Steps to Living in a Van
Share this Post
This post contains affiliate links, see disclosure statement for details
The time between deciding to live in a van to the day I was on the road [to Alaska] in Vanny Devito, feels like a whirlwind. I definitely had a few “WTF am I doing moments