As an artist, I love to create and design. Not many things make me happier than taking an old cube van, bread step truck, or other retired work trucks, buses, and trailers and turning them into well-designed and functional tiny homes for the beginner or more seasoned RVer.
That said, I have found that licensing a conversion RV can be very complicated from state-to-state. Some states have Department of Motor Vehicle offices or DMVs such as California, while other states like Michigan have Secretary of State (SOS) offices. I grew up in Michigan where you could get a driver’s license and register a vehicle in the same office at the same time. However, when I lived in Colorado, I discovered that getting a driver’s license issued from the state was at one location, while getting plates and registration was operated by the county I lived in and was in a different location.
Do your research
The first thing you should do when registering a conversion RV is to do some research into your states licensing procedures regarding the vehicle you are converting. This can become complicated when converting full size school buses or transit buses, because some states require that the operator of the vehicle have an air brake endorsement on their driver’s license while others do not, when it’s registered as a recreational vehicle.
A quick aside
One winter, I purchased an antique boat with a trailer in Florida that I wanted to restore while I was staying in Michigan the next summer. I purchased a temporary transport tag in Florida and when I got to Michigan I ran into all sorts of problems. I had a registration and title for the boat, but what about the trailer? The SOS office in Michigan licensed and registered the boat for the next three years, but they couldn’t issue a trailer license plate until the weight of the trailer was verified. They insisted that I offload the boat that I was unsure would float and further insisted that I take the empty trailer up to the Michigan State Police Post on the north end of the Mackinaw Bridge and have it weighed and certified.
I did as instructed, and fortunately only a few gallons of water had leaked into the boat while I was gone. I put the boat back on the trailer and returned to the SOS office to pay the registration fee based on my trailer weight. It was $17. Twenty some years later, I still consider that experience one of my finest examples of wasted time.
What if I need to transport my vehicle while it’s still being constructed?
Some states, such as Florida, will allow someone that is designing and building their own RV or tiny home to license the trailer as a flatbed utility trailer until you have completed the construction when it will have to be re-licensed as a travel trailer. This allows you to transport the trailer during various stages of its build-out which can come in very handy. For example, you intend to do most of the design and build of the structure yourself, but you are planning to have a friend or contractor install your electrical system or plumbing. By having it licensed as a flatbed utility trailer, it will enable you to move it to other locations temporarily during its construction phases which could save you money as well as speed up its construction timeline.
Some ambiguity in guidelines
However, there is some ambiguity within the DMV guidelines as to having it registered and licensed as an RV in Florida after its construction, so it would be best to do some additional research as to how to complete this procedure if you currently live there. Other states have better and more refined wording in their statutes that clearly define what constitutes an RV and how best to license it.
Many states have varying laws regarding an RV conversion or build, and some can be quite complicated. For example, the state of Illinois requires that anyone registering an RV as a build-out or a conversion from bus/van to RV meet four of the following six requirements:
- 110v Power Supply. Easily installed, this can be accomplished by wiring a power supply of 110v into the side of your RV to power some appliances designed to provide heat, cooling, refrigeration and lighting into your living quarters. For smaller designs or conversions, this can be as simple as installing one line of shore power into your rig that connects with a single indoor outlet, to having multiple outlets that are wired through a fuse box.
- Heating or air conditioning from a power source other than a vehicle engine. This rule is designed to prevent people from idling their powertrain engines on their buses or conversion trucks all the time and relying solely on that engine for heating and cooling needs into their living quarters. Frankly, I agree with this regulation because trying to blow hot from your engine into areas where you live make no sense and may contain carbon monoxide which can kill you. A good answer to this requirement is to have a heat source that operates using propane gas or 110v electric supply.
- Cooking appliance with an on-board fuel supply. With any conversion or unique design of an RV is a question of how best to cook your food. This could be an appliance as simple as a microwave oven that operates on a 110v power supply to a stovetop that operates on the same fuel supply as your heating system.
- A propane fueled or electrical refrigerator. Propane fueled refrigerators are always a good idea to have when dry camping or boondocking, but if you are camping someplace where shore power is provided then it’s best to utilize that power source and save the propane fuel.
- Potable water. Drinking water is always a necessity so I understand the need for some licensing agencies to require a sanitary source of this resource before they endorse or license your vehicle. Generally, this requirement is best achieved by installing a freshwater tank supply in the framework of the bus or van conversion and installing a 12v water pump that I have covered in previous articles.
