You're ready to join the Vanlife community, but you don't think you can complete the build yourself. There's no shame in turning your van over to a conversion company to do the build for you.
Hiring out a van conversion can be expensive so you want to make sure its done correctly. Some mistakes can just be annoying, but others could be deadly or very costly. Having a high quality build all starts with who you hire to do it.
Before you hand over your keys, read this blog to learn what to look for in a conversion company and some of the lessons I learned during the process.
Before I dive in, here's some of my story...
When I couldn't enlist the help of some family and friends to help me with a van conversion, I knew if I wanted to join the Vanlife community, I'd have to either buy a van that was already converted or hire someone to do it.
I chose the latter. Well actually, it kind of fell in my lap. I was seriously considering Vanlife and trying to make it happen when I met a person who was looking to start a van building business. Bingo!
I bought an empty cargo van, and four months later, a fully converted van was returned to me. I didn't even have to lift a hammer. Sounds pretty simple, right? If only it had been. Choosing someone that had never built out a van for a client before should have given me pause or made me push for a more solid warranty. Needless to say, I've run into a few hiccups and if I could go back and redo it, there's a few things I'd do differently.
This blog will be a compilation of things I did that worked well for me and advice I wish I had known before selecting a van conversion company. If I had a guide like this to follow, then maybe I wouldn't have had a solar panel fly off the roof into oncoming traffic.
Since I've only gone through one van conversion, I also sought out advice from fellow vanlifer, Emily, @emsvanlife, who used a different conversion company to complete her build. We've shared similar experiences and Emily provides some additional insight and key takeaways on choosing a conversion company.
Qualifications and Experience
Having built one van for themself does not qualify a person to be a professional van builder. When screening conversion companies, ask what their qualifications and experience are. Does anyone on the team have a background or previous experience in electrical work, plumbing or carpentry?
Electrical work is too risky to have it not be done correctly. Make sure that the company you choose has someone on the team who is qualified to do electrical work. I've seen one too many stories on Instagram of vans catching on fire. My own van had some dangerous electrical work that I was lucky enough to identify before anything horrible happened besides paying more money to have someone else fix it.
Make sure to ask questions like, "How many full conversions have they completed?" "How many years have they been in the industry?" "Have they ever lived in a van?" "What is their background in?" "Do they have any licenses or certifications in electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry?"
It seems like a new van conversion company emerges every day. I don't want to make you wary of a company that hasn't completed a lot of builds prior to you hiring them. Everyone needs to start somewhere. Just make sure if they are a new company that they have relatable experience.
Get Multiple Quotes
When I first starting thinking about Vanlife, there weren't that many van conversion companies out there, but like I said, they seem to be popping up everywhere now. You should have plenty of opportunities to get multiple quotes and get a better idea of how much the conversion will cost. Ask for a quote that separates the cost of labor and materials. Find out what the company includes in their package and the estimated timeframe for completion.
The quote a company is giving you should also be reflective of how much experience they have. Don't shell out top dollar to a company that has never built out a van for a client before. If they are a new company they should expect their first few builds to be at a lower price point until they've established a reputation.
Reviews from previous clients speak for themselves. If a conversion company makes a quality product, they should have no problem providing recommendations to you. Speak directly to previous clients to really get a feel for how much they love their build, what kind of issues they've run into, and how working with the company has been after the build was completed. Definitely make sure to find out how their build has held up over time.
Usually conversion companies will have tagged previous clients in a post on Instagram. Don't be afraid to reach to that client and see how their experience was. You might get more honest feedback than from a client the company selected to refer.
The Van Conversion Company Doesn't Have to Be Local
When I was considering hiring out my van build, I thought the builder would have to be local to where I was living at the time. I thought I would be more involved with the build, but that wasn't the case at all. I only saw the van a few times during the build and it was only because I wanted to see the progress. In hindsight, using a builder that was on the other side of the country would not have been a big deal and I could have used FaceTime to see the progress.
