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Why Are Campervans So Expensive? (And Why Budget Builds Are Best)

The popularity of campervans and RVs right now cannot be understated. If you’re considering buying one and planning out how much van life will cost, you may be unpleasantly surprised. But why are campervans so expensive? 

Campervans are expensive because:

– They’re packed with amenities to make your regular cargo van feel like a real home or a comfortable camping setup. The van alone is pricey and that number only increases when you figure in conversions and customizations.

– A van built for living in requires manual labor, over just automated build processes. You’re not only paying for the special amenities inside, but also the manual time and effort it took to install those amenities. 

– The COVID pandemic has led to a higher demand for campervans as well as a shortage of necessary materials to build them.

Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why campervans are so expensive and why a budget build might be best for you.

COVID Spikes the Cost of Campervans

van parked at scenic overlook

Domestic Road Travel Increases

With a ban on international travel and a need for social distancing, more and more people are searching for a safe, comfortable way to get out of their houses. Campervans provide them with a way to get around that keeps them away from other people.

RV sales are at a record high, easily beating the previous record from 2017. Even RV rentals are up, with 46% of people who rented an RV throughout 2020 saying they’d never rented one before the pandemic and 1/3 of them saying they were considering buying an RV of their own. 

Campervan conversion companies are experiencing month-long backlogs of requests for pre-built and customized vans. One company experienced 40 inquiries in one weekend, which is five times what they normally receive.

Supply Chain Crisis Drives Up Material Costs

supply chain

At the same time, the supply of essential materials like lumber and copper is not enough to meet demands, which drives up prices.

These materials, along with solar power and appliances with microchips, are commonly used in converted vans. When their prices increase, so do the prices of campervans and van conversions.

A lot of people want to live and work full-time on the road in fully built-out vans that function as tiny homes. When you start putting functional bathrooms and kitchens in a van, prices go up significantly.

Factors that Determine Campervan Costs

There’s not one single defining factor that determines what a van is worth. Depending on what kind of van you buy, how customized it is, and what features it comes with will all affect the price. If you know what you’re looking for, you might be able to find the sweet spot for savings.

Type of Van

Campervans come in all makes and models. Knowing generally how much each popular model is worth will help you find a van that fits your budget.

The most popular larger or “luxury” vans include:

  • Mercedes Sprinter (~$55k)
  • Ford Transit (~$36k)
  • Dodge RAM Promasters (~$34k)

***A raised roof on a van will usually add $1,000-3,000 in costs. 

The most popular used or budget vans include:

  • Ford Econoline 
  • Chevy Express
  • Chevy Astro van

All of these vans will typically cost around $10,000, give or take a few thousand.

Read my Best Used Vans for Conversion Guide

ford transit van

Van Specs

Vans with all-wheel-drive (AWD) will be more expensive than rear-wheel drive (RWD) or front-wheel drive (FWD) vans. Although AWD rigs will perform better in tougher terrain like snow or mud, it definitely isn’t a necessity for your van adventures. 

Unless you plan on doing hardcore off-roading, your van should perform well on many backroads or public lands roads. My van is RWD and I have never been stuck when off-roading. You just have to be cautious. 

Vans also come in different height options, are equipped with bigger engines, or can be made with longer bodies. Any of these can significantly affect the price of a van.

Pre-Built Out or Empty Van Body

Hiring a van conversion company to fully build out your campervan typically starts at around $50k. And, as previously mentioned, you might be waiting some time with all the recent demand for their services.

*BONUS*: If you really need to stick to a tight budget, I recommend Van Life Academy online courses. They walk you through every step of the van conversion process, taught by experts who also provide shopping lists and costs, so you know exactly what you’re spending.

Partial builds start at around $15k for a kitchen area or bed installation.

Your cheapest option will be buying an empty van body and doing a DIY build. Building and customizing your campervan on your own will typically run you somewhere between $5k to $15k.