- Septic disposable. While this can seem problematic for some folks designing or converting a van, bus or flatbed trailer into a home, it’s not. It’s actually very easy – here is my full guide on how to dump RV waste.
While these requirements are mandated by the state of Illinois, keep in mind that they only require four of six mandates to fulfill the licensing requirements. For example, your propane tank supplies fuel to your furnace, stove and refrigerator while your 110v electrical supply an alternative source of power to your furnace, stove and refrigerator. By their own wording, a good RVer could design a floorplan of their conversion or original plan to include some or most of these components and easily meet the requirements of the state.
Check your state specific requirements
That said, all states have varying laws regarding building or converting RVs. Check out the list below to every state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or their varying departments that handle their regulations regarding motor vehicles and RVs. You’d be best to research those laws and regulations within your state to better understand what will work for you.
While this is a list of each U.S. State and the District of Columbia’s websites pertaining to the licensing of motor vehicles, it does not include direct links to the laws for each state’s regulations regarding the licensing and registration of home-built campers or RV conversions. For this information, I recommend finding the state you wish to register or license your RV in and follow the links within that site as to the information you need.
Keep in mind however, that some states may not have the specific answers you are looking for listed on their websites, so it may be necessary to contact them via phone or in person to obtain definitive answers as to regulations that vary from state-to-state. Be prepared to know the length, width and weight of your RV as well as the specifics of your conversion or homemade designed RV such as water, sewer and electrical systems. Having this information on hand when you do visit your local DMV office will usually save you time and in most cases money.
For example, many states will require a weight certificate when registering a new conversion or home designed RV. I recommend getting your build “based in”, then taking it to a certified scale such as a CAT® scale that you will find at most truck stops. By “based in”, I mean get it weighed after your layout and design is completed, but prior to loading it up with furniture, clothes, kitchen ware and accessories such as tools or items you may carry in storage bays. There’s no reason to pay licensing fees based upon the vehicle weight when it is fully loaded with your possessions, so try to license it just after you have completed its design and
I recommend contacting the agency or agencies listed below that best suits your circumstances and sorting it out with them.
List of departments by state
Alabama Department of Revenue–Motor Vehicle Division
Alaska Department of Administration–Division of Motor Vehicles
Arizona Department of Transportation
Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration
California Department of Motor Vehicles
Colorado Department of Revenue–Division of Motor Vehicles
Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles
Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles
District of Columbia
DC Department of Motor Vehicles
Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles
Georgia Department of Revenue–Motor Vehicle Division
Hawaii Department of Transportation–Public Affairs
Idaho Division of Motor Vehicles
Illinois Secretary of State–Vehicle Services Department
Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles
Iowa Motor Vehicle Division
Kansas Department of Revenue–Division of Motor Vehicles
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet–Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing
Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles
Maine Department of the Secretary of State–Bureau of Motor Vehicles
Maryland Department of Transportation–Motor Vehicle Administration
Massachusetts Department of Transportation–Registry of Motor Vehicles
Michigan Secretary of State
Minnesota Department of Public Safety–Driver and Vehicle Services Division
Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission
Missouri Department of Revenue–Motor Vehicle Titling & Registration
Montana Department of Justice–Driver Services
Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles
Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles
New Hampshire Department of Safety–Division of Motor Vehicles
New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission
New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division
New York State Department of Motor Vehicles
North Carolina Department of Transportation–Division of Motor Vehicles
North Dakota Department of Transportation
Ohio Department of Public Safety ‐ Bureau of Motor Vehicles
Oklahoma Tax Commission–Motor Vehicle Information
Oregon Department of Transportation ‐ Division of Motor Vehicles
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation–Driver and Vehicle Services
Rhode Island Department of Revenue ‐ Division of Motor Vehicles
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles
South Dakota Department of Revenue and Regulations–Motor Vehicles Division
Tennessee Department of Revenue–Vehicle Title & Registration
Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
Utah Division of Motor Vehicles
Vermont Agency of Transportation–Department of Motor Vehicles
Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
Washington Department of Licensing
West Virginia Department of Transportation–Division of Motor Vehicles
Wisconsin Department of Transportation ‐ Division of Motor Vehicles
Wyoming Department of Transportation
Sometimes when you’re traveling as a full-time RVer, it becomes financially advantageous to license, register, and insure your RV home in a state far from where you used to call home. In a future article, I’ll share some of my secrets for saving money by licensing and insuring your RV in a state that welcomes your business as a full-time RVer.
Until then my friends, thanks for reading and following my column…I look forward to seeing out on the road someday.