Vandwelling Economics: Part Two

 

Let me see, would I rather wake up to this view everyday, or spend all my time inside four white walls, totally separated from nature and other people. Hmmmm, that’s a tough decision. NOT!!

This is the second part of a two part post about the economics of vandwelling. In the first post I itemized the long-term costs of home ownership. I wanted to point out that in the long-run, owning a house is a gigantic amount of money. There were lots of very helpful comments about the post so I wanted to write this follow up post to address some of them, and specifically to directly compare the cost of living in a house for shelter versus in a van for shelter. All my assumptions are based on living in a van. If you are living in an RV, your costs will be higher, but still much less than living in a S&B. If you are a little bored with the whole subject, I won’t be the least bit offended if you skip it altogether or just skim through it. You may want to just jump down to the final paragraph where I summarize the numbers.

Next, let me say that I am totally convinced that when you compare the costs of living in a stick and brick (in this post I am going to abbreviate that as S&B because I am lazy!), when you compare the costs of living in a S&B to the cost of living in a van, the S&B is enormously more expensive. Let me clarify, because I wasn’t clear in my first post: I am comparing the cost of providing shelter, not the total cost of living.

For example, most of us want to include the cost of traveling in the comparison, but that is comparing apples and oranges. Traveling is entertainment, it isn’t a housing cost. If you live in a house, and you spend $3000 on a trip to Australia, you don’t include that trip in the cost of home-ownership because you know it is recreation (something you do for fun), it has nothing to do with the cost of finding shelter. But for some reason, when we move into a van we want to include the costs of traveling for pleasure as a cost of living in the van. It is still recreation (something you do for fun) but we can’t seem to help thinking of it as the cost of vandwelling.

Another example is food. You are going to eat whether you live in a S&B or in a van so I am not going to include it. A can of chili is the same price whether I live in a S&B or in a van. I cook in my van exactly like I cooked in a S&B so the cost of the food is not a cost of providing shelter.

I am also not going to include the cost to operate the van. I am going to own a motor vehicle whether I live in a van or in a S&B. The cost of insurance on the van is not a cost of providing shelter; it is a cost of transportation because you pay it even if you live in a house. In the same way the gas you burn driving to work is not a cost of providing shelter, it is a cost of transportation.

In fact, for most people, the cost of transportation should go down when you live in a van, Most of us commute to work and when you live in a van you can park closer to work. That’s what happened to me when I moved into a van. When I lived in a S&B I had a 10 mile commute to work, but when I moved into the box van I parked less than a mile from work. My cost of transportation went down after I moved into a van, not up. Now that I am a boondocker, it is even lower still. I can easily go a week at a time without driving the van which dramatically lowers my cost of transportation.

Cost to buy the shelter. Of course there is a huge range of costs so there can’t be a single answer. I goggled “average price of a home in the us 2012” and it looked like it as in the ball park of $280,000. Of course most of us can’t pay cash and have to take out a mortgage (did you know that word literally means “death grip”?). I used this tool (http://cgi.money.cnn.com/tools/mortgagecalc/) to calculate the payment of a national average payment and it came to $1671 a month for mortgage, insurance and taxes. That’s the national average, but I am sure you can buy a home for less, maybe even half.

I am going to use my own life as a sample for the cost of vandwelling. I just paid $4,000 for my 2001 Chevy extended cargo van, and I think it is pretty easy to find good vans for that price. The solar power system cost $700 and my 12 volt compressor fridge cost $400. I would guess the cost of converting it (bed, propane stove, lights, shelves and miscellaneous) at $400. That brings the total cost to buy a van to live in at $5500. That’s just an average deal, you can buy and convert nice van for less, easily half that much. My first van cost me $1500 and I lived in it for 6 years. That was pretty cheap shelter!

Cost of Utilities: I did a lot of research and found it nearly impossible to find a total national average for utilities on houses. The one hard fact I found was that the national average for electricity per month is $110 per month (http://www.eia.gov/). That still leaves heating (fuel oil, propane or natural gas), sewer and water. I am going to make a wild guess and say they average $100 a month. That brings the total cost of utilities at $210.

