Planning a DIY van build can be overwhelming when you start to get into the details of each aspect of your Sprinter camper van conversion, for everything from the overall layout and deciding what to include (shower or no shower? Do you really need a toilet in your van? Will you have a fixed or convertible bed setup?) to planning the size of your electrical system and the overall look and style of your campervan. And, of course, if you’re planning a DIY van build yourself then you also want to know about the major van conversion mistakes others have made in the past that cannot be changed or fixed later, and how to avoid them in your conversion.
While you can make certain changes to your campervan in future such as adding another battery or changing the finishing style touches in your van build, such as the decor, other aspects of your van conversion will be the result of fundamentally important decisions that will affect the overall cost, safety, function, liveability and operating life of your campervan. These are the decisions that are key to get right when planning your van build as you can’t easily fix or change them later – or at least without a significant cost!
To help you ensure you avoid those major van conversion mistakes, we’ve listed them here so they’re high on your priorities list when it comes to doing your DIY Sprinter camper van build.
10 Major Van Conversion Mistakes to Avoid in your DIY Van Build
1. Under-budgeting for the total van conversion cost
How much does a Sprinter camper van conversion cost? Well… this is one of the most commonly asked questions by people interested in a DIY van build. And the answer is: ‘it depends’. For more specifics and to help you get a better idea of what a van conversion costs, read this post:
If you plan ahead and make a detailed list, with costs, of everything you want and need in your DIY campervan conversion, then you’ll have a fair idea of the overall van build cost you’re looking at. But then, you probably need to assume you’ll spend more than that (given most projects go over-budget and it’s easy to do so), so consider adding 10-20% to the total cost for this eventuality, and make sure you have access to the funds you need to cover this… or be prepared for some compromises further down the line.
2. Using the wrong insulation (or no insulation) on your van’s walls, ceiling and floor
Insulation is one of the fundamental aspects of any campervan conversion – it will help with keeping the van warm in cold weather, and cool(ish) in warm weather, as well as helping with soundproofing.
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A common van conversion mistake many people make is deciding not to insulate their van’s floors. Although this is less of an issue if your van is going to be used mainly in hot places, it can make a huge difference in colder weather if you have insulated floors. It also helps greatly with soundproofing, so it is normally worth sacrificing the <1 inch of height for a layer or two of insulating material under the floor.
Another van conversion mistake when it comes to insulation is choosing the wrong materials. There are plenty of options out there, however by far the most popular choice for professional van builders is Thinsulate. It’s non-toxic, easy to handle and cut, and easy to stuff into all the small gaps that you’ll find in your van’s walls and ceiling. It also helps with moisture management as it does not absorb condensation or water (you don’t want wet material sitting against your van’s walls, unless you also want rust further down the line).
Thinsulate is more expensive than other options, however in the context of a total DIY van build cost, it’s a relatively small component for all but the lowest-budget builds. Other popular options are insulation boards (available from DIY stores) and some DIY builders also swear by using materials such as Havelock Wool.
Materials best avoided are those that are messy, toxic, inefficient or those that retain water. This generally means spray insulation (typically toxic and messy!) and materials such as recycled denim (cotton holds water) are not the best choices for a van build.
3. Not thinking about the overall weight and balance of your campervan
As a good trucking and home moving expert will tell you, the overall weight and balance of your Sprinter van’s contents is really important when it comes to the overall handling and, ultimately, safety of your DIY campervan. A huge van conversion mistake many people make is not giving adequate consideration to:
- The overall weight of the materials and equipment used in the van conversion
- Weight distribution from top-to-bottom, left-to-right and front-to-back within the van.
Overall weight within a Sprinter camper van conversion
This will affect the drive, braking distance and fuel economy of the van. So while cheaper materials may seem cost-effective at the time, if they weigh more than other options then you may find yourself paying for them indirectly further down the line, when you’re filling up your van more frequently and spending more on fuel every time you use it. Common areas of a DIY van build where you can spend more to buy superior materials include:
Electrical – cheaper AGM batteries are MUCH heavier than lithium batteries.
Cabinets – pre-manufactured cabinets designed for homes, such as those from IKEA and Home Depot will usually weigh much more than DIY wood or aluminum cabinets, because they are often made, at least in part, from heavier chipboard – and weight isn’t normally a concern for most people when buying home cabinets.
Exterior equipment – steel gear is much heavier than aluminum options. So while steel is stronger and may be better for certain applications, such as front bumpers, it is a less superior choice for a campervan roof-rack.
Why not considering weight distribution with an DIY van build can be one of the biggest van conversion mistakes
For optimum weight distribution within a RWD Sprinter camper van, it can help to have more weight over the rear axles, evenly spread between the driver and passenger side, and keep the weight as low as possible.
The heaviest items in most DIY campervan conversions include:
- Inverter (if you have one)
- Gear and toys you haul in your van
Weight higher up in the van can affect the handling and put your van at greater risk of toppling over, especially in high sidewinds. Plus, if you have overhead cabinets attached to the ceiling, it’s not ideal to have heavy items in those cabinets where they could fall out when traveling over rough terrain.
Weight evenly spread from front-to-back is desirable, as well as ensuring that you put heavier weights over the rear axle, as this can greatly help with handling and traction in wet and winter conditions. Apart from being a logical place to install van water and electrical systems, this is also why those items are often installed on our around the rear wheel arches of many professional van builds.