Does the Company Have Standard Layouts or Customizable
This one just really depends on what you want. If the company only does preset layouts and you like it, then there is no harm in going with that company. However, if you want to have more say in the layout, you will need to choose a conversion company that allows you to customize it.
If you're doing a custom build, the conversion company should be knowledgable enough to say when an idea you have isn't going to work. They should provide recommendations on best options and practical solutions, but let you make the decision.
Who Buys the Vehicle?
It seems pretty standard that most conversion companies have you purchase the vehicle and then hand it over to them to do the build. Definitely check with whichever company you are working with that this is how they do it. Personally, I think this is the way to go, that way you get to pick the exact vehicle that you want. I also imagine that you would get a better interest rate if you purchased the vehicle through a dealership rather than through the conversion company.
The conversion company should be able to help you find the right vehicle though. They should be able to provide some insight on what type of vehicle to purchase and recommend dealerships they've had a positive experience with.
Another thing to consider is some conversion companies may only work with vehicles by a particular automaker. For example, they may only exclusively work with Mercedes Sprinters. The reason being, each van brand has slightly different shapes and sizes so they may only be familiar with one and have standard layouts for it.
Get An Itemized List of All Material Going Into the Build
The itemized list should include make, model, quantity, price, and a website link to the item if applicable. An itemized list might seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of a build, but down the road this will be important for multiple reasons.
If something breaks you will likely need to know the exact make and model to repair it. Owner's manuals are usually written for more than one model, so you will need to know which model you have in order to follow the correct set of instructions. Speaking of owner's manuals, make sure you get all of them when your build is completed.
Some insurance agencies require you to provide an itemized list of all the material and appliances that were used in the build in order for them to cover your vehicle as a camper van. Some agencies even require you to provide receipts. I would request the itemized list, owner's manuals, and receipts when negotiating the contract.
The itemized list will also ensure you are not overpaying for materials.
Does Your State/Province Require Any Certifications?
Emily suggests checking to see if your state or province requires any certifications for camper vans. Van conversions are such a new thing that a code of standards or certification processes haven't been established nationally. Emily learned after her build was completed that her home province, British Columbia, required a safety certificate, but the province the van was built in, Alberta, did not require it. Once she started going through the certification process she discovered her propane tank was faulty, her stove was not mounted up to code, and she needed to install an air vent inside her van. She had to spend an extra $1500 out of pocket to get her van up to code.
As far as I'm aware, the United States does not have any certifications or approval process for custom van conversions.
Have A Contract
Make sure you have a contract. Even if the builder is a friend, you should have a contract. One of my friends gave a large sum of money to one of her friends who was going to complete her build. He took off with the money and left her with an empty cargo van. There was no contract and nothing she could legally do to recoup the money.
The contract is a legal document that outlines the parameters of the van conversion. A good contract should have protections for both the conversion company and the client. Remember, with any contract that you sign in life, there should always be room for negotiations, and a contract for a van conversion is no different. Don't be afraid to request changes or write in protections for yourself. A good company should be willing to work with you and accommodate reasonable requests. A standard contract should have the following components.
Identifying and Contact Information
The contract should include identifying and contact information for both the conversion company and the client. For the company, this should include business name and an address of where the work will be completed.
Scope of Work
This section should include a description of all the work to be completed. This section may include an appendix of all appliances to be installed and diagrams of the layout. I would highly recommend requesting diagrams. This is also where the itemized list should be included.
In this section I wish I had added a clause that said something along the lines of "All appliances must be installed according to manufacturing instructions. In any event this can't be done, the company must notify the client in writing in advance." My reason for this is because I ran into several issues where items weren't installed per manufacturing instructions which led me to costly repairs down the road. For example, my battery to battery charger was installed with wires that were half the thickness than the owners manual instructed. I discovered this when one of the wires burned and could have started a fire. I had to fork over quite a bit of money for someone else to install a new one correctly.
Timeline and Completion Date
Of course you'll want to know how long your van build will take. This is something that should be discussed before you sign the contract and then written in the contract. The company might have a lead time before they can start your build and you'll need to know if that works with your timeframe. The contract should include a date the contract takes effect, the date the van build will be started, and the date the van build will be completed.
