Rediscover, Renew, Rebirth

kath and Scott Heiman — 4 June 2020
All around Australia, upcycling entrepreneurs are repurposing old vans. Could a reno be your next project?

'Upcycling’ is a social trend that permeates many aspects of our lives. A term coined in the late 1990s, upcycling commonly describes a process of converting materials and products into new materials of better quality or utility. It’s another way of saying ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’.  

Whether it’s utilising old round garbage bins or bathtubs as outdoor planters, stripping vintage clothes apart to make fresh duds, or refurbishing old furniture, it seems that many of us are playing our part to reduce unnecessary waste.   

It’s the same with old caravans. As we go about our daily lives, we can often see them languishing on their lonesome — unused, unloved and deteriorating. How many of us have wanted to rescue these old ladies and bring them back to life? Perhaps you already own one. If not, there are plenty of ways to acquire a vintage caravan. And, if you’re lucky, a property owner may be happy for you to simply tow away the old van from their back paddock.  



With an upcycled caravan, you open up a host of opportunities to change the way you live or to earn some extra money. Whether you need extra accommodation, are looking to establish a holiday rental or have a hankering for a mobile business, there are heaps of options. So we thought we’d take a look at how caravans are being repurposed in Australia and offer some reflections on the practicalities. 

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

Let’s face it. More and more young people are choosing to stay home rather than branch out by themselves. There are plenty of reasons to explain why they are doing so, from difficulties in raising a home-loan deposit, to problems convincing the bank manager that their employment status is stable enough to support a loan, to simply preferring to stay home where the kitchen’s filled with the smell of home cooking, and the laundry basket magically empties itself. Whatever the reason, things can get a bit squeezy on the home front when Junior grows up and chooses to hang around. 

Multi-generational households are a quietly growing phenomena in Australia. We can see it with our own eyes as neighbours and friends make efforts to realise the potential of their backyards to support more communal living arrangements. For those with adequate financial capital, an architect-designed granny flat or a tiny home might be the answer. But a far more accessible option could be a caravan.

In some parts of NSW for example, prior approval isn’t required to use a caravan or camper on your property as a place to live, so long as it remains safe and healthy and is only used by members of the landowner’s own household. In other places, the local council regulations may require consent before any person can occupy a caravan, regardless of whether or not they’re family. Concerns may include whether the sewerage is adequate and the living conditions suitable for long-term occupation.  

Also think about where your van is parked. In some council areas, it’s illegal to have a caravan stored on a nature strip, or on the road, if it’s bigger than 7.5 metres. In most parts of Australia, campers aren’t allowed to be occupied while they’re located in either of these places. Elsewhere, you’re not even allowed to occupy a caravan in the driveway. It needs to be physically stored in the backyard.

So don’t assume you can simply eject your teenager from the house, holding nothing more than the keys to your family caravan. Ask the council first so you know what options are available to you. Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law.

Regardless of whether you need to get the council involved, considerations of common courtesy should play a role in your decision to repurpose a caravan as a secondary dwelling. Unless you want to cause unnecessary aggravation, it makes sense to ensure that your caravan doesn’t block light to the neighbour’s property, that it doesn’t impede anybody’s access to their own plot, and that your backyard lodgers maintain standards of behaviour that will keep everyone onside.  

A FEW PENNIES MORE

Coronavirus aside, tourism is a real strength of the Australian economy. In a country bristling with natural assets and a safe environment, is it any wonder that many people choose to supplement their income by offering holiday rentals?

While they’re not yet particularly common in Australia, there are a rising number of people offering ‘tiny house’ holiday experiences by renting out static caravans on their own properties. This raises a couple of unique considerations relating to your local council's regulations and insurance. Specifically, local councils will soon get interested if you plan to make your caravan available for use by paying guests. In some jurisdictions, you won’t need council approval if you only plan to rent out your caravan for a maximum of two days at a time and for a total period of no more than 60 days a year. In other cases (and other places) you’ll need to submit site plans to the council showing, for example, where you intend to place the caravan on your land and how you’ll ensure that it complies with local health and environmental planning considerations.

Your insurance arrangements will need to change too. Standard home and contents insurance won’t cover damage to your rig caused by paying guests. Instead, you’ll need to consider landlord insurance or specialised policies designed for Airbnb and Stayz hosts.  

An alternative may be to rent out your roadworthy caravan to a holiday maker who wants to hitch it up and drive away. Sharing your caravan in this way is becoming simpler with the 2015 introduction into Australia of the share platform ‘Camplify’ which has backing from the NRMA. With around 1800 campers and caravans now listed on the site (with a growth rate of around 120 to 150 vans a month), there are clearly plenty of people happy to rent their rigs when they don’t need them.  

