Our first van conversion and a 7-seater car named Bumi.
We bought him only a few weeks after arriving on a working holiday visa in New Zealand back in 2016.
But how did we get here, and what happened next?
Discovering Vanlife at age 19
Many aspiring vanlifers often say they don’t have the money to try vanlife.
Before New Zealand, we had £0.
We each worked our butts off in retail for a year, earnt £6,000 together, and then flew to New Zealand at age 19 with no clue what our plan was.
We didn’t even know how to get out of the airport (a $100 taxi ride mistake).
We knew at that point that we would need cash on the side, but we believe, our own personal limitations come from what we individually perceive as impossible… deep, I know.
How can we reduce or remove our expenses completely and get money on our side?
Whilst Sam found temporary work, I was ‘paying’ for our accommodation by housesitting for free.
This was all well and good while staying in Auckland, but we quickly realized that when we started heading south, housesitting would limit our flexibility.
Not only that but hotels, airbnb’s and hostels were upwards of £40 a night, which was unaffordable for months of travel.
Add on top the transport cost, and it gets even more expensive.
We wanted the freedom to jump and go whichever way the wind took us.
This is where we discovered the world of vanlife.
Buying a second-hand van on the other side of the world
Before arriving in New Zealand, we had briefly considered buying a car.
However, we thought the insurance would be too expensive (in the UK, the cheapest car insurance for a 19-year-old is around £3,000 a year per person).
After a chat with our housesitting owners, we quickly discovered that was not true in New Zealand.
Car insurance was only £15/month.
Within a few days, and with the help of Sam’s mechanical knowledge, we bought a car.
A £900, 1998 Nissan Serena.
We bought a van. Now what?
Thanks to our van buying checklist, we now had a bog standard family car with a few camping extras (pots and pans, rusty stove and odd pieces of plastic cutlery).
We really didn’t know what we could, should or wanted to do for our first van conversion.
- We didn’t go onto Youtube (for some reason, it didn’t occur to us).
- We didn’t have Instagram.
- We had no tools whatsoever aside from 1 screwdriver.
- Should we remove the back seats?
- How do we even fit a bed inside?
- Can we somehow cook in this car?
We didn’t do anything but what instinctually felt right.
Our objectives were to make our first van conversion comfortable to sleep in, eat in and cook in.
We wanted to use the full height of the inside space (unlike many other car campervans, which have raised beds with a lot of storage but no multi-functional properties).
The Van Conversion Begins
We quickly decided to ditch the back 5 seats.
Due to a lack of tools, we borrowed some from our housesit’s garage (with permission).
Though daunting at first, a few bolts in, it hit us that you don’t need a mechanic for everything. With a bit of effort, you can become your own mechanic.
With an empty canvas, we got to designing our campervan layout.
We did some doodles, some optimistic ones that included a sink and a toilet to certify it as self-contained. However, the New Zealand authorities wouldn’t approve our designs, so we went simple.
We chose an open-planned layout (in our 4.5 square meter mansion) with a foldable mattress and enough room to sit up inside.
This allowed us to cook, work and relax no matter the weather outside.
A £25 discounted offcut of some very expensive fancy carpet (with some foam insulation thrown in for free), and our car was ready for some furniture.
Building the furniture in our van
We struggled with the interior design as we didn’t want to spend too much money on the conversion.
Buying timber and plywood at the local hardware stores is usually what most people do to start their van build.
We aren’t most people.
We were on a very strict budget, and this was too expensive.
Instead, we ended up visiting at least one Salvation Army Store per day.
Whenever we saw something suitable, we measured it and roughly sketched its position in the car.
After about a week, we struck gold and acquired an average-size dining room table for £10, which just about fitted width-wise at the back of the car.
This small addition made life in the car much easier as now we were using its height and operating on two levels.
From then on, we worked around that one table.
We built a removable hanging shelf and utilized the space above the wheel arches by fitting food pantry-style shelves.
The furniture for our van build was rather simple but only cost us £100. A professional would have charged us up to £1,000 for this custom-fit furniture. The £100 even covered staining the chipboard and paint for the table.
The finishing touches
We applied the finishing touches of curtains, pillows and (because the grey of the car felt gloomy) we painted the inside yellow – which I advise you do before you even put the table in, but we were making things up as we went along.
We got a foldable mattress for £50 – our most expensive purchase!
This might have been pushing our budget; however, it was a bed and a couch in one, and if you wanted neither, you could neatly store it under the hanging shelf, thus freeing the floor space!
After this, and with a few flairs with the paintbrush, Bumi was ready to hit the roads of New Zealand!
How much did our first van conversion cost?
Our first van conversion cost £375 to convert and £900 for the vehicle, for a total cost of £1,275.
- Vehicle: £900
- Conversion Cost: £375
- ALL Furniture and wood: £100
- Paint: £40
- Foldable Mattress: £50
- Flooring (carpet) and insulation: £25
- Screws, brackets and hooks: £30
- Tools: £30
- Other (curtain material, battery-powered light, rope): £100
Compared with even the cheapest campervan budgets, this was pretty impressive.
We lived in the car full time when we were not housesitting, and in total, we saved 5 months’ worth of accommodation, which with an average price of £40/night, would have cost us approximately £6,000 – our entire savings.
There was no doubt that the car was always going to be cheaper.
What compromises did we make?
The only compromises we had to make were a toilet and a shower.
Now for toilets, it was relatively simple as there were plenty of public and mostly well-kept toilets.
For showers, we went to swimming pools – sometimes we went actually to swim and then use the showers.
Occasionally, there were facilities where you could pay about £2 for a hot/warm/freeeeezing shower. Some of these are timed, though, with enough preparation, a 4-minute shower can seem an age – funny how perspective changes.
We paid zero for electricity or Wi-Fi (as we used public libraries for free), spent £20 on gas for cooking (over the whole 5 months), and anything we spent on water was in the form of showers and when replacing our plastic bottles with new ones.
Was our first van conversion worth it?
1000% worth is.
When we set ourselves the challenge of not paying for accommodation during our stay in New Zealand, we knew we could do it.
Now, you may think that we have already paid for our accommodation by buying a car. However, don’t forget the car was an investment.
So as long as we broke even when selling it, the mission would be a success.
When we added up the cost of the vehicle, the cost of the car conversion, and all the mechanical repairs we did on the van (since it was an 18-year-old vehicle… there were quite a few repairs), we broke even when it came to selling our beloved campervan.
Since the vehicle was no longer just a car but now a campervan, the vehicle is worth significantly more. With the right market and season (summer/winter, high/low), you can sell it and even make a profit if you are lucky.
The financial effect of converting your car into a camper is only worth it if you will use it as a camper long enough for you to pay it off.
If you have long-term intentions of staying in New Zealand, as we did, we think that undertaking this type of project is highly beneficial as it made the long 6 months of working in Auckland more worth the time.
It was simultaneously enjoyable and a challenge.
And gave us the bug to convert our second, full-time home on wheels with our new campervan conversion.