Building a Motorhome

We receive several emails every week from people who enjoy reading our blog and who have questions about how they too can begin to enjoy the lifestyle that we live. We enjoy reading these emails and like the feedback, there are always a number of questions about building a motorhome. In this article I would like to put forward my opinion on building your own motorhome.

build-your-own-motorhome

My first chunk of advice for those who are considering buying an old bus and converting it into their very own home on wheels is “DON’T DO IT”!   I seriously suggest that anyone who thinks they are capable of turning an old bus into a practical, functional, robust motorhome on any sort of reasonable budget and in a reasonable timeframe, without any previous experience is deluding themselves. Now I am not saying that it is impossible, I am just saying that it is probably 10 times more difficult, and twice as expensive as you think. If you don’t believe me, have a look in local papers and on eBay at the number of “incomplete project busses” that are for sale – these people found out the hard way just how expensive and time consuming it is to do your own conversion.

So what is the alternative? I suggest that the best way to get on the road is to buy a bus that is already converted. Look for something that is close to what you want – then spend the time and money making the changes.

Lets compare the two options:

Build Your Own Motorhome Buy An Already Converted Motorhome
On day one after the purchase, you start removing seats. You have drawn you design based on what you think will work for you and you start building. The motorhome has to be almost finished before you can try out the design by taking the motorhome away for a weekend. By the time you realise that it is not quite right, it is too late. On day one you drive a fully functional motorhome onto your property. On day two you decide to spend the night in it and pretend that you don’t have to go to work the following day. The next weekend you take it away to try it out. During this time you get some ideas about what needs to be done to make it suitable for full time living.

A month later you take it away for your first week long trip. This is where you really start to figure out what full time motorhoming is all about. By the end of this week you have altered your 2 year “get on the road” plan to a 1 year plan, have some real plans for alterations to the bus and definitely do not want to go to work on Monday.

Six months after buying the bus, it still doesn’t look anything like a motorhome. You cannot believe how expensive all the parts are. The gas fitter and the electrician have quoted outrageous prices and your mate who was going to help you always seems to have something else on.

Someone said that the household fridge you bought for the bus would require too many solar panels and the large water tank you had built is just a fraction too big for the space you allocated for it.

Six months after buying the motorhome, you have been away in the motorhome 9 times and the 1 year plan to get on the road is looking more like a 9 month plan. You have already started selling all the stuff you won’t need and have secured a storage unit for the stuff you have to store.  The alterations on the bus are complete and they have been tested.
Nine months after purchase, you are over the whole thing, doing 3 hours work on the bus after work each day and two full days at the weekends has worn you down. You cannot understand where all the money has gone and it still looks nothing like a motorhome.

You decide to advertise it on eBay as a partly completed project.

Nine months after buying the motorhome you are finally on the road. The bus has been well tested (all those weekends away) and the alterations are working well.

No work tomorrow!

Ok, so that is perhaps a little over dramatised, but it is fairly representative of how many of these stories go. All I am suggesting is that you think very carefully about what skills and experience you have in designing and building motorhomes, really check out the prices of fittings (some are up there with marine fitting prices) and realistically consider the amount of work that is involved.


Selecting a used motorhome

Before you even start looking at motorhomes you must make some important decisions. The first and most important is “what sort of traveller am I?” By this I mean, will you be driving from caravan park to camping ground or will you be wanting to free camp 95% of the time. I suspect that most people who are reading this will opt for the latter. Clearly, the advantages of setting up your motorhome for freedom camping include a vast reduction in ongoing expenditure (no or few caravan park fees) and the ability to stay that that magic place in the middle of nowhere.

The downside is the cost of the motorhome fit-out. Setting up a bus to be fully self-sufficient and independent is far more expensive than simply equipping it to accept the services from a caravan park.

Having decided on the type of travelling you will be doing, you now need to start listing what the motorhome will require…

How big does it need to be?

How much water will you need to carry?

How much food storage?

What is the best type of refrigerator?

What type of fuel will the vehicle run on and what tank capacity will you need?

How will you make power and how much storage will you need?

Solar – how much?