In a van the cost of utilities is tiny. Electricity is free because it either comes from solar or from the vans alternator. Sewer and water are also free since most of us find it free around town. Some vandwellers do use propane for heat but it is pretty hard to figure out how much it costs. I am going to guess 10 gallons a month for 3 months a year. That totals about $100 per year or a monthly average of about $8 I am not including the cost of ice because I included solar power and a 12 volt refrigerator in the cost of the van. The cost of your cell phone is the same whichever one you are in. Internet is about the same (or many vandwellers can get by with free wifi). The cost of Cable TV is recreation and not a cost of housing.

Maintenance and Repairs: Like everything else, it is very difficult to estimate exactly what the monthly cost is to repair and maintain a S&B home. This website was very good but still not very definitive: http://www.freeby50.com/2008/12/what-does-home-maintenance-really-cost.html

The best estimate I can come up with is $100 a month. I know that seems much too high, but that is because most of the time you spend nothing, then all of a sudden you may have to spend a lot. The refrigerator breaks; you have to paint or re-side it; you need a new roof, the hot water leaks and makes a mess of the basement and so on. And we tend to forget the minor costs. For example you have to buy, maintain and put gas in a lawn mower. None of that is free.

You will probably disagree with this, but I am not including the cost of maintaining the van. Once more, that is a transportation cost and not a cost of providing shelter. You are going to pay it no matter where you live. The repair costs of the house section of the van are virtually non-existent. Virtually the only thing that can break in my van is the 12 volt fridge, Coleman propane stove or inverter. I will just pick a number our of the air: $10 a month.

Summary of cost of living in a van versus the cost of living in a S&B:

TOTAL COST TO BUY A HOME:

  • Van:   $5500 and no payments
  • S&B: $28,000 down and $1671 a month payment ($20,000 a year) $48,000 total your first year.

TOTAL UTILITY COSTS:

  • Van:   $8 per month
  • S&B: $210 per month.

COST OF MAINTENANCE AND REPAIRS:

  • Van:   $10 a month
  • S&B: $100 per month

So there are the best numbers I can come up directly comparing the cost of shelter living in a a stick and brick house versus living in a van. We all have to reach our own conclusions but for me there just is no question that I can not afford to live in a house. I hope to never do it again! Bob

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

47 comments on “Vandwelling Economics: Part Two
  1. Tim McDougall says:

    That looks pretty reasonable to me but for my area I would increase the costs of utilities. In this area the small towns really charge a lot for water alone. Then the cost for sewer if you have it plus the mandatory cost for trash pick up if you are in the city limits. This is all charged on your water bill. It gets pretty big.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Tim, I tried to be conservative and only use numbers I could justify. But I am sure you are right, in many places the costs are much higher. And it some places they are lower. But hopefully I have hit a reasonable average for comparison purposes. Bob

  2. Brian Howard says:

    I live in a new mobile home at $354.00 mortgage, $492.00 lot rent and $125.00 month average lights and gas plus water and garbage. Thats $1000.00 a month any way you look at it. Ridiculous money being thrown away. At the time of purchase thought it was the way to go because of low/no maintance. Just with the money I put down on the home would have been enough to pay and convert a van to live in and save that grand a month. The American dream. Hog wash! Brings me back to assets and liabilities. Wants and needs. Kids are all gone, why do i feel i need a 3 bedroom 2 bath home 16×76 full of needless junk. Again Bob, can’t wait till spring. Snow, snow, snow! I hate it. Just a early morning rant. Sorry! Your pic is beautiful. Central New York Brian out!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Brian, I can totally relate to everything you are saying (especially about the snow–YUCK!!) You have the whole winter to plan your escape. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. Bob

  3. Offroad says:

    Van boondocking (parking, sleeping, and paying no fees) is very difficult in any metropolitan area, where many jobs are. You really need to estimate the cost of a boondocking site and add that in. Else you end up moving from parking space to space (Walmart, sketchy side road, etc.).

