Getting Your Motorhome – Build or Buy?

Written May 2004

Updated May 2009 and moved from the old articles section

What should I consider when thinking about building or buying a motorhome?
That is a question we get asked quite often. Unfortunately the answer is quite complex. This article aims to provide some guidelines and thoughts on logical steps to help answer this question.

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As our experience is mainly in relation to living and travelling in a motorhome for an extended time, most of the answers you will see here relate to this type of motorhoming. You can put up with just about anything for a short holiday.

Build or Buy a Motorhome?
Big question – lots will disagree with this… it depends.

  • Are you in a hurry?
  • Do you have lots of money to spend?
  • Are you handy with a hammer, wires and pipes?
  • Are you a free camper or a caravan park hopper?

If you have lots of money and can afford to get somebody else to do the work and you really know what you want – then have it built for you. I am of the opinion that you will not recoup the money you put into a vehicle built like this but to some people this is not important.
Unless you have all the time in the world and are prepared to look at 100’s of motorhomes and pick the brains of lots of existing motorhome owners, don’t think about starting from scratch. The enormity and cost of doing this is almost always underestimated. I have seen estimates of $10,000 per meter of bus length to complete a conversion.
If you not in a too much of a hurry, are a somewhat handy and don’t want to lose a ton of money when you sell the vehicle, then buy something that is close to what you want and change it to be closer to what you want. You may even get some professional help with some of the changes. This is what we did and we would do it again. If you are going to buy someone else’s creation, try to get their 2nd or 3rd attempt – very few people get it right first time.
First Steps
Whether you decide to buy or build there is a very important phase to go through first – even before you start looking at motorhomes for sale…
Ask yourself

  • “How will the vehicle be used?”
  • Will you stay in camping grounds or spend most of your time “Free Camping”.
  • Do you need 4WD?
  • Do you have the time to move with the good weather or do you need air conditioning and heating?

After you decide exactly how the vehicle will be used, make a list of what it must have to be able to support that type of use.
Example : We decided that we wanted to stay away from caravan parks as much as possible (our budget allows for one stay per fortnight – in reality we have spent about 5 nights in paid parks in almost a year).
This decision greatly effected the type of vehicle we considered.


It needed to have:

  • A large water capacity – preferably separate drinking and washing water tanks so we could pump water from rivers and streams to fill the washing water tanks.
  • A grey water holding tank so we do not have to drop water where we are parked.
  • Solar panels to power the TV and all the other gadgets ya need. We decided not to have air conditioning thus we needed a large solar array and a small generator for when the sun won’t shine. We think that this is a good compromise – we only have to use (and listen to) the generator very rarely.
  • A large refrigerator/freezer. As ours is now electric (gas is hopeless in hot climates), we needed even more solar panels. Still, it was one of the best changes we have made, electric is definitely the way to go (unless you are into warm beer and sour milk).
  • Long range fuel tanks. Tiny outback towns have notoriously bad fuel that is incredibility expensive. Having large fuel thanks means that we can full up at large truck stops and avoid the dangers of tiny town fuel.
  • A fairly large vehicle. You need lots of storage for food and supplies if you are going to camp in the outback for weeks at a time.
  • A second vehicle – it is just not practical to pack up and move a 10 ton motorhome every time you want to get a loaf of bread from the nearest shop. More on this later.
  • Well setup for outside living. We like spending time outside so a large awning, the ability to cook outside and a shower outside are all good to have.

Do you need a second vehicle?
We have never travelled without one. We use the Moke about 3 or 4 times each week – more if we are stationary for an extended time and it is out of the motorhome. We think that if you have a large vehicle it is almost essential to have a second vehicle of some sort. As a matter of interest, we have travelled slightly more km’s in the moke than in the motorhome since we have been on the road.

Petrol, Gas or Diesel?
I’d go for diesel every time. It is less complex than petrol and gas, much more economical than petrol and you can get diesel everywhere. Interstate trucks do millions of km’s – how many of them run on gas or petrol?

Most ‘back-yard-mechanics’ are put off diesel engines because they know little about them – I was the same. I now know that they are far more reliable and simpler to maintain that petrol engines.


More thoughts
Here is an extract from an email I sent to a friend in NZ when he asked about what to look for in a bus…

Weight is the single biggest issue. The second biggest issue is the distribution of that weight. In our case the main fresh water tank is at the rear on the right hand side. Not good for us. Remember – you can always drop grey – you are less likely to want to drop fresh water.
Battery capacity – we have 220AHrs @ 24v. If we load the freezer up with a big shop and watch a movie at night, we are 50Ah down by 7am the following morning. If we have a wet or overcast day, we will be another 15Ah down by the end of the day. You should not use any more that 50% of the AH capacity of deep cycle batteries. As you can see 440Ah would be a better capacity for a motorhome with an electric fridge. But of course weight comes into it again.
We think our water capacity is about right. 300 ltr fresh – 200 ltr drinking and 300 ltr grey. We have been on this site for a week tomorrow (solar showers every day) and we still have water in the tanks.
Being able to take the toilet cassette out of the motorhome from the outside would be a big plus. I would not consider a black water tank.
Our sleeping arrangements are good – make sure you get a good double bed that is very comfortable. It is a big plus to have an “Island bed” (ie can walk down both sides.)
Think about an “entertaining area”. In many buses we have seen it is not possible to have 3 visitors onboard and comfortably talk and sit and have a bite to eat. We like the lay-out of our motorhome and would not change it (other than the odd tweak).
A good extractor or range hood would be a big bonus. It needs to be quiet and vent outside (we have done this now).
The awning is great – a must have.
Tinted windows – another must have – the darker the better – ours are 1 shade lighter than an ambulance tint.
100% insect proof is a must. You must have fly screens on everything.
You need as much air flow as possible – you must have opening windows – the more and the bigger the better.
Two LPG gas tanks are a must.
Do not consider carpet – it collects too much dirt and is impossible to keep clean and bug free.
A split diff in our motorhome would make a big difference – more gears is always better!

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One Response to “Getting Your Motorhome – Build or Buy?”

  1. Julia Harwood Says:

    Hi, We are looking at purchasing a Mitsubishi Fuso bus which has been converted to a motorhome. It is 1988 and has done 210,000km. Is this a good vehicle type and are there any specifics you are aware of that we need to look out for?
    Thanks
    Jules

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