You, like all of us, have been obsessing over the van life movement and curious as to how attainable it is. The old saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat.” But in your case, curiosity actually guides you to discover the 4 proven steps to starting van life. Assuming that you already know why your choosing van life, I’m going to address the very first steps to take that’ll get you one step closer to living your dream of becoming a real-life, van lifer.
Table of Contents
01. Do your research
This first step goes without saying but in case you need to hear it from someone: research is the most significant step before all. Get a better idea of what van life really is, where you will be van “life-ing” when you wish to become a van lifer, and lastly how will you obtain it? This will help you to determine the next steps in this guide.
For me, after I’ve learned what #vanlife actually is, I began to plan out my where, when, and how. I knew my goal was to travel in my van (domestically and internationally), full-time, by October 2020, and work remotely while doing it.
So, in this scenario, my when is full-time and my deadline to start #vanlife. I want to travel full-time in my van which means that my van would serve as my home. This is necessary to keep in mind when determining your van build needs. I also had a deadline to start this new chapter by October 2020.
My how is the fact that I work remotely which means that as long as I have internet access, I am able to work. This will keep me on road, whenever and wherever I please. There are a ton of resources that can be found on these “remote work” topics but here are a few favorites that may help you:
Kristin from Where the Road Forks has given tips on working remotely. She’s been living in her van for a little over two years now and convinced her corporate job to let her work remotely.
Libryia from Wander Woman Inc. actually specializes in finding remote income and can help you with the process as well.
Another imperative how is to factor in is how will you afford your van? This will ultimately determine your when and the next steps in this guide.
02. Pick your van
Now that we’ve figured out your what, when, why, and how, you can begin to prepare for the type of van that’ll fit your needs. During my research, I found that there were a few vans to choose from. Four common vans to examine are the Dodge Ram Promaster, Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, and the classic Volkswagon Kombi.
The Dodge Promaster (my van of choice) in my opinion is easiest to build-in (convert) because of it’s wide and square interior. However, it is also the shortest option of cargo vans and may limit your choices when it comes to the build. Because I will be the only occupant in my van, it was the perfect choice for me. I also liked the aesthetics of the Promaster compared to the Ford Transit.
The Ford Transit appeared to be in the same price range as the Promaster and is a great competitor to it. However, for me, I wasn’t too fond of the Transit’s front interior and exterior aesthetics. To be blunt. But that’s just me. Don’t judge! Not everyone cares about looks so this van would be a great alternative for tall individuals due to its high roof build. You’ll have 6 feet and 5 inches to walk tall in. The transit also has a model that drives on deisel instead of gas. If you’re into that kind of thing.
The Mercedes Sprinter van has been the most popular simply due to its maker: Mercedes. It is the longest van model of the three which gives you more build-out, lengthwise but is also the most narrow. Unfortunately for Mercedes, the competitive price point took them out of the running on my list. Thinking long-term, it would be the most expensive to fix should something happen. I didn’t have time for that. It is, however, a beautiful, diesel van and the overall value is an added bonus should you decide to sell in the future.
I personally hadn’t done much research on the Volkswagon Kombi because it wasn’t an option for me. I’m sure if you google “van life” the first picture you’ll see is this classic, vintage beauty. It does, however, limit your options on height and length should you want more room to live in.
Again, these are the most common vans to choose from. If you’ve narrowed them down to the first three detailed above, then here is a great comparison to look into when planning based on measurements. But since we are all about breaking the norms, I’d say do a little more research on other vans and make your decision after. Another possibility is to purchase a van already converted. In that case, you will need to determine if its amenities fit your living essentials.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list to at least two, then I definitely recommend, “trying before you buy.” You can either rent a campervan and get a feel for the conveniences you need (or not), test drive at a dealership, or you can rent a cargo van solely to see how it drives, or a day. I opted for the latter. I went with Enterprise Rent-A-Car because I get a major discount. But at that point, I had already made my mind up on a Promaster so that was the only vehicle I test drove
03. Buy your van
If you chose to go the empty cargo van route, you now have to the daunting task of actually searching for your perfect van. I’ve read quite a bit of stories about people having difficulties during this process. Fortunately for me, I found it quite simple, which is why I’m going to speak on my method.
