[RESOURCE] Create a Conversion Budget

"How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.

— Origin Unknown

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Creating and sticking to a budget for a vehicle conversion (and just about anything else) can be a daunting, and difficult task. It requires a certain amount of planning, discipline and research. There are too many parts of a vehicle conversion to try to swallow all at once. We are going to tackle a whole vehicle project by breaking it down into systems that are easier to wrap our heads around.

By the end of this post (it’s a long one, so grab some coffee) you’ll have the basics of how to build a conversion budget and you’ll have the tools to be able to estimate the overall cost of your conversion as well as identify areas where you might want / need to spend more or less than you thought. We’ve created a template conversion budget to get your project started on the right foot. You can download it for free at the bottom of this article.

This post applies to van conversions, truck build, RV renovations, travel trailers and regular ol’ car camping and is designed to fit the needs of professional builders, first timers, and serial converters. Simply omit the items and categories that you don’t need or want in your conversion. The goal is to help you understand the realistic costs for something like a conversion for vanlife, a new (new new, or new to you) overlanding build or a trailer renovation project.

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Start with your goals

The beginning of a vehicle conversion budget starts with deciding and documenting what your goals are. Do you want to be able to take your truck off-grid (we will talk about that term in a different post) for 3 weeks at a time? Do you want to go on a 6 week National Park tour? Maybe you’re interested in taking a ski van to the mountains for the weekend…

The things you want to do with your adventure vehicle will determine what you’ll be installing, building and otherwise putting into the vehicle. If, for example, you’re going to be living in it full time, you’ll have a different set of needs (hygiene, work space, etc.) than if you’ll be taking it on short camping trips (with lots of gear).

When you’ve determined what your goals are for your vehicle, you can start to include the systems that support those goals in your budget. Of course, many systems are interrelated and support and rely on each other. We’ll try to detangle them and look at them separately for cost purposes.

Vehicle Systems

We’ve broken down a vehicle conversion project into 5 major divisions:

  • Electrical

  • Heating / Cooling

  • Interior Components

  • Exterior Components

  • Modifications and Accessories

Each division represents a major part of a build and contains all of the parts required to create a complete conversion. In this way, we can easily identify and quantify the parts we need to build each system! Within each of the subdivisions (Insulation) you can add detail when you identify the cost and quantity you need of each component (1 bag of Havelock Wool Insulation = $240).

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Quality vs Cost

As you research different components that are available for your conversion, you will discover a wide variety of price points available. There are some items that cost much more than would be expected, and others that are readily available for a surprisingly low price. Why is it that you can find a cabin heater for $1200 and a seemingly identical unit for $200?!

In most cases we subscribe to the mantra that “you get what you pay for.” This rings true across all aspects of life, and we’re firm believers in buying and using quality components when possible.

Things to consider when choosing from a wide selection of products:

  • Does this product work in the system I am creating?

  • Is it reasonably priced?

  • Does the manufacturer / distributor / retailer offer a warranty?

  • Does the seller offer customer support?

  • What is the lead time / shipping cost (hint: also include this cost in your budget)?

Time vs Cost

While building your conversion budget you will often encounter a compromise between time and cost. There are going to be many designs and components that will cost less, but take more time to research / learn / build / install / troubleshoot. You will also find components that are outrageously priced, but are known to be a perfect fit that is a snap to install. Consider your tolerance for research and troubleshooting, your skills in making whatever component you might be considering, and the trade-off of having the support of a product manufacturer and the satisfaction of building it yourself.

Things to consider when deciding whether to make something yourself or buy it off the shelf:

  • Do you have the time / skills to build it yourself?

  • Will you be satisfied with the results?

  • Will you save money by building it yourself?

  • Do you have the tools to build it yourself? Which leads us to...

Cost of Tools

A conversion budget is not complete without accounting for the tools required to accomplish the job. This is a topic that will be covered in (exhaustive) detail in a different post but is worth mentioning here. There are many components you will buy that require a few tools to install. Furthermore, if you choose to make certain parts of the conversion yourself, you will want to include the cost of the tools required for that in your budget (with the consideration that you get to keep the tools when you’re done).

Consumables

An often overlooked cost is the amount of consumable supplies that it takes to finish a conversion. There is a separate sheet in our template that is dedicated to tallying these costs. It can be hard to predict how much of each item you will need, so do a little research on individual costs and enter a general budget for the division.

Low cost items such as sandpaper, screws, glues, cleaning supplies, protective coverings, etc. can quietly (and quickly) add up. It is a good practice to get in the habit of entering these costs as they happen, so you always have an up-to-date picture of your total costs.

Post Occupancy

One of the benefits of creating and maintaining an accurate budget comes after the build is complete. Throughout the life of the conversion, the VBS can be used as a reference for many things. It contains a line item for each piece installed in the vehicle that can be used to identify replacement parts, upgrades, etc. It can also be used to place a value on your build should you ever choose to sell your conversion.

Download the free Featherbuilt Template

FEATHERBUILT Vehicle Breakdown Structure [PDF]

1. Click this link to open the “view-only” Google Sheets document (no login required)

2. “File - Make a Copy” to start your own budget

3. Each division can be minimized so you can easily see the totals

Let me know how it goes…

This template has been developed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of any type of rig. If you find any issues or have trouble using the spreadsheet, let me know and I’ll do my best to help out.

Hint: If you send me your completed budget, I’ll post some example van, truck and trailer builds. Feel free to comment below with any questions, issues or ideas. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Thanks for reading!

Footnotes:

* This system was inspired by the project management system introduced on the Wintergatan Youtube Channel