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Old 05-17-2016, 03:19 PM   #1
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Join Date: May 2016
Location: NY
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Lightbulb Building a custom class B on the super-cheap?

Hi -

I'm new to RVs, new to this forum, but not new to finding cheap and creative living situations! Now that I've given up the office rat race for a lifestyle of travel, living in a motorhome is exactly what I intend to do.

Having done several days of research (I'm just getting started here, so go easy on me), I'm shocked by both the prices and degree of luxury of these things. Doesn't anyone want a cheap and tiny, but sturdy and all-inclusive motorhome? My target price for something like this is $15k-$30k. Used chassis is fine. Emphasis nothing fancy: basic, sturdy, non-luxury, basic basic basic building materials.

Here's what I'm looking to build, below. Would really appreciate any leads on anyone who has done something like this before, or who would potentially be able to build one for me.

  • Van — smallest possible (17-19 feet long), but with standing room. Need to be able to park it in a city parking space.
  • Parts that are common to find at any mechanic
  • Highest fuel efficiency possible (>20 mpg)
  • Spare tire fit underneath back of chassis

Interior (general):
  • Simplest possible. Nothing luxury (E.g., no leather chairs, no fancy wood finish…just simple stuff)
  • Surfaces and materials: fiberglass or high quality plastic. Light metal or sturdy plastic better than wood.
  • Carpet floor, solid dark color.
  • Walls very basic with capacity to mount (e.g., a cork board, coat hooks, etc.
  • A/C and heat interior, not just at dashboard
  • Electrical sockets at kitchen area
  • Sufficient insulation
  • Side + ceiling lighting

  • Empty space between two chairs — all compartments in dashboard
  • Bluetooth connection to speakers (speakers just at the front like a normal vehicle)
  • Chairs swing around
  • Windows are tinted and windshield has built in privacy screen

Futon Area:
  • Futon should easily slide up and down from bed to futon
  • Raised so it can fit a coffee table and storage underneath
  • Window (wide, tinted) along bedside
  • Storage capacity above bed (like overhead compartment in airplanes)

Wardrobe area:
  • 2-3 columns of customizable shelving with doors.
  • Full length mirror on left-most door which opens out
  • Again, made of the simplest material. Nothing fancy.

Back side door:
  • A step down area between the door and the inside (a place to take off shoes)
  • Does a back door work with a bike rack on the back? or do we need to shift the wardrobe and have the door open to the side?

  • Wet bathroom
  • A slight step down from ground level in the van
  • Toilet all plastic, seat comes off for easy clean
  • Bidet (fixed in bowl)
  • Fold down sink above toilet
  • Mirror with medicine cabinet
  • Hose showered, high water pressure with low water volume

Kitchen unit:
  • Surface area doubles as desk and food prep area. A slidable barrier would be useful
  • Sink metal and deep as possible.
  • Burners - sunken in slightly, with a fold down cover for more counter space when not in use
  • Toaster oven instead of microwave
  • Storage space below sink
  • Refrigerator below food prep area
  • 3 drawers below desk area, and a pull out cutting board / table that rests on the top drawer
  • Lots of cupboard space above


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Old 05-17-2016, 11:32 PM   #2
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Location: New Brunswick, Canada
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With that budget you should be able to find a nice used Class B. Look for fairly low mileage, no rust etc. Look for units around $20k so you have room in the budget for any repairs or new tires, batteries etc.

I don't think you'll get 20 mpg unless it's an MB Sprinter but they'd likely exceed your budget anyway.

