Renovating our home sweet motorhome
With our life on the road coming to an end, I wanted to write a post wholly and solely focusing on the renovation of our home sweet motorhome. This pink-striped workhorse has been our trusty companion throughout our adventures during these past six months, and living within it has made our travels all the more memorable. Within this post, we've shared our renovation story and the different phases we underwent. We hope this will help others who may be considering going down a similar road in the future — because we for one, couldn't recommend this journey enough!
Rewinding back to where it all began, we made sure to first base ourselves in California, as this is one of the only states in America where foreigners can legally buy and own a vehicle without a permanent address or social security number. With this, we pinpointed Palm Springs as the place where we would search for used motorhomes in the wider Los Angeles area. Once there, we booked a nearby hotel for a couple of nights as we spent most of the day searching on Craigslist for the perfect 'doer-upper'. After finding a handful that we were interested in, we hired a car and inspected them all in one day. One thing you'll learn, as we did, when it comes to buying used RVs in the States, is that you have to act quick. Americans love hitting the road to travel cross-country, and with the #vanlife and tiny home living trend only growing more rapidly, more and more people are flocking to RVs as a lifestyle choice. With this in mind, our quick tips for inspecting RVs are as follows:
- Know exactly what you want (model, make, style, condition)
- Call instead of texting or emailing when you make your enquiry
- Be ready to inspect as soon as the seller is
- Know exactly what to inspect in an RV (see full checklist here)
- Have cash ready to go (we missed out on one because another couple arrived with cash and we didn't)
- Use any defects or outstanding repairs as a bargaining chip
Once you've managed to successfully come out of the Craigslist rabbit-hole, with the keys to your very own not-so-new motorhome, the first thing you need to do is get all the legal paperwork done and dusted. As a non-US resident, you'll need the Certificate of Title from the seller and a Bill of Sale. You then take these documents along with your own country's drivers licence to the DMV, where you'll need to request a 'transfer of ownership'. The only other information they'll then request from you is a California-based address, as this is where they'll need to send you the new Certificate of Title under your name. We simply used our the address of our Palm Springs hotel.
After you're done with all the legalities, it's time to get your hands dirty. We found our renovation journey to be a mixture of emotions; one moment we found ourselves saying "this is so much fun", the next we were internally screaming "please let this be over NOW!" Regardless, the show must go on, so put on your work gloves and get out the paint brush and get to it!
*Side note: since our time on the road was only six months entirely, we aimed to fast-track our renovation in one week. Our goal was to do the big necessary jobs first, in order to make our RV liveable, then begin our road trip, all whilst ticking the other jobs off along the way.
Phase 1: Demolition
The funny thing we came to find about about living in a tiny home is that you'll spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it feel not-so-tiny. The best and obvious way to do this with an old RV is to take things out. RV's, new and old, often have every space filled with something built-in and bulky, but if you don't need all these things, then you can start to rip them out and replace it with something more appropriate or to your style, which is exactly what we did. Here are the main things we took out to make our RV more practical:
- Window fittings: the original window shades were a greyish blue colour, the pelmets were covered with a pink floral pattern, with all of them either torn or stained. These unscrewed easily from the wall, ready for our own window coverings.
- Fold-out sofa: this was positioned along the passenger side wall, within the main cabin area, directly opposite the dinette. It really only left a narrow aisle to walk down and also sported an outdated shade of greyish blue, with the foam padding completely haggard. There was no question that this sofa had to go. After an hour squeezed beneath the RV, the four bolts holding it down were undone and it sailed nicely out our door into the dumpster.
- Bedroom cupboards: the bed was positioned parallel to the back wall of the RV and was boxed in at either end with a floor to ceiling cupboard. These made the already compact room seem all the more teeny-tiny. After some unscrewing and some neat sawing, these were removed to create the sense of much more space around the bed.
- Dinette alteration: our original plan was to remove the dinette entirely, but after realising the water tank and all the electricals were already installed underneath the seats, we decided that this would be our sofa/daybed. As far as demolition, this meant removing the plywood backs to each seat so that it would be completely open, and dropping the table section down to the height of the seats to create one flat large surface.
- Shower alteration: this was not really a demolition job, but since we knew we wouldn't be having showers in our RV, we instead used this space as a closet. We removed the shower curtain frame with a screwdriver and the actual shower fittings simply unscrewed.
- Carpet: this is a must for any RV renovation, even if the carpet is pristinely clean, which ours wasn't, there'll still be 10, 15, 20 years worth of dust and dirt trapped in it or underneath. Our navy blue carpet was easy to rip up with a utility knife, cutting in at the edges and grabbing hold of it before ripping out the larger sections (don't forget to use gloves). Some small areas like the stairwell and the bathroom were trickier, but the most time consuming part once the carpet is all out are actually the thousand of small staples still left in the plywood flooring. You'll need to get down on your hands and knees with some needle-nose pliers to get these out prior to installing any new flooring.
