Should I build or buy a camper van?

You want a camper van but aren’t sure whether you should buy a completed van or build it yourself. Deciding this requires valuing trade-offs involving time, cost, and user experience.

Most DIY builders are attracted to doing the work themselves to save money. While it’s true that doing your own labor will save you cash, remember that your time is valuable. More on this later.

Common errors include confusing price with cost, underestimating the time and effort of a DIY build, disregarding total ownership cost, and failing to define your use case.

There are several options for acquiring a camper van:

  1. Purchase a professionally built custom camper van
  2. Purchase a professionally built stock camper van
  3. Purchase a professionally built used camper van
  4. Purchase an amateur-built used camper van
  5. Purchase a van and DIY the build-out yourself with a mix of DIY/custom and prebuilt components
  6. Purchase a van and DIY the built-out yourself with mostly DIY/custom components

Options closer to #1 result in higher acquisition costs, less work, and generally better build quality.

Options closer to #6 result in lower cash outlay, more work, and a higher time commitment.

If you are very cash-poor and time rich, then building a camper yourself with a used van and self-made components is the easy choice. If you are willing and able to spend $125-225K and either value your time highly or have no inclination to DIY, then you simply buy new.

But most people will fall somewhere in the middle.

To evaluate these factors you need a realistic understanding of typical workload, build time, and quality outcomes along with some idea about costs and resale values.

Price vs Value

Buying a new build van from a camper manufacturer is always going to be priced higher than the van and materials alone. A builder has labor and overhead costs to cover and a profit to make.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that DIY is cheaper.

Although you will save the cash that would have gone towards labor and profit, you will spend considerable more time than a professional builder and might be able to simply work more at your job (more on this later)

Additionally, if you are not a craftsman, your build will be worth less when you eventually sell (the labor costs you “saved” will not be recouped upon sale). Even if you do superb work, the van will be worth less than certified builders due to perception, insurance issues, and after sale support.

Time

Building a camper van is enormously time-consuming.

If you have never built a camper van, house, or similar big project it can be easy to underestimate the amount of work involved. This is especially true if you are learning the necessary skills while you are building. How does it sound to spend hours and hours on Youtube and forums to decide which part to order? Multiply that by the thousands of jobs to be done on the camper build. Websites like this one (and others in our Directory) can greatly speed things up by sharing complete, well researched, targeted educational content… but even then you still have to do the building yourself.

Professionals with specific knowledge, skill, experience, specialized tools, and a workspace still spend between 2 and 4 months to complete a build. An amateur might take between 3 months and 2 years, depending on build complexity, focus, time allotment, quality standards, and work ethic.

Building a camper van requires a ton of work. You are essentially building a home on wheels including walls, flooring, windows, insulation, electrical, plumbing, cabinetry, shower/toilet, and HVAC. There is at least 200-300 hours of work involved for a basic build. A larger vehicle, more custom design, additional options (wifi, heated water, internal shower, external lighting), etc can push the build time to 500 man-hours.

But it’s not just physical labor time-it’s research and design work. The more you use existing products (pre-cut wall panels, pre-made galleys, etc) the less time you will spend in the design and fabrication work, but you are adding back external labor & profit factors.

Pro van build work is billed at around $75-175 per hour (depending on location, quality, and amount of work). How much is your time worth and how easily can you convert that time into dollars? If you are a highly-paid professional with opportunities for overtime, it may be a more efficient use of resources to pay a builder or buy an existing van. Its more cash spent, but perhaps a better use of your resources.

The more you value your personal time and the less personal reward you place on building your own van, the less sense it makes to do the work yourself. A standard build from a reputable builder has roughly 20-30K of gross profit (meaning price – van + materials + labor). In other words, if you can make at least 100$/hr at your full time job (or perhaps >75$/hr since we need to factor in your inefficiency at van building) then you should strongly consider paying someone to build your van on cost/resource reasons alone.

Capability

If you are a skilled trade worker or even just an experienced DIY maker with woodworking, electrical, or similar experience then you already know you can take on this project.

But even if you have never worked with your hands, there is an entire support network of forums, youtube videos, courses, and websites (like this one!) that combined with a can-do attitude can get you across the finish line.

If there are certain skills that you do not feel comfortable taking on (like electrical) then you can outsource those parts of the build and do the rest yourself.

Yes YOU! can do this.

Work Space

Professionals have nice big garages that fit tall vans surrounded by all the tools and materials they need.

If you don’t have access to such a large garage space or aren’t willing to rent one, you can join the thousands of DIY’ers who have built their vans in their driveway.

It’s a big project, and some organization and as much workspace as you can manage will save you time in the long run. So buy your tools, organize your garage, build a workbench, and get organized.

Financing and Insurance

Financing a DIY build, above the cost of the van itself, can be difficult. Remember parts and materials for a build are 30-60K. You can get credit (credit cards or unsecured personal loans) but interest rates make this inadvisable. A home equity line of credit might make sense, but we recommend paying cash for the components if possible.

DIY vs pro builds also affects insurance. A professional build can generally be insured with any provider that insures RVs (Progressive, State Farm, etc).

However DIY builds are…tricky.

You can choose to simply insure only the value of the empty van with a standard carrier (if you keep the registration non-RV) and risk losing the value of the build out in a loss event. If you want the van and parts/materials insured there are only a couple options. For more on insurance, read How Does Camper Van Insurance Work.

Cost of Ownership

Total cost of ownership refers to the total real costs of owning an item. The equation might look something like this:

Cost of Vehicle + materials + labor + financing + operating + insurance + depreciation – resale value = total cost of ownership.

Other Benefits of DIY

It’s not all about the spreadsheet.

DIY is also a way to enjoy the benefits of a custom build layout made exactly to your specifications without spending custom build prices. Need a computer workstation that fits a 27” Imac or a place to carry 195cm skis inside? You can do that.

Knowing the rig inside and out also helps with maintenance while on the road. Sometimes there is no one to call at 1:00 AM and 15 miles down a forest road.

And building your own van is an opportunity to learn new skills and work with your hands to build something that you are proud of.

Making the decision

This is mostly about your inclination to take on a big project combined with your resources (cash vs time). If you get excited about the idea of building your own van and you want to spend your time on the project then go for it! If the work doesn’t sound fun and you place a higher value on your time, then buying a completed build is the way to go.

Want to DIY? Check out the resources page and join our newsletter for DIY build help.

Want to buy a completed build? Check out our directory of van builders.