Insurance for van life is one of the questions we get asked the most and for good reason. The idea of insuring a DIY van build or a profession van build is foreign to many insurance companies. Here’s what we’ve learned about getting the best coverage possible for van life….
Looking for something specific? Jump to a section using the links below.
- Our experience with van life insurance in our first van
- How we insured our first van build
- Can you insure a DIY van conversion?
- Keep track of EVERYTHING
- Is van life insurance expensive?
- Why won’t my normal auto insurance policy cover my van?
- Registering a van as an RV
- Can I insure my van the same way I do my house?
- Why can’t I list my van as my place of full-time residency?
- Insuring personal items inside the van
- Companies most likely to insure a DIY van build
- How to estimate the value of a DIY van build
- Insurance mistakes we’ve made
- How we’re doing insurance differently in our new van
NOTE: We are not insurance professionals nor are we van build professionals. We are not offering definitive legal advice, rather we are sharing our experiences and ideas with you all in hopes that you can figure out the most comprehensive van life insurance for your situation to keep you legal and safe on the road.
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Our experience with van life insurance in our first
Back in 2018 we were finishing up our first van conversion and getting ready to hit the road. We had poured months and months into building this new little home on wheels. We were so excited to finally use it to explore new, amazing places.
The day before we hit the road I called our insurance company to change our policy to an RV policy. They said they couldn't do that.
Back before we had even purchased our Sprinter van I had called our insurance company to talk insurance details. Apparently we got our wires crossed and there was a misunderstanding. I got off the phone with our provider feeling 100% confident moving forward with purchasing the van. In hindsight I realize now that I probably failed to mention it was a DIY van conversion. (Oops.)
You see, when we picked up our first van at the Mercedes dealership in Knoxville, Tennessee, I immediately called our insurance company to get the basics covered: collision, damage, etc. During our first build, we still had our old Prius as our around town car, so our van stayed parked almost the entire build process. Because of this, we never felt the need to update our insurance until the build was complete.
A lot of the joy of finally being able to hit the road was zapped out of the moment. We were instantly scrambling trying to figure out how and who would insure our little home. We learned a lot through this process and we’re sharing our little lessons with you here.
If you want to avoid the same van life insurance mistakes we made, keep reading….
How we insured our first van build
Like we’ve already said, we made mistakes with our first van build including not getting the best insurance possible for our van from the get go. Don’t make the same mistake we did!
For our first van we insured our van like any other car with USAA. We have been with USAA for years and love their customer service and felt confident sticking with them with our valuable new van. On top of our regular car insurance policy we upped our pre-existing renters insurance policy and added our van, our storage unit, and my (Sara’s) parents’ house as locations where we wanted items covered. We added a personal property policy that covered more valuable items in the van.
Do take note that sometimes insurance covering certain items (especially technology) can get a little funky so be sure to clarify any questions you may have with your insurance agent. Our agent was able to get us more comprehensive coverage for our computers which is awesome since they’re often a lifeline for us with work on the road.
What we recommend
Try and get van life insurance coverage for the entire van build vs. just the van itself + components. Your labor is worth a lot so try and find someone who can cover the entire value of the van fairly. We’re insuring our new van differently so keep reading if you want to learn more about that….
Can you insure a DIY van conversion?
Yes, you can insure a DIY van build but it won’t be easy. The term “DIY” is the single biggest hurdle you have to cross when seeking out insurance for your van build. Because most people (*cough* us *cough*) aren’t professional van builders, insurance companies will likely view you as a major liability. If you think about it, it makes sense. After all, houses are required to have professional electricians, carpenters, etc., van’s should be too if they want easy insurance.
Even though we hired out portions of our first van build to professionals including our electrical wiring, propane hook up, and window cutting, we were still DIY. We had even consulted with professionals about our electrical system as a whole. But not even that was enough to push us out of the DIY category.
The truthful answer is that you’ll need to find an agent who is familiar enough with DIY van builds that they can confidently and comprehensively cover you. There are certain companies that are unable to cover van conversions or even RVs, while others are able to take each person’s vehicle case by case. (We talk more about specific companies to talk to later in this post so stick with us.)
Go into seeking out insurance for your DIY van build knowing it might take a bit of research.
What we recommend
Try to insure your van as an entire van build that includes the amount of labor you put into building the van. This will get you the highest value for your van since your labor is worth a lot. However, worst case scenario if you can’t find someone who will take on the liability of a DIY van build, you can always insure your van like any other vehicle + add a personal item policy and/or renters insurance to cover the items inside the van. This just won’t include the value of labor you put into building the van.
