Although it had many limitations, I liked it for its compact size and its adaptability. Since that time, I have enjoyed looking at conversion vans of all kinds, but especially the Japanese microvan conversions, which are pretty wild.
The first challenge of converting a van into a camper is to maximize the space but, at the same time, make it comfortable. Those two things — convenience and comfort — are not necessarily compatible! That’s where art and ingenuity come in. Camper vans are micro-habitations. Like tree houses or sailboats.
There are many companies that will customize your van for you. Or you can buy a factory outfitted camper van off the lot. Some of these are really nice. But here’s something to keep in mind: factory-manufactured conversions are made first and foremost to make the manufacturer money. This means that, wherever it can, the manufacturer will cut corners. In other words, if you want top-of-the-line equipment — water pumps, cabinetry, faucets, holding tanks, etc. — you’ll have to request it and pay extra. That’s why I recommend doing the conversion yourself.
In doing the work yourself, you can hand-pick every item to fit both your budget and your taste. More importantly, in doing it yourself, you’ll know all the strengths and weakness of your treehouse on wheels.
Recently they bought a used Sprinter van, and turned it into their own sweet custom Sprinter camper van. The really unique part – not only is it a conversion done on a 118? chassis, so it’s super-compact, but it also has a one-of-a-kind retro feel to it, kind of like…a stylishly redone old house! Coincidence?
This summer  was busy for Ron: he took a 40-state tour in the Houselove Sprinter camper (along with Cleo the basset hound) to promote From Animal House to Our House, his new book. I caught up with Ron to ask him some questions about his process of turning their Sprinter into a DIY Sprinter conversion.
What were your reasons for doing this conversion on a Sprinter, and a 118″ Sprinter at that?
Ron: “I did a lot of research on which van to convert. I was most interested in small vehicles because mine had to fit into my garage — I live in mid-town Baltimore and have no driveway and can’t trust that a vehicle like this would be safe when parked on the streets. I was attracted to Westfalia VWs, but decided that they were too small – Jill, my wife, really wanted a toilet in the van, for example. The Sprinter was hands-down the best bet for getting the most space in the smallest package. It’s also a stylish vehicle, especially when compared to conventional vans. The 118? fit into my garage perfectly. Also, it would be easy to maneuver in cities. So I was sold on this model.”
What were your major design goals?
“The biggest challenge was to make the van ultra-efficient in terms of space and also aesthetically pleasing, with wood cabinets and stainless steel counters. I owned a VW van in college and had converted that to a camper, but it had many limits. Still, I liked the idea of having a van that was almost micro in size.”
Did you end up doing several designs, or just one?
“As a design project, this was a huge challenge. At first, before I got the van, I imagined it would have much more space than it does — I was dreaming big. But then, after I got the van, I saw how small it truly is, so I had to work through several designs. The challenge was in three parts: I had to have 1) a cooktop and sink, b) enough storage for food, kitchen equipment — including a water heater, and c) a full bed.
Taking inspiration from the VW vans, I made my bed a tri-fold bench seat and put it in the back, in the usual seat position. This separated the far-back, where I would put my electrical system, from the middle of the van, which is the living area. Once the bed was in place, I had to figure out how to arrange the rest. Breakthroughs were:
finding a small water heater that would fit under the sink; this opened up space in the far back for the toilet; by stacking two storage cabinets next to the toilet (and giving up a view through the rear door windows), I created a tremendous amount of storage space as a “garage”; then by building a tall, narrow storage unit (with sliding doors) over one wheel, I created a surprising amount of vertical storage for clothes.”
About how long did the conversion take you to design and build, and roughly how much did it cost?
“Total cost was close to $60K. $20K for the used 2006 van (with 60K miles on it). Biggest expense was the electrical system: solar panels, 6 AGM batteries, big inverter, breaker panels, etc. Second biggest expense was the custom paint job and body work. Third biggest expense was the water system, which included custom aluminum holding tanks, custom stainless steel counter and other fixtures. The van itself needed some mechanical work (EGR valve and shifter/transmission, which cost several thousand dollars. I replaced the shocks and stabilizer bar, got new tires.
