Finding it hard to buy a motorhome or caravan? How about a DIY van conversion? – CarsGuide

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If you’re having a tough time trying to find your dream motorhome or caravan because of the current overwhelming demand combined with supply-chain issues, then how about considering your own DIY van or bus conversion? 
Van flipper Marcus Moffat, of Wander Campervans, has plenty of experience in this process, having converted three Toyota HiAce vans (nicknamed “Hazel”, “Harlow” and “Henry”) and one Toyota Coaster mini-bus (“Casa”) into an in-demand to-hire fleet of recreational campers.
What started as a personal project just prior to Covid hitting – and then grew as lockdowns took hold – has become a burgeoning business. Marcus has already done four of them (the aforementioned three vans and a mini-bus) and he’s only 23. 
Who better to ask for van-flipping advice than someone who’s done it with plenty of flair and success?
Marcus Moffat has converted three HiAce vans and one Coaster mini-bus to recreational campers. Marcus Moffat has converted three HiAce vans and one Coaster mini-bus to recreational campers.
When looking for a potential van or bus to convert into a camper, Marcus says to look for mechanical reliability.
“In terms of the brand and car model and stuff: Toyotas. They’re very reliable and they’re one of the most common on the road. 
“I’ve got four of them at the moment [three HiAces and a Coaster] and I haven’t had any big issues with them.”
As well as being mechanically sound, they’re also quite robust, he says.
“When it comes down to spare parts, in the event that something does happen, I can’t afford for the vans to be off the road longer than a few days, and [Toyota] parts can be very cheap and very easy to find, compared to other models.”
He said Mercedes Sprinters and VW Transporters were also popular choices for camper conversions, because of their straight-up-down shape, which apparently proves less of a challenge at interior fit-out time than a HiAce’s.
“I’ve heard a lot of the other brands are actually easy to work with. The HiAce is a bit tricky because they’re actually curved, like the cabin has a roof curve, nothing’s exactly square, compared to a Transporter or Mercedes, which is a box in the back, so it’s very easy to put in. 
“But I think the benefits [of a HiAce] outweigh that disadvantage – of being a bit tricky to build in.”
When it’s fit-out time, Marcus says to always be thorough: take your time, measure properly, and use good materials. When it’s fit-out time, Marcus says to always be thorough: take your time, measure properly, and use good materials.
Marcus says that when he starts on a conversion he has a clear plan in his head.
“In terms of sourcing and the fit-out itself, I’d probably have different tips for when I’m looking for a van. 
“There are three main things, for my scenario, rental vans.”
“It’s always good if the seller has a log book, just to see the regular servicing. You don’t know what you’re buying otherwise.”
Marcus also says he tries to follow a schedule, from buying a vehicle through to completing the final touches to a fit-out.
Sound general advice is to take your time, do through research and work within your budget.
But factors sometimes crop up that you may not have initially anticipated.
“Having done them a few times now [it’s a bit easier] but when it came to my first van, there was a lot of loopholes to figure out, things like the weight of the vehicle. You have to keep it in mind before you buy materials and design the layout and stuff. 
“That’s probably the biggest thing I’d ask for people to do it properly. Put your vehicle on the weigh-bridge and have an engineer tick it off as safe and make sure it meets those requirements.”
When it’s fit-out time, Marcus says to always be thorough: take your time, measure properly, and use good materials. Marcus sources a lot of the timber that he uses in his van interiors from Gumtree and – bonus – the wood is sometimes being given away for free.
He says that doing van conversions is “a pretty big investment” but any van flipper can cut their costs, by seeking out cheaper materials or equipment, without sacrificing quality.
“You just look up ‘camping fridge’ on Gumtree and then all of a sudden you got one that’s a quarter of the price of a new one and it’s only been used three times on a family trip.”
When it comes to specialised work Marcus reckons it’s always worthwhile to either ask for advice from those who have experience in a specific field, say for instance an auto electrician, or employ a person to undertake that particular job on the van.
“You can’t cut corners when it comes to that sort of stuff. It’s definitely worth getting a professional involved. 
“If you’re going to put gas and electrical in your van, you definitely have to get a certified plumber and a certified electrician for that.”
It's easier to convert vans because of their smaller size. It’s easier to convert vans because of their smaller size.
So, should you fit-out a van or bus? Well, it depends on your lifestyle, your travelling group (one person, two, or a family?), your travel plans (short- or long-distance trip?) and, of course, your budget.
Marcus bought a 21-seater Toyota Coaster minibus that was being used as an airport shuttle in regional NSW and it became Casa, the only bus in his rental fleet.
He reckons the vans have been easier for him to convert because they’re smaller and he’s more accustomed to the process. 
There are two big differences between a van and bus conversion.
“I’d say scale and job. A bus is twice as long and a bit wider than a van. So it definitely took a lot longer to do things like the roof and the floorboards and stuff, but the build was a big advantage in terms of space, because it’s a lot more roomy: you can stand up in the bus.
“So it really doesn’t feel cramped at all, you’ve got windows each side with fly screens, so there’s a cross breeze and it just feels a lot more like a home, whereas the van can feel a bit cramped, especially for longer trips. 
“For couples and anybody planning to do a long trip, the bus is probably the way to go if you’ve got the time to do it. 
“And it’s a bit of a fun project. There’s just more room to put more features in: you can add a hot-water system, big water tank, solar panels – you can do whatever you want. You can put bikes on the roof and all sorts of things.”
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