There should also be a clause that determines what happens if the company can't meet the target deadline. For example, will it just be a notification or will there be penalties if the completion date gets extended.
To be honest, I'm not sure if you'll find a company who will agree to penalties if they go beyond the completion date, but it would be a nice thing to have.
Cost and Payment Schedule
The cost of the project and the payment schedule should be very clear in the contract. At this point you should have received a quote from the conversion company. Make sure the numbers from the quote are consistent with what is written in the contract.
Personally, I would never work with a company that insists on paying for the entire project upfront. Instead request to pay in installments.
I'd recommend having a payment schedule with at least three installments. Typically the first payment is due at the time the contract is signed, the second payment is most likely due half way through the build, and the final payment is due when the build is complete and you leave with the van.
For the second payment, I'd recommend listing deliverables for when the payment is due, not a set date. For example, second payment is due when insulation, electrical, and flooring are completed. This will ensure you are not forking over more money when there is no work to show for the first payment you already made.
In this section, the company will most likely include a clause that says the deposit is non-refundable after the contract has been signed and what the penalties are if a payment is late.
This section generally says that any changes to the agreed upon contract and scope of work must be done in writing and signed by both parties.
Your contract should include a warranty. Again, I wouldn't even consider a conversion company that didn't offer a warranty. The company should stand behind the quality of their work and take responsibility for fixing things that don't work properly.
The warranty needs to be written in the contract. Don't take their word for it that if something breaks that they will fix it. If it's not in writing they have no obligation to fix it. The warranty should say what is covered and include a plan on how the builder will fix issues when the van is not physically near their location. The warranty should say how long it's good for either by mileage or timeframe. Lastly, the warranty should also include if it can be transferred to another owner if the van is sold.
My warranty was good for 1 year and 12,000 miles. Knowing what I know now, I would push for a 3 year warranty and I know some companies offer this.
Make sure the conversion company has insurance that would cover any accidents to the van while it's in their possession. Request proof of their insurance.
Stay In Contact Throughout the Entire Build
If you are doing a custom build then you should have say in the material and appliances that are used in the build and what the overall design will look like. The builder should provide options on the material and appliances, but let you make the decision. Stay in contact to make sure things are being done the way you imagined them and that it meets your expectation. If something is not meeting your expectations, make sure to address it as soon as possible.
Van Pickup and Final Review
When your van is finished and ready for pick up, allow plenty of time to go through each detail of the van and learn how everything works. Emily suggests having a checklist to go through with the builder on the final handover. "I went through my van with the builder, but was so overwhelmed that I didn't ask him many questions and he didn't offer much detail."
My handover experience was very similar. The builder did go through each detail with me, but it's a lot to take in all at once when you have no prior experience. Take notes when the builder is going through everything. In addition to the checklist, I'd also ask for a manual that explains how everything works. My contract actually stated that I'd receive an operators manual, but two years later, I still haven't. At this point, I know how everything in my van works, but I'm sure it would have saved me a lot of headache in the beginning.
The key takeaways from this blog are: go with someone who has experience, qualifications and positive reviews, have a written contract and warranty, and go with your gut. If your gut is saying, "something doesn't feel right" or "it's too good to be true" it's probably right. You're going to be putting a lot of money into a van conversion and you want to feel comfortable with who you're going to be working with.
Regardless of who you choose to do your van build, something will go wrong with it at some point. This is why you need to screen conversions company carefully and have a contract and warranty in place for when things do go wrong.
Emily chimes in and says, "Follow your gut." She really wanted a van conversion to happen so she put blinders on to common sense even when her gut feeling was telling her otherwise. "I didn't want the builder to say no to my build so I just went along with everything they said." It can be a tricky spot to be in because you really want your build to happen, but you also need to make sure you get what you are paying for and a product you will be happy with. This is not a time to put up blinders.
Check out My Van Build to see all the appliances and material used in my van conversion and get links to the specific products!
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