I bought the van in July 2011. It took me 3 months to get it back from the painter (he was good but really slow and, frankly, unreliable). I didn’t start working on it myself until Nov. 2011 and finished it in May 2012. So my own work on the van, with some down time for custom tank fittings etc., lasted about 6 months.”
What are the features of the design that you feel turned out the best?
“I’m really happy with how the van interior works. When the bed is folded out, it fits snugly in the middle living area such that you are nearly level with the sink and stove-top: it creates a nestlike or treehouse atmosphere: you have access to everything in the van from that comfy spot.
I am surprised by how much storage space there is for clothes and food. For four months, I traveled fully loaded all over the country and then, when Jill joined me, I still had room for her stuff too. I’m really pleased with the electrical system. I’ve got all the outlets and lights and extras I’ve ever wanted. And, because of multiple power sources (both solar and alternator feed), I can take this van anywhere without power worries. I consulted with a marine electrician and then an auto electrician to make sure I got everything right.”
What are the things you wish you’d done differently?
“Honestly, I wish I had taken more time with the cabinetry. It looks fine but it’s not nearly as good as it could have been. But I was under a very pressing deadline. In fact, I just barely had the van done by the time I was due on the road in May 2012. I continue to refine the interior — there are a lot of finishing touches I plan to add, like aluminum trim. And I’m still refining some extras, like my fog lights (there’s a short) and my junk drawer, which needs partitions for better organization.”
As a camper van consultant, I have talked to many people who really want a camper van but haven’t thought it through. Camper vans are cool and fun–it’s easy to see their appeal. But getting a camper van is kind of like getting a pet. You’ve got to think it through. For example, do you have a place to store your van safely? You really shouldn’t park a camper van on the street, unless you live in a very, very safe and secure neighborhood. Camper vans are loaded with equipment that many street-savvy thieves would love to steal.
When I went looking for the ideal van to convert, I realized that I had to find one that would fit in my garage. So I took a measure of both the garage length and height. I learned that I couldn’t get a Sprinter hightop because it would not fit in my garage. The only van that would fit my garage was one with a low roof and a short wheel base–the 118”. I had no other options because I live in the mid-town Baltimore, where street parking is difficult and very unsafe (car break-ins are so common in my neighborhood that our insurance rates are double what you’d pay in the suburbs!).
Friends of mine who own a 22’ Pleasureway live in a neighborhood where they are not allowed to park an RV, not even in their driveway. Does your neighborhood have a similar rule? My friends park their van in a secure storage lot. If you will need a storage lot for your van, be sure to check out what’s available (and the cost) in your area.
Here’s a detail that often surprises would-be camper van owners. If you have a camper van that comes equipped with auxiliary batteries (to power appliances and lights), then you need an electrical hook-up to keep those batteries fresh. You also need a hook-up so that you can keep your van heated during winter, when cold temperatures would otherwise kill your auxiliary batteries and freeze the water in your tanks and water lines.
This hook-up has to be a 30-amp line. It will look very much like the kind of plug-in you see at an RV campsite. You’ll have to hire an electrician to run line this from the electrical panel in your basement out to your garage or wherever you’re parking your van. I learned this the hard way after I let my van’s auxiliary batteries (called “house batteries”) run down.
If you let your house batteries run down, they will never be the same after you power them up again: they won’t hold as large a charge and they won’t hold their now-reduced charge as long. As these batteries cost about $200 each, my mistake was very costly because I had six batteries to replace.
As of this writing, Baltimore is coming out of a very tough winter. From December until March, I kept a heater running in the van most nights so that my house batteries were cozy and my water lines were clear.
Regardless of the weather, or the need to winterize your van (more on this later, under “maintenance”), you have to keep your house batteries powered up. Typically, they can’t sit idle (unpowered) for more than three days. Let me say this again: your house batteries cannot sit idle for more than three days.
