Looking through the back door of a Ford Transit cargo van at a woman kneeling down to sand the bare metal floor

How to Choose the Best Van for a Camper Conversion

One of the most exciting things about a campervan conversion is choosing your vehicle, but it can be a little overwhelming. Find out all the factors you need to consider before choosing what to convert for your van build.

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So you’ve got tons of #vanlife inspiration saved on Instagram, you’ve imagined yourself hitting the road with the freedom to go anywhere, and you’re dreaming of handing in your two weeks at work in exchange for a nomadic lifestyle.

Next you just need to decide exactly what the van of your dreams looks like and start turning this into reality. But, you’re wondering “what’s the best van to convert into a campervan?”

Having been there ourselves, we’re going to walk you through the decision making process to make things a little easier. We won’t be able to choose the perfect van for you, since every vanlifer’s wants and needs are uniquely individual, but we can give you all the important factors to weigh so that you’ll be well prepared when it’s time to choose your van.

First things first, you need to consider what’s important in a van build. We’ll outline each of these factors to steer you in the right direction.

After thinking everything over, we’ll share some of our personal thoughts and experiences.

Lastly, we want to leave you with some actual next steps. You can walk away from this post with a plan in mind that will bring you closer to that dream of yours. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Looking straight toward the closed rear doors on the interior of an empty Ford Transit cargo vanLooking straight back at the interior of a modern and minimalist campervan conversion with a slatted wooden ceiling, white upper cabinets, and a dining bench area with several throw pillows

Major considerations

Financial factors

There’s a reason this one is first on the list. The whole point of choosing this lifestyle, even if you only intend to travel part time with your van, is to increase your sense of freedom. Taking on a larger financial burden than you can handle is a surefire way to actually limit your freedom.

New vs. used

In recent years, the used vehicle market has become a bit more complex. We would almost never recommend purchasing a vehicle brand new, since we don’t consider it a wise financial choice.

That being said, when it came time for us to shop for our used van, the prices we saw, across the country, were nearly as high as some new vans.

When making this decision, just be sure to consider all of the trade-offs. If buying used you’re likely to find a cheaper deal, but the van will have some wear on it and may have a shorter lifespan. Be sure to ask for all vehicle maintenance records and a VIN history report to get a good idea of how well it’s been taken care of.

We'd also highly recommend spending some money up front on a pre-purchase inspection to discover any hidden issues. We purchased used through a dealership, let them know we would need to have it looked over by a third party, and they actually, unexpectedly, reimbursed us for the inspection when we signed for the van.

New vans will come with a manufacturer warranty, but the original warranty may still be valid on your used van depending on how old it is. Typically, it will be covered up to 3 years or 36,000 miles, with a longer powertrain warranty.

Maintenance and repairs

At the end of the day, you need to consider the cost not only for the purchase of your van, but also for future maintenance and repairs. New vehicles will (hopefully) have a lower cost in the first few years of ownership and most unexpected repairs will be covered under warranty.

A used van on the other hand should save you money initially, but you still need to be prepared for additional expenses. 

Annual maintenance costs for a cargo van average around $1000, depending on the source you’re using. In 2020, AAA said the average cost for vehicle maintenance across the board was about $0.09/mile. 

When you look at specific van models, the Ford Transit tends to be the lowest, around $888-947/year, with the Ram ProMaster in the $859-1147 range and the Mercedes Sprinter being the most expensive at around $1778/year.

Another consideration is how you’ll go about maintaining or repairing your van. Do you plan on diving under the hood and taking the DIY approach, or will you be dropping her off at the dealership for every bit of scheduled maintenance? Obviously, one will require a bit more padding in the budget than the other.

Looking underneath a Ford Transit campervan at a man laying on his side with a jackstand and other tools in view

Diesel vs gasoline

When narrowing down your search you’ll need to decide on diesel or gasoline. Diesel engines benefit from higher fuel efficiency, but you’ll typically pay more money at the gas pump. Another advantage of diesel engines is that they normally have a longer life expectancy than gasoline counterparts.

Insurance & vehicle registration

It’s difficult to give any particular guidance on this subject because it varies drastically between where your vehicle is registered and what insurance company you choose.

We’ve heard stories from other van owners who ended up paying thousands of dollars in annual taxes because of the size of their van or how it was registered (commercial, RV, passenger, etc.) This can vary even down to the particular county you’re in, so just be sure to thoroughly research this locally before you find yourself owing the government a large sum.

