Now don’t get me wrong, we loved our last van; a budget family van conversion that fit our family of five! It served us well on our three-month road trip to all 50 US states. But, there were definite lessons learned along the way not only in the build itself, but also when we actually doing van life. Now that we are starting van build 2.0 (you can follow along on my Instagram or YouTube), there are five things we will be doing differently this time around.
So, if you are familiar at all with our last build, it was a pretty spur of the moment venture. Within 6 weeks or so we had decided to buy a van, obtained one, built it out, and it the road. That meant a lot of designing on the fly. It was also our first build, so there was a lot of learning curves along the way. Not having the time to plan out everything in advance, meant that we encountered difficulties later in the build of having to accommodate our plans to what we had already put in place. One example is our dinette table. We had already built the benches a certain height, so when we got around to looking for a raise/lower pedestal for our table, we were extremely limited to finding one that matched the height of our benches exactly. When no exact match could be found, we ended up having to inset the pedestal into the floor and tabletop to accommodate some height difference. We've spent months planning out the details of our van this time around and will be measuring and taping everything out in our van (this is key because the measurements we find online never seem to match up exactly to the van itself due to there being so many bumps, curves, etc.) to make sure it all fits together according to our vision.
2.Ditch the Dinette to Bed Feature
This is a fairly popular design you will find on Pinterest where the back bed raises and lowers from a table to an *almost* king bed. It looks fantastic and seems like a great way to get dual-purpose use from an area of your van. However, it is also a very common design complaint you will here from van lifers. In reality, it's extremely inconvenient. It's such a hassle to have to unmake you bed completely and store your bedding away to be able to use the table. In reality, we never ended up using it. We always left our bed made and just ate sitting on it with our food on the kitchen counter. Our plan for this van is to create a removable table that sets up between the front seats (which will swivel) and second row bench seats. See example from UnCrate below on the right compared to our previous build on the left.
So another feature we incorporated into our previous build after searching Pinterest was a raise/lower upper bunk for the kids. There are mechanical options which are extremely pricey, but my brother actually engineered a manual one for us. It really was a ingenious solution. However one thing we did with that design, that I regretted was to split the headroom evenly between the upper and lower bunk. On the road, I came to realize how much I regretted not giving the adult bed full headroom. And flipping between raised and lower position between meals and sleeping, etc. because a hassle. To combat this, I left the upper bunk in the raised position most of the time, and just had the girls share the bed with me (when Daddy was with us, we did use the kid's bed). So, with that in mind, we will be making sure this time around to give sufficient headroom to the adult bed by sacrificing some headroom for the kid's bed. And if you have accounted for sufficient headroom on the adult bed, then there is no reason for a raise/lower function; you can just fix the kid's bed in place, which is an easier, cheaper build style. We see the fixed upper platform in a lot of family builds. See example of our raise/lower on the left vs. a fixed upper bunk on the right by Oregon Motor Coach Center.
We are actually taking it a step further in rearranging our bed set-up by placing the kid's bed on the bottom and the adult bed on top. I think either option works well, but since we are once again building this van for resale, we wanted to mirror the popular platform bed with garage underneath design that is popular with bike owners. That way the girls' bed could easily be removed to have room for mountain bikes depending on the future buyer's needs. Imagine like this van below by Freedom Vans, but with a bed in the middle instead of the bike racks. I will add pictures once we get it built out. Even though we have three kids, we still plan on only adding in the one additional kid's bed. Our girls already all sleep together on the same bed at home, so we don't see a need to make further accommodations at this time.
4. Upgraded Electrical & Other Systems
So our previous build was very much a budget build. It worked fantastic, and I still highly recommend the products we used for a budget build (< $5,000). However, with resale in mind, we found that not having some of the electrical and other systems done to the name brand standard hurt our resale. So this time around we upped our budget to $10,000 for the build with a lot of that budget increase being reflected in upgraded electrical and insulation.
Some of the upgrades we will be doing are:
- 2 Maxx Air Fans instead of 1 (important for proper airflow)
- 2 Solar Panels (upgraded brand) instead of 1
- Lithium Battery instead of AGM Battery
- Marine Wrapped Wiring
- Thicker Insulation
I will note that we will not be including a generator powered AC in our second conversion. This was a nice feature that came with the van when we purchased it, but not necessary. I found that there was hardly a climate that required utilizing the generator. And with the second Maxx Air fan, this will be even less of a need.5. Completing Some Unfinished Features/Plans
So with our previous van build, we had several additional plans in mind, that we ended up not implementing for lack of time.
First, our portable toilet was not built-in. It just sat out (secured) along the wall in front of the bed. We plan to build this into a bench this time around for a more polished look similar to the bench below by Quirky Campers.
We also had plans to add in an induction stove top and even left space for it with the drawer placeholder above our refrigerator. This time we will definitely be adding it in so that we can enjoy hot foods as well, just like Cocovan has pictured below on the right compared to our old build on the left.
Similarly, we had a hot water tank with shower head for showering that never got installed. We plan on actually installing it this time in the back just as we planned in our original build (with the ability to open the back doors, hang a curtain between them, and take a hot shower out the back).
Finally, we had intentions to add more storage in our previous build, but didn't get around to it. Turns out that lack of storage was a major downer when trying to sell our van, even though I am a big minimalist and didn't feel like we were lacking. We will be adding a wall of overhead cabinets this time around, as well as building out drawers between the rails of the bench seat, and adding a skinny full length closet next to the toilet bench (I did miss having a designated laundry hamper, which we will be incorporating into this closet like the one shown from Bear Foot Theory Below).
I will also note that because our new van came with the headliner intact (and Mercedes updated the color to a darker grey), we will be leaving the headliner in saving up from having to create a wooden ceiling for our van.