Keep track of EVERYTHING for van life insurance
the “DIY” aspect for a van build is the part that will be hard for insurance agents to get behind. However, there are a few things you can do during the build process that can really help you build a case for your agent in a way that will ease their mind and feel much more comfortable insuring you.
Keep a detailed spreadsheet of all expenses
From the beginning I’ve kept a detailed spreadsheet of every product we’ve included in our van. From expensive items to inexpensive items, everything has been tracked in this spreadsheet.
While this spreadsheet started out as more of a way to keep our van build on budget, it turns out it’s an important part of securing insurance for a van build, too. When you approach an insurance agent looking for coverage, the more info you can provide them the better. Not only will it help you and the insurer better estimate how much your van is worth, it’ll also serve as a great resource to help you get the most back if you ever have to file a claim.
Take lots of pictures during the entire build process
This is something we didn’t do as much of during our first build. We had enough pictures to secure coverage, but in our second van build. This time around we’ve been much more diligent in documenting the process from the beginning. Having pictures of what’s behind the walls, under the floors, and how pipes and wires are installed/connected will all be helpful when talking to your insurance agent. Pictures don’t show everything, but, like with the spreadsheet, you will have evidence of what your van looked like in mint condition if there ever were an accident. Pictures are also a great way of showing the quality of your work adding to the peace of mind you want your agent to have.
What we recommend
Start a folder on your computer from the very beginning to track all spending (receipts), components, and pictures of the build process. Trust me, you don’t want to be scrambling trying to dig through hundreds of receipts, pictures, and credit card statements trying to prove to an insurance company how much you spent. Stay organized from the get go using our spreadsheet (or make your own).
Is van life insurance expensive?
Insurance policies will vary driver to driver and van to van. Just to give you an idea of what our coverage looked like in our first van, we paid $85/month for complete coverage with State Farm. This was their most comprehensive coverage with a relatively low deductible. While less expensive coverage would have been possible, we were willing to pay a little extra each month for additional peace of mind.
Our rate was based on the amount of money we invested in our 2018 170 ext Sprinter van + the value of the labor we put into the van. Given the value of DIY van’s for sale at the time, we felt confident in the evaluation we took to State Farm and they agreed it seemed fair.
Do note that both Chris and I (Sara) have perfect driving records: no tickets or wrecks. We don’t say that to brag (although we are pretty proud lol), but just to say that we don’t look like too much of a liability from a driving standpoint which I believe helped lower our rates some.
Like we’ve already said, every rate is going to be different. We haven’t insured our new 2019 144” 4x4 Sprinter as a conversion yet. Therefore we don’t know what that’s going to look like. Currently it’s just insured with a normal auto policy with USAA since it’s early in the build stages. As the build progresses we won’t be driving our van anymore. Because it'll be sitting still in the driveway we won’t changing the policy until it’s finished. I will say though that our USAA basic coverage rate is already higher on our new van. Because of this we anticipate paying more than $85/month on this van.
What we recommend
Insurance is one of those things that you don’t need until you need it. While we’ve never had to file a claim with insurance, we know how important it is to be well covered in the off chance something does go wrong. Don’t cheap out on insurance coverage. Go with a trustworthy provider and one who you feel fully grasps the idea of a DIY van build. If you feel your insurance agent isn’t just saying “yes” but not fully grasping the concept, keep shopping for insurance.
Why won’t my normal auto insurance policy cover my van?
If you’re like us and are currently insured with a company like USAA, you might not be able to use them for van life. Many regular auto insurance providers don't offer RV or van life insurance. USAA was able to direct us to other companies they partner with since they were unable to take care of us past auto insurance based on MSRP value.
If you’re looking for insurance for only the van itself and not the build or components inside, you can insure with just about any insurance company. For us with USAA our VIN number was found as a cargo vehicle. Apparently they have no problem insuring cargo vans, just van conversions.
What we recommend
Make sure you have a solid auto insurance policy on top of whatever additional insurance you decide to add to your van. The van itself is worth a good bit no matter what make or model you have, so you’ll want to be covered with someone you trust. For us we stuck with USAA for our auto policy.
Registering a van as an RV
This is one of those things that’s a “do as I say, not as I do” because insuring our van as an RV is something we meant to do every time we visited our home base. But for whatever reason we just never got around to it. Our understanding is that if you are able to re-register your van as an RV with your state, insurance coverage (in some cases) will be easier to secure and may even lead to lower rates.
