Van Build Mistakes

Common van build mistakes

After two plus years of living in a van, I've learned that there are parts of my build that I absolutely love and parts that well, I wish I could go back and do over. Some designs in theory seem like such a good idea, but once your living in the van you find out they are actually more of a nuisance.

This post covers all the things I wish I had done differently with my build. I'm sharing this with you so you don't run into the same mistakes I made. Don't worry, in my next post I'll share all the things I love about my build so you can include those in your design as well.

So let's get started. The first mistake I made was...

Buying An Older Van

The first mistake I made was actually with the van itself. This is a tough one because your budget may only allow you to buy an older van, but if you can swing it I definitely recommend a newish vehicle.

Not many people know this, but the van I have now is not my original van. I had originally bought a 2015 Mercedes Sprinter with 60,000 miles on it. The van had a handful of dings and looked a little rougher than a new vehicle, but overall it seemed fine. Then I took it on its first trip. Before the buildout began, I drove it from Massachusetts to Maine and had three problems with it. On my return trip I drove it right back to the dealership and returned it (apparently you can do that).

Should I buy an old or new vehicle for a van conversion
The original van I bought - 2015 Mercedes Sprinter w/ 60k miles. Notice the huge ding on the side.

Two of the problems were minor, but the third problem couldn't be ignored. A family member noticed that the roof was caved in towards the center of the van and upon further investigation the roof was actually no longer attached to the cross beams of the frame. This brought up two main concerns. Since the roof was sagging in the middle I was worried I'd constantly have leaks around the fan since water would be able to pool there. Secondly, if I were to ever get in an accident, would the integrity of the van structure be compromised? It was too big of a risk to gamble and I knew I would never feel comfortable in it so I made the decision to return it and get a new vehicle. Honestly the dealership was wonderful to work with through this. The only money I lost was having to pay to register the second vehicle.

I traded in the used 2015 Sprinter van for a lightly used 2017. The new vehicle had never been titled to anyone, but the dealership had used it internally so it had 7000 miles on it. This actually got me a pretty decent deal on the vehicle since I was able to finance it as new, but the sticker price reflected that it was a used vehicle.

In the end, I'm so glad I went with a newer vehicle. I'm not that mechanically inclined so knowing I have a reliable vehicle when traveling through remote areas is very comforting. My van now has 60,000 miles on it and I've never had any issues with it. I'm also glad that I went with a newer vehicle because I invested $40K in the build between labor and materials. It didn't make sense to me to put that much money into an older van that might have mechanical issues or a shorter life span. The picture below shows the 2015 Sprinter Van on the left and the 2017 on the right. I'm very lucky that I was able to change vans before any work had been started on the build.

My Bed Is Too Small

Single ladies, trust me when I say this, "You won't always be single." My bed was designed to fit all 4'11 of me, and now, two years later I have a boyfriend that is 6'4. Watching him try to squeeze into my tiny bed is quite comical, but it's not very comfy for either one of us.

The width of the Mercedes Sprinter is 5'8. Since I'm only 4'11, I figured that would be plenty of room to put the bed across the width of the van, sleeping with my head and feet against the walls. I didn't take into account that the walls and insulation would eat away at the space, about 2 inches on each side. I also didn't consider that the walls angle in as you go up from the floor. Since my bed is raised for plenty of storage underneath, the walls are much narrower where the bed sits, than at the floor. This leaves me with a total of 5'1 for sleeping widthwise.

Common van build mistakes

My boyfriend and I have come up with a workaround for my tiny bed, but it's annoying. When he's traveling with me, we put large storage containers on the bench and put the bench cushion on top of it. This allows us to sleep in the other direction with our heads at the back doors. He stretches out between the bed and the storage containers and I curl up on the side.

My advice is to build your bed big enough for two people from the beginning, even if you're traveling solo. If you're convinced you won't ever have a partner traveling with you, at least consider the resell value. It will be much easier to resell a van that comfortably sleeps two people.

I also can't add a foot extender on the front of the bed because I have a half wall separating the counter from the bed. This brings me to the next thing I dislike about my build.

Wall Between Counter and Bed

A wall separating the bed from the counter seemed like a good idea in theory. I like that it's a nice place to hang my planters and that it keeps my bedding off the counter, but I also dislike it for two main reasons.

  1. I can't add a foot extender to my small bed. I have seen a few conversions where the bed goes across the width of the van like mine, but then has a foot extender that pulls out at bed time. This makes the bed longer allowing you to sleep in the other direction with your head at the back doors looking down the length of the van. Check out @van.there if you want to see an example.

