So you’d love to get a campervan… here’s how

 

You too can find your dream campervan. A match made in heaven, camper heaven, for you and that special van in your life.


 So you’d like to get a campervan? Why not, it’s a worthy, worthwhile, wonderfully exciting and rewarding undertaking.

I have only one regret about getting our campervan, that I didn’t do it twenty years sooner!!

In this blog post we look at all your options - motorhome or campervan, self-build or professional fit-out, which van, what size, how much?

Vanhalla - Camper Heaven, our campervan adventure, is the project that keeps on giving, joy, fun, opportunities, new places, new friendships and so much to look forward to as you plan your next road trip and great escape into the great outdoors, the great unknown. 

I first learned to appreciate the concept of delayed gratification while waiting for letters from abroad. That nervous anticipation, hinging on the tell-tale sound of the letter box, an unhinged excitement, not knowing what to expect, except everything would be revealed inside that envelope with the familiar hand writing, a precious scent, once delivered would be safely tucked away and saved up to be savoured later in the day, over and over again. All thanks to a tiny little stamp.

That’s what owning a campervan is like. It's a love affair, every day.

Yet, like all great relationships there can be problems, pitfalls, teething problems before you find your perfect match, a match made in heaven, camper heaven, for you and that special van in your life.

There are so many to choose from - Mercedes Sprinter, Fiat Ducato, Nissan NV 400, Volkswagen Transporter, Peugeot Boxer, Renault Master, Citroen Relay, Opel Vivaro or the Ford Transit are among the most popular marques for campervan conversions.

As in all great relationships it’s important to look around, check out your options and not just fall for the first van you meet.

Ignore most of the Instagram influencers with the #vanlife and #camperlife hashtags. This is not California. Those sun drenched photos of the bronzed bodies, perfect blonde hair with the dog lying across the quilt as the adorable couple both work on their laptops as they enjoy the stunning sunset parked up at the beach, are all staged. And we all know it never rains in southern California.

When going about your campervan project it's best remember you'll be spending more time in Connemara than California...

You have a number of options to consider before you take the plunge, and not just in relation to what van to convert.

You can buy a coach built motorhome or campervan with all the bells and whistles. This is your most expensive option and will set you back anything between €80 and €130k.

Caravans are also popular with some compact easy-to-tow models being currently advertised from new at €17,500.

Campervan self-builds are increasingly popular but you really have to know your stuff before you embark on such a project. Put it this way, there’s more to it than throwing a mattress in the back, packing a gas ring and a few camping things.



When it comes to campervans and motorhomes there are lots of options. Take your time and choose the one that suits you best.





Campervans come in all shapes and sizes. Take your pick.


It’s one thing being a handy man or a DIY enthusiast, but a campervan conversion requires a degree of proficiency in not only mechanics but electrics, joinery, plumbing, gas fittings and engineering if you are going to achieve the standard of safety and reliability which is required. There are also stringent conditions to be met for the vehicle to be certified and registered.

As someone who can barely reach on changing a light bulb, this was always a non-runner. Changing a tyre and topping up the window-washer liquid is as far as I go.

Going second hand is worth exploring. However, you may be familiar with the story of the motorist asking for directions for a destination in Kerry, to which the advice came: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’!

My point being that this is the worst possible time to attempt to purchase a second hand motorhome, campervan or caravan. With demand at an all-time high, it’s a seller’s market and prices continue to soar for second hands. Motorhomes and campervans don’t depreciate in value as much as other vehicles even in normal times. These are not normal times. There is also evidence of price gouging, gazumping, dodgy dealing and some outright scams being reported. Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware was never more valid. When it comes to parting with your hard earned cash, deposits or checking out vehicles for faults or damp, which can all prove so costly to rectify.

So for the purposes of this article we are looking at the process of a campervan conversion, professional build instead of buying a new factory built motorhome (which was out of our reach) a self-build which was beyond our ability and we opted to convert a new van, in preference to fitting out a second hand vehicle. I’ll explain.

Which van?

The first big decision you have to make is which van? Once you commit and are determined and dedicated to the whole idea we felt that it had to be at least a ten year, or indeed a lifelong commitment.