Once you have answered these and all the other important questions, you can make a list of what the ideal motorhome will contain. Of course, you won’t be able to find a motorhome that is for sale that meets all of these requirements (Hobohome is NOT for sale! 🙂 )– but you will find one that is close, it will require some time and money to get it to where you want it to be – but it will be a manageable project AND you will be able to use the motorhome on day one.

Be honest – if you have never lived in a motorhome for an extended time away from services, how can you be expected to know what it takes? Taking your newly purchased motorhome away for a week at a time before you start spending any money on it, is one of the best ways of finding out -without spending money on mistakes.

Motorhome mistakes are typically very expensive!

Do you agree or disagree? Do you have a story about building your motorhome? Have you bought someone else’s mistakes?    I’d love to hear from you – why not use the “leave a Reply” box below and tell us about your experience.

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35 Responses to “Building a Motorhome”

  1. Rob Says:

    Hi Gavin,

    I disagree, try 3x as expensive and 20x as hard 🙂

    Actually you’re pretty close, our estimate to build Mk 2 was $25k and it wound up being $45k. As for Mk 1, I often reckon if we had done as you suggest we would have hit the road 2 years earlier and $100k richer. We may not have had exactly what we wanted but is it worth that sort of cost?

  2. jim watt Says:

    hi gavin
    I am starting to agree with you. We started our bus an 8mtr hino december 2008 (even after reading your story back then I dont think you recomended a self build), we used a N Z product called Duralite and it looked easy to use on the web site, but being an electrician and not a chippie I struggled until I found a 79year old retired cabinet maker who came to our assistance and he has done a fantastic job.So after 2 or 3 hours every day after work and most weekends the inside is nearley complete just waiting for the kitchen seats to be made,gas and hot water fitted then its off to the spray painters .then registration then ???

    If I had my time over, I still dont know if this was the way to go but we are getting the fitout design we want, probabley saved $40k, but we are still here and lost 2 years traveling time, will make up for that when we are on the road.

    I have read all the stories you post on your web site and have got some good ideas during the build which have been helpful to us. Here’s hoping that we meet on the road some time soon.

    Cheers Jim

  3. Rob and Rose Says:

    G’day Gavin
    I’m not about to argue with you – since I haven’t a leg to stand on!!! – but we are a stubborn pair and our standards aren’t as high as some! We’ll be on the road by this time next year if we wind up sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our bus. If there’s one positive thing about living in South Australia it’s that it makes anywhere else look attractive, and a 36 foot bus positively luxurious. It’ll happen, stay tuned…

  4. Hobo Says:

    Please keep us informed with your progress.
    BTW – we loved SA!

  5. Colin Says:

    Hi Guys

    This is the address of our blog site it is open to the public so feel free to share it…
    http://cid-6b455154a691979b.spaces.live.com/default.aspx?_c02_vws=1&sa=244504173

    We are currently building our bus/motorhome but are also living in it as we build. The bus is to be named “Dilligaf” inspiration drawn from reading your story… We do agree that the costs associated with conversion and fitout can be very expensive it is also very rewarding when you can do most of the work your self.

    Whilst I am not a tradesman I do consider myself a jack of all trades and am willing to give anything a go…any skills I do not have I am happy to research them or request some assistance if it is beyond me. We still have a long way to go but it is not our first bus, having converted and then reconverted a 25 ft bedford school bus in the eighties.

    Our current project is a PMC bodied 36ft International, repowered with an Aussie spec Isuzu 6bd1 driving a 4 speed auto. We have put about 10,000 klms on the bus since we acquired it and all indications are that it is very sound if somewhat slow, still I am happy to travel about 85 to 90 kph.

    Regards
    Colin and Jacqui

  6. Hobo Says:

    Hi guys,
    The choice of engine is a very good one (imho) – it is the same as we have (ours is turbo) and we are very happy with it. At 4.5km/l we get at least as many kms/l as many people towing caravans.

    Living in and building the bus at the same time must be tricky – I guess it has some advantages too.
    Love the photos on the site – she is looking good.
    I do feel that it is a huge advantage (when actually on the road) to be a jack of all trades – it costs a fortune to get a tradesman to do every little job.