    • Bob Bob says:

      That’s a very good point offroad. I was lucky and the city I lived in was fairly tolerant of vandwellers who were stealth parking. I was asked to move less than 6 times in 6 years. I think that is fairly common, but there are some cities that really hate vandwellers and make life hard for them. But still, there are very few cities where it is impossible, you just have to be extremely careful and stealthy. The great majority of us can stealth park for free so I didn’t include the price of paying for a campground. In the last 10 years I have paid $10 for camping and I think most of my readers can do that as well. Bob

  4. Robert Witham says:

    I agree with your cost analysis. I also agree that vehicle maintenance, insurance, etc. are transportation costs rather than housing costs. Having lived in both vehicles and houses, I always found the van cheaper. Actually, I’m in the process of getting back to vandwelling.

    Montana, where I currently am domiciled, is about perfectly in line with your figures. One could easily spend $280,000 on a house, though less expensive options are certainly available. The utilities are quite in line with your numbers, or likely even higher. Water/sewer runs between $60 and $100 per month for minimum usage in my area (many people pay much more). My electric and gas typically run between $10 and $100 per month, depending on the season (AC in summer, heat in winter). In other words, my utilities average right around $200 per month with careful usage. It would be easy to spend much more though.

    Thanks for the breakdown though. It is helpful for those of us getting ready to once again take the vandwelling plunge.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Robert! Having lived in a van in a cold area myself, I don’t envy you living in a van in Montana. Will you stay there or move somewhere else?

      Thanks for the feedback on the costs, it’s good to hear I was in the ballpark. It’s easy to say living in a van is cheaper, but I think it is a real eye-opener to see an actual comparison. Bob

  5. Kim says:

    Great job making the distinction between home-owning expenses, van-dwelling expenses, and travel, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses. Very enlightening information!
    Kim recently posted…Amazin AmazonMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Kim! And i agree with your blog post about admiring Amazon. I think 90% of everything I own came from Amazon. I have been wanting to get a new Kindle Fire since the new one came out, but buying the new van has run my savings down below where i want it to be so I am forced to wait. I envy you getting one and I’m looking forward to hearing how you like it. Bob

  6. mel candea says:

    I’d only add two things, that aren’t normally mentioned: water consumption (which is normally free, but a pain) and toilets for the ladies if you don’t have one on board. It can be nearly impossible in some places to find a toilet, and especially in cities the ladies are less than willing to make do with a shrub. Just something to consider when parking. Otherwise, spot-on. And I’d even say your expenses are higher than we pay, for a beautiful traveling life. More need to literally get on board. Grin. Love these articles. Thank you.
    mel candea recently posted…Break on Through to the Other SideMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi Mel, did you have problem finding toilets state-side or in your world travels? In nearly all the US cities I have been in there is an abundance of public toilets. A really good idea for the ladies is a porta potti. The good ones work really well and are very easy to dump and clean. That eliminates (pun intended–sorry about that) the problem of finding a toilet and it doesn’t take up too much room.

      Yes! The more who get on board, the better! Bob

    • Mel. just a side note for the topic you brought up about ladies and relieving ones self…

      The ladies here on the road dont have any hang ups with the potty issue, most have porta potties in their vans and can use them at their leisure… Me I have a 5 gallon doubled lined (2 8 gallon trash bags) bucket with toilet seat made for it for solid waste…

      The issue of relieving ones self is really a mute point…

  7. Linda Sand says:

    I disagree with Mel. I can find bathrooms easily in the city. There are fast food places everywhere!

  8. Shelly says:

    Thank you! Just my fixed bills is more than my ss. So soon it’s going to have to be a RV or move in with the kids. ( when hell freezes over). Can’t wait for the I leave this all behind.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Shelly, tell us how you REALLY feel about moving in with your kids!! I can totally relate to both of your sentiments. And I am pretty sure my son would have the exact same reaction if I proposed moving in with him. The good life is out here calling you!! Bob

  9. Cyrus Palmer says:

    Who needs the decadent and materialistic “American Dream” anyways? Thanks for inspiring me to abandon that empty road and to take up the lifestyle of a Vandweller and all the freedom it entails!