Phase 2: Painting interior
The original blue, grey and wood panelled colour scheme of the RV gave me an allergic reaction. The ceiling was a fairly dark shade of beige and the wall panelling consisted of a faded floral pattern on a sickly cream colour, so needless to say, painting the interior was easily the part of the renovation that I was looking forward to most. We wanted a completely white palette in the interior to not only brighten and open up the space, but also to act as a contrast for the pieces of decor that we later wanted to include. The painting process we went through was not too dissimilar to what you would need to paint a room in a house, but a few differences were as follows:
- Remove all cupboards and drawers: this is for ease of painting on the ground. Don't forget to also remove handles and hinges prior to painting.
- Tape up all the edges: these are not to be painted so they need to be covered beforehand. This included; window frames, doors, handles, oven, rangehood, microwave, refrigerator, sinks, mirror, light fittings, electrical outlets, air conditioner panel, etc.
- Patch up holes: we used plaster putty to any wall defects then sanded back to a flush surface.
- Clean all surfaces: once the putty was all dry, we wiped down all surfaces with an all purpose cleaner, ready to be painted.
- All purpose primer: as there are plastic, laminate, and other types of surfaces in our RV, the all purpose primer helped the paint adhere to all theses various types of surfaces. We only needed a gallon tin of primer and had plenty to spare after one coat.
- Begin painting: once the primer coat was dry, we started on the first coat of our chosen top coat colour. We chose a cool white colour in a matte finish.
- Add another two coats of paint: even with the primer and the first coat of paint, we needed another two coats of top coat as the darker and rough surfaces used up a lot of paint. We had two gallon tins for the top coat and used up most of these on the three coats.
- Remove taping: once dry, we then removed the tape carefully or used a utility knife to cut the tape from the attached paintwork to stop from pulling off the paintwork.
- Reinstall fittings: we then reinstalled the cupboard doors and drawers and any other fittings we had removed.
- Paint kitchen and bathroom countertop: our other main interior painting project was the countertop in the kitchen and the bathroom. The original colour again was a greyish, blue with a fake mottled stone look. We wanted a fresh grey colour with an almost concrete-like look, so we used a purpose made counter-top paint in 'Light Ash' which applied easily. We were given advice to have the windows open when we used this particular paint, as the fumes were quite strong, so we made sure to leave the RV to air for 4-6 hours as the paint dried.
Phase 3: Flooring + Fixtures + Furniture
With the painting done and the tape removed, we were left staring at our blank canvas, ready to really make this RV feel like our own. First there was the flooring, we had chosen to install vinyl wood laminate flooring planks as they are durable, water resistant, and fairly easy to install. We choose a light oak colour for a clean look. A brief description of our flooring installation is given below:
- Take measurements: we measured the flooring area taking into account steps, and areas with different levels i.e. bathroom area around toilet and added additional areas for wastage and cutting.
- Install foam underlay: the foam underlayment was installed using a staple gun to stabilise the new flooring and also to help compensate for any uneven surfaces. We had the rounded heads of some bolts sticking up 1-2mm from the subfloor, but the underlayment was able to reduce the difference in floor height around these so the planks then sat level.
- Install planks: we started the installation of the vinyl planks as per the instruction manual, commencing along the longest wall and working our way out and through the RV.
- Cut planks to size: the planks can then be cut to size using a utility knife. The tighter spaces of the RV gets tricky, but we just took more time measuring and cutting.
- Install edging: with the flooring click locked into place, it was then time to tidy up the edges. We used a quarter round moulding to hide the gap between the flooring and the wall, screwing these into place around the edges. In places where the floor was in a raised area, such as the stairwell or the step-down from the bathroom, we cut and installed sections of metal trim to secure the planks, as well as give a clean straight edge.
Now on to the curtains... In keeping with our clean and bright theme, we wanted white linen curtains that would let in more light, even when closed. But since RV curtains to the exact size are really hard to come by, we knew we were heading down the DIY path. In addition to the windows, we had also decided to use curtains as a divider to act as a door to seperate the front cabin, as well as the bedroom, to the rest of the RV. This trick also served well in covering the makeshift closet that was once the shower area. As it turned out, IKEA was the go-to place for all of our curtain needs, selling the curtains, rods, brackets, and even the iron-on hemming tape required to cut and fit our curtains accordingly.
- Take measurements: we measured the length from the top of the window to where we wanted the curtain bottom to sit, then added four inches to this measurement. We measured and marked this length on a curtain panel and cut along. The extra material was kept to make other curtains.