Insurance coverage is just as tricky to navigate. Some have found that registering their vehicle as an RV saves money and others have been told that their conversion is uninsurable as a custom built RV.

Shop around with different insurance companies to get quotes and make sure you’re very clear on what you intend to do with your van and the coverage you require.

Resale value

We might catch some flak for this, but you may want to also consider the resale value of your build before purchasing. There are vanlifers who will insist that there is no resale value in a DIY build. That’s simply not true.

A quick online search will produce plenty of used campervans listed for anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $100,000 or more. While they may be the exception to the rule, a well done conversion, even a DIY build, can result in a good return on your money.

If you have the budget, you may want to consider a newer, lower mileage van that will retain more value than an older vehicle. If you’re planning to do a very rough DIY build and/or you don’t have the money up front, find yourself a bargain van, knowing that you most likely won’t get any of your money back.

When we bought our van in February of 2021, we never thought we’d be getting an almost new 2020 Ford Transit. Months of searching nationwide and closely comparing our options though led us to the conclusion that we were better off making a higher initial investment, with the hopes of selling our van in the future and retaining some value.

A man and woman smile and hold a set of keys toward the camera with a Ford Transit van out of focus behind themA woman sits in the open sliding door of a Ford Transit cargo van with a smile on her face as she points up with both hands

Size & space needs

To further help in narrowing down which model of van you want to buy, you should try to realistically imagine your life on the road and what your size and space needs will be.

Number of people

Will it be just you in the van or do you have a companion? Kids? How many animals will you have with you? Is there a possibility in the future that these numbers could change?

You’ll obviously need seating, with proper seat belts, for each person in the van and a place for everyone to sleep comfortably. If you need to fit more than two people you could install seat rails and removable seating. You could look into options for a rooftop tent to expand the sleeping space.

Having more than two adults in a van would get rather cramped, but it’s still doable. You’ll just need to factor that into your design plans early on.

How big are you?

No, seriously. There’s a difference of 8.3” between the Super High Roof model of Sprinter vans and the High Roof ProMaster. Anyone under 6’ tall should be able to comfortably stand in the high roof models, but if you’re taller than that you’ll need to carefully consider your choice.

The ProMaster might be the shortest of the popular US van models, but it has a wider body, which allows people 6’ or under to sleep side to side, potentially saving space.

Because we chose a Ford Transit and are on the taller side, we needed to design our bed so we can lay front to back. That eats up considerably more space in the footprint of the van than if we’d been able to lay side to side. 

One work around for this issue is installing Flares, if your bed will be sitting up at the proper height.

What are your storage needs?

What do you plan to have with you on the road? Think about the primary purpose you’ll be using the van and make a list of the things you just can’t live without.

For some that may be their bicycles, or a kayak, or snowboard. People have found unique ways to store the gear that’s most important to them, but you won’t be able to bring it all. If you have hobbies that involve large items like above you’ll want to think about how you might safely store them.

A golden Florida sun sets through palm trees behind a Ford Transit campervan parked on a sandy beach with a sun shade and chairs out beside it

Can you get by without a toilet or shower?

In the vanlife world there are two groups of people: those who can live without a shower in their van and those who can’t. Some even opt to not have a toilet, although creative designs make it almost a no-brainer to have one of those.

This is one more highly individual decision you’ll need to make. Are you comfortable going for several days without a regular shower? Can you take showers at a gym, campground, truck stop, etc. and prefer to save the space inside the van?

RV shower pans like the one we installed can be as small as 24” x 24”. Our 24” x 36” wet bath has enough room for our toilet and is a very tight squeeze for taking a shower, but it gets the job done.

That amount of space is what you’d be sacrificing in extra storage, countertops, or as a place to put additional seating.

What type of bed and seating layout do you want?

Do you want the option of converting your bed into a seating/dining area? Or are you fine with having a fixed, platform style bed where you can store large items underneath?

One of the reasons we chose a bench seating area that converts into a bed was to keep our layout open. We liked the idea of being able to walk all the way from the front to the back of the van. We are also big fans of multi-purpose designs. If something can be used for more than one thing we tend to lean in that direction.

Full or part time travel

Your decision to travel with your van full time or to take it on weekend getaways and vacations throughout the year will have a big impact on your use of space. If you’re moving out of your home and must fit all your daily necessities into that space, that’s a lot different than packing for a few days or weeks of travel.