    • Bob Bob says:

      I agree totally Cyrus! I am glad to have played some role in sparking your vandwelling dreams. If you are ever head out to travel, you are always welcome in my camp. I would feel much safer knowing you are here!! Bob

  10. Calvin R says:

    Somehow I managed to avoid the whole “American Dream” thing. I have spent my life wondering why people put that much money into housing. I have concluded that it’s not some inherent trait in Americans; it’s the result of decades of subtle and less-than-subtle marketing. Thanks for the support.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Calvin, you and I are alike that way. As a young man I fell into the dream of home ownership, but I never found the slightest bit of satisfaction in it. It was just a burden i was glad to get out from under. I’m sure marketing has a lot to do with it. Bob

  11. Andrew says:

    In suburbia where I once lived the general theme was that people start cocooning (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocooning) when they feel threatened by the environment, and who would’nt feel threatened in todays climate. It’s a self defeating process. One withdraws into the “safety” of their home which costs them money and forces them to be enslaved to the costs of the home, which requires that they keep doing the daily grind, working in jobs they don’t like but coming home day after day to the “safety” of their home. For many people if that brick cocoon disappears they are completely lost. Those are the people that would look at us van dwellers as crazy. Many people cannot tolerate their cocoon moving around, it’s just not safe :). Many of these people have never woken up in nature next to a stream and with the day full of choices. Their routine demands a structured life in suburbia with gizmos connected to a collective of other gizmos and an SUV in the driveway and no other choices exist in their eyes. Only the special few can break the barriers of freedom.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Andrew, I had never heard that word, but I am very familiar with the concept. There is no doubt in my mind that you are 100% correct. I can’t explain how it has happened, but somehow fear has become the dominate force in modern America. Our every thought and action is all about gaining safety and eliminating risk. It’s like a contagious virus that has run rampant everywhere.

      I hate to admit it, but I think you are quite right, “Only the special few can break the barriers of freedom.” Bob

      • Andrew says:

        One of the other BIG barriers is Money. The dreaded survival necessity. Do you think at some point you could post an article that others can contribute on as to how they make money for van dwelling? I think it would help and maybe some ideas would arise that no one else had thought of. I have tried Gas Line leak detecting, Texas Oil Field Gate guarding taking photos for Foreclosure properties, kneeling on a red carpet in front of a lotto ticket and praying to the money gods (no success on that one). Maybe someone else has some ideas.

        • Bob Bob says:

          Andrew, I find it hard to believe praying to the money gods didn’t when you the Lotto, how could it miss!!!!! it sounds like you should be writing an article on different ways to make mpney, that is quite a resume.

          A post on how to make money on the road is a great idea, but I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers myself. I have a small pension that covers most of my living expenses and then I worked as a campground host, and that is all I have done. So I don’t really have much to contribute. I’d suggest starting a thread on my forum (cheaprvlivingforum.com) on that topic, I’m sure you would get lots of ideas. Bob

    • Andrew you are spot on, it is a false security they have, like sleeping in a tent, thinking nothing in the world can hurt you as long as you have that barrier to reality…

      We have been so fortunate to be witness to some spectacular sunsets here in AZ that last few nights, and to add a bonus we have had even more stunning full moon risings… The S&B dwellers so often miss this aspect, which in its self is priceless, alone or spent with good friends…

  12. JohnNTx says:

    Rent: $600/mo
    Utilities: $10-15/mo electric; Internet is recreation, but I pay $20/mo unlimited; no oil fuel, propane, gas
    Maintenance: $0 in an apartment

  13. FastEddie says:

    Bob,
    Really enjoy your articles.
    I don’t know where you live for $600/ mo rent in an apt, but in my area, I pay $1100 plus about $150 for total utilities. And it is really nothing special. I have people living on top of me, under me and the lady that I can hear snore every night behind my bedroom wall. They won’t let me have a dog, won’t let me run power tools and require that I insure myself and my belongings for their benefit.

