Buying A Van

Buying vs. Building Your Dream Van


There are so many ways to get into vanlife from, building out a used rig all on your own to getting on the waitlist for the best builder in the country. Vanlife Trader owner, Jon Dalman, and owner and designer at Swell Van Co, Seth Kearney-Caldwell took us through all of the options at the Van Life Summit virtual event. You can see the full video by signing up for Van Life Summit, but we wanted to break it down for you to dig in further here.

Building From Scratch

Budgets and what to expect

There are a wide range of budgets for a DIY build. You can go simple with a few thousand bucks; Goal Zero batteries and panels, hand pump for water, simple paneling and bed frame. But you can also go all in with mods inside and out and spend $50k+. If building your own van is really important to you then solidify your budget, ask yourself what features are the must haves and go from there.

Jon’s Build

  • 2008 Sprinter with 200k Miles $12,000
  • Materials $20,000
  • Repairs on the Road (2yrs, $10,000)
  • Total Investment $32,000
  • 2 people – 3 months – 7 days a week ~1680 hours!

The Upsides

  • Most affordable option that you can fine tune to your exact budget
  • Ample Resources! Including our favorite, Van Life Academy
  • It’s really fulfilling. You’ll know your van inside and out!
  • You have full control of the process, design, timeline, and budget

The Downsides

  • It’s not as easy as it looks. Even if you’re a professional fabricator or a longtime woodworking hobbyist, the process will test you.
  • Resale value is about 20% less than if you were to buy from a pro builder
  • Decision Fatigue | endless options, endless research!
  • The balance of building a van and transitioning into vanlife can be difficult. It’s time consuming and will take a lot of your attention.

Building From Kits

Kits are relatively new in the industry and the guys over at Swell Van Co are cooking up some of our favorites. Seth, owner and designer, took us through the ins and outs of building with kits at the Buying Vs. Building Van Life Summit talk.

Who is a kit for?

  • Time is a valuable resource! Take that ~1680 hours it took for Jon and Ruthy to build their rig and cut it down to ~50-150 hours to build with a kit.
  • Kits can save you money, sometimes even more than a build from scratch DIY build.
  • Achieve a high-end result because you’re benefitting from clever, safe and tested designs.
  • You still get the benefit of building out your van so you’ll gain skills and have thorough knowledge of your van (inside and out!).

Seth from Swell Van Co has a great youtube video about kits and who should use them, so check it out for more info!

The Downsides

  • With kits there is generally less variation available
    • Limited layouts and customizations
    • Limited materials, finishes, and fine carpentry
  • There’s incompatibility across the industry so not all products will work together.
  • Van conversions can be daunting. Even with kits you have to put in the elbow grease!

Pricing and what to expect

Advice for building

  • Piecing it together leads to optimization hell. Avoid hyper optimization!
  • Trust your professionals. When you’re working with a professional kit maker they should not gloss over the details. Lean on them to help with research and install!

Buying Your Dream Van

Using the World Wide Web

Buying your van online or in person will often be more money, but not always. We currently have 100 vans for sale on the site that are all below $40k!

We intentionally build our filtering to be robust so that buyers can search for exactly what they’re looking for. Want a Low Roof, Short Wheel Base camper with 500 watts of solar? You can search for it!

Buying a van online also means there’s some unknowns in the quality of the build. We always recommend seeing a van in person if possible or doing a thorough video tour.

Transactions are also the other shady area but our friends over at KeySavvy have made it so much easier for buyers and sellers to process big transactions like campervan sales. For tips on how to have a safe transaction check out our resources.

Buying from a professional builder

There are a lot of really great professional campervan builders out there. The industry has exploded and while there are some that may lack quality, a lot of the folks we see in this game are solid manufacturers of some really cool rigs. This can be the most expensive option but you are also paying for customer service and support as well as their expertise.

  • Establish a budget
    • When looking for builders you should have a budget in mind. Whether you are bringing them a cargo van or buying it as a part of the build package, if you know your budget it will help you in the builder selection process as well as when you’re making decisions on the design and build.
  • Find a builder you love
    • Ask around, look through our builder directory, dig in on google! There are a lot of good ways to discover builders and this is an important step. You want someone who is going to produce a high quality product as well as someone who will continue to support you and their build once you kick off van life.

Additional Resources

Hopefully this quick guide helps you in your decision making! Be sure to watch the full talk and throw out any questions you may have in our forum!

Why Vanlife Trader?

195 thousand+

Instagram followers/shoppers

#1 online platform

for buyers, sellers, and builders

7 thousand+

daily website viewers

2 thousand+

email subscibers

Success Stories was amazing! Not only do they display the listings beautifully, but the packages they offer are very worth it. My van was listed for about a week and it sold! Jon was really helpful when I deleted my listing and needed to repost it and he answered right away and was more than helpful. The fact that they post the listings on their Instagram with 200k followers alone is enough. I would definitely recommend this website for anyone who wants to buy/ sell a van!

Cheney – Happy Seller