Life in a van: How much does it cost to live in a chalet on wheels?
James Tadeo, warehouse supervisor and computer programmer, dreamed of owning a cottage. As a child, his parents took him camping all over Ontario: Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay and Grand Bend.
“When you canoe in these places, you always see people and their cabins and I was like, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful.'” In 2011, he bought a house in Brampton and thought he would start trying to save $80,000 for a small vacation property.
But the prices for the chalets exceeded his modest budget, putting his dreams out of reach. At the same time, Mr. Tadeo started hearing about “van life”. As he saw YouTube videos and Instagram posts about people abandoning their apartments or other homes to live in a van full-time, Mr. Tadeo thought it would suit him as a budget cottage alternative, where he could escape into the wilderness in comfort.
Once seen as a way of life for broke hippies, van living became more popular in the 2010s and took off even more during the pandemic, with posts on social media platforms touting the low cost, mobility and freedom.
As remote and hybrid work became more widespread, the allure of hitting the road for a few days, or full-time, became more appealing — and financially realistic. Coupled with record house and cabin prices, van living is a cheaper alternative for those on a budget.
Mr. Tadeo bought a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan for $1,500 in January 2020, just before the first pandemic lockdown. Over the next five months, he spent another $2,000 renovating the interior, adding a small bed, heating system, battery and solar-powered electrical system, lights, shelving and storage areas. storage.
Mr. Tadeo has kept his costs low by using gifted items, like leftover plywood from a family member, or found objects like discarded furniture and undamaged wooden pallets. The electrical system was its biggest expense, at around $800. “I didn’t want to skimp on the electricity,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I got new parts.”
He bought batteries that normally run an electric golf cart and solar panels, which together are enough for Mr. Tadeo to use his laptop, charge his phone and run things like a slow cooker and a portable oven. He documents his builds and tweaks on a YouTube channel called Silver Cabin.
So far, Tadeo, who is in his 50s, has driven around Ontario in his van, spending up to two weeks in places like Tobermory, Huntsville and Algonquin Park. It has portable toilets, but chooses to use rest areas, truck stops, and campgrounds when possible. Next year he hopes to take a six-week trip along the west coast.
Heather Nassler is the administrator of a Facebook group called VanLife Ontario which has over 3,500 members. Like many lifestyles, Ms. Nassler says the van life can be done on a budget, like with Mr. Tadeo, or luxuriously.
“I’ve seen vans that cost over $100,000 with heated floors and a hydraulic bed lift,” Nassler says. Built-in hot water showers are another luxury, as are high-end solar panel systems.
Ms. Nassler’s own van life took her across Ontario, Quebec and the East Coast from 2018 to 2019 with her ex-husband. She estimates their monthly costs were around $800, including $100 for groceries, $90 for vehicle insurance, $300 for gas, and $30 for a Planet Fitness membership, where they could take showers. They reduced parking and campground costs by staying on Crown land.
However, the roof of their first minivan – a 2006 Dodge Sprinter that cost $11,000, with an additional $9,000 spent on renovations, ended up leaking and causing extensive rust damage. The pickup was later sold, stripped of its modifications, for $1,500. “It was a wild ride,” says Ms. Nassler.
Buying an older vehicle can help budget-conscious lifers save money. But Ms. Nassler’s experience reminds us that, like buying a home to renovate, renovations can go wrong. However, living for less than it costs to own or rent a home is not always the end goal of this lifestyle.
“I think there’s a misconception that it’s going to be cheaper than renting an apartment,” says Caval Olson-Lepage, certified financial planner at Affinity Wealth Management in Saskatoon. “When I look at my clients who are interested in the van life, their purpose and objective is that they don’t want to be tied down to one location.”
Ms. Olson-Lepage encourages future lifers to budget for initial and ongoing costs, depending on where they plan to travel. Consider fees like camping and park permits and parking, which can quickly add up.
Inflation is a major concern for lifers, especially the rapid and steep increase in the cost of gasoline. With the summer driving season underway, the national average gas price is over $2 a liter, according to GasBuddy.
Although older vehicles are cheaper upfront, they may have higher ongoing maintenance costs which can be costly, especially if they require days at a repair shop. “Where are you going to stay if your van is inaccessible to you?” asks Ms. Olson-Lepage. “If you need something fixed and it has to go to a store, you can now have hotel charges.”
For part-time lifers, like Mr. Tadeo, Ms. Olson-Lepage would budget for time on the road like one would for a vacation. “You look at it from a recreational perspective,” she says. “It’s about short-term budgeting rather than longer-term.”
Mr. Tadeo is currently saving to buy and refurbish a larger van with a budget of $30,000. He views his first build as a test project, of sorts, to see if he enjoys the lifestyle before diving into a larger, more expensive build.
He has since abandoned his cottage plans. Van life is a fraction of the cost compared to paying for a cabin and being stationary in the same place, he says, “but for me, the same level of enjoyment.”
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