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The Guide to Living in a Van

Devon Thorsby

These days, living on the road doesn't mean you have to live out of a suitcase and travel from hotel to hotel, or sink your life savings into a luxury motor home that could double as a rock band's tour bus. Something as simple as a cargo van can become a home away from home -- or even your full-time residence.

Converted vans that have storage, a sleeping area, bathroom, miniature kitchen and even a shower are growing in popularity among people who love the idea of traveling regularly without having to find special accommodations for a large motor home.

Considering van life? You'll want to look at the costs to buy and convert a van as well as keep it in working order, and you should also evaluate travel and accommodation options before taking to the road full time.

[Read: 6 Great Tiny House Communities]

How Much Does a Van Cost?

The benefit of buying a van that hasn't yet been outfitted with a living space is affordability. You can find used vans for sale in all types of conditions, so if you're willing to accept some exterior dents or can do some work on the engine, you may find a van for as little as a few thousand dollars.

Ely and Tom MacInnes, 29 and 30, purchased their first van in 2014 -- a 1999 Ford E-150 that they named Harrold -- for around $3,000. They built out the van's interior living area themselves, which helped cut down on the total cost of their van project. The MacInneses, who live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when they're not on the road, spent about $700 to insulate and frame the interior, ventilate the roof and outfit the van with electricity and plumbing (though they didn't install a shower and toilet). They installed an $800 refrigerator in the space as well.

The newer a van is, the more you can expect to pay. Kelley Blue Book reports the fair purchase price of a 2011 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Passenger van with a standard roof is $18,045 when it's in good condition without mechanical issues and sold from a dealer. If you purchased the same vehicle from a private party, Kelley Blue Book places the value at $14,556. These prices don't include an interior space outfitted for full-time living, however, which will increase the total cost.

Of course, if you're willing to pay top dollar for a van that's move-in ready, consider Class B vans, which have been outfitted by a professional RV or motor home company. For example, a new Ram ProMaster van outfitted by Winnebago with solar panels, a drainage system, power ventilation, shower, toilet and more is on the market through RVTrader.com for more than $125,000.

Van Conversion: Professional vs. DIY

Depending on your skill level, confidence and willingness to learn, completing a van conversion as a do-it-yourself project may be the best option. You'll cut down on the cost of labor and have the ability to customize it according to your personal taste.

But if you're worried about making costly mistakes or would simply rather leave the work to a professional, custom van conversion companies can meet your needs.

Greg Storm, owner of Van Specialties, a custom van conversion company in Tualatin, Oregon, builds out vans of all sorts for sleeping, dining and comfortably taking in the sights. A custom job isn't cheap, though, as the details add up. For example, according to the Van Specialties website, insulation and plywood panels throughout a van can cost $4,800 or more, depending on the type and size of the van. Overhead cabinets cost between $430 and $690, depending on size. A single solar panel on the roof is $730, and a two-burner propane cooktop installation costs $869.

[Read: How to Sell Your Tiny House]

The MacInneses have completed two different van conversions and are now renovating a motor home, which they showcase on their Instagram account, @thedoginus. While Tom MacInnes says he's grown more accustomed to the process of insulating, framing, adding electrical work and installing ventilation fans, he says many of these steps require a lot of care to avoid problems down the road.

"You've got to be careful with insulation because it can also trap moisture, which can deteriorate and rust the walls," he says. "People can also use spray foam, but that spray foam gets rock-hard and can actually bend the frame (of the van)."

Storm says many van owners come to Van Specialties for professional work on a part of the project they don't feel comfortable completing themselves. Cutting holes in the roof for ventilation fans, for example, is a task that can easily go wrong if you don't know what you're doing, he says.

Keeping Your Van in Good Condition

When your van is ready to hit the road, you'll need to be prepared for any problems that may arise, from engine trouble to leaking water. Especially if the van is a DIY project, it may be a good idea to start by taking short trips close to your home base.

"Other than the general automotive maintenance -- that's a given -- on the camper side of it, battery maintenance is a big part of it," Storm says. If you don't ensure that the battery that helps power your living area is charged, you'll likely find yourself with consistent electrical problems.

As time goes by on the road, be sure you're regularly keeping stock of every system, pump and point where air or moisture could get in. "Any penetration of the body (of the vehicle), like the roof, probably needs to be inspected annually and resealed," Storm says.

Consider taking an RV maintenance course that will enable you to fix minor issues and perform maintenance tasks, such as caring for your battery and leak-testing the water system. The National Recreational Vehicle Inspectors Association offers a five-day, in-person course for $1,644, while other courses can be taken online, with videos or with at-home study guides.

[Read: Can You Get a Loan for a Mobile Home?]

Where to Sleep

Another crucial issue to consider is where you will park to sleep. Fortunately, there are plenty of options. Being in a van, you can simply find a parking spot if you're traveling through a city -- though you should be mindful of local laws that prohibit overnight parking or sleeping in cars.

"The best thing about the vans is that they were stealth," says Ely MacInnes, referring to the fact that a cargo van looks like a work vehicle. "You could park them anywhere and sleep. The RV, not so much ... because it's obvious someone is sleeping in there."

To plug in for water and electricity, campgrounds for RVs and trailers will likely be your best bet. State parks often offer campsites for a relatively low nightly fee, and many states allow you to purchase annual passes. Be sure to check rules at campgrounds regarding how many consecutive nights you can stay. Private RV parks or campgrounds can be pricier, with some costing as much as $80 per night.

Some national stores like Walmart and Cabela's welcome RVs, campers and motor homes into their parking lots at night for free. The parking lot lighting can help you feel a bit safer, and there's a store nearby should you need to stock up on groceries, tools or other items.

Wherever you stay, always plan to leave the area better than you found it. Take any trash away with you, use organic soaps to avoid polluting soil when you dump used water, and if you're digging a latrine, be sure to properly bury waste. The Leave No Trace center for outdoor ethics provides detailed instructions on its website for the best way to visit campsites to cut down on litter, respect wildlife and reduce the environmental impact of your stay.

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