Van Build Features

Van build add-ons designed to allow for full-time living will significantly increase costs. They can make your van life experience much more comfortable, getting as close to living in an actual house as possible. However, these features will also hike up the bill, so choose them carefully for your budget.

Some of the most expensive build features include:

expensive van build interior

Supply and Demand

Good ‘ol fashioned supply and demand play a huge role in van costs. As mentioned, the COVID pandemic both increased demand for campervans and hiked up the cost of build supplies. Younger generations looking to travel before “settling down” and retirees are the two biggest demographics buying campervans. 

With high demand nationwide, there simply aren’t enough vans to be had, used or otherwise. If you do manage to find the perfect van for you, expect to pay a premium.

5 Reasons to Choose a Budget Van Build

If you’re ready to pursue your van life dreams but don’t have a lot of money to spend, consider going with a budget van build. There are plenty of reasons to go this route but here are five of the most obvious to help inform your decision.

1. Save Money in Multiple Ways

Budget van builds help you save money on more than just the build; you’ll also save on campervan insurance, taxes, loans and mechanical fixes.

Campervan insurance rates are partially determined by the age and condition of the vehicle, as well as the monetary value of the contents inside. So the older (and more “used”) your van is, the more your campervan insurance rates will decrease. Similarly, with a simple buildout using re-used or inexpensive items, campervan rates will go down as the value of your buildout goes down.

Personally, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars a year thanks to my budget build. When preparing to travel to Baja, I saved money on Mexican car insurance as well by citing my van’s overall value as only $12,000. And in the unfortunate event my van was stolen, I’d only be out about $12,000.

Car sales tax is another fee you’ll deal with when registering your van within your state. Car sales tax rates vary by state, but most states fall between 2-7% of the cost of your van. Imagine paying a 7% tax on a $15,000 van–that’s over another $1,000 in fees! So the lower the overall cost of your rig, the lower your car sales tax will be. 

Campervan loans can add significant costs to your van life experience. Ideally, you won’t need a campervan loan if you choose a budget build. But if you do take out a loan, you’ll have a lower interest rate and will be able to pay off the loan more quickly, if your van is on the less expensive side.

Mechanical fixes are almost always cheaper for older, budget campervans because fixer parts are readily available. Older vans can be fixed at practically any auto body shop, whereas newer vans that are computer-operated may require speciality dealerships specific to their make or model. And if you’re already mechanically-saavy, it’s easier to do fixes yourself on an older rig because they aren’t reliant on computer-operated systems.

2. Learn How Your Van Works

There’s a lot of power in knowing the ins and outs of your campervan. The process of building out your own van will give you a deep, full-view picture of how your van operates. This knowledge can be invaluable if you have mechanical issues on the road or don’t have extra budget for issues popping up. No need to be dependent on someone else’s help! It can also help prevent mechanical issues if you’re already aware of certain “sensitive” areas of the build that you can monitor.

van build

3. Customize Exactly to Your Liking

The only limits to a budget build are your budget and whatever your imagination comes up with.

Whereas, pre-built vans or conversion van companies can only be “custom” to a certain level. They may offer unique add-ons or modular build units, but these things will only come in their pre-determined styles, colors and designs. 

Your DIY build can be a complete representation of exactly what you want in your tiny home. From the mattress you sleep on to the kitchen sink you use, it will speak to just your style.

4. Make the Leap to a Second Van

It’s very common for people to sell their van after 6-12 months of use. Once you have time to drive it around and really live in it, it’s easier to form an idea of exactly what you want to change.

It’s so much easier to move on to a new campervan that better suits your needs when you didn’t sink a ton of money into your first one. If you still have a loan out on your first van, it can be a hassle navigating out of that.

5. Gain Valuable Skills

Building out an entire van from scratch is no easy feat. Whether you already know how to do some handiwork or you’re just flying by the seat of your pants, this is a project you can be proud of. Few things feel as good as something you’ve built with your own two hands.


Campervans are expensive. But with careful, thorough research and a deep undersanding of what you’re looking for (and patience), you can find your dream van without breaking the bank.

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