    Hope to meet you guys on the road sometime.

    G & T

  7. Sylvia Says:

    Hi Gavin,

    I guess it all has to do with planning and determination.
    We bought our very empty 7 meter Nissan Civillian in Chch NZ where we live, end 2007, made a plan and stuck to it. Motivation for us was that we wanted to take Jimi (that what we called him, Hendrikx is our surname!) to Australia March 2010 for 9 months and guess what….we’re here! Arrived in Brisbane end of March and travelled over the East coast to Alice Springs where we are at the moment. We’ve just missed you guys in the Uluru area a couple of times. And we must be very close now. For anyone who’s interested in our travels and what it takes to bring a bus over from NZ please visit our website http://www.jimiztravelz.com
    Happy to answer any questions. Cheers Syl

  8. Hobo Says:

    Well done guys! That is a great resut. Determination, planning and good old hard work are the cornerstones of any sucessful project. We are still in Alice Springs. I will email to see if we can catch up. I have lots of questions!
    G&T

  9. Darryl Says:

    Hi Gavin i just finshed my 1985 nissan ud ex school bus to motorhome cost was $32,000 from start to finsh .i will say it was hard going as i had 2 operations in between my 16 month start to finsh project and having cash on hand helped heaps.so the bus has just been finshed 4 hours ago and tomorrow loading it up for a trial run .have been living in it in drive way for 6 months so everythink should be ok.number plate BAVO76 cheers Darryl and i agree home built is hard and stressful throughout the project even finding parts and items to fit is hard enough

  10. Hobo Says:

    Hi Darryl – Congratulations on finishing the motorhome. That is quite an achievement (and done at a very good price). I am sure you are now looking forward to getting out there and enjoying all the hard work. I hope we meet up somewhere nice along the road for a amber ale or two.
    Gavin & Tracey

  11. Darryl Says:

    Thanks Gavin and Tracey for wishing me well i just love taking a look at your web site as you both Have so much good advice and such a passion for motor homes and traveling it just blows me away your details and pictures of explaining the good and not so good parts of motor homing and every think in between cheers Darryl my bus is traveling good and i just purchased camps snaps 5

  12. john Says:

    hey there
    just incase any one deciding to biuld motor home
    thers new regulation out for nsw that ALL doors must open out

    i just took mine up for second time after finding this out the hard way and traveling 200km
    to engineer

    anyway allllll passed and another step done

    ps the engineer said that a door cant open inwards ( as most do on busses)

    but he also said if i block it off so its not a door(because i have middle door) he would pass it????

    mmmm stuppiddd

    id rather some form off escape from a fire than no escape

    but thems the rules ,, who are we to argue???

    ok any way its officialy a motor home now

    cheers john

  13. Jason Says:

    Regarding doors & opening outwards , i have just finished a bus conversion & left the doors standard (concertina style ) on a Austral bus , is this still ok & Whats with taking it to an Engineer ? Thaught it was just Blue Slip & Rego ?

  14. Hobo Says:

    I am not sure – but I do know that the rules change from state to state. Our bus has the standard bus door and we find it very useful to have the ability to drive with the door open. There is a screen door on the outside.

  15. Jason Says:

    I hope it gets through rego “as is” & being an ex bus driver , i know how good the buses vent when traveling with the door open . thanks for the reply.
    J

  16. john Says:

    hi jason
    just went through all this stuff in september
    bus is same as gav but 81 model

    nsw regulations
    doors open out
    and heavy vehicle engineer certificate to convert to motor home
    RTA tells you which engineer they have on aproved list

    so you have to take to the neerest one they give you

    fist trip to him cost $660
    he picked minor stuff like bolts for seats
    and the front door

    so had to take home fix door and drive 100km back to him

    i dont know where you are
    im in nsw

    if you need any more info
    leave a note here and ill give you my phone number

    cheers john

    oh and you need electical certificate for 240v
    and gas compliance certificate/// and the approriate stickers

  17. Scott Sutcliffe Says:

    Gavin,

    I intend converting 40ft Motorcoach to Motorhome. Your rig looks quite a size so how limiting is your ability to get into places with limited ground clearance these Bus type motorhomes have. Say compared to 4wd pulling caravan?