Because I drive my van all the time, my house batteries are getting charged all the time (the house battery charger is attached to the alternator that feeds my regular starter battery). Does that mean I don’t need a plug-in? Probably.
If you don’t have a 30-amp outlet for charging your battery bank, then you’ll have to be really vigilant about keeping those batteries charged by checking them every two days and then running your van until your voltage meter shows that your batteries are topped up.
A lot of people who want a camper van mistakenly assume that, after buying the van, they are pretty much good to go. But finding the van you want to convert is only the first step. The real kicker is the equipment you’ll need inside the van.
The RV industry has done well marketing relatively inexpensive RVs with very cheap interiors that offer all of the amenities American want. Problem is, these RVs don’t last and those amenities go bad pretty quickly. Still, the discount RV market has led Americans to believe they can have it all — and get it cheap. But let’s be honest: you get what you pay for. A good toilet is going to cost you $200 or more. A good water pump, at least $150. And so on: it adds up.
No. You can camp in a van with very little money. All you need is the van and a sleeping bag, right? But camping in a van doesn’t make your rig a camper van. I’ve been hired by more than a few campervan newbies who just gave up when I informed them that their wish list of equipment and luxuries (full bath, flat screen TV, air conditioning, etc.) would cost thousands and thousands of dollars — sometimes more than the van itself.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need to accept that a rock-bottom basic conversion will likely cost more than $5,000. A realistic figure would be $10,000. A fully, well-outfitted conversion would run $20,000 or more. These are 2016 estimates and they are not at all unreasonable when you consider that a fully-outfitted 18-20’ Pleasureway (without top-of-the-line equipment) will cost you $120K or more.
Using the Pleasureway example as a model, you might estimate that a full conversion will cost — at least — as much as the van itself. But, realistically, it might cost twice as much as the cost of the van itself. The more work you do yourself on your conversion, the more money you’ll save, obviously. And, obvious too: the fewer luxuries you can live without, like air conditioning, the cheaper it gets.
Even after you’ve found your ideal van to convert, you’re only getting started. Here’s a bit of news for those who want a camper van: making a van into a camper won’t happen fast. I’ve talked to many people who are starting from scratch and want to get on the road in a matter of months. No way will that happen.
If you’ve ever done DIY work around your house, you know that always something goes wrong. Always. That little bathroom rehab you thought would take a couple of weekends ultimately takes 6 months. And that garden wall you were going to build during your week’s vacation? Two months later you’re still building it. No need to rail and rant about it — it’s just Murphy’s Law, the way our universe works.
When I did my conversion, I gave myself about eight months. I was fully dedicated to putting in long hours but I couldn’t predict how long my subcontractors would take: I needed somebody to paint the van and somebody else to do some welding and somebody else to advise me about electricity. Unless you are a remarkable DIYer who can do it ALL, you’re going to need to hire people–and that’s where things get tricky.
My painter was brilliant and really good at what he could do but he was also hampered by his inability to meet a deadline. I never really figured out what his problem was; maybe he was working several jobs at once. I lost more than two months waiting for him to complete his work. Nearly three months to do a job that most shops could have knocked out in three weeks!
The problem was, I had to be on the road in May, but I didn’t get my van back from the painter until mid-January. I worked on my van every day and night and still, come May, it wasn’t ready. I went on the road anyway. My wife laughingly recalls my first phone call to her while I was driving. “What’s all that racket?” she asked when I called her. She heard pots crashing and pans clattering and odd knocking noises.
Nothing in my van was well secured. Driving it was like piloting a small boat in a storm: cabinet doors were swinging open, pans were sliding across the floor in the back, my mattress kept sliding off its frame, etc. That first night, I discovered that my house batteries weren’t working, so I had no running water, no toilet. The joys of camper-vanning are greatly diminished when your rig isn’t ready.
So, yes, time is an issue. Give yourself lots of time. And, if you don’t have the time? Then reconsider your options. If you can’t make the time for your camper van this year, the maybe next year will work: you’ve got time to plan.