Therefore we felt that getting into a second hand vehicle of any sort would only be buying into trouble down the road, especially as my motor mechanic skills are on par with my DIY proficiency. Even in the driving department Grazyna is far more capable on the open road than I.

If I was any way handy and knew the first thing about engines, carburetors, pistons, drive shafts and head gaskets then I would definitely be on the lookout for a clean van with genuine mileage with a view to a campervan conversion. I’m not. So we opted to invest in a new van.

It was proven to be the right call. We were advised this week that we would get our money back if we wanted to sell the 2017 reg van. It is decidedly not for sale.







The decision to opt for a new van to convert instead of a second hand vehicle was also informed by the view that there is very little point in investing an expensive kit-out, which you expect to last twenty years and putting it into a rusty crock that is going to calve halfway around the Ring of Kerry or on those steep climbs around Mayo or Donegal.

We looked at all the vans. Mercedes, VW, Fiat, Peugeot, Renault, Citroen, Nissan and Opel. They all have their merits and their fans. Personally, I think the VW Transporter is so over-rated for what it offers in terms of a campervan conversion, particularly in terms of space and headroom for the price. I am not alone in this regard and I fully agree with the Irish Times correspondent, Neil Briscoe in his August 2020 review, VW Grand California has all you need for camping - except California.




This Transit Custom fit out is another option. Nice and tidy but like the VW California too compact for my liking, especially for long stays or the long haul. It is nice though...


After months of research we eventually opted for a Ford Transit T-350 H2 long wheel base (LWB) front-wheel drive (FWD). For a while we had flirted with its smaller cousin the Transit Custom. I have seen some good conversions of these by www.wellhouseleisure.com and others, but in the finish what passed for compact was too cramped for my liking. A similar affliction that befalls the VW Transporter, although both would be fine for short hauls or weekend breaks.



The Ford Transit Trend 350 L3 H2 FWD - a van for all seasons.

At the other end of the range the Ford Transit Jumbo was appealing for the the fit-out scope and space it affords. But for us we decided too big and unwieldy for cross winds, country roads and height restriction clearance. (There is a higher charge for bigger vehicles on ferries).

I have a hang-up about headroom and it was a deal breaker for us to have at least 184cm headroom clearance in the main body of the vehicle once converted. This is taking in to account the 4cm or so that you lose top and bottom once you fit the flooring and ceiling insulation.

Cost, comfort and convenience were all central to our decision and the invaluable advice of Ger Doody, the head salesman at Downey’s Auto Stop in Portlaoise, was equally crucial. It was Ger who really steered us away from the Custom model and to something more mid-range in size and spec. Not only does he know his motors but Ger, a keen aviation, biking and boating enthusiast, brought a wealth of knowledge when it came to advising on equipment, space, light, balance and the bread and butter importance of safety, security driveability and reliability for the long haul and the long road. This is the all-important practical stuff and it was Ger’s tip on front wheel drive that was to give us those vital extra centimetres of cabin headroom in the finish.

The Transit is sufficiently spacious to travel and live in, yet compact enough and easy to park-up in a regular parking spot. It is also comfortable and convenient for us to get used to and enjoy driving either on the open road or those right country boreens. This versatility is also important when it comes to operating out of a campsite base.







We normally prefer to explore on foot or bikes. We park up and set up at a campsite and then use bicycles for recon or any trips further afield. On occasion though it is necessary to drive off site with equipment - a kayaking or surfing expedition - and in such circumstances the campervan’s flexibility comes in to its own. On such occasions we have found an inflatable drive-away awning (costing approx. €650) invaluable at your campsite pitch to store and secure belongings rather than having to repack and lug everything around on the day trip. In this regard the right campervan has all the convenience of a car and the benefits of a motorhome and trumps the car and caravan combination.

The current list price of the Ford Transit Trend (L3 H2 FWD 130PS) with metallic paint, air con, heated single seats is €38,800. Industry sources tell me that there is an all new all electric Transit coming on the market in early 2022, which they say will be a game changer in the electric van options.

