Airstream living and van life have taken the world by storm recently as people find new ways to live and travel sustainably and safely. The hashtag #vanlife itself has over nine million posts on Instagram, all showcasing the breathtaking beauty of a road trip, swanky custom interiors within a normal shell and the perks of living in a mobile abode. Many vlogs and blogs contain tutorials on crafting a custom build but, as easy as some of the videos may look, there’s a lot that goes into renovating and altering a RV, airstream or van.
If you’re thinking about getting in on the adventures a van or airstream can add to your life, Cristen Martemucci, an Austinite who flipped a van in four months, says it’s important to consider what one’s end goal is with the project.
“If you plan to live in it, there are things you won’t want to live without in the build compared to if, like mine, the van is for more short-term trips and living,” Martemucci says.
Some aspects of the project that depend on the length of time you might spend living in the van include how high the ceilings are on the van you purchase, the level of sophistication for the plumbing system you’ll put in and even electrical or storage, Martemucci says. Since the livability of a build is dependent on the length of time it’s designed for, it’s important to base the build on these intended circumstances.
Next, decide on a budget and estimate predicted spending. Like many others, the COVID-19 initial quarantine forced Martemucci’s income to become unpredictable, so she knew that newer van models were out of the question, and she worked with the goal of purchasing and flipping a van in the cheapest way possible. Luckily though, after constantly scouring Craigslist, Martemucci was able to find and barter down a 1995 Chevy G10 to $4,000 — about a grand under her initial van budget.
When buying a van or airstream, it’s crucial to do plenty of research on various makes, models and signs of a rust or rot. Bryan Fiese, owner of the renovating and customizing company Motivated RV, says that many people buy airstreams they didn’t know were rotted out or rusted.
“First thing we do is we look at the frame and make sure nothing rusted there,” Fiese says. “Then, we look for soft spots in the floor. Rot is usually in the back corners where water can get in, so it’s important to be thorough.”
Fiese also points out that when it comes to buying airstreams especially, it’s a good idea to avoid “gutted” offerings. This is because gutted means everything has been stripped out — when, usually, you can salvage at least parts of the plumbing and electrical, saving you money in the long run.
Once you have your choice ready, it’s time to get to work. The major and most difficult aspects to renovating come from electrical, plumbing and structure. While there are tutorials online, be wary of the fact that nothing is as simple as it looks — and that all models are different. Fiese says that a common issue he sees is that people take off the shell of the airstream because they saw it on a video, but it ends up just being a waste of time.
“We probably do 100 airstreams a year,” Fiese says. “Only about two of those do we ever need to take off the shell. It’s a rare thing to need to do.”
Martemucci, who did every aspect of the build herself through research and videos, says that the biggest issue she encountered was realizing that her van was not the same as the ones found in online videos, so the process was never exact. Besides that, having started the project with no carpentry or electrical experience, Martemucci says the hardest part is believing in yourself and your abilities to figure it out and make it work.
“It can be scary, especially when it comes to cutting holes in the van itself or installing certain pieces yourself,” Martemucci says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it or that it isn’t doable.”
While doing it all without professional help can save a lot of money, make sure you’re being safe and researching every step of the way. If push comes to shove and you need to outsource the work, search for places like Motivated RV that specialize in all things #vanlife. Fiese says that, many times, clients will come to them and ask to just take care of those big three issues: electrical, plumbing and structure — because once those are finished, that’s when the real fun begins.
It’s no secret that customizing a look and vibe of anything is an exciting process, and customizing a van, airstream or RV is no exception. Just thumbing through the various social media and YouTube accounts devoted to customization, there is plenty of inspiration. Everything from finding unique material for furniture to selecting an aesthetically-pleasing color scheme and décor accents — it’s all up to you and your preferences.
“Anyone who’s gone through the process will tell you, ‘You’re never really done with the last stage,’” Martemucci says. “There’s always something you want to add or a little detail to change, but that’s part of the fun.”
Of course, it’s important to remember that, even though the #vanlife looks idyllic online, there are lots of challenges besides the actual process of renovation. Martemucci says that, just like with everything on social media, it’s only showing the highlights.
“There will be lots of things you didn’t even think of, like how to manage your dogs when living in a confined space, or ventilation,” Martemucci says. “Make sure you are prepared to run into all sorts of ups and downs and are willing to wing it when you have to.
In the end, when it finally all comes together both logistically and aesthetically, you will find a feeling of immense pleasure and accomplishment, she adds. “When I look at her [the van],” Martemucci says, “it’s amazing, that feeling of, ‘I did that. I did that all on my own.’”