  2. I also don't like that the wall cuts into my already small bed instead of sitting on the counter. I had actually asked the builder about it sitting on the counter instead of cutting into the bed, but he thought it wouldn't look right. Since I was new to this I just took his word for it, but I wish I had stuck to my gut.

I recommend not having the wall cut into bed space. I have since seen much thinner dividers that sit on the counter. They look great and still achieve the same purpose of keeping your bedding away from the cooking area.

Don't make these van build mistakes

Fantastic Fan Vs. Maxx Air

I knew my build would include a fan, but it isn't something I did a lot of research on when my van was being built. My van builder suggested the Fantastic Fan so I just went along with it; it seemed like that's what most Vanlifers were using at the time. Pros of the Fantastic Fan are that it's cheaper than the Maxx Air and it also has a lower profile which makes your van more stealthy.

However, if I had done some research, I probably would have chosen the Maxx Air. The biggest reason why I want the Maxx Air now is because there is a built in rain shield that allows you to keep the fan running when it's raining out. The Fantastic Fan has a rain sensor that turns the fan off when its raining or detects even the slightest moisture in the air. You could put tape over the rain sensor, which would keep it running but then rain would come inside your van and I'm not sure what would happen if the motor got wet. Rumor has it, the Maxx Air works better for cooling your van down too; a huge plus during those hot summer months. Lastly, when it's windy out the cover on the Fantastic Fan blows around like crazy. I'm always afraid it's going to blow off so I have to turn the fan off when its windy out too. Given these facts, the Maxx Air seems to be the superior option, but I've personally never had the chance to experience it.

Water Fill Up Area

I have a 25 gallon water tank under the bed which is enclosed in a box to give the garage area (under the bed storage) a finished look. It's a nice idea in theory, but makes it really inconvenient to take a quick peak to see how much water I have left and makes it more difficult to fill the water tank as well.

The box that the water tank sits in has a cover on the top that hinges opens, however, I store a bunch of stuff on top of this box. In order to view the water tank I need to remove so many items from my van to open the cover. Like I said, I can't take a quick peak to see how full my water tank is.

The water fill hatch is also located inside the van so when I fill the water tank I need to be able to see the level of water in the tank. I can't let the tank overflow or it would make a giant mess in the van. For those of you designing a build; make sure you can see your water tank. It will just make your life easier.

My van builder gave me the option of having the water fill hatch either be inside the van or mounted to the outside. I chose the inside to avoid cutting more holes in my van. Once I was living in the van, I initially wished I had the hatch on the outside because I was very bad at filling the tank by myself. Water would end up everywhere in the garage area. Eventually I got this water tank filler with shut off valve which made filling the water tank easier and now I'm fine with the hatch being on the inside.

Van conversion water fill hatch and water tank

Ambivalent Items

These next items aren't items that I necessarily dislike or find a nuisance to use, I just don't use them that often. That said, If I were to do it all over again, I'd still add these two items in my van build unless the budget was tight.

The Swivel Seat

When I was planning out my build, the swivel seat was something I thought I would absolutely need. I imagined I would use it all the time, but that is just not the case. In my two years on the road, I think I've functionally used it twice. Both times when hosting a few guest in my van. When I give a van tour, I love telling people about it, sometimes I even show them how it works, but it's just not something I use a whole lot. When I'm in the van by myself, I don't need the extra seating and when I'm traveling with someone the drivers and passenger seats become extra storage when we're not driving.

I have seen a lot of designs where the swivel seat turns to face a table and becomes the dining area. I imagine if I had a design like that I'd use the swivel a lot more.

swivel seat in a van conversion

The Outdoor Shower

My hot water heater came with a shower head on it. If I wanted hot water in the van, the shower part just came with it. On a routine basis, I find it way more convenient to shower at Anytime Fitness, but I like knowing the outdoor shower is there if I need it. I have run into a few scenarios where I really wanted a shower after a long sweaty hike and there were no gyms around, the outdoor shower was perfect for rinsing off. Another thing to consider with the shower; when I got my van build insured, I had to verify that my conversion van had a shower in order for the build to be covered as a camper van. I am glad I didn't go with a full indoor shower because it takes up too much valuable space and it seems like most people run into water leaking issues and end up not using it.

Should I put a shower in my conversion van

I hope by sharing the mistakes I made, it will prevent you from making the same ones! Stay tuned for my next post because I'll reveal the things I love and absolutely can't live without in my build and you don't want to miss it. In the mean time, if you want to check out more components of my van build, click here!

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