I started online with Carfax.com. Knowing your criteria would give you a heads start. I knew that I didn’t want to spend more than $25k on a van. I then broke down my requirements as the following:
Year & mileage – 2019 or newer. I am a single female, without any mechanical knowledge. I don’t want to have any mechanical problems due to the age of the vehicle, sooner than expected. With that being said, I also didn’t want a newer vehicle that had more than 25k miles.
Body type – I was certain on a high roof van because I am 5’9. I want to be free to walk in my van without having to bend my neck or dip low, low, low, low.
Features – Having bluetooth capability was important along with, keyless entry, rear-view camera, air condition, and USB ports. These are minor features but if I was going to spend my hard-earned money on a vehicle then I expected it to include things that I wanted. Everything else was a bonus.
Location – It would have been great to find a van in my area, but I knew that chance was slim to none. Therefore, I didn’t mind flying anywhere nationwide to get my van.
My conditions narrowed down the available options rather quickly. But that was ok since I didn’t limit myself to location.
Another source I found helpful in my search was looking into the rental car companies. Believe it or not, rental companies do sell their vehicles as well. I had actually been in contact with an agent from Enterprise. I found a great Promaster with 25k miles under $25k. By the time I made up my mind to purchase, the vehicle had already been sold.
I learned quickly that these vans are snacthed up, fast! Which means a van that I had an eye on one day could be gone the very next. Keep that in mind if you are serious about purchasing soon. The second van that I found was actually better than the first. I found the perfect Promaster for $22k with only 10k miles. I made my intentions clear with the dealership and the next day I flew down to Georgia to pick her up. It was the perfect deal for my situation.
One last source that you could look into is to hop onto online markets like Facebook or Craigslists. There are a ton of vans listed for sale every day. Although I didn’t look much into this, it’s definitely worth considering.
04. Build your van
Now that you’ve purchased your cargo van, it’s time to convert. There are really two options at this stage. Self-build or company build. Before I begin, I do have a confession to make. Initially, my plan was to convert my van myself. With the help of family and friends (who didn’t know a thing about converting a van), I was sure that this was the route I would take.
On the very first day of my “van build” I realized that I had no clue as to what I was doing. Really! I had no clue how to use the tools, darn sure didn’t know how to measure (I hate numbers if it’s not + $ in my bank), and my family and friends flaked. I was so frustrated and had even debated selling my van. Yep! True story. YouTube and the online van build guides hyped my head up too much that I actually thought I could do it. And with the deadline of October. I had to sit back and be realistic with myself. I mean, I couldn’t even remove the deadbolts in the van let alone build out cabinets for the van.
This is when Jason from Vandemic reached out to me and offered his services. He just so happened to see a post that I made in a van build Facebook group. Originally, we spoke about Vandemic only doing the electrical work. This shifted quickly into a full-on van build. Everything happens for a reason because they made the process super easy. They are a fairly new company (as in 2020 new) but I was very pleased with how organized their process was. I’m all about organization and if a company can sell me on that alone, then they have my support. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to have this company build my van.
My advice on which route to take is to first be honest with yourself. If you have the tools, resources, and help to self-build then go for it. I’m sure it’ll be so satisfying knowing that you built it in the end. I so badly wanted that, but I just don’t do hard labor. LOL. Again, there are a million online guides and videos that help in this process. There are actually a few that educates you on how to build-on-a-budget.
Working with a van build company is equally a great option if it’s in your budget. Through my research, most of the van conversion companies were on the west coast (California, Oregon, Colorado). I didn’t want to have that extra expense of driving that far to build. I live in Indiana and I’m so thankful that Vandemic came along because they are only a 4-hour drive from my home city. The midwest doesn’t have as many van conversion options as the west.
The obvious difference between the two options is price and expertise. If you self-build you would definitely benefit from omitting the labor cost. If you hire a company, you would benefit from their expertise and experience.
You may have realized, I didn’t go into detail on the overall price of a van build. That’s another hill to climb. So many factors play into this far beyond converting your van. There are a lot of helpful resources out there on the “cost of van conversion” that you will find helpful.
This guide is meant to help you organize your thoughts in starting van life. At the end of the day, your van life is what you make it. A lot of people get so hung up on not having the life to accomplish it or not being able to afford it. But I’m here to tell you that it all depends on you. It depends on your needs, your budget, your life. The common denominator is you!