Weight distributed evenly from left to right will also help reduce the risk of the van flipping, as well as general wellbeing of your van’s suspension, tires, steering, etc. In many van builds you’ll often see the water system on one side and the electrical system on the other side. This is because the water tank, when full, is likely to be the single heaviest item in your van buildout, and a second place goes to the combination of your van’s batteries, inverter and other electrical components.
4. Choosing the wrong interior layout for your lifestyle
Some layouts may look great on Instagram but may not be the right layout for you – it depends on how you are going to be using your van, as well as personal preferences.
For example, if you plan to live in and work in your van full-time or for extended periods of time then you may want to prioritize having comfortable living and working space, as well as plenty of storage.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to use your campervan as a weekender and for short trips with lots of adventure toys, then you may want more flexible space where you can transport bikes, skis and watersports toys, for example.
5. Reducing the risk of getting condensation and rust in your campervan
Inadequate ventilation and rust prevention measures is one of the biggest van conversion mistakes! To reduce the risk of condensation building up in your van, consider the following:
- Ensure you have adequate air circulation in your van. For many this means getting a roof fan and having at least one window that you can open to help airflow, especially in humid or cold and wet weather conditions
- As explained above, choosing insulation materials that will not hold moisture is important
- Use materials in your van build that will not rust, such as choosing galvanized or stainless steel screws in wall and cabinet fixtures rather than zinc-plated
- Don’t leave metal shavings sitting in your van’s walls and floor. Make sure you use a magnet, cloth and/or vacuum to remove them, as these can be rust-magnets
- Identify and treat any rust patches that may already be on your van to prevent them getting worse and causing issues further down the line
- Use automotive primer around the edges any holes you drill in the van’s body to prevent those raw edges from rusting
6. Choosing the wrong size van for your DIY Sprinter camper van conversion
A 144 wheelbase Sprinter van is great for shorter trips and if you need to park your van in smaller spaces. But perhaps you need a longer van because you will be living in it full-time or there are more than two of you spending time in it – or you want seating room and a full shower (unless you read this post and decide that you don’t REALLY need a shower in your van conversion).
Taller people may also prefer a 170 wheelbase or the 170 EXT Sprinter van as this allows more space for a longer bed!
Many people choose a high roof Sprinter van for the additional headroom and storage. But is that practical for you if your van needs to go in a carport or parking garage?
This post should help you decide which Sprinter van is best for your DIY van build:
7. Not considering the age and condition of your van relative to the cost of your conversion
We see some awesome van-builds on Instagram – and one of the great things about doing a DIY Sprinter van conversion is that you don’t need to go for a brand-new van and spend $100k on a van build to have an awesome Sprinter camper van to enjoy. For some inspiration take a look at some of the great Sprinter camper vans we’ve showcased on our Instagram account.
However, one van conversion mistake that you can make is to plan to pick up an older van with some wear and mileage and then go about spending more money on the conversion than the van is worth. This may not make sense in the long run, as your campervan is generally only going to last as many years as the base van has in it.
So if the engine has a lot of miles on it or the chassis has damage and rust issues then these can be overcome (with some cost), but it probably makes sense to balance your van build spend with the amount of years you realistically expect to get out of your van.
8. Inadequate sound dampening in your van’s floors and walls
Sound dampening, which is normally installed right at the beginning of a van conversion (before the insulation) can significantly reduce road noise when driving.
If you decide not to install sound dampening at the outset, then you can’t really go back and rip everything out to put it in at a later date, so this is an important consideration to get right at the start of your van build before you get carried away with putting in insulation and flooring!
9. Not knowing when to work with a professional for parts of the van build
You haven’t failed in your DIY van build if you opt to have some of the more technical aspects of your van build done by a professional. Whether it’s about the time, know-how or not having the right tools for the job, it can be the right choice for certain aspects of your build, such as installing:
- Windows and roof vent/fans – for when holes need to be cut and sealed in your van’s walls and ceiling
- The electrical system – needless to say, this needs to be done correctly and safely
- Auxiliary fuel tanks and mechanical aspects
- Roof racks – where you need a crane to get the rack installed correctly
10. Using poor quality tools and materials in your van build
Using poor quality or inappropriate tools for a DIY van build is another potentially costly major van conversion mistake!
Without the right tools, certain aspects of your DIY van build will be much more difficult, take longer and put you at risk of injury. In addition, many people find that they end up spending more in the long run by buying cheap tools to start out with, and then finding out they’re so poor (or break) that they have to go out and buy the better tool further down the line.
Our curated Amazon list includes many good tools and materials for a DIY campervan conversion. There is a lot of great equipment available on Amazon, but also some cheap and nasty options, so we’ve waded through the overwhelming number of options and handpicked the good stuff:
When you put together your van conversion budget, don’t forget about the cost to rent or buy tools to get the job done properly and safely… and much more enjoyably! You may also like to read our list of the must-have tools for a DIY van conversion to help with gathering the key tools for your build.
Hopefully you already have some (or all) of them in your garage or know someone who can lend you the more expensive tools!
There can be so much to consider when taking on a DIY Sprinter camper van conversion, and we hope that having a read through this list of van conversion mistakes helps you with your planning and budgeting process! Drop us any questions in the comments below!