Choosing the right van for your self-build motorhome

When it came to deciding on a base vehicle for our self-build conversion we did A LOT of research. Taking the plunge and spending a big chunk of our savings on the vehicle that would one day be our dream home was a huge step for us so we’ve put together this guide based on what we found for anyone thinking about buying a van and not knowing where to start!

Before looking at any vans we needed to find out the weight limit on our drivers licenses and then decide on a vehicle that was light enough to give us plenty of room for extra weight as we built our conversion. We can drive up to 3.5 tonnes, including the both of us (find out more here). This instantly narrowed down our search.

If you’re also limited by this weight restriction then you could look at the Mercedes Sprinter XLWB (or VW Crafter – made up of the same base components) – this van gives you a huge interior space to work with.

Mercedes Sprinter (VW Crafter) comes in under the 3.5T weight restriction and offers large interior space.
Mercedes Sprinter ( or VW Crafter) comes in under the 3.5T weight restriction and offers large interior space.

We’ve found the Fiat Ducato to be just the right size for us, it’s big enough for a comfortable full-size double bed, a kitchen with oven and sink, a bathroom with shower and toilet and plenty of storage space.

We could probably do with a bit more storage, for example it might be nice to be able to store our bikes inside the van, this would probably be our main drawback of the van we chose. This being said, it fits in to a regular parking space and is fairly easy to maneuver even down single-track roads.

If you’ve got more weight to work with and need more space for a family or extra storage then the Mercedes Vario is a popular choice with lots of full-timers because it’s the largest van you can get.

Mercedes Vario
The Mercedes Vario is the biggest van on the road.

The Vario is probably our favourite in terms of how they look – they fit in really well when you see them parked up at festivals!

Another good van to go for if you need extra space is a Luton bodied van. Having a square shape to start with makes life much easier when it comes to lining the van and building your walls. Working around the strange shapes when ply lining the Ducato probably took up more time than anything else in the whole build! Also the huge interior space is brilliant – we’ve seen some amazing Luton conversions that really look like full sized apartments when you get inside. If you’re careful you can also do a full Luton conversion under the 3.5 tonne weight limit.

Citreon Luton
The square shape of the Luton makes life easier when it comes to the build.

Going Stealth

When thinking about converting a van one of the first questions you need to answer is  how ‘stealth’ do you want it to be?

The answer to this question will influence a lot of the other big decisions around how you carry out the build and starting out with the right kind of vehicle is essential.

This will all depend on how you’ll be using your van, whether you want to take it out on the weekend to stay on a campsite, use it as comfortable and cheap accommodation when staying away from home, perhaps parked up on a friends driveway or a quiet car park or, like us, you might be considering living in your van full-time on the road, taking it from quiet countryside to busy inner city streets.

We bought our van with the latter in mind and therefore wanted to be as stealth as possible whilst still being practical and comfortable.

We wanted the option to be able to spontaneously park up on a busy road and use the vans facilities as we normally would without being noticed by any passers by.

The Fiat Ducato is the perfect base vehicle for us.
The Fiat Ducato is the perfect base vehicle for us.

Whilst we’re big fans of old classics and love the look of vans like the Mercedes Vario, we decided that the outside look was low on our list of priorities and really we just wanted an unassuming vehicle that wouldn’t attract any attention and could be mistaken for an innocent work van.

The Fiat Ducato Maxi fitted our needs as there are plenty of them on the road so it’s a fairly common vehicle and we went for it in white, second hand from an old carpet-fitters and so came pre-worn with a few authentic scuffs and scratches. The van also had no windows to start out, allowing us to decide exactly where we’d like to put them to suit us, rather than needing to back-fill in windows that were already there which can get way more complicated.

Getting more miles for your money

We knew that one of our biggest expenses whilst travelling was going to be fuel and as we’re living on a budget we wanted the cheapest to run vehicle we could get.

This post on the Parkers site compares the most efficient large vans of 2015 and as you can see, the Ducato wins by a long shot!

In our Fiat Ducato, fully laden, we are averaging 37 MPG, up 20% on the Mercedes Sprinter!

What’s your budget?

We would recommend spending as much as you can afford on your base vehicle, as this is the one part of your conversion that you can’t go back and change.

Having said this, vehicles at the lower end of the market like the LDV Convoy still offer a good van for the money.

The LDV Convey is a good value for money van.
The LDV Convey is a good value for money van.

Our van was five years old when we bought it, with 90,000 on the clock, and costing about a quarter of its price when new.


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