If you’re here, you’re probably toying with the idea of hiring a campervan conversion company to build out your van. The fact is that quality and experience among conversion companies varies widely, and if you don’t do your homework, you might just end up getting screwed. Whether that means overpaying or ending up with a van that isn’t what you’d thought it be, there are tons of horror stories about conversion companies charging an arm and a leg, yet not really knowing what they are doing.
Doing your research and asking the right questions to screen your van conversion company before you sign a contract is essential. I want to start by sharing my personal experience with the company that built my first van as a warning. I haven’t talked about this much publicly and I’m also not going to share his name here, but I think the lesson is very valuable.
Problems I had with my camper van conversion company
Back in 2015, I had my first Sprinter Van on order from the dealer and was searching for someone to build it out for me. I considered Sportsmobile, but I wanted something that felt a little more like me. Sportsmobile creates a quality product, but you’re limited by color choices, layouts, and more. In hindsight, I would have saved myself a ton of headache if I just went with Sportsmobile, but I mistakenly prioritized a custom look over function.
One day I was scrolling Instagram and found a photo of a van with beautiful cabinets made out of reclaimed barnwood and white counter tops. It was exactly the style I thought I wanted. I contacted the builder, flew out to California to meet with him, and shortly after signed a contract. During our initial meeting, there were a few red flags, but I was wooed by the photos and ignored my gut instinct.
Now let’s fast forward a few months. I decided I wanted a full bathroom with an indoor shower in my van. Despite the fact that the company had never built an indoor shower in a van, he agreed to do it, no questions asked. In hindsight, the job of a builder, apart from doing the build, is to help you weigh your options and make good decisions. It would have been great if he had said, “Having an indoor shower with the layout you are proposing poses a challenge for water storage and you’re only going to have room for 10 gallons inside the van.” But he didn’t. Another point we should have discussed was what kind of water heater I needed and where it was going to go. If he had raised these questions, I may have thought twice about that indoor bathroom.
This is just one example. We never really talked about my solar setup (which I ended up having to replace altogether just six months after he completed the build) or what kind of fridge or stove I wanted. He just made those decisions for me and I followed his lead assuming he was the “expert”.
Throughout the build process, he was constantly behind schedule. He also asked me for more money without having anything to show for what I already paid. It seemed fishy, but I was in too deep and it felt too late to pull out and find someone new.
He received the van from me in March and promised to have it done by early June. When early June rolled around, he told me he was nearly done, so I flew to California to pick it up. When I got there, I found the van in complete disarray, with weeks still to go. Six weeks to be exact. He lied over and over again, and it threw a serious wrench into my epic summer road trip I had planned.
After I finally got the van, things instantly were falling apart. The shower handle fell off 10 minutes after I left his shop, the shower pan was leaking, and the batteries were not charging from the solar. He never gave me any sort of owner’s manual like he promised, and I was left feeling like I just made the worst and most expensive mistake of my life. He couldn’t afford to pay for me to have it fixed unless I drove it back to his shop and he did the work himself. Since I couldn’t trust him, or stand him personally at that point, I decided to take care of the repairs myself and ended up dumping nearly $15,000 extra into the van.
That was not the way I wanted to start van life. I was embarrassed and mad, and instead of spending my time adventuring, my time was consumed fixing things. In the end, once I got everything working properly, I still loved that van…but imagine all of the headache and money I could have saved myself if I hadn’t gone into the process with blinders on.
How to Screen a Camper Van Conversion Company
So that leads us to this lesson on how to screen a conversion company to make sure they know what they are doing.
Having experience building pretty, high-end furniture in a house does not equate to building solid, durable cabinets in a van that shakes and flexes constantly every time you drive down the road.
Knowing how to talk the talk about solar doesn’t mean they know how to install an electrical setup with the highest regard for safety.
Your builder shouldn’t be learning on YouTube as they go, or there’s really no difference between them and a DIYer. I have an entire video dedicated to this topic, but I wanted to share some tips for screening potential builders here as well.