- Cut curtains: we cut off all the drop tab material from the top of the curtains leaving a straight edge. Using a sharp knife we cut the edge of the hemming which created a hole for the curtain rod to go through at the top. This allowed the curtains, once installed, to sit flush with the top of the window frame ensuring we had complete privacy.
- Create hemming: on a flat surface, we folded the bottom edge up by two inches and ironed the edge keeping it straight. We then folded this edge up another two inches and on the top edge, placed a line of iron-on hemming tape. Placing a cloth over the folds and the tape, we ironed over this slowly to create a hem for the curtains.
- Install the brackets: we then installed the brackets on either side of the window at the required height before inserting the curtain rod through the top of the curtain.
By now it was time to add some furniture to the mix. This step would not only give us the practical benefits which made our RV liveable, but it also set in stone the certain nooks that would come to give us much comfort over the next six months.
- Create the sofa/daybed: having already demolished the dinette, our sofa/daybed was ready to be set up. For this, we simply purchased a new twin size mattress, which fit exactly, layered it with thick blankets, a linen quilt cover, and then topped it with large European back pillows along with several throw cushions.
- Install drop-leaf tables: directly opposite the daybed, we now had a void of space where the old fold-out sofa had been, and since we were lacking a surface to eat or work at, we figured this would be the best space for a table. Once again, IKEA came to the rescue where we found a drop-leaf table, a table without legs, which instead can be mounted to the wall with the tabletop having the flexibility to swing down when not being used, freeing up more space when needed. We bought two of these and mounted them exactly side-by-side to appear like one large table.
- Install shelves and hooks: when it comes to RV's, or any tiny home for that matter, every wall space counts. By installing hooks, an ample amount of hanging space presents itself for things like bags, baskets, jackets, and other trinkets. We also installed small shelves in the kitchen which provided additional surface space for things like mugs, small bowls and plates, and also ingredients for cooking. Yes, you'll need to put things like this away when you're on the move, but they are handy to have available regardless.
Phase 4: Painting exterior
After we had completely renovated the interior of our RV in just over a week, we began to hit the road. Finding a place where we would be free to paint the exterior was no easy task, and so we waited to finish this particular phase until we arrived in an open camping space within The Badlands in South Dakota. Here is a detailed breakdown of the stages it took:
- Remove window tinting: the original window tinting showed up as a purple colour from the outside, and so it had to go. Using a heat gun, and resting it over the film for several seconds, some sections would simply come off with scrapping it in one go. However other areas were more tricky, with the film breaking apart, requiring a more manual approach by scrapping it back to the glass with a razor blade. To clean up the adhesive residue, we used a strong paint thinner to rub this off and leave a clean clear glass window in its place.
- Remove decals: the original decals needed to be removed in order to leave a clean fresh surface to then be painted. Using the heat gun and a good plastic sticker scraper, the decals came off fairly cleanly in large sections. In small tight areas, we used a razor, whilst being careful not to dig into the fibreglass walls. Any sticker adhesive residue was cleaned up using rags and paint thinner.
- Surface preparation: just as with the interior, all paints need a clean surface to adhere properly. There are even more areas on the outside of an RV that can hold dirt and grime, so a thorough clean with soapy water is a must. Once clean, it's then time to tape up all the window frames, fittings, lights, steps, tires, rear ladder, licence plates, and door handles, ready for painting.
- Begin painting: we chose a white paint in the same colour as our interior that was a combined enamel based paint and primer. As it was a paint and primer, this allowed us to start painting directly onto the clean exterior. Using mainly rollers and hand brushes, the entire exterior of the RV was given three coats to give a full white finish. Once dry, we taped up a thick block stripe in the same area as the previous decals and painted two coats of a dusty pink strip, down the sides and along the rear.
Phase 5: Decorating
This is where the real fun begins. It's the phase that really has no rules or a particular checklist, instead you get to find your own style as you go. With our now clean white palette, the brief for us was simple; fill it with neutral tones, natural materials, and subtle colour to allow the space to do the talking.
- Decorate with belongings: as we had already collected several baskets along our travels, these took pride of place, hanging near our entry door and also acting as storage for clothes, throws, or plants. We also hung up some of our other personal belongings as decoration, such as our straw and felt hats, denim jackets, cameras, and bags.
- Make new purchases: along the way, we bought linen bedding, throws and cushions from homeware stores we stumbled upon. We used these to adorn both the bed and sofa/daybed. We also bought some deep blue Middle Eastern style rugs for the floor which fit the spaces perfectly, as well as added a little warmth to each area.
- Go thrifting: each time we came across a new town, we also took it upon ourselves to visit the local thrift stores and go to the weekend flea markets. This is where we found things like our set of two designer Thonet b9 armchairs (for $10 each, what a steal!), ceramic mugs and plates, and a vintage gun holster which we use to hold dried flowers in.