  18. Hobo Says:

    Ground clearance is a big issue – that and traction is the main thing that stops our motorhome. However – I feel that we probably take our motorhome to more remote places that about 99% of caravaners. The things in our favor include the ability to carry a huge amount of food and water, the ability to be 100% self-contained and able to stay in a single location for months at a time. We may never cross the Simpson Desert, but when we do find that amazing remote spring in the middle of nowhere – we can stay there for a long time.

    Gavin

  19. Scott Sutcliffe Says:

    Thanks Gavin,
    I take it from your reaponse that more Pros than Cons for the larger Motorhomes.
    There is six of us so I think we need as much sppppaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaacccccccccccceeeeee as possible to avoid killing each other.

    Cheers Scott

  20. Jason Says:

    Looks like it might just be easier to stick an unreg vehicle permit on it & head for QLD for rego , unless they have moved the goal posts up there as well to keep inline with the revinue state !

  21. Jason Says:

    Spoke to RTA Tech services today & the Door on my Metroliner does not have to be changed & can stay standard , only have to get engineers certificate for seat changes …

  22. francis Says:

    Very informative i like it. has always been my choice and I know I made the right decision.

    Working from home is the future.

  23. Chris Murphy Says:

    I have just recently completed my bus to motor home conversion to a reasonably comfortable standard at a reasonable price
    Having worked in the engineering trades and being a qualified electrician all but the gassing of the air-conditioner has been performed by myself and this accounts for the lower cost of the conversion.
    Some details of the bus.
    Make –Volvo
    Type –¬ Coach
    Motor- 6 Cly horizontal mounted Turbocharged 10 litres diesel
    Fuel capacity – 500 litres
    Transmission – Allison 4 speed automatic
    Differential – 2 speed low/high
    Fuel consumption around 4kms per litre
    The bus was bought for $18,000 and the Conversion costs were around $6000.00
    The electrical items are all 240 volt domestic appliances full size units
    Electrical supply for the appliances is obtained from 24 volt storage batteries supplying an inverter to 240 volts.
    2 x120 watt solar panels supply battery recharging for 300 amp hour battery bank
    Lighting is 12 volts run from the 24 volt storage batteries by a 24/12 volt converter
    My wife and myself will be travelling soon when I retire in 2012
    How can I post photos?

    Regards Chris Murphy

  24. Hobo Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Sounds like a nice rig and a very good price. I wish we carried 500 ltrs of fuel.
    I think you may have issues with 240v appliances running from 240watts of solar – does not sound like nearly enough solar to me (unless you plan on running a generator every day).

    It is not currently possible to upload photos – but I am working on a section of the website called “Show us ya rig” – look out for it soon.

    Gavin

  25. Jason Wego Says:

    Hi there. Had a quick read of your suggestions long time ago and still decided to go ahead and buy a bus and strip it down to nothing and start again. Its been about a year 18 months so far and it might be slow but I am loving the project.
    Bought a 1987 scania for $3500. At that price I thought it was worth stripping back to bare chassis and having a go.
    Like to find some friends doing similar to share stories and ideas with. Jason. Broome W.A

  26. David Felgar Says:

    Hi guys,
    Ive got a couple of questions and just wondering if someone could help out.

    Is an old RV registered in QLD with electrical and gas certification easy to get NSW rego????
    and………is there a website or similar that can help me out.

    The vehicle Im looking at is a 83 Toyota hiace winnebago and Ive been told that it may need an engineers certificate to make it NSW compliant……?

    Any info or advice would be appreciated
    Thanks
    David

  27. Hobo Says:

    Hi David,
    I’m not an expert on this – but my understanding is if the vehicle is already registered in one state as a motorhome, they do not require a engineers cert to change it to another state. They may require it to go over the pits.
    I would try phoning the NSW DMV and asking them.

