There are people who live in vans by choice. For some, living in a van allows them to travel the country. For others, it lets them save money to pursue a passion like starting a new company. And still others are just drawn to van living because they want to maintain a lifestyle of minimalism and self-reliance.
Priceonomics thought it would be interesting to explore this subculture of van dwellers. Have these people figured out the best way to live? While the rest of us are blindly chasing the dream of owning huge homes, is living in a 40 square foot vehicle actually the way to go?
Before diving into the van living lifestyle, it’s worth noting that we are talking about people that want to live in vans. There are quite a lot of people that turn to living in vehicles because of a financial catastrophe or because they’ve found themselves in a really bad situation. As we’ll later point out, embarking on van dwelling isn’t often a feasible backup plan for people on the verge of homelessness.
The Basics of Van Living
Living in a van is different than living in an RV (recreational vehicle). A van is basically a slightly larger car. An RV is basically a house on wheels and isn’t particularly inexpensive or minimalist. Because RVs are so large, you’re confined to staying in RV parks, rural environments, and Walmart parking lots. Since vans are smaller and more discreet, you can park overnight in a city or in a rural area. RVs also tend to have toilets and showers, while most vans to do not.
To give you an example, a very popular van for inhabiting is the VW Westfalia. From the outside, it looks like a regular vehicle you might see anywhere.
On the inside, a camper van has some creature comforts you don’t find in a normal van. In the Westfalia, the backset folds back into a bed. There is a propane powered grilled, a fridge, a table, and rotating chairs.
The Westfalia in living room mode. You are looking at the stove directly in front of you with a fridge and storage cabinet under it.
The Westfalia in bedroom mode. Fold down the rear seats into a bed! Raise the pop-top for a second bed.
If you want to get a sense about what it’s like to live in one of these things for a while, check out these videos on Youtube by van dwellers (here, here and here). Most notably you’ll find that there is not a lot of space in these camper vans, but they are relatively modular so they can serve as a vehicle, living room, office or bedroom when called upon.
The Economics of Van Living
You need some amount of initial capital to become a van dweller. This initial capital is what makes van dwelling an infeasible fallback option for someone in financial straits. A used camper van like a Westfalia from the 1980s can cost approximately $10,000. You can likely buy a less expensive van, but doing so will require modifications to make it suitable for sleeping. One online van dweller put his initial modification budget at about $2,000. You’ll probably need to buy things like a portable heater, an alternate power source, tinted windows and a solution for when nature calls.
Like any vehicle, there is the ever present risk that your van will break down and you’ll need to have a mechanic repair it. So, the less money you spend on the van upfront, the more you need to reserve for future repairs.
Let’s say it costs you $12,000 ($10,000 initial cost + $2,000 in repairs or supplies) to launch your new van lifestyle. Are you able to save money versus living in a $1,000 a month apartment? First off, let’s assume you’re able to park your van every night for free (an RV would require a $25 a night charge, but with a van you might be able to get away with parking on the street for free). At this rate, if you could last a year in the van, you would be financially better off, right?
Actually, you’d break even much sooner because your camper van is an asset. If you bought a used camper van from the 1980s, it’s unlikely to lose much more value under your watch. If you fix it up, it may even have appreciated in value when you look to sell it. If you resell it for anywhere near what you paid for it, you break even in just a couple of months. If you found a great deal on a van, you’d break even sooner. If you drove it around a lot and had high fuel costs, you might not.
What happens if you have to go Number 2 and other important questions?
When you hear that someone lives in a van, many questions immediately come to mind. We researched what the most common answers are to these questions in van living forums, blogs and YouTube videos.
How do you go to the bathroom?
The majority of online contributors (many of whom appear to be male) use pee-bottles and public bathrooms for more, eh substantial bathroom breaks. Some have small chemical toliets which they try to avoid using except for emergencies.
How do you shower?
If you live in a van, you can basically kiss your daily shower goodbye. If you plan on living in one city, you can get a gym membership. However, that’s not really a good solution if you want to maintain a mobile lifestyle. For the mobile van traveler, truck stops offer showers for $10. Other than that, most people living in vans get by cleaning themselves using wet ones or some variant of dumping water on themselves.
What do you do for internet access?