    That’s $15K a year right there for just having a place to sleep and take a shower.

    The only upside is no property taxes (was paying about $2800/yr in my S&B), no upkeep and no maintenance.

    Stealth living is the onlyway to get out of this mess.

  14. Sam (squire) says:

    Hi Bob,
    Funny, the anti-spam word I had to type was “rent”.
    Not trying to hi-jack your vandwelling blog but since you also mentioned rving, I will chime in. Vandwelling is just rving on a slightly smaller scale.
    We have been living in a rv for over ten years. First in an older class A and now in travel trailer we purchased new 5 years ago.
    With our income we could be paying for a home (or renting), stuck in one place with an occasional short trip, but we have been on the road for two years and have lapped the US.
    Are we “well off”, absolutely not, but because of the lower living expenses of rv living (I reiterate, vandwelling is rv living)we are free to roam where we please.
    Sorry for the long post.
    Sam (squire) recently posted…Winter HomeMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Sam, as usual, you are quite right. Vandwelling is just RVing on a smaller scale. Done right you can live very cheaply either way, or you can spend as much as some people in houses. Everybody is different.

      But like you point out, being able to live cheaply is a huge bonus, but what’s important is the better quality of life. You said it all when you said: “we are free to roam where we please.” Freedom is what it is all about! Bob

  15. CAE says:

    Purchasing a home means paying a lot for interest as well as the home itself…Often equal to the home price at the end of a 30 year mortgage. At the end of 30 years, you own the property free and clear,but taxes and maintenance never go away. Usually these costs rise as well.
    So, if you follow my “can’t take it with me” attitude, following the path of least cost makes a lot of sense. Wait a minute, maybe with the van being mobile, I can take it with me.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Right you are CAE, the amount of interest you pay over the course of a mortgage is a stunning amount of money. If you moved into a van and kept on paying yourself the mortgage payment, you would get rich instead of the banker! Bob

  16. CAE and those costs can and will be astronomical… Our friend in camp is paying $4000.00 a year in property tax in TX on a home she rarely stays in as she loves to travel… Another friend in camp simply put her taxes in reality with a simple statement… He said you are paying $40,000 each and every decade that you own that home… $40,000 just given away for life on something is absolutely insane, but it happens in every town in America… Give or take the tax rate…

  17. Nicole says:

    As I was spending my Friday afternoon cleaning the house I thought of an other important bonus for vandwellers… can you guess? I reeeally dislike housework. I was thinking how little time I will be spending (we bought a van last month) cleaning. That alone, in my book, is worth the downsizing. Did I mention how much I dislike housework?

    Thank you for your blogs and the forum, they are very helpful.

    Blue skies

    Nicole

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi Nicole, I think we can all relate to disliking housework!! There is still housework in a van, but MUCH MUCH less! Yahooooooo! The key thing is organization, especially if there is more than one of you. Everything has to have a home and it has to be put back there after every use, or it will disappear into the “black hole.”

      The thing I hate most about living in a house is mowing the lawn and shoveling snow. I hate those with a burning passion!!!! Like you, not having those is enough reason to live in a van for me. Bob

  18. MichaelinOK says:

    I see there have been a few objections to Bob’s argument that van-dwelling is cheaper than other options for housing. Some have talked about cheap houses, small houses, and apartments.

    Freedom, and other elements of quality of life, such as scenic views, variety of experience, etc., have been raised as benefit of van-living.

    And I have, indeed, seen YouTube videos (and plans for sale) by a fellow who built an off-grid solar-powered cabin on unrestricted land in the country for about $5,000. And in my city there are some small houses in working-class neighborhoods for $40,000 or less. And some small apartments can be had here for $550 a month including utilities. Views and freedom and nature and travel and the feeling of creating one’s own life experience every day, however, are another matter.