As I leave even the hanging of a picture frame in the house to Grazyna as I’d make a bags of it, I certainly wasn’t going to start meddling with the fit-out of a new campervan. That was a non-runner, although I do envy those DIY wizards who can tackle this kind of self-build project, as was my Dad, who was a great man to make and mend things. That gene seems to have skipped a generation.

Van conversion as important as the vehicle itself

The standard, precision and layout of the van conversion is every bit as important as the vehicle itself. If you stick with camping, you are going to be stuck with this van for life. It has to be a match made in heaven.

After more months of sussing and exploring all the options we linked up with David Hanley of Vanderlust in Ennistymon in County Clare, to design and deliver the conversion. You can check them out on www.vanderlust.com


There are lots of lay out options and fit out finishes to be considered. This one courtesy of the Campervan Bible blog.



Dave and the Vanderlust team can convert anything from a bean can to a double-decker bus and everything in between. Ever since they did our van back in 2017 I think they are getting even better at what they do. People say they are pricey. Their workmanship is superb, they love what they do, and they are good at what they do. You pay for that, you get what you pay for. Any small teething problems you just go back and they sort it. As they continue to develop their operation Vanderlust turn out some really fabulous bespoke conversions, each as unique and individual as their owners. I really like the way they continue to explore new styles, layouts, materials and colour schemes.

How much is a campervan conversion?

How much is a conversion? Well how long is a piece of string? It really does come down to the specification and your requirements. What I do know is that in comparison to an equivalent coach built brand of motorhome or campervan with an equivalent capacity and spec you can save anything between €15k and €25k by converting a new campervan instead of buying one ready-to-go.

To give you some point of comparison a Wexford company, Happy Campers, www.happycampers.ie who specialise in VW Campervan conversions will deliver their Grand Tourer Plus conversion on the Transporter starting from €18k, categorising it as a 4/5 berth campervan. Their work gets rave reviews, looks well and has won several awards. A factory built VW California will stand you anything from €77,000 to €88,000. Factor in the cost of your van acquisition and do the math.

Regardless of which make of van you opt for, I am not a fan of the pop-up roof. While they do afford additional temporary headroom and in some instances extra sleeping quarters they can be troublesome. Time and time again I’ve seen people having to shut them down due to hydro static in heavy rain or in strong winds. Inside there’s no room to swing a cat (or a Jack Russell), no room to stretch your legs and as for sleeping, well good luck with that. I need my space and these lay-outs may be fine for short hop, occasional weekend runs but not for the long-term camper.







In our own case the Ford Transit fit-out was costed down to the last bulb and bolt in a quotation which ran to over fifty separate items.

Proper insulation is essential if you are going to have any comfort at night, not to speak of winter camping and frosty nights. Headroom clearance was important for me and the fundamentals of a proper galley with gas hob and sink - while many others would also opt for an oven and microwave - we didn’t deem those to be critical. Absolutely vital however, is a good fridge. The electrics, heating and plumbing in a camper are intricate and the key to low maintenance trouble-free happy camping.




Among the extras we also opted for a 120 watt solar panel, and a San Diego Freeway Drive-Away Awning (which is conveniently erected by a pump to inflate the supporting air beams) and affords the flexibility of driving the camper off-site without lugging all your utensils, furniture and fittings).

A Fiamma bike carrier, a reversing camera, and a Rhino roof rails and ladder provide more living space and the capacity to bring bikes, boards and boat to better enjoy the great outdoors and having to rely on rental equipment.

However, the two most significant single items in my book were the custom made crash-tested rear seats that convert into a double bed or two singles. These are made to order in Germany and cost €2,845. They are priceless for the travel safety and sound sleep they deliver.

Equally important is our shower and toilet cabin compartment, strategically located at the rear of the van, to facilitate external as well as internal use. Again, this has proved a lifesaver and not something which is possible in either the Transit Custom or VW Transporter. That for me is a deal breaker, as neither wild camping nor urban camping are possible without this facility.




To some extent, once you lock in on the two passenger seats and the shower/toilet cabin, the layout pretty much decides itself. One of the drawbacks of the Transit compared to other rivals in its range, which are just a tinchy bit wider, is that it cannot accommodate a 6ft bed width-wise. What Dave Hanely and the Vanderlust team did teach us to appreciate is that in a campervan conversion, every centimetre is important real estate. Every inch matters.