Here’s the catch though: there are certain requirements that your van must have to meet to qualify registering as an RV. These qualifications vary state by state so be sure to check with your state’s guidelines. Some of the requirements the state of Georgia had on their list of must haves for re-registering a vehicle as an RV include running water, seating secured seating, a bathroom, etc. Rumor has it that if you can take pictures of your vehicle proving that it contains every item on your state’s list, re-registering really isn’t that difficult. Again, we’re not speaking from personal experience here so don’t quote us on that. Once we go through the process we’ll report back in another blog post.
What we recommend
Try and register your van as an RV if you can, but don’t let this stress you out too much. You’ll likely be able to secure insurance without being registered as an RV.
Can I insure my van the same as I do my house?
In short, mostly likely not and here’s why….
If you’re currently renting a house or apartment and have only a renters insurance policy you can (in most cases) transfer that over to your belongings in your van. Renters insurance covers your belongings but not the building itself (which is why it’s perfect for renting tenants).
If you currently own a house and are looking to use a homeowners policy on a van it won’t work (at least to our best knowledge). We’ll talk more about this in the section below, but technically in the USA living in a vehicle isn’t legal (to our best knowledge). Not to mention homeowners policies are designed with a specific house in mind. How close is the house to a fire station? What year is the house? What’s the flood risk of the house? Etc. Obviously these credentials don’t transfer easily to a van.
Why can’t I list my van as my place of full-time residency?
This is another hurdle a lot of people run into when figuring out the details of full time travel. Truthfully, it’s not legal to live in a van (or RV) full time. So how are people (like us) legally living on the road? We’ve talked about this a bit before, but in short we have a permanent address tied to my (Sara’s) parent’s house. When we first moved there to build out our van we wrote up a legitimate lease. In that we all signed saying we were paying $XXX a month to rent a room at their place.
This wasn’t a lie or a work around the law. We really do pay in cash to rent a room from my parents and we do spend large amounts of time there. When we’re not visiting them we use our room there as a small storage unit/office/empty bedroom. This address in Georgia is also where we pay taxes, vote, etc.
But why does an insurance company care if you are full time in a van or not?
Saying you live in a vehicle full time sets off all sorts of red flags. To an insurance company it looks like a bad idea from a liability standpoint.
If you get one thing out of this blog post please let it be this: We are not encouraging lying or misleading anyone (government, insurance companies, etc.) to make van life “legal.” We are making you aware of the fact that if you approach an insurance company and say “I live in this van full time,” vs. “I travel in my van a majority of the year,” your likelihood of being covered is much lower.
Like I said already, we do spend a lot of time at my parent’s house in Georgia. Throw in a couple of international trips and hotels periodically, we probably spend about 10 months a year in the van.
We recognize that not everyone will have an easy option for a permanent address like we do. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have somewhere you can legally call “home.” There might very well be other ways to keep van life legal, but we aren’t aware of them. If you have more suggestions, please drop them in the comment section below!
What we recommend
Confirm a home base before you hit the road (preferably before you even buy a van) and make sure you keep it legal and have everything in writing.
Insuring personal items inside the van
It’s likely you’ll be hauling around some valuable personal items in your van. For us those items primarily include our cameras and work computers which would cost thousands of dollars to replace. we kept USAA around because they were able to cover our items inside the van as well as a few items we have in storage.
Depending on your exact situation and your insurance company, you might be okay with just a personal items policy. Do your research and consider adding a renters insurance, too. We kept a bit of both to be sure we were covered for valuable items in the van and at home. Yes, it might be overkill. But, after talking with our USAA agent this seemed like the safest option for us.
What we recommend
Start by talking to whoever is currently insuring your house or apartment (assuming you like your provider). We love USAA and would use them for the entire van if that were an option but it’s not. Instead we stuck with using them for as much as possible (renters insurance + personal item policy) because they made us feel very safe and well taken care of. While they couldn’t cover our van (past basic vehicle insurance), they were more than happy to cover the items inside the van.
Companies most likely to insure a DIY van build
State Farm and Geico seem to be the two most reliable companies for van lifers. Like we already talked about though, you’ll need to present good documentation in order to be insured.
We got lucky with State Farm recently (keep reading to learn more about this). I wish I could say that there was one company who was always guaranteed to cover DIY vans. But, to our knowledge there’s not a major, reputable insurance company who is able to always say 'yes.' It’ll vary state by state and insurance agent by insurance agent. I wish I could just pass on our insurance guy’s name to y’all, but it doesn't work that way.