Insurance policies are available for this type of renting, which make the upfront outlay fairly clear. What’s less predictable, however, is the level of wear and tear that your rig will endure while it’s being dragged around the countryside by a paying customer. So ensure you do your sums properly before waving your rig bye-bye.

BUSINESS ON THE BYWAYS

We’ve all seen them — at country fetes, sporting events and scenic hotspots. They’re caravans modified to become the owner’s own portable business venue. The range of uses that people make of upcycled caravans is as varied as the owner’s imaginations. Most common are the pop-up coffee shops and food vans. But there are many other uses too.

At a vintage vehicle rally a couple of years back, we spotted ‘Mr Lincoln’, a 1968 Valiant Viscount that had been transformed into a mobile beauty salon offering a classy refuge for “lush ladies, modern men or anyone who just enjoys being pampered”.  When we recently saw the caravan advertised for sale, we thought it was a good time to seek some reflections from Mr Lincoln’s owner, Beth Marie, on what motivated her to establish her mobile business and what she’s learnt along the way. Here’s what we found out.

Beth Marie set up Mr Lincoln in her late 40s when she was looking for a life change after a tragic loss in the family. Because she lived remote from major townships, a mobile business was the obvious way to go. 

When she found Mr Lincoln, the van was being given away as a chook house. Doing the cleaning and painting herself, Beth Marie sought professional help to install custom benches and to ensure that the electricity was repaired to code. She also needed council approval for beauty products and skin penetration (think waxing and cosmetic tattooing). But this requirement didn’t faze Beth Marie. 

“It’s easy to find this information under the government health regulations,” she told us. 

She also had to comply with Roads and Maritime Services regulations about where she parked her caravan when it was in use.

In total, it cost Beth Marie around $5000 to make Mr Lincoln ‘amazing’ and to put this classic back on the black stuff. 

Recalling her days on the road, Beth says, “I went to hens parties, girls’ nights, weddings, holiday parks and town events. I could go wherever I was needed. I could have done a 10 to 12 hour day and still be in demand.” 

One of the key drawcards for clients was the sheer novelty of a beauty salon in an upcycled caravan. For Beth Marie, the flipside was the need to travel to sites and set up: it all took time and money. So she always needed to weigh up overall profitability before accepting bookings. Ultimately, Beth Marie made the sad decision to sell Mr Lincoln when she moved to a house located along 25 kilometres of dirt road. The rough road was more than she could ask her 52-year-old rig to withstand.  

With no regrets, she told us, “I turned something old and ugly into something beautiful, healing and relaxing.”

When asked for her ‘top tips’ for anyone considering setting up business in a caravan, Beth Marie advised, “Be absolutely certain that this is what you want to do. It’s time consuming and can be heavy work. Don’t overfill your van as it can be very unpleasant working in cramped areas; make sure you’re a confident driver; and ensure you have the right insurance for both your business and your van.”  

FIX ‘R UPPER

While stories like Beth Marie’s may put an upcycled caravan within reach of our imagination, it’s important to ensure that nostalgia doesn’t get in the way of logical decision making. Vintage vans can conceal vintage problems that might be hard to pick at point of purchase, and that could seriously agitate your hip-pocket nerve. 

When we talked to Andrew from South Coast Caravan Repairs about common issues with second-hand vans he told us that many problems start when vans are left outside in the weather for extended periods.   

He observed that, “The thing we see the most is water damage, from vintage models to modern caravans that may only be three months outside of warranty.”

Justin for Pharleys Auto Repairs in Canberra gave us a different perspective on ‘Fixer Uppers’: “The problem is when self-taught DIYers dive into the job.”  

He reminded us that, once you start adding modern accessories into vintage vans and frames, it’s easy to exceed the ATM. And this problem is probably more common that you might expect. For example, when you consider that a 17’6” Viscount Grand Tourer from the 80s has a Tare of 1160kg and an ATM of 1550kg, there’s not a lot of wriggle room to add water tanks, fridges or microwave — let alone an industrial kitchen or innerspring mattress. Weight may not be a problem if you plan for your rig to be a Granny Flat in your backyard forever — but it’s a major consideration if you want to get mobile.

With all this in mind, when you’re selecting your vintage dream it pays to have some expert assistance. Have a repairer look it over before you part with your hard-earned cash — or even if the caravan is being offered for free. A ‘free’ asset could soon become a money-sump unless you choose wisely.   

Also noting that pre-1989, the weights may not be marked on the chassis at all. So ask a mechanic to assess the tyres, axle, chassis and suspension, and to give you an idea of the possible standard ATM, including what you could achieve with a simple axle upgrade before you start. 

With some good advice and sound planning, yesterday’s forgotten caravan could be the makings of your new lifestyle. 

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Kath and Scott Heiman