First of all, you need to buy a retro van that’s within a reasonable budget. As a rule of thumb, vans from the 1980s or earlier shouldn’t cost more than $5000 for the whole project – that includes buying the van, restoring it and getting it registered.
Normally I try and find retro vans for around the $2000 mark, which allows $500 for on-road costs and $2500 for a complete renovation and fit-out, which includes everything from paint and materials to lighting and homewares.
If you can find a van in great condition that’s already registered and just needs a quick paint job, then $4000 could be an upper limit. But equally, if it’s a shell on wheels then you might try and pay $500 and decide to kit out the whole thing from scratch.
Make sure the caravan you’re buying can be towed straight away. That might seem obvious, but if a van is cheap enough then you may be tempted to use a flatbed truck to get the van home and try to mobilise it later. But I’m not a mechanic and don’t want to be fixing axles and wheels (or even changing tyres, to be honest…) Ideally, try to buy something that’s within a 50km radius and tow it home. Make sure you ask questions about when it was last towed and how far.
You can legally tow a van even if it hasn’t got a current registration. In all states of Australia (and also in New Zealand) you can obtain an Unregistered Vehicle Permit for a specified time. This is a low-cost way of getting a caravan home. In the longer term, you will need to get a certificate of roadworthiness that ensures it is safe to be towed – these are valid for 12 months. It’s best to do that after your renovation, rather than have the rego run down while you’re working on the van and can’t use it on the roads. Having said that, if you’re intending to keep the van on the road while you restore it (rather than in a driveway or garage) then you’ll need the rego straight away to avoid being fined.
Don’t worry if the caravan’s outside lights and indicators don’t work. You can buy a trailer light board to tie on the van for around a hundred bucks. It’ll be enough to get you home. In my experience, outside lights are usually relatively easy to fix. New bulbs and perhaps a new 12-pin plug are often all that is needed and are relatively cheap. Check the connections and you should be good to go – it’s usually an hour’s work at most.
It is a much bigger concern if the electrics inside don’t work. Take an extension lead and spare household lightbulbs with you when you go to see the van, and ask to plug it into mains power. Mending a simple connection for the tail lights is one thing, trying to rewire the inside of a van is another. Try flicking a few lights on and plug in something like a phone charger to a few sockets (or better still, a power outlet tester plug). Updating lights to more modern models is straightforward, but a full rewiring takes time.
Is the caravan structurally sound? Above everything else, make sure the underneath bars aren’t rusty and that there are no major dents or holes. You can fix so many things inside and outside the van, but it needs to be a solid base. Also check if the water tank underneath is good. It can be replaced, but it’s such a painful and fiddly job. Surface rust is fine – it can be scrubbed off with a wire brush, covered with rust sealant, and then sprayed over in white, silver or black. But any extensive rusting of the framework should to be avoided.
Don’t worry about the interior too much. Floors can be easily covered with new stick on tiles fairly cheaply. Bunnings has an excellent range; MDF sheets can tidy up walls and ceilings. New cupboards can be fitted to replace old ones. It’s amazing what you can do with just soap and water. And then No More Gaps and some white undercoat paint can work wonders. Even an empty shell can be renovated as long as it’s solid. Likewise, the outside paintwork can be cleaned up whatever state it’s in – dirt, graffiti, you name it. But major dents or holes are hard to knock out pleasingly or fill perfectly, so avoid vans with major bodywork problems.
Don’t be scared by leaks. Even water damage isn’t terrible. It may look like the symptoms of a bigger problem (and occasionally is) but we’re only talking about a room on wheels here, rather than a house. I usually seal every joint outside on the roof with No More Gaps to make sure it’s water tight whether it’s leaked in the past or not. You can make everything watertight within a couple of hours.
Furniture and appliances and easily replaced. You can replace sinks, cookers and taps if you need to. You can completely gut the van from scratch and start again if you like. But obviously the more that works the better, as it’ll speed up the project and make things cheaper. It’s handy if cupboard doors and handles are salvageable as they retain that retro feel and can blend nicely with the modernisation.
While doors and windows can be fixed, it’s far better if they’re in working order when you buy the van. While you can fix most interior stuff from Bunnings, the latches on doors and windows are specialist caravan ones and replacing them gets expensive. You can fabricate stuff from metal and plastic but it’s hard. I once used a garage lock to fix a caravan door and you may need to get creative with solutions to save cash.
With all that in mind and your caravan towed home – it’s time to renovate! Another 10 tips will follow in the next instalment…