Campervans and motorhomes - a size and style to suit everyone.

Although I have looked on enviously at some of the Vanderlust and other fit outs in bamboo and earthy textiles, for our finish we opted for clean lines and vinyl floor covering in a minimalistic style and variations on a silver-grey finish. Our choices are informed by the durability and ease of maintenance required for prolonged practical use in our soft, salty climate and camping home-from-home by the sea.






















Our fit-out cost the guts of €20k. And worth every penny for the value we are getting out of the van since the spring of 2017, with 65,223km on the clock as we head in to the 2021 season. Bear in mind that a planned trip to the north of Spain via ferry to Bilbao out of Rosslare was cancelled, as was much of our Irish itinerary last year.

The hidden and hefty cost of the dreaded VRT

Apart from the van and the fit-out the third most significant and not so obvious cost of a campervan conversion is the dreaded VRT. A hidden cost for which there is no obvious return as you have already paid the full purchase price, VAT and labour, when you are hit with this tax on top before you can get motoring.

What’s more, it’s entirely out of your hands as the VRT levy is set by Revenue based on their determination of the combined open market value of the vehicle added to the cost of the conversion at the rate of 13.3%. So you can work out that saucy bill for yourself and it’s one you should keep in mind when you are budgeting for your dream campervan conversion.

It may be some consolation to learn that the VRT was levied at the draconian rate of 33% up until 1998 when it was reduced by 20% by the then Minister for Finance, Ruairi Quinn, making him the unofficial patron saint of campervan owners ever since.

Buying a van in the UK was also an option chosen by some interested in acquiring a campervan. Be aware that this is further complicated since Brexit and while the VRT charge applies to all vehicles, additional impositions of VAT and import duty may apply to vans or campervans registered elsewhere in the UK, other than Northern Ireland.

We have found Stuart Insurances Ltd based in Blackrock, Dublin just excellent to deal with and they have a special camper scheme which is underwritten by Aviva. The cost of our annual premium is €345, after going up €10 this year, the first time it has been increased since we initially took our insurance five years ago. (There are other brokers who also provide motorhome cover such as Dolmen). The motor tax rate for campervans and motorhomes in Ireland is the lowest in Europe at €102 per annum.

The campervan registration also gives you the lower rate at toll booths in Ireland which means the difference between paying the standard rate of €1.90 instead of the commercial van rate of €3.40, which in my case is four times in the day of a surf run to Lahinch.

So that’s pretty much everything you need to know if you plan to head down the road of getting your own campervan. It’s worth it and worthwhile. The only time a campervan is costing you money is if it’s parked up in your driveway gathering dust or mould. There’s no point in splashing out just to use it for two weeks in the year. That would be a disaster. Forty shades of green mould instead of forty shades of green.

Be warned, if you don’t like camping, you’re hardly going to like camping in a campervan either.

For a campervan conversion to really work, you must really commit, hail, rain or … ok, snow is optional, for the hard core.

When I say commit, I don’t just mean you, but the entire family. Otherwise it will never work out so that you get the full benefit, enjoyment and return for your considerable investment. Camping is very much a team effort. Once you enlist you must soldier; soak up the sunshine, with the rain; share the chores, the good experiences with the ones best not ever mentioned again.












Camping is close quarters living, often in a confined space, especially if the weather kicks up on a pissy, misty, drizzly-damp day in Kerry or Connemara. Then you will have to cancel the barbecue and baton down the hatches as even a hike is out of the question and entertaining children another story altogether if they can’t stir outside.

A campervan conversion only works when everyone in the family is converted too and signs up to the campervan culture and lifestyle. Otherwise it’s just going to be a struggle and end in tears… and cost you a lot of time and money on the way.

If in any doubt, perhaps the best thing to do is try hiring a campervan or motorhome for a week or two to get the feel of it and to see if you really like the road trip camping experience. That’s something we’ll be taking a closer look at here on Vanhalla in the coming weeks.

Safe journey!

SEE ALSO: For urban camping, it's curtains for me

                     VW Grand California has all you need for camping - except California 

                     Will coronavirus convince us all to buy campervans?