If you’re looking to build a van on a budget, you are probably overwhelmed with layout ideas, what wood to buy for a van build, and so much more. When we were building our DIY camper van out of a retired ambulance, we were deep in information and had no idea what to do. So these tips are for first time van builders with no experience looking to understand how we built the interior of our van for less than $5k USD.
Using low-grade wood
Some people would argue that you should use the best grade plywood when building out a van. We think that using a high grade of wood sounds like a luxury! Simply put, we couldn’t afford to buy the best of the best wood, and we opted for low-grade plywood to build the budget van build of our dreams.
There are definitely downsides to using a lower grade wood in your van build. First of all, plywood in general is not very light and can weigh down your budget van pretty quickly. Then, the lower grade you’re working with will likely have more knots and ugly cut-offs… but that brings us to our next tip.
Tile stickers instead of tile
We used tile stickers from Amazon instead of actual tiles in our ambulance conversion. Our kitchen is probably our most-complimented part of our van build, and that backsplash was one of the cheapest elements.
Remember the low-grade wood we talked about? We covered D-grade plywood with those tile stickers, as well as contact paper in the kitchen to give a sleeker finish. Another coverup that we did was slapping wallpaper over the ugly plywood that we used to build our bed.
Baskets vs. Shelving
One of the biggest money saving tricks we used in our ambulance tiny home build was to use baskets in place of shelves. We didn’t spend much time building cabinetry, because let’s admit it, it wasn’t our forte. That said, we saved significant money on wood by using baskets in the place of shelving.
Installing a foot pump
In our budget van build, we don’t have an electric water pump. Some electric water pumps are not too expensive, but the installation was not something that drew our eye. Instead, we installed a foot pump, which saves us money on water in the long run because the water is so controlled. Also – we didn’t invest in a water heater. Would we recommend it? YES! We love our foot pump and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want to install a water heater & electric pump.
Using fabric pieces instead of throw blankets
It’s obvious that you can’t do this for every blanket you have. That said, we used pieces of fabric to brighten up or accent certain parts of the van that cost us less than $2.00. It saved us money on spending $15+ per throw blanket and added the pop of colour we needed in the van. Consider buying second hand fabric!
Consider a stationary layout
Nothing in our van build flips, swivels, folds, flies down from heaven, nothing. If you’ve done any research into building a van (which obviously you have, and that’s why you’re here) then you would have seen the layout we have. We decided to stick with a very standard budget van build layout to avoid spending any extra money on hinges, wood, hydraulics, or other bells & whistles. We love the layout of our van and would recommend it to anyone just starting out with van life.
Propane is cheaper than induction
When I was first doing research on all things van life & van building, I had no idea what I was doing. Neither of us understood much about van build electrical and I was buying items before I understood how they’d really work out for us. We ended up investing in and installing an induction stove to later find out that we’d need to upgrade our battery bank to use it.
Many vanlifers use propane to cook with because of the affordability of propane stoves and the lack of electrical pull it takes to utilize. I would highly recommend looking into the pros & cons of using propane in your van build – but will leave you with this: our induction stove was a huge waste of money, because it just drains our batteries and we can’t even use it.
If you want to know three things that we DIDN’T do that we could’ve done, they’re up at the end as a *bonus* in the YouTube video above. Otherwise, I hope that these budget van build tips helped you think outside of the box on ways to spend money on your van build?
Any questions? Let us know below!