A Class B will have all or most of these items plus other I've likely forgotten:

Isolator – separates house battery from engine battery
House Battery – provides 12v power to the coach
House Battery Disconnect Switch – disconnects the house battery to prevent discharge
Converter – provides 12 volt DC and charges house battery when plugged into grid
Inverter – gives you 110 volt AC from a 12 volt DC source
Generator – used to provide 110 volts AC
110 volt electrical panel with breakers
12v distribution panel with fuses
Transfer Relay - automatically switches from generator power to grid power
Stove top
Water Heater – propane or combo propane and electric, can be DSI (lit automatically) or pilot light (manual)
Water Heater by-pass valve – used when winterizing
Water Pump
City water connection – lets you use campground water instead of onboard water
Fresh water tank
Fresh water tank fill
Fresh water tank drain
Waste Tanks
Waste Tank discharge valves – black tank and grey tank dumping valves
Waste hose storage
Front seats may swivel to face rear of van – extends the van living space
Propane detector – 12v propane leak detector
C0 detector – carbon monoxide detector
Smoke detector
Monitor panel showing battery charge state, water and waste levels
Propane fill valve
Propane shutoff valve
110 volt 30amp power inlet
Cable TV inlet
TV outlet

Two bikes on sliding cargo box: & 1997 GMC Savana 6.5L Turbo Diesel Custom Camper Van Specifications:
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Old 05-18-2016, 12:05 AM   #3
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Posts: 554

Class B's tend to be higher priced in the market. If you could get by with a class C, it will save you a lot of money except for fuel. Labor will be expensive in a build and I agree, find a used one but test all the equipment, it gets costly to fix or replace.
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Old 05-18-2016, 12:05 PM   #4
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Location: NY
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Thank you markopolo! Really helpful list.

Looking around Craigslist, a lot of the Class Bs are really old and in need of a lot of work. I wonder if I would be better off finding a supplier to build me a custom one with used parts on a used chassis? any advice on how to do this other than just trying to find one that matches my needs? (it does need to be a class B, and a small one since I will be in cities with it a lot).
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Old 05-18-2016, 12:46 PM   #5
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Posts: 295

Here are a couple good sites to explore.

Building Annie: a campervan conversion - Ford Transit USA Forum (a DIY van build) (you can even play around with the DIY build software)

I think your budget is very low for what you want unless you can build it yourself (and even then it is low). This would likely cost $10-15k for the labor alone. Then look up the price of a few items on your list (refrig, AC, heater, etc.) and you will be in for a surprise. You also want a fairly decent van that will last if you are doing all of this work on it. There is a reason that Class B's are expensive.
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Old 05-18-2016, 02:05 PM   #6
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I agree that you might have trouble on your budget. A used bare cargo van that is high enough to stand in at low cost with easy to obtain cheap parts might not be possible with a Euro style van, the only option I can think of is an older Ford/GM/Dodge full size cargo van with either a high top or pop up roof.

A short T1N Sprinter (the previous generation van) might work except for the easy to find parts and service but they are pretty reliable so there is that factor...

Here is another DIY build for more design ideas...
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Old 05-18-2016, 02:56 PM   #7
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Location: PacNW
Posts: 36

Originally Posted by efaber View Post
  • Sufficient insulation
Suggest 3M Thinsulate(TM) noise/thermal insulation engineered for vehicles. PM me for a sample or visit our ebay store: impactproducts | eBay

Originally Posted by efaber View Post
Futon Area:
  • Futon should easily slide up and down from bed to futon
We have a futon in our van. Take a look at our build: 2010 3500 RV build - Sprinter-Forum
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Old 05-19-2016, 01:36 PM   #8
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Posts: 108

Save yourself a ton of heartache. Do not try to build your own van. Unless you really know what you are doing. Chances are you will just make a mess of things.

In that budget you can easily find quality early 2000's B and B+ vans that far exceed what you say you want. They are a bit better then a futon in the back of a cargo van.

Just check RVtrader and be open to traveling a bit to get it.
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Old 05-19-2016, 06:37 PM   #9
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We bought a used class B in great shape for under 15K. It needed some basic maintenance that I did myself such as a new coach battery, tuneup, window motors, unclog black tank, replace sewer hose, replace toilet seals, and the biggest item was to replace the carb and fuel pump on the generator. All told it was probably around $700.00 for parts and some hours of my time.

Like so many class B's it was lightly used and had very low mileage for its age. It is highly unlikely that a comparable unit could be assembled for the same amount of time and money.
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Old 05-19-2016, 10:04 PM   #10
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Location: Souderton, PA
Mileage: 77,316

Found that on rvtrader. Looks good, fits your budget and would be an excellent starter or "buy it and use it" unit.

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