of internet blogs and videos are usually very deceiving. A great example of a very popular van builder influencer is when they did a floor with an L track. People reading the installation of their customer floor likely did not take into account them mentioning the entire week working full time with two people it took just to finish the flooring and they are expert builders. not to mention special tools, templates, and cost of materials. It makes a Smart Floor for example reasonably priced when considering its superior functionality and safety.
Underestimating time to modify their van. A pro-builder with thousands of hours of experience will do things in a fraction of the time of a DIYer. What we do in one day often takes a DIYer a week if not more to complete. Lack of experience, tools, and needed parts/materials are usually the reasons. It's no different than a home remodeling project or likely what you do in your professional job, experience and the right tools make all the difference. Typical DIYers take about a year or more to complete their build which we do in 2-3 weeks.
Building out of sequence. There are very specific steps that should be done in a very specific order to reduce the amount of labor needed to build a van and in some cases reduce added costs due to mistakes. You would never put drywall up and a backsplash before you do your outlets in your kitchen would you?
Bolt-ons/Eye Candy. This relates to the above comment. It's easy, it's fast, and it makes your van look cool, but don't do it out of sequence. It can cost you money or you will make purchasing mistakes. Plan your build.
Short Cuts- Don't compromise on the quality of materials or labor time. Do it right. Do it correctly. This will add value. There are plenty of DIY-focused solutions so you can do many modifications correctly, properly, and safely. In the end, you add value. We see a lot of things done wrong, it's like throwing money out the door. It's not valuable if you have to rip it out due to poor workmanship, safety, or functionality.
Buying a built van for a bargain price and not understanding how it was built and what you are buying. Bargain does not always = Value. You pay for what you get. There are no shortcuts or secret "hacks" to a quality build. Don't make this mistake, it can be huge. We do offer consulting services. You would never buy a house without a home inspection, would you? Why would you spend a small fortune on a van and not know what you are buying and if it is done correctly? There is a reason we document our builds it shows the value we bring in. The used van you are buying should be no different by the builder if it's a DIYer especially.
Choosing a builder. What can I say? You generally pay for what you get. A cheap price usually means cheap quality workmanship, little to no warranty support, and no follow-up support. Lots of very good builders out there. None of them are cheap. No different than any other profession. Sometimes you can get lucky for sure, however. Check references, and check who is working on your van. Do they care about what they do? Do they have good references recent and old?
We are by far not the best builder out there. (just say a van online for $300k... it was next level, it was also next level price. :) ) So many talented builders who do care about what they do and the customer experience before, during, and after the build. Our goal at Cardiff Campervan is to provide value and a superior customer experience in a camper van cost range that is fair. We are not cheap nor are we outrageous for professional quality work. Most importantly it's not just about the build, it's the advice, and the technical information on the types of builds based on our experience of building hundreds of vans that separates us from others. We focus on functionality and ROI first and foremost with the focus of getting the most out of the costs of the build and we build in a very specific sweet spot that is keeping it as simple as possible.