- I’m 24 years old and I am currently renovating a secondhand RV so I can travel around the world.
- The process is expensive and there are unexpected setbacks, like bad weather and small mistakes.
- Van-lifers on Instagram/TikTok don’t really show how stressful and miserable this process can be.
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With the influence of social media paired with my family’s love for DIY projects, it’s no surprise that I chose to purchase and renovate a 1980s travel trailer for $1,500 at just 24 years old.
But I was quickly surprised by how much renovating an RV is not nearly as glamorous as the pros on Instagram and TikTok make it seem.
There is no single guideline that tells you where to start or which steps to follow
On my first day home with the RV, I sat and stared at it like it was a blank canvas. I kept thinking how none of the videos I watched actually prepared me for this moment: The very beginning.
All of the research in the world was a couple of clicks away, yet I felt helpless and anxious.
I also struggled to create a more detailed plan before I began. It’s really hard to design van layouts when you have no background in it and almost zero artistic ability.
Even after I decided my first step should be cleaning out my van, I felt caught up with making sure I remained organized, stuck to my budget, and tracked my progress. This is much easier said than done.
I also didn’t realize how gross cleaning out an RV could be. My secondhand trailer came with used items I didn’t want to touch, like used toiletries, clothing, and blankets.
Things will go wrong, and unforeseen problems can cause major financial and time setbacks
Going into this process, I kept reminding myself that older trailers will often come with unforeseen issues.
But there’s nothing glamorous about the sheer stress and panic that comes along with realizing every minor renovation could require seemingly unpredictable hours of demolition and work. It was a huge mental game just to adjust my expectations from the luxurious renovations and builds that were flooding my social-media feeds to reality.
Everyone has a breaking point -and even though I’m a relatively calm, easy-going person, the flooring issue in my van was mine.
The original trailer listing claimed to have “a few soft spots near the entrance door.” This would’ve been an easy fix. But after 10 minutes of examining the RV, I discovered the entire main trailer floor, including the exterior framing sheet metal, was rotted down to the studs.
A fix that would’ve taken five minutes and $45 became a five-day, $500 project complete with a few tears and choice words.
Working with a budget is even trickier since certain goods are currently at sky-high prices
I feel like a lot of van-lifers don’t really touch on how stressful the money aspect of these renovations can be.
For starters, many who have been to a home-improvement store within the past year know that the pandemic has put some serious pressure on the supply-and-demand chain.
Construction equipment and building materials – especially lumber – are among the items impacted and of high demand, so now I’m paying higher-than-usual prices that don’t seem to be dropping anytime soon.
Fortunately, I adjusted my budget ahead of time to fit the expected prices, but it still hurts when I have to pay more than I know something’s typically worth.
The smallest mistake and misstep can be totally heartbreaking (and expensive)
Unfortunately, I did not really plan for potential mistakes when I started my renovation. I also didn’t realize how expensive they could get.
There’s no worse feeling than ruining an entire piece of expensive plywood with a botched cut because you incorrectly measured by a centimeter.
Actually, it may be even worse spending an entire weekend replacing rotted sheet metal only to have your mom accidentally wreck it by stepping on it.
There’s also a lot of comparison and pressure to create a perfect build
I know I’m doing my project alone and on my own budget, but it’s hard not comparing myself to those working as a team or with larger budgets or different skill sets. It’s even harder not to feel jealous and compare my work to the photogenic masterpieces I see on TikTok and Instagram.
There’s a constant pressure I place on myself to create something not only I am proud of but other people will be proud of too.
Power tools aren’t as easy to operate as they look, and a huge learning curve is needed for renovations
A lot of van-lifers don’t seem to showcase just how many extra hours some of us need to dedicate to renovations, whether it be getting the hang of power tools or watching countless YouTube videos on construction.
For me, I’m using a lot of not-so-fabulous hours hearing lectures from my dad about electricity, plumbing, heating/cooling, and weight distribution. I’m very thankful he comes equipped with renovation know-how and every power tool and piece of construction equipment imaginable.
As easy as it would be to let him take over, I’ve felt it’s more important to take the extra time to have him teach me and supervise, stepping in when needed. But this requires a massive learning curve.
I also underestimated how much Mother Nature would work against me and how often I’d feel defeated
I’m located in New Jersey and I originally purchased my travel trailer back in January. I held a very unrealistic expectation that I could complete the entire renovation within a month or two.
My expectations quickly fell short of reality. Mother Nature’s blisteringly cold winter had won. At no point did I expect the next few months would come with constant blizzards, dumping multiple feet of snow on the ground (and my trailer).
There was absolutely nothing glamorous about spending a freezing day with a hose and bucket of soap with nearly frostbitten hands cleaning the dirty exterior of the trailer.
It was, plain and simply put, miserable. This reality hit me hard. I felt so defeated I would have to put major renovations on hold for the upcoming winter months.
It feels like a lot of van-lifers don’t showcase the recurring feelings of misery and defeat
Above all, I wish the people I watched online had showcased more of the uncomfortable, overwhelming feelings that come along with the positives so I’d have a more accurate idea of what to expect going into my first major renovation.
I haven’t seen others share the tears that come with going out in the middle of the night to climb a ladder and clear snow off your RV roof in the middle of a blizzard because you have no clue how much weight a 31- year-old trailer can support.
Or how awful it feels when the unpredictable weather gets in the way of your entire schedule. Major projects I had hoped to finish already, like painting the exterior, continue to be placed on hold.
I wish I had tons of updates and before-and-after pictures ready to go, but the difficult truth is that there is nothing enjoyable about renovations in the rain. I often felt too defeated by the weather to even want to try.
But even the most unglamorous, difficult moments have some perks and upsides
I know this process doesn’t sound fun at all. In fact, it sounds pretty miserable – but l’ve learned there’s always a way to turn these not-so-great moments into something more.
In hindsight, the most unglamorous moments are some that make me love this journey the most.
I cherish working with my 13-year-old cousin to design sketches because she’s an incredible artist and I’m not. It means so much to me that my mom’s risked a few numb fingers to help me wash the trailer in freezing temperatures. I love the memories I’ve made, hysterically laughing with my parents over falling through the van’s floor or cleaning snow off the roof only to turn it into a snowball fight.
I’ve also gotten closer with friends, who have offered their different skills in places mine may lack and provide me with constant encouragement. It’s even been fun to hear from strangers who are excited to see my final van-build result.
Sometimes renovations are all about perspective, and a good attitude even on the worst days makes all the difference.
Follow along to see the full renovation process and where my trailer takes me next.