This post was originally published in Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
My interviews tend to focus on the people who live in tiny homes and less on how people design their tiny homes. But I've had several people tell me that they'd like to learn more about the process of converting a vehicle into a tiny home.
Photography is important when chronicling a process like this, and I knew the couple behind Home Sweet Van would be a perfect fit.
When Juliana & Richie first met, they learned they had a few things in common, including the idea of taking a year off to live on the road. This is Juliana's story that follows their journey from buying a van to living on the road.
About three months ago, my boyfriend Richie, our dog Roscoe and I moved into 50 square feet of living space that we crafted out of our Sprinter van. We spent days, months and weeks designing and building our space.
It was a lengthy process, creating a mobile home, and we both know it can be overwhelming to even think about starting an identical project. But of course, it all started with research.
Why a Sprinter van?
In the beginning, a lot of research went into just what type of van to buy. There are tons of options out there, and each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. The reason we went with the Freightliner Sprinter van was the combination of size, reliability and efficiency.
The size we bought (140” wheelbase) is about 18’ in length, which means it fits in a normal parking spot. We got the high roof version so we can stand up straight inside. The back of the van is around 5’x10’, which is pretty small, but we figured with good design we could make it work.
The van we bought was old, rusted and needed a good amount of TLC. It had 170,000 miles on it, but the engine was in great condition and showed none of the catastrophic issues seen in these vehicles. The best/worst of them—“black death”—is the biggest one to look out for. I would highly suggest researching on the free forums or buying a book on the vehicle you’re looking to buy.
We bought our 2002 Sprinter for $12,000, and we assumed we’d put another $10,000 into it for the build. We were saving up more than this for the project, which I think is a must. It’s definitely not cheap, but worth the scrimping if you really want it. There are always issues that come up, especially with used vehicles. We had a $700 repair (exhaust gas recirculation valve went kaput) in the first six months of owning it.
We lived in San Francisco, the land of unsustainable housing, where buying a small Victorian for $2 million is somehow the dream. So spending around $22,000 on our van home was a steal. In San Francisco, this is less than one-year rent (combined). We realize this budget may not be as reasonable outside of the Bay Area, but for us it looked so enticing, so cheap and so rewarding. So we had to pull the trigger.
Designing our Space
As for designs, they really started developing before we even bought the van. Again, we did a ton of research. We bought a book on Sprinter build outs; we checked out what other people had done through Instagram and blogs; we sketched out our own designs. We went through a bunch of garbage before we came up with the design we implemented. We didn’t agree on everything and there was a lot of discussion, especially around the bed lift since it was something not a lot of people had done. But in the end, we worked through all of the challenges together.
Generally, our designs were shaped by the items that we wanted to bring and where certain things would fit. The biggest perk of having a bed lift (a lot more “living space”) is also a drawback in that we don’t have as much storage as some of the other designs. A fixed bed means everything underneath the bed is storage. We wanted to bring plenty of gear (for climbing, surfing, backpacking), so the living space under the bed needed to be comfortable, but also would store everything we wanted to bring. We made lists and planned out where we would store our climbing gear, wetsuits and backpacks. We didn’t really know for sure if it would fit, but we tried to make the most of the space available.
Converting our van into a tiny home
Once we had a design (it was actually roughly laid out in 3D CAD) we started figuring out how to implement each part, tackling each task one by one. Before we started doing anything, we ripped out the plumbing van remnants. We cleaned the tar off the floor (a pretty disgusting job). We sanded the rust. We painted parts that were bare metal. We sealed anything that looked like it could leak. In truth, we regretted not spending a little more money on a van in a little better shape.
By working on the van in small increments, we were able to change things that didn’t quite work and figure out how to make it robust. It really was a build that blossomed as we worked on it. Nothing was set in stone from the beginning. For instance, while installing the bed lift, we figured out it was a lot longer than a normal full-size bed. This meant that it stuck out another foot or so into the space that would become our kitchenette. In a tiny home, a foot of space is an insane amount. So we figured out how to shorten it.
Another big experiment was our first road trip to Bishop, full of bumpy, dusty and rocky roads. After taking it out on long days across some seriously rough, washboard roads, we determined that we needed lock washers everywhere, because our cabinets rattled and screws began to work themselves out.
A lot of the other details were more aesthetic: installing the porthole windows with copper flashing; painting designs on the back doors, leaving the underside of the bed bare with the slats visible and upholstering the cab in the front with the Mexican blanket.