    Overall, I think Bob is understandably comparing the costs of the average middle-class American lifestyle to van living, because the average middle-class lifestyle is what most of us are living. And he’s also making the case for a life of greater freedom and independence and healing in nature–and this argument doesn’t come down to numbers, but rather to sensibilities and values. So the best he can do is to advocate with passion and warmth and partial arguments for his lifestyle. And he’s done this. Those whose spirits resonate to his values will feel called. Many others will not. I’m sure Bob understands this.

    There are those who love cities and buildings more than mountains and streams, who love crowds and company more than clear-aired solitude, who love routine and security more than liberty and adventure. Such people are entitled to their preferences–and their ears and spirits will be deaf to Bob’s appeals. And, truly, nobody can say that they are wrong. There is no one right lifestyle that all must follow. Speaking for myself, though, I find Bob’s overall message deeply persuasive, and I’m doing what I can to bring closer the day when I can make the mobile living leap myself.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Very well thought-out and reasoned post Michael. Very balanced as well. There are a few situations where you can live in a fixed dwelling as cheaply as in a van, but very, very few!

      Here’s the bottom line: most Americans have lots of debts and no savings; if one day they become disabled and have to live on $500 a month, what choices do they have? For nearly all of us there is only one choice–live in a car or van. If push comes to shove, I think we all know vandwelling is the cheapest possible way to live. And for some of us, it is also the BEST way to live. Bob

  19. Curtis says:

    “Speaking for myself, though, I find Bob’s overall message deeply persuasive, and I’m doing what I can to bring closer the day when I can make the mobile living leap myself.” Michael

    That makes 2 of us Michael, although back when I was in my thirties I longed for backpacking in nature when reading Sierra Magazine and never followed through.

  20. GuzziGlenn says:

    I find that the last few comments are very well stated. I would be interested to know what age group most Vandwellers are and are they mostly single or married couples. I would think it also depends on ones commitments in life and it would be interesting to know how many people are waiting for the right moment in life so that they are able to make that big break away. I live in New Zealand and living here as a Vandweller would not be easy as we have very strict laws regarding any type of camping. Having read all the above it all makes sense why you would become a Vandweller or even choose a simple life living a much cheaper way other than in a house. Most people do what other people do because it seems the right thing to do until they take a chance and say the hell with it – It seems to me that you may loose some friends but I am sure you meet plenty of new ones on the way. Life is all about choices and as far as I am concerned we only get one chance at it so make the most of it. Some people go through life saying ….if only I did this and that, so if you are a person that is able to do what Bob and others do and can see the sense in it than get out and do it and enjoy the moment while you can. My time will come when the time is right….cheers

    • Bob Bob says:

      Guzziglenn, in my experience most vandwellers are older, but there are a surprising number of young people. It’s probably 60% men and 40% women and mostly single. There are many senior women living in vans. They get older and hubby dies are divorces them. Since they never really worked much their Social Security check is small and this is the only way they can live. Most of them fall in love with it!!
      Bob

      • GuzziGlenn says:

        Hi Bob how’s the trip getting on? Thanks for your reply re the above. I can fully understand why you would full in love with that life style.What happens when old age really sets in would you not have to be close to hospitals just encase of an emergency and what address would you give the ambulance if one is required

        Do you find that a lot of the older folk stay in small groups as this would be safer and this way they could look out for each other. Sorry for all the questions but I find the subject very interesting. Cheers Glenn

        • Bob Bob says:

          Glenn, those are good questions. I know this will sound flippant, but I don’t mean it to be. When I started to live this way I accepted the fact that I was drastically increasing my risks and there was a very good chance my life would be shorter. So you have a choice of 1) a long, safe, boring life or 2) a short, intense and spectacular life. I chose the later! I’ve never regreted it.

          Of course the truth is my life is somewhere in-between those two extremes. Every person has to decide for themselves where they will fall on the continuum.

          I’m working to create a community and it’s working well. In the winter in Arizona you can have lots of people around you. In he summer we scatter to the wind and you will probably be alone!!

          I suggest you read this post, it summarizes my thinking quite well.
          https://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/living-safely-on-a-leash-or-running-free/
          Bob

  21. Bob Bob says:

    I’m not sure I know what you mean, do you have any suggestions? Bob

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