What it all really boils down to is experience. You want someone whose work speaks for itself and that has previous customers that stand behind them too. You don’t want them experimenting on your van, and their prices should be justified by their experience, not what the market says the van might be worth based on some pretty photos.
So how do you screen them? I’ll tell you that you’re already in a much better place than I was by taking this course. Having the foundational knowledge and knowing what questions to ask about different layouts and components means you’ll be able to tell if they actually know what they are talking about rather than just taking everything they say as truth.
How Long Have They Been in Business & How Many Vans Have They Built?
First, how many vans have they built to sell? Do they have their own van that they live or travel in? The guy that built my van had never really traveled in a van, a point that should have given me pause. How could he possibly know what makes a good van if he had never slept or traveled in one for an extended period of time?
After everything I’ve learned and the horror stories I’ve heard, at this point, I would be skeptical hiring somebody who has less than a few van builds under their belt, unless I knew them personally. In fact, I probably wouldn’t hire someone who hasn’t already been in business for a couple of years. Any shorter amount of time and you have no way of knowing how their builds are going to hold up over time or after 30,000 miles on the road. Of course, there are caveats, and there are plenty of new builders who are qualified, so I don’t want to undermine those builders. If the van builder is someone you know personally, or you are friends with someone who has one of their vans and speaks highly of their experience, those are good qualifiers. Or perhaps the builder has built and lived in a number of their own vans already, so they are done with their experimenting.
Experience is especially important when it comes to electrical components. Installing a power system with solar panels, expensive batteries, and an inverter takes knowledge, and this is one part of the build you don’t want to go wrong.
Their experience level also matters because, as a new builder, what happens if they don’t make it as a new business? If you’ve had your van for 6 months, and the builder’s business goes belly up, you’ll be left to your own devices with no way to warranty the work.
And speaking of warranties, make sure there is a warranty policy in the contract no matter who you work with. My current van was built by Outside Van, and they have a 30,000 mile/3-year warranty policy where they will fix things at no cost during that time period. While I’ve had very little go wrong, my induction stove did need to be replaced, and guess what. They flew out to Boise to meet me and fixed it right on the spot so I didn’t have to drive to their offices in Oregon. Now that is quality customer service and what you should expect when you are paying top dollar.
What Is Their Design Style? And do they offer custom floor plans?
Do you want industrial style, rustic, or modern? Every van conversion company has a style, and you want to make sure that their style and vision are in line with your own.
Some van conversion companies have pre-designed floor plans to choose from. Others will work with you on a fully custom design. If you need or want something custom, make sure that is an option.
Ask them about their ideas
Before approaching a professional camper van conversion company, you need to think about how you are going to use your van. Are you a weekend warrior? Do you need a gear hauler? How much storage do you need? Are you living and working in your van full-time? Are you warm or cold weather based? Will you be driving on rough roads? Do you need a bathroom? How tall are you (that affects bed placement)?
Have a clear vision for your van’s purpose and ask the company what ideas they have to make your van awesome. Are they innovative? Do they seem familiar with different products to outfit your van with right off the bat? Do they have good ideas that you haven’t thought of or seen before?
You want someone who is extremely knowledgeable, creative, and going to build you a better van than you could have thought of yourself. A detailed conversation here will also give you an idea of their personality and whether or not they are someone you want to work with.
Ideally, you’d like to see some of their work in person, and pay attention to the details. Do the drawers open and close smoothly? Are the curtains easy to put up? Does the plumbing seem straightforward and make sense? Is the bed comfortable? Notice if they cut corners here and there and ask lots of questions.
If they don’t have much experience, keep your build simple
If you are working with someone that has only built a handful of vans due to your budget, you’ll want to stick with a simple layout and components that they already have experience with. That way they’ve already made mistakes and learned from them and can apply that knowledge to your build. The guy who built my first van probably only had converted 2 or 3 vans when I hired him. With the full indoor shower, my build was a lot more complex than his previous work and an entirely new layout, so he might as well have been starting from scratch.
