5 Hidden Costs of Van Life I Didn’t See Coming

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My husband and I did a lot of research before we bought a van. I mean, a lot of research. We had a budget for the van itself, a budget for the build, and we spent countless hours looking at articles and listicles about all of the hidden costs of van life (beyond the Instagram posts).

Armed with our internet knowledge and research, we bought a van and went to work on building it out. Many of the costs that we encountered were what we expected, and we even built a bit of a buffer into our budget, and yet, even with all of that planning, there have still been costs that have been unexpected or were more significant than we anticipated.

And I’m not just talking about the occasional stay in a hotel, a gym membership to take a shower, or renting out a storage unit for out-of-season gear. Nor am I talking about the price of lumber, which is in constant flux, and the price of goods, which has only increased in recent years. The things on this list are a combination of financial and mental costs that individually can be small but can add up quickly if you’re not expecting them. Hopefully, you find this list useful and enlightening on what it means to build and own your own converted van.

1. Waste Disposal from the Van Build

Foam board and wood inside of a conversion van interior.

Everyone who has ever had a construction project knows that whatever budget you have for it, the result will probably be more expensive. We found that was true, but not what we thought it would be. The van’s dimensions are somewhat unorthodox, which meant that the plywood sheets we bought didn’t go as far as we thought they would. With unusual dimensions, many of our cut-offs were unusable in other parts of the van, which meant buying more lumber overall than initially calculated.

In the same vein, small consumable items were not fully used. An example would be buying a $37 bottle of 3M 8609 adhesive to install the window and only using a quarter of the container. Construction materials are generally designed for house-level projects, and therefore, sometimes you are forced to buy something in bigger bulk than what you need and end up with materials that have been purchased, but you have no use for. While a $37 bottle of adhesive isn’t a bank-breaking amount of money, it can add up quickly.

2. Specialty Tools and Gizmos

Custom furniture bed inside of a converted van.

We have bought several tools on our quest for van life. We probably would have eventually bought many of the tools anyway, such as drills, electric sanders, and different saws. However, for the van, we have had to buy a few specialty tools that we will most likely only use for this project and have no use for after.

We are now the proud owners of a number of different odd-sized sockets and long specialty wrenches that only pertain to this vehicle. For one of our mechanical endeavors, we needed to buy an engine hoist for about $200. We sold it again for $150 after using it, so the overall cost was not astronomical.

None of the tools that we bought have cost a significant amount, but it doesn’t take too long before you can spend more than anticipated.

3. Parking, Oh Parking!

This one has a couple of different parts to it. There is the financial side of consistently finding parking, and there is also a mental side to this one as well. Many blogs have touched on finding parking on the road and the different avenues you can choose. Parking in $15-30 campgrounds can add up quickly to where it feels like you might as well be paying rent, but there are many free options, such as boondocking or a Walmart parking lot. I thought we anticipated well in this part of parking while on the road. We had plenty of experience car camping on long road trips before we bought the van. This was comfortable territory. With the right amount of research, we rarely needed to pay for a night.

>>> READ MORE: How I Live Full-Time In My Van and Never Pay for Parking

The part that I didn’t anticipate was the mental load of parking our van long term when we were not using our van. The first time we left it alone for a few weeks in the middle of Montana winter, which is ridiculously cold, the van did not start, and we actually had to thaw out the battery inside for three days before it was functional again. It was a realization that we needed to install a block heater on the van and start using a trickle charger, which requires power if we were going to leave the van for any extended period. While this doesn’t apply to everyone, it became clear that if we leave our van unused for more than a week or two, we need access to a power source, such as an outdoor outlet or portable generator, that we can leave our van at for an extended period. Depending on the situation, this can mean paying for it.

4. Cost of Auto/RV Insurance

Insurance is another element that, while not a surprise, has been more of a learning curve than anything else. When we originally bought the van, we insured it as a regular vehicle, which is relatively cheap to do. We added it to our current insurance at $40 more a month. As the van build is fully completed, a change of insurance is necessary to accompany how much money we put into the van so that if anything were to happen, we are compensated for all the effort and money we put in, not just the vehicle itself. This is something that we are currently looking to do.

We are currently deciding between a few things that we could do.

  • The first is to re-title the van as an RV, which can lower the insurance than just as a cargo van.
  • The other is to do a stated insurance, where once you complete the build, you tell the insurance company exactly how much it is worth, and they insure it off of your stated value.

For this, we are thankful that we have kept records of how much we spent, such as receipts, so we can prove the value. This part of the process has taken us time to learn, and we realized the amount we can spend on insurance can vary a fair amount. This is something that we are still figuring out, but I thought it was worth it to put on here.

>>> READ MORE: Should I Cancel My RV Insurance During the Off-Season?

5. Oil Changes & Mechanical Service

(Not an actual Sprinter engine. ‘Twould be too easy!)

Doing mechanical work on a van is not something that we were strangers to before buying a van. We do our own oil changes, replace rotors, replace brake pads, etc. (I should say that my husband does a lot of that, but I have been learning.) We own a 2007 Mercedes Sprinter and know that only specialty mechanics work on them, and can easily charge $2,000-$5,000 for more troublesome repairs. Before buying our van, we knew that we would do our repairs ahead of time.

I didn’t expect how much more everything for the van has felt like it costs. An oil change, which is generally $60 on a standard vehicle at a shop, is $250 for the van, and if you do it yourself, our van takes 13 quarts of oil instead of the four quarts in my Subaru Forester. We also just replaced our intake manifolds recently, which my husband did. We paid $680 each for two intakes, totaling $1360. It took my husband 28 hours to completely disassemble the front of the van and make the change. While we saved at least $1500-$2500 from if we had gone to a mechanic, my husband also spent an entire weekend working on it, and his time is valuable too. It is something to consider that even if you do repair work yourself, your time is worth something, and if you are willing to spend it inside an engine.

Our Eye-Opening Conclusion

Overall, this van experience has been eye-opening. Sometimes, I ask myself if we could have done the build cheaper or spent less money on our road trips. The answer is 100% yes. We could have done some things to reduce costs, but I am happy with our van. I don’t write this to scare anyone off, just to illuminate what could be coming your way if you are thinking about the van experience. Personally, I love it, and the extra costs are worth the lifestyle that it provides. I hope this helps anyone on the same research rabbit hole I went on when I first started this journey!

Robin Ferrier

Robin and her husband Eric have been building out their 2008 Mercedes Sprinter and love to take it to new mountains in the winter. She loves to ski, and they have geared the van for just that. You can usually find her at a local coffee shop or library working on her next novel when she's not in the mountains.

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