What we recommend
Start with a company you are familiar with. It never hurts to reachout to whoever is currently insuring your regular car and 1) ask if they would be able to insure a DIY van, or 2) ask if they could recommend another company who might be able to insure something of the sort. If this route fails, start by calling around to other insurance providers that have good reviews online.
Like we said already, State Farm and Geico seem to be the most consistent big names in insurance who are most open to the idea of DIY vans. If stopping by and talking to an agent in person is an option, we’d recommend this route. Have your pictures and spreadsheets ready to go at your first meeting to give your agent a visual of what they’re working with.
How to estimate the value of a DIY van build
When we started looking on RV Trader and Van Life Trader and saw vans similar to ours priced well over what our insurance policy was covering, we panicked. Turns out our labor is worth a lot. Putting months and months of time into a build is more valuable than what we thought.
That being said, keep in mind that the hours you’re putting into your van are not the same hours that a professional builder would put into a van build. Why is that? A pro is typically a lot more efficient than a DIY van builder. A pro will bill far fewer hours for a build than what a DIY-er will figure into a van’s estimate.
Someone once told us that to estimate the value of your van, use this equation:
MSRP value of van +
Worth of all components +
Number of hours per person that went into the build at a rate of $12/hr
Worth of your van
(I’m not sure where someone got the $12/hr from, but I suppose it’s a good baseline. A DIY-er’s hours aren’t worth the same as a professional’s. As a DIY-er this stinks but there’s no denying it’s true.)
Do keep in mind that your components will depreciate in value so take that into consideration, too. Also, if you hire out any portion of your van, don’t add that into the estimate.
For example, if we paid someone 8 hours to install our van windows. The amount we paid the professional to install the windows would not be added to the evaluation of the van. Because the rate we paid the installer cost us more than the DIY evaluation but at the end of the build our van would still be considered “DIY.” Paying out of pocket will cost you at times, but to us the peace of mind that comes with having a pro’s help usually outweighs the cost.
What we recommend
Keep your evaluation fair. If you overestimate the value of your van, you’ll pay more for insurance every month. If you estimate too low, in the off chance you do have an accident on the road where you need to file a claim, there’s a good chance you won’t get the payout you need. Always be fair and honest and don’t try and beat the system.
Van life insurance mistakes we’ve made
Like we said, we didn’t love how we had our first van covered. Truthfully we were pretty happy and thought we were well taken care of. That is until we started looking into selling our first van. We then realized just how much our time and labor that went into our van was really worth. Then we panicked. This is also around the same time a friend introduced us to that little equation (listed in the section above) that helps to estimate the value of a van.
Turns out we had been driving around in a van worth more than we realized. Thankfully we never had any sort of incident in our van. But if we had and it was a major accident such as totaling the van, we could have been out thousands of dollars. Our time is worth a lot and we weren't insuring that.
In short, our first van was covered as follows:
- Regular vehicle insurance policy through USAA based on the van’s MSRP value
- Renters insurance
- Personal property policy
Technically the way we were insured in our first van was legal. However, we were gambling the value of our time. Learn from our mistakes and try to insure yourselves better than we did!
How we’re doing insurance differently in our new van
Like we said, we didn’t love how we had our first van covered. So we’re planning on doing things a little differently this time.
For van 2.0 we’re planning to insure our van as follows:
- State Farm as a DIY van build with intentions of re-registering our van as an RV
- We are contemplating keeping our USAA auto policy because we really do love their coverage and just have such a peace of mind with them.
- We’ll keep a renters insurance policy with USAA seeing as we’ll have belongs all across the country still
- We’ll also keep a personal property policy for our valuables in the van (computers, cameras, etc.)
How did we land on State Farm?
We had heard of other van lifers using State Farm for their builds so we started by looking there. The first State Farm guy I called in town actually already insured a couple of other DIY van builds and was familiar with how to most effectively insure them. He gave us such a peace of mind and once the van gets closer to being finished and we’re driving it again, we’ll add State Farm insurance.
Do know that if you’re looking for van life insurance, it might take some shopping around. Our understanding is that we lucked out when we so easily found this agent familiar with our situation. Hopefully you’ll be able to find someone similar in your area. If you don’t find someone right away, keep looking! As long as you have a well constructed van + good documentation of your parts and process, eventually you should be able to secure good coverage.
Van life insurance is difficult and confusing. We just want to emphasize again that we are not insurance professionals or in any way qualified to offer legal advice. The information in this blog post is purely from our first hand experiences.
We hope your insurance search goes smoothly and that you find someone who fits your needs well and sets you up with a great policy and makes you feel at peace while you’re on the road living your adventures.
Please always stay safe and legal, friends!