Going full time? Maybe a larger van will make that lifestyle a bit more comfortable and offer additional space for your belongings.

That being said, plenty of folks have lived full time in vans of all sizes for years at a time, with minimal space. It’s more about how much you’re able to let go of and if you’ve invested in some multi-purpose or highly packable items.

Using your van for getaways, camping, or road trips? You’ll still want to carefully consider your use of storage space, but remember that if you can put everything you need for vacation into a suitcase or two, you’ll find plenty of room inside a well designed van.

Travel style

Not only should you ask yourself about your length of travel, but also consider your particular travel style.

Some folks prefer to take their vans off grid, into remote areas and camp out for days or weeks. Others plan to stay closer to urban areas, sometimes even living in a city.

If you require a layer of stealth in your van to, say, spend nights parked on a city street without drawing attention, a high roof extended Transit might not be your best option.

Similarly, if you envision yourself climbing up mountain passes or off-roading, you may need to choose a 4x4/AWD option, or forget the lengthier vans that also come with a longer overhang in the rear.

A white Ford Transit campervan parked on BLM land with a dramatic cloudy sunset behind it

The reality of compromise

An important reality to accept when choosing a van is that you can’t have it all. 

If you were searching the market for a house, you would hopefully start with a budget. What can you actually afford?

From there you might make a list of your absolute must-haves: a big yard, close to good schools, at least two bathrooms, etc.

Finally, you could write out all the features you’d love in a house that aren’t absolute deal breakers. 

Along the way, you’d realize that without an unlimited budget, your ideal house with everything on the list just doesn’t exist.

As you choose your van and also begin the design, you’ll find that the perfect van also just doesn’t exist. It’s time to find areas of compromise. Maybe some things will make their way completely off the list, others will require a creative solution.

One element where we found compromise was our seating area/bed design. We knew that we preferred benches on either side of the van, with a table in the middle to eat and work. We were fine with having to convert between a bed and seating area every day. What we didn’t like giving up was the valuable storage space underneath a raised platform bed.

Our solution, following plenty of other designs we’d seen online, was to raise up the floor of the seating/bed area by several inches. That not only gave us extra storage space right in the middle of the van, but also increased the volume of both benches on either side. 

Of course, we were giving up a truly seamless, open design, where you can move from one end of the van to the other. We also traded in either a little upper cabinet space, or some headroom. These trade-offs were worth it to us and we got the best of both worlds for our particular needs.

The interior of a modern minimalist campervan interior with a bench and dining table set up and LED accent lights illuminating the ceiling and floor

Alternatives

Though “vanlife” is becoming increasingly popular these days, it’s really just one subgroup of a larger alternative housing movement.

While considering all of the above factors, maybe you realize less than 100 square feet on wheels just isn’t going to work for you. Or maybe you need the space, but your budget just doesn’t allow for a large cargo van in today’s market.

Here are some alternative options to research and consider if you’re not quite sure about vanlife:

  • School bus/”skoolie”
  • Tow behind/teardrop camper
  • Pick-up truck camper/roof top tent
  • Ambulance
  • Box truck

Our thoughts & experience

We came into vanlife after several years of daydreaming, plus careful consideration and research. By the time we were ready to purchase our van, we’d set a firm but comfortable budget and had a good idea of what we wanted in a van.

Originally, however, we thought we’d buy a used cargo van that was several years old. As we mentioned before, the market was practically upside down at the time and it just made more sense to us to get something a bit newer, since we had the budget, hoping to retain some resale value.

Van comparison spreadsheet

To help us find the right van, we threw out a wide net. We were actually prepared to drive several states away, or even fly out somewhere and drive it home. 

We mainly used cargurus.com, which allowed us to set up and save a custom search where we narrowed down the exact parameters we were looking for. We also got regular email notifications on the availability of vans that fell within our parameters and price changes.

From there, we kept a Google Sheets file with all the listings we were potentially interested in. We pulled in the following characteristics:

  • Model
  • Year
  • Mileage
  • Price
  • Distance to the dealership

We created a formula to calculate an overall composite score for each vehicle. It used a ratio of mileage to year and we assigned custom factors to each element depending on how important they were to us. We used conditional formatting to color code cells based on their value.