We were a bit handicapped because we both were working full time while building it out. While this meant we had less consecutive days to work on it, it did mean that we had a lot of time between each step to brainstorm every problem that needed fixing. We probably averaged less than eight hours of work on it per week (we took some long breaks), so it was about 10 weeks of full-time work. We definitely could have done it faster, but we wanted to do basically everything from scratch.
We splurged on some items that we knew would make the van a lot nicer. An efficient 12V fridge from Engel costs more, but it saves you later in battery/solar/gas costs. The roof rack was more expensive, but made of lightweight aluminum. We didn’t keep a detailed budget of our build, but the major items cost less than $5,000, and after that it’s all wood, screws and glue. We lucked out and got our lithium iron phosphate batteries for free, which saved us at least $1,000.
What we learned
We learned a lot. But looking back, we would definitely buy a van with lower miles and less rust. Probably the least fun activity was sanding rust. We also spend time thinking about how our home would be different if we had the 5’ of extra length in the 158” wheel base version. That’s 50% more space. Having that extra space would have certainly changed the design and nearly everything about our home, so it’s more something we have brainstormed than something we would actually want to change.
Ultimately, we love our home, and we loved building it. We learned so much about each other and about how to accomplish something that we didn’t have the skills to do at the start. It wasn’t always easy. We messed up a bunch. We fought sometimes. We got frustrated. But we always had each other there to help out.
Advice to others looking to buy and live in a van
Our advice to others would be to research a ton. Make sure you don’t make a mistake buying the wrong vehicle or other big purchases. For everything else you do, expect to mess up. For almost everyone building out a van, it will be your first time doing it. Nobody is an expert in woodworking, electrical set ups, painting and plumbing, so you’re going to mess up. Plan as much as you have time for, and then jump in and figure it out. If you expect things to go wrong, you’ll have a plan for it and won’t get too frustrated. And if you can, take your time.
Living the van life
We’ve only been on the road for just shy of two months now, which is crazy to type and reread, because it feels like it’s been so much longer than that. Every day that we spend in the van goes by so slowly, so leisurely, since we don’t have to plan far out in advance. It really lets us spend time in the moment and enjoy ourselves, without having to stress about what happens next. So far, we’re learning a lot about how to live life with such a flexible schedule. It’s taken some getting used to, since both of us are so used to having lots of structure via jobs and a subscription to society.
Most days we wake up early, around 7, and make coffee to jumpstart our morning. Mostly, we focus each day on one activity, be it climbing, hiking or just taking a day to relax. A lot of this can depend on the weather, and we're learning that sometimes we really have to just go with the flow and be okay with changing plans. In the end, we can't keep the rain from falling so we just shift our focus when/if that happens. As far as cooking goes, we try to make all of our own food. It's cheaper and often, more delicious! Feels so much more satisfying to know exactly what you're putting in your body. We also like to get a lot of protein because we climb. For lunch, we like quicker things, like spicy chicken salad stuffed into avocado. For dinner, one of our favorites is stir-fried veggies with some kind of protein, usually chicken, paired with a grain (Israeli couscous is common).
It really is a privilege to have the opportunity to do all of this, especially before the two of us are tied to any particular place. It doesn’t escape us that it’s a luxury to live a van life. The reality is that it took a lot of time and money to get where we are, and we know it. We get a ton of questions about how we maintain our lifestyle, and of course I’d love to tell people that we’re able to balance work and leisure like that, that we’re able to work remotely and still adventure. Maybe in the future we’ll try that out and report back, but for now we’re trying to escape the work-centric mentality that plagues the United States especially. Right now we’re just trying to take a break to gain some new perspective on things.
And while we have a rough itinerary, neither of us wanted to book things out far in advance. We’re currently in Utah, climbing and hiking. Our next stop is Moab, where we’ll spend a couple of weeks exploring and getting to know the rock out there! Then, we’re off to Colorado, to backpack and hike. After that, through Wyoming to Montana, then up through Canada to Alaska. Richmond might even be brave enough to surf up there. In the fall, we’ll head back down through the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) and spend Thanksgiving with my family in the Bay Area. After that, it’s down to Baja, to finish off our trip in the sun and by the water. It’s possible that at some point, we may want to return to the city and continue working between now and next January. On the other hand, maybe we’ll try to convert our van into a mobile office. At the end of the day, it’s all up in the air. We’re open to whatever happens in the future. It’s part of the adventure. Maybe we’ll love being on the road so much, that we’ll just keep on driving.
Today is Monday, but we wouldn’t know it.