Having mused over the freedom van life brings for several years, we made the decision in 2019 it was time to get a van of our own. We were planning a Scottish road trip for the following summer and after many years of camping in the Great British weather, we thought a van would make the trip pleasurable come rain or shine – especially given we now had a mischievous pup along for the ride! We looked at hiring one initially, but it only took a few google searches for us to come to the realisation it would be more cost effective long term for us to buy one ourselves, so long as we were willing to put the work in and renovate it. With neither of us having much previous DIY or renovation experience this was quite a leap of faith, but in true French style we went for it anyway, excited to finally realise the van life dream!
Needless to say the road trip and van hunt got postponed when Covid hit the next Spring, we had however, saved up enough money to buy the van, so as soon as physically possible we drove to see our beloved Nissan Elgrand and knew we’d found what we were looking for. Despite being a lot more compact than the typical sprinter or transit van, we decided on the Elgrand for a few key reasons; at just under 2 metres we have no height restrictions, making it a lot easier to stealth camp and locate a spot for the night, along with having no issues on small mountain roads making places more accessible – meaning free range to explore! It was also good spec and low mileage given the age of the vehicle – it’s 20 years old but has reversing cameras, for example. The final aspect was the budget, the Nissan was a fraction of the price of van’s of a similar size like a VW transporter.
Originally an 8-seater minivan, our first task was to remove all passenger seats (keeping the front two), remove the rails they were fixed on, the old carpets and the plastic side panels. I still stand by this being one of the hardest things we’ve had to do as nothing was designed to be removed, so it took countless tools, brute strength and many visits to the local tip to strip the minivan interiors back to a shell. We watched YouTube tutorials to get ideas on how to lay the flooring and inspiration on how to design the space. We don’t have the luxury of room in the Elgrand so we’ve had to try and maximise every inch. Libbi’s Dad was home from Portugal in the August, so he helped with building the wooden frame for the L shape seating area – come – pull out bed, using a template we’d found on Pinterest.
We used wooden cladding to build up the side panels, added shelves, a kitchen top and unit, cut foam for the seat covers / mattress, treated and painted the wood, sourced reclaimed items on eBay and Etsy to add some character, Libbi’s Mum made the cushion covers, we built and rebuilt countless sections, but fast-forward a year later and we now have a wonderful, compact van that’s perfect for adventuring. It’s definitely rough around the edges, but we’re pretty happy with how it’s turned out given we’ve done everything from start-to-finish ourselves, excluding the electrics, water and gas (it has electric hook up, x2 LED lights, 12V and mains plug sockets, 10L fresh and waste water and a fitted gas safe).
We’ve been keeping a log of expenses along the way to see how much the renovation cost. It’s all been done on a budget, but the bulk of the work is now complete so we thought we’d share in case anyone is interested in taking on their own van build project!
VAN RENOVATION COSTS
Van (sourced on GumTree) Nissan Elgrand: £4,000
Insurance for one year: £400 (with interior modifications disclosed)
Road tax for one year: £284
New car battery: £58
Tools & hardware: £151 (we had to beg, steal and borrow tools, but ended up investing in some along the way)
Wood: £358.00 (we mainly used ply)
Kitchen worktop: £50
Paint & primer: £75 (I splashed out on Farrow & Ball Joa’s white and I don’t regret it!)
Insulation: £43 (we used recycled plastic bottle insulation from B&Q and some silver bubble stuff to line everything)
Vinyl flooring: £48
Electrical kit: £300 (we bought this from www.xtremevan.co.uk)
Electric & gas work: £430 (carried out by our pal Carl)
Leisure battery: £48
Battery charger: £25
Folded solar panel: £57 (Amazon) – this is more of a portable one for charging devices, but I think with a larger van investing in solar panels on the roof would be worth it
Foam for seats / mattress: £109 (https://www.efoam.co.uk – measure your space and order to spec)
Reclaimed enamel sink: £15 (eBay)
Vintage crate for shelving unit: £25 (Etsy)
10L Water containers x2 & Whale water pump: £40 (Amazon)
Cadac 2 cook pro gas 2 ring cooker: £103 (https://newquaycampingshop.com)
Insulated window covers: £124 – these fit every window in the van and are amazing. They keep the sun out / warmth in and give us privacy in the evening or during the day if we head out and leave the van parked up
Storage boxes & hooks: £54 (Ikea)
Fabric for seat covers: £124 (Just fabrics)
12V travel kettle: £17 quick brew in 30 minutes 😉
Vintage Persian rug: £30 (Etsy)
Awning £125.00 – (https://stitchesandsteel.com)
All-in-all with a little graft and dedication we’ve spent around £7,500.00 on buying and building out our van and it’s taken us a year to complete the project. We’re definitely novices, but feel free to reach out if you have any questions – we realise it can be daunting and we’d love to help and share our experience!