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Taking A Leap: The Real Story Behind My DIY Camper Conversion

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Written by Teresa B. Schumacher

In the summer of 2020 I decided that I was going to convert a cargo van into a tiny home on wheels.

A global pandemic was ravaging the world, fear and political unrest swept across the American landscape, and I was sitting at home tapping my feet, staring out the window, desperate to find a way to set out in this new, precarious world and continue telling stories in a safe and responsible manner.

So I went out and bought a van.

In my haste I made the rookie mistake of not getting a professional to take a look at the vehicle before committing to the purchase. It had a clean CarFax, it looked good, it drove smoothly. It was fairly new and had low mileage.

What could possibly go wrong?

A few weeks later, as I began the conversion process, I started noticing things that made me uneasy. Little things, nothing major. A small dent on the roof, a crack on the door. It was enough to make me suspicious though, and so I decided to take the van to a local Dodge mechanic for a thorough evaluation.

My gut feeling about the vehicle turned out to be validated. The mechanic kindly told me that the vehicle had at some point been in a really bad rear-end collision, and the entire back end of had been replaced due to extensive damage. The new welding job was poorly done, the cracked door threatened to fall off without warning, and the vehicle would soon be covered in rust if something wasn’t done.

None of this was mentioned at the dealership, or in the vehicle’s pristine CarFax report.

When I asked the mechanic what it would cost to fix the damage, the man couldn’t even bring himself to say the words out loud. Instead he passed me a slip of paper with numbers scrawled on it, mumbling under his breath that he was very sorry and that he’d give me 20% off of the cost of labor, simply because he felt so bad for me.

I looked down at the slip of paper and gasped.

It would cost me almost $20,000 to fix the damage. More than I’d even spent on the van itself.

There are times in life when you take a leap. Despite your fears and hesitations, you do something unfamiliar and risky because you have a vision that you desperately want to make a reality.

This van represented that kind of leap for me.

At the time I was grieving the recent loss of my father, trying to process the unsettling fear that came with facing a global pandemic and an unknown future, and seeking purpose in a life that had been turned upside down.

I made a leap, and I promptly landed on my head.

I learned that I was a victim of salvage fraud. Basically, there was enough damage to my vehicle that it should have been given a salvage title, but instead someone had done a shoddy repair and tried to hide the damage. The dealership played dumb, claiming they had no idea about the damage. When I called they put me on hold, dropped my call, told me they’d call me back. Weeks went by, and I became more and more defeated. Finally, after threatening to hire a lawyer and calling the dealership countless times and speaking with countless different employees, I finally convinced the dealership to give me (most) of my money back if I returned the vehicle.

Three months later I was able to return the van, already partially converted, and get most of my money back.

Now I just had to start all over.

It was November by the time I found another van that fit my needs. By that time Ohio had transformed from a world of lush greenery, chirping crickets, and warm hopeful nights to a depressing scene of leafless trees, gray skies and bitter cold.

When I wanted to work on the van, I first had to find it under two feet of snow. I created a shelter out of tarps and brought a heater out from the garage. I bundled up in layers of clothes. The cold fought back with relentless persistence. The damp crept in and prevented anything from drying. My materials froze in their bottles and cans. My breath came out in wisps of fog and the tips of my fingers turned numb within their gloved confines.

It was awful.

I think that now is as good a time as any to bring up the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Although I spent my younger years watching my father, an incredibly talented carpenter, build everything from bookshelves to houses, I realized early on in this endeavor that I had retained absolutely nothing from my early observations.

I didn’t know how to frame. I didn’t know how to use power tools. I didn’t know the first thing about electrical wiring, plumbing, or 12V power systems.

This made me more sad than anything. With each mistake I made, each setback I faced, each day that I stared at my van with a growing sense of defeat, I missed my father that much more. If he was still alive, we could have done this together. He would have walked me through this monumental task, helping me through each step and teaching me the way like only a father can.

A new crack formed in my heart every time I looked at the van and felt the sudden urge to call up my dad.

Despite my heartache, my setbacks and my growing sense of hopelessness, I refused to quit. I watched endless YouTube videos and read countless DIY blogs. I nagged my partner for help on his days off until tensions rose and this idea of mine threatened both of our sanity. I eventually acknowledge my limitations and hired professionals to help with the aspects of the build that I just wasn’t equipped to do.

Finally, by May of 2021, my van and I were ready to hit the road.

It's hard to describe the sense of elation I felt as I set off for the first time in my newly converted home on wheels. This imperfectly designed, clumsily built, painstakingly created dream of mine was finally a reality. I hadn't just proven that I could build a van, but also that I could persevere in the face of impossible situations, think outside the box during a time of global uncertainty, and pave a positive future for myself despite a heartache that I know will never really go away.

I want so badly to show my dad what I've done, although I get the feeling that somehow, somewhere, he already knows.


**Check out the video below for a complete tour of my van!

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