Motorhome conversions: what you need to know

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We tend to think that the “bespoke” version of what we want is often out of reach, and that, perhaps, we should settle for an off-the-shelf variant. Happily, motorhome conversions can offer a refreshing exception to this rule.

A motorhome conversion promises a true ‘home from home’ package: everything (including the kitchen sink) just the way you want it, along with a price tag that can compare extremely well with a coachbuilt unit. And far from being a project suitable only for time-served mechanics and fitters, there’s also plenty of help out there to ensure you get it right.

Yet, from accurate costings through to ensuring a fair deal on your insurance, a motorhome conversion project is not without its potential pitfalls. So how do you avoid them? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.

Deciding on a layout for your motorhome conversion

The first question you need to ask is: what do you want from your motorhome? Once you are clear on this, you can go on to make all of the other important decisions that a conversion project raises, such as budget, choice of vehicle, insurance, and choice of fittings.

You’re aiming at this stage for a rough-and-ready layout alongside a wish-list of the items that the motorhome will ultimately include. Accommodation is a useful starting point, so be clear on how many people will need a sleeping space. There might also be other specialist storage needs to factor in, such as room for wheelchairs, surfboards, or bikes.

Think, too, about the type of motorhome holiday experiences you want. For instance, if you don’t mind using communal washing blocks, then you might consider doing without a separate shower compartment in favour of more living space. If touring is a year-round passion, then features such air con and diesel-fuelled heating become more important.

On top of these essentials, think about other features that would deliver that all-important home-from-home feeling. As an example, for a sense of greater spaciousness, an elevated roof might be welcome; while keen chefs might prioritise more cooking space — along with a combined grill/oven and microwave, of course.

The end result should include a list of everything that’s essential, as well as a wish-list of additional features considered desirable.

Choosing your base vehicle

Let’s just paint a scenario to begin with: you’re approaching retirement and you spot an opportunity to convert your old works van. It’s a great idea, but the last thing you want is to put time and money into the conversion process if the vehicle is about to reach the end of its useful lifespan.

When considering second-hand models, look carefully at the service history and the overall condition of the vehicle, paying particular attention to the integrity of the bodywork and chassis. If long-distance touring is on the cards, engine power capacity is important, too; a fully-laden motorhome needs pulling power.

A long wheelbase can give plenty of living space, but there could be a trade-off with practicalities. If the vehicle is going to be put to work day-to-day for shopping activities and day trips with the family, a model such as the VW T4 might be make more sense than a long wheelbase Transit for parking and manoeuvring. It’s worth test driving a range of vehicles to check you are comfortable with them.

Some vans are more popular than others for conversions. For the VW Transporter range as well as vans from Renault, Ford and Fiat, furniture kits and everything else you need should be readily available. Choose a less popular make, and your choices might be more limited.

So ideally, your van of choice will be mechanically sound with plenty of life left in it; big enough to meet your needs yet still practical, and considered to be a ‘conversion-friendly’ make and model.

Weighing your van before the conversion

It’s essential to check that your van of choice, complete with its additional conversion features, contents and persons on board, is going to be legal to drive. There’s a simple 3-stage process for this:

  1. Before the conversion, take the vehicle to a weighbridge to establish its weight. This should be done with a full tank of fuel but no passengers.
  2. Subtract the weight of the vehicle from its maximum legal weight (found on the data plate or manual).
  3. This will give you the maximum combined weight that your appliances, furnishings, accessories and passengers can be.

Once you have these figures, you are ready to convert! Let’s get into the details.

What’s involved in a motorhome conversion?

OK, here’s a brief rundown of the areas to cover and tasks involved in a typical motorhome conversion:

  • Fitting or adjusting doors and windows (and perhaps adding an elevated roof)
  • Storage, including kitchen units, wardrobes and under-seat storage
  • Installing an electricity and/or gas supply
  • Plumbing for kitchen and bathroom sinks, toilet, shower
  • Water supply
  • Fitting of kitchen appliances
  • Light fittings and power points
  • Insulation, heating and air-con
  • Furniture and upholstery

It might seem daunting, but it’s reassuring to know that help is always available when converting. In fact, one of the key aspects of a conversion project involves working out how much extra input you are likely to require for the fit-out.

Gas and electrics must be certified, so fitting power supplies and associated appliances should be placed in the hands of experts. Likewise for panel and floor work, if you have no prior experience, tackling it yourself could result in damage to the van. When it comes to the furniture, choose your units, specify your layout, and get a conversion specialist to take care of everything for you — or alternatively, check out a conversion flatpack kit provider.

Think about your own capabilities and be realistic (you don’t want to end up with a botch job). Our Club events and exhibitions can be ideal for discovering your options, working out your budget, getting inspiration, and seeing what fit-out services are available. Place it all in the hands of an expert, go the DIY route, or pick and choose where to get help in certain areas: the choice is yours. Just remember that whichever conversion path you choose, you still need to think about this very important point: insurance.

Insuring your self-built motorhome

During the conversion process, when the vehicle is unlikely to be in use, it remains important to have the right type and level of insurance cover in place at all times. Any conversion process requires time, effort, and money, so it’s important to make sure the coverage you have in place reflects the value of your investment. Think of it this way: you don’t want to make a claim and discover that the enhancements you have made are not reflected in the pay-out. 

Throughout the conversion process, there are a number of dangers that can occur. If you’ve taken it to a specialist, then it’s always good to know that your insurance will cover any accidental damage and theft of essential electrical equipment. Of course, this is unlikely to happen, but it’s always good to know it’s there. Similarly, if you decide to do a bit of work on it yourself, your motorhome insurance will also cover any accidental personal injuries. So it’s worth sorting out.

A converted motorhome is a special vehicle, and requires specialist insurance to match. Ideally, this should be from a provider who understands what motorhoming is all about; one that is able to give you a fair deal and a level of protection that reflects the investment you have made through converting it.

With all of this in mind, contact Club Care before you start the project. They’ll walk you through your policy options and tell you exactly what to do to stay covered — and to stay safe — during the build process.

Reclassifying your vehicle and checking driving licence requirements

Your vehicle’s VC5 log book must classify that vehicle accurately. The conversion process will mean that the DVLA categorisation will almost certainly need to be changed from ‘van’ to ‘motor caravan’. Fortunately, this is an easy enough process and is explained in the DVLA guidance, Registering a DIY Motor Caravan.

Depending on the ‘maximum authorised mass’ (MAM) of your base vehicle, you might also need to update your driving licence. Fortunately, our Help and Advice section has everything you need to know about licence requirements for caravans and motorhomes.

Ready for the road?

Did you know that Camping and Caravanning Club members can qualify for a range of discounts on motorhome insurance? For tips on saving money, kitting out your new motorhome, finding the best holiday destinations and much more, browse our help and advice section to begin your motorhome adventure. Alternatively, you can find out more about the features and benefits of motorhome insurance.