Did it help? Yeah. It gave us an organized and visual way of narrowing down our search. It also helped create a more objective atmosphere since we were going into such a large purchase.

In the end, we bought a van that was 20 miles away from our house, slightly more expensive than we originally anticipated and a newer model with lower mileage. It had a composite score of 12.76 compared to the average of 12.96 across 36 vans.

You can see that the score didn’t end up being the deciding factor for us and instead, we chose not to pass up a van close to home that checked pretty much every other box. 

If you’re interested in our spreadsheet for your own van search, drop us an email and we’d be happy to share it with you.

A man and woman sit inside the sliding door entry of an empty Ford Transit cargo van

Major deciding factors

We essentially chose our van and planned our entire build based on these factors:

  • There are two of us, plus two cats
  • We wanted an enclosed wet bath (shower & toilet)
  • We need more than 6’ of standing height
  • We would definitely travel for long periods, possibly full time in the future
  • Our travel style is a mix of camping off-grid and visiting urban areas. We enjoy off-the-beaten-path, but aren’t focused on going off-roading
  • We would primarily stay in warm or temperate climates
  • We wanted to bring either two bikes or our kayaks

Our budget, combined with the space needs of a wet bath led us to a RWD Ford Transit High Roof Extended.

From there it was a matter of finding one in good, used condition with reasonable mileage.

Actionable steps

Here’s the exciting part! Ready to turn your vanlife dreams into reality? Follow these next steps to get yourself going:

Set a budget

Remember that there’s no sense in starting this lifestyle by accumulating debt. The whole idea is to increase your freedom. 

Examine your finances and savings to create a realistic budget. Don’t forget that you need to include taxes/fees, insurance, registration, and at least the first year of anticipated maintenance costs.

Write your budget down somewhere, so you can refer back to it and stay on track. Break the number down into the price you’re willing to pay for the van itself and how much you plan to invest in the build.

Consider what your needs really are

Go through the list above and write down your own, personal needs. How are you going to travel? Imagine yourself on the road in your van and think about the day to day activities you’ll be doing.

Make a list of absolute must-haves

Now filter through everything and make a separate list of things you just can’t live without. It might be a shower, or a place to store your mountain bikes. It might be cruise control or four wheel drive. 

Carefully consider each thing you write down and if you just can’t picture yourself without it, then keep it on the list.

Rent a van or find a nearby van festival to go hands-on

Consider renting a campervan for at least one weekend. If you can’t locate a rental company nearby or don’t have the budget, try to find a van festival you can go to.

Going hands-on and actually stepping inside or, better yet, living in a van for a few days will bring you much closer to understanding what you really need.

If you have a chance to do either of these, revisit your lists from above and make sure they’re still accurate.

Start your search

Get online and start looking! Again, we recommend cargurus.com based on our experience.

If you have a wide enough search area, all the listings will begin to run together and get confusing. 

Create a spreadsheet to organize everything. Even if it isn’t as complicated as ours, just track the model, price, and mileage of each van and include a link back to the listing page. Then you can keep only vans that are within your budget and sort by whichever category is most important to you, comparing them all at a glance.

The interior cab of a woman driving a Ford Transit campervan on a sunny evening

Go see some vans and take a test drive

This is another important concern that you won’t be able to cross off until you physically go out and see some vans. How does it drive?

Some folks might not be totally comfortable driving a large, high roof cargo van at first. Find a van that meets your criteria and set up a test drive so you can see how they handle.

Take the leap

Found the right van? One that checks all your (realistically evaluated) boxes? One that’s within budget?

Set up a pre-purchase inspection with a mechanic of your choosing and have it looked over by a professional.

Break out your negotiating skills and make a deal!

Now, prepare yourself for the incredibly difficult, yet ultimately satisfying experience of turning a van into a home on wheels

Picking out the best van to turn into a campervan may seem like an insurmountable task at first. Like anything else though, breaking it down into bite sized pieces makes it much easier. Considering the most important factors and then narrowing down options from there, by eliminating what doesn’t fit into your list, will cancel out a lot of the noise.

We hope you’ve found this guide helpful. If you have any questions about these or any other topics we didn’t cover, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and ask.

Planning to build a campervan? Follow us on Pinterest for more how-to guides and inspiration.

A woman sits in the open sliding door of a Ford Transit cargo van with a shocked look on her face as she points up with both hands with text overlay that says How to Choose the Best Van for a Camper Conversion

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