Get Clarity on the Price
When my first van was being built, I never understood how he calculated the price. All I got was a top line number, and it wasn’t until I demanded it after the build was done, that I got an invoice with a breakdown of hours worked and components installed. The whole process felt fishy.
On my second van, built by Outside Van, the cost was very clear. As we were designing my van, I received an invoice with a breakdown of the cost for every line item in the build. If I wanted to upgrade a component, that line item was updated, and I got a new invoice. I appreciated knowing exactly what I was paying for and what I was getting for my money.
Now I can’t say every good company will do it like Outside Van with an itemized receipt, but I will say that this approach felt a lot more honest than a top line estimate with no explanation.
Most conversions will also require some sort of down payment or even full payment in advance. If the company is well established and full payment is their standard policy, then that wouldn’t be a cause for my concern. However, a brand new company asking for $50,000 all upfront might give me pause. In this case, I might ask for a payment schedule where payments are made as progress is made on the van conversion.
Will you be involved in the decision making process?
You should be included in every step of the decision-making process. When it comes time to choose a fridge, your Sprinter conversion company should tell you your options and the pros and cons of each. If they typically go with a particular brand of fridge, they should tell you why. When you are deciding on an electrical system, the builder should educate you on the different components, how they work, and your options for meeting all of your needs as the van user. Then once you have been informed of all of your options, you should have the final say in what is purchased and installed.
Once your conversion is done, if the builder purchased the products, make sure they provide you with hard copies of the instruction booklets for each product. I didn’t receive copies of these with my first van conversion, and when I was on the Olympic Peninsula with no internet service, I had issues with my electrical system. Without internet, I couldn’t download the instructions from the internet, and it put me in a real pickle.
Agree on a Timeline
You want someone who is going to be honest about the timeline. Do they have other jobs already in line ahead of yours? Once they start working on your van, how many weeks or months will they be devoting to your vehicle?
Be aware that full conversions do take time…but you also want to make sure that yours is delivered in a timeframe that works for you and your upcoming plans.
Ask for References
In order to see if they check out, you should also ask them for references and make a concerted effort to talk to at least a few of those people on the phone. You want to make sure that the references are legit, and they aren’t just the builder’s friend or relative. Ask specific questions like, how was the builder to work with? How many miles are on their van? How is it holding up? Is there anything they’d change? Has the van been worth the money they paid for the conversion?
Another way to get references is to browse the builder’s feed on Instagram. Perhaps they’ve tagged some of their customers in photos and reaching out is as simple as sending them a direct message.
Take-Home Lessons for Hiring a Van Conversion Company
- Don’t be wooed by beautiful photos
- Experience matters (a lot!)
- Pay attention to details in their work
- Ask a lot of questions, especially those about plumbing and electrical
- Notice the materials they use and whether they will hold up on the road
- They should display integrity and have good communication
- Do your research and show up as knowledgeable as possible
Browse The Other Van Life Lessons In Module 1
- Lesson 1: Choosing the Best Van for Van Life: Lifestyle & Location Considerations
- Lesson 2: Pros and Cons of Different Vehicles (Transit vs Sprinter vs Promaster vs others)
- Lesson 3: Buying New vs Used
- Lesson 4: DIY vs Hiring a Conversion Company
- Lesson 5 (current lesson): How to Screen a Van Conversion Company to Build out your Van
That wraps up Module 1. After completing this module, you should have an idea of what kind of vehicle is best suited for your budget and lifestyle and have some solid thoughts whether you are going to DIY or hire someone. And for those of you planning to hire a conversion company, you now know how to screen them so you don’t end up like me with my first van.
In Module 2, we’re going to dive into the fun stuff – planning your conversion. We’ll talk all about the pros and cons of different floor plans and go over all of the major components that turn a cargo van into a camper van. It’s a lot to think about, but we’ll take you through it step by step.