As you dig into the van living community, its striking how connected they are. While the motivation of many of them is to be physically “off-the-grid”, being connected to the internet is critical. Many van livers get by on free wifi from coffee shops and libraries. Using your cell phone as a hotspot is also an option, though we didn’t find that to be a common answer in the van dwelling forums.
Is this legal?
If you pay to stay at a campsite, it’s most certainly legal, but then this lifestyle ceases to be inexpensive. If you park on the streets, it’s generally illegal, but this varies by city. For people that live in vans, the primary rule they appear to follow is to be inconspicuous - blend into the environment and don’t make it look like you’re living in a van. Whether that is easy to achieve is another question. The burden of having to move the van constantly and be on the lookout for police appears to be one of the biggest reasons people ultimately abandon van living.
Is it lonely?
Yes. Most people appear to be living in vans solo.
I’d like to waste all day reading about living in van. Where should I start?
A real life example - an entrepreneur living in an RV
As luck would have it, this author was introduced to a entrepreneur who recently spent three months living in a van. This van dwelling entrepreneur requested to be anonymous so he could more freely discuss certain “intimate” parts of vehicle living. Basically, in order to work on his own apps and web projects, he decided to live in a van to save money. At the end of 3 months though, he took a fulltime programming job and abandoned the van experiment.
Technically this entrepreneur lived in an RV, but most of the RV’s amenities were broken so it was almost like living in a van.
"So, I had about $2K that I could put towards buying an RV or trying to find a short term apartment rental. Because I have two dogs, finding an apartment was impossible. Even if I found one, that money would have been gone pretty fast."
The plucky entrepreneur was in luck though. His father had recently purchased some land on which to build a house. If he could find a vehicle to live in, he had a safe place to park it each night.
"I went and saw this one RV for $2,500 that was a complete piece of crap and didn’t run. I ended up buying that same kind of RV from someone else. It was in good condition and ran well and the guy sold it for $2,000. He had to get rid of it because he was getting so many parking tickets. He had it parked in front of his house and his neighbors kept complaining."
The RV had lots of amenities, none of which worked:
"The RV had a place in the back for me to put a bed down and I put in some new carpet. There was a bathroom, shower, toilet, stove and fridge, but none of that worked at all. It was just taking up space."
"For internet access I just tethered my phone. It was about $60 for 5 gigs of data and it worked really well. I only went over the limit the last month when I started working for my current employer and we had to send lots of images back and forth. I had to give up Netflix and Hulu though."
On productivity in the the van:
"The first month I lived in the van, I was really productive. Well, workwise I probably wasn’t so productive, but productive enough. Living in a small space though, I didn’t waste time watching re-runs of Cheers for three hours on Netflix. I read a lot of books, I worked on my music more. When I lived in a house, I never really used my guitar because it was in another room. When I was in the RV, everything I owned was in the same room so I played my guitar a lot."
Making it work:
"I got by spending less than $600 bucks a month, mostly on food. I was lucky that there was a support network for me because I had family nearby. I didn’t have to ever move the van and if I needed a shower, I could go to my Dad’s house. I’m not someone who feels the need to shower much, so I really only showered a few times a month. Not having a bathroom really really wore on me after a while."
The weirdest thing:
"I got to be kind of jealous of my dogs. They could just go to the bathroom wherever they wanted! I had to drive to a Starbucks and order a coffee just to use the toilet."
But ultimately, living in a van was not so fun:
"By the second or third month, it was not a very pleasant experience. I was getting pretty lonely and it was pretty boring to have the van parked in one place all the time. I thought about taking it on the road, but I was pretty sure it would break down and then I’d be screwed. Also let’s be honest, when you are living in a van, your dating prospects are not good."
Calling it quits on van living:
"So, after three months I took an awesome job doing iOS development and moved out of the van. Now I’m trying to sell the van, but I need to fix the dead battery first. It’s just sitting around doing nothing right now."
Van living is a way to save money, but it requires capital, work, and discipline. Most people don’t last that long doing this. The two most common reasons for quitting van living are the stress of finding a place to park it each night and the loneliness of the solitary existence. One van dweller chronicled her life living in a van on an amazing blog. After five years though, she gave up the van life to settle down with her partner; some things just have a stronger pull than the call of the open road.