    Cheers

    Gavin

  28. Michelle Says:

    We complete bus conversions and believe me we know its a HUGE job and not to be undertaken lightly, in our travels delivering them to customers we have come across many people who have chatted with us, that completed their own and once they found out how reasonable we were the most common words were “I wish we had known about you guys” Its the quality of the the end result that makes the difference as its going to be your home – would you trust Bob down the road that drives a taxi to build your house? Fixing problems is costly, and time is something you can’t get enough of, so thank you Hobohome for making people aware of the pitfalls! Mind you I also recommend doing your homework on the company you choose to build your motorhome as there are some seriously dodgy ones out there that put substandard EVERYTHING in and thats not what you want either. 🙂

  29. Paul Whiteman Says:

    Hi Gavin,
    Well after reading what is here,
    I am still determined to go ahead with a conversion,
    We have lived in a few buses now and loved it.
    Its time to build our own.
    Picked up more than a few ideas.
    My biggest design problem ,will be making enough room for 3 Great Danes.
    Oh well we all need a challenge now and then.
    Just swapped my 4m tinnie for a 1991 40ft Denning Majestic Mercedes V8 6 speed manual.
    All seats have been removed, and everything is in good working order.
    Just needs some minor body panel repairs for roadworthy.
    And then the fun begins.
    Will keep you informed on the progress.

    Cheers

  30. gary Says:

    hi,
    everyone says not to build your own, but for some reason i still want to do it,
    like to get a good quality toyota coaster, esp with low k’s, so as to eliminate mechanical probs,
    am an electrician and do lots of new homes, so have a rough idea whats involved it fitting out
    really appreciate all you tips etc, just starting on my list of all the does and donts i come across. so as to try and not forget something
    wont be able to travel till the kids finish uni, so have a cuppla years to fit out
    am i still in big trouble?

  31. Hobo Says:

    I guess a lot depends on finance and commitment – time will tell 🙂 Please prove me wrong!
    Let us know how you go.

  32. keep on movin Says:

    Hi All
    Had a good read here and yes still wanting to undertake a project build. Im a plumber gasfitter so im going to be doing most of the work myself, but my question is what is going to be a good platform to start from. I’m heavily into my four wheel driving with regards to getting to hard to get to places and would like a bus that has some level of ability to do the same with. I originally started looking at a Mercedes tag axle but are these busses strictly bitumen only or can they handle graded gravel roads? I don’t want a full blown off road bus because my intention is to tow the fourby behind. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks

  33. Horse Says:

    Hi guys.
    After 25 years traveling under canvas, I have finally got the wife onboard with building a bus!
    3 weeks on the Tassie east coast in a 6 berth camper with a couple of friends seaked the deal.
    Currently shopping for a project.
    Have been a mechanical engineer for 30 years with welding/electrical/CAD experience, so looking forward to the challenge!
    Are their any favorite rigs out there l should look at?
    Currently looking at a 10.5 mt Hino Blue Ribbon.
    Any comments?
    All thoughts greatfully excepted!

  34. Crazy Says:

    Hi Guys, my name says it, we are looking at buying a coach/bus and doing a 2 year around Australia treck, looking at buying an interstate registered bus and bringing it back to NSW, can any one tell me if the entrance door has to open backwards or is forwards OK, I realise it has to open outwards, also what pitfalls can any one advise me to look for, I have already decided to put an Allison auto in and while it is out I might as well get any bearings or seals done in the back of the motor, this is all new to us so any advice is golden, thanks in advance.

  35. Grippa Says:

    We have just purchased a 1985 7M Hino AC140K bus already converted to a motor home 3 years ago. Cost $20,000. We are happy to use a shower and toilet tent outside, this saved us buying a bigger bus and leaves it nice and roomy for meal preps and hobbies during wet weather and evenings. It features a queen bed in the rear, a table for 2, 80L water tank, pressure pump, 3 way fridge, aux batteries, 12V lighting, a couple of 240V power points for when we hit the caravan parks, a large roll out awning, tinted windows, air conditioning whilst on the road and exhaust brakes. There is plenty of cupboard space, although no cabinets are higher than the window line. This is what we were looking for, for that spacious 360 degree view. I will fit the solar panels. Ok… we don’t have grey or black water storage, and we need more water tanks, but hey $20,000 !!! what do you get for that these days. It’s immaculate inside, and the body is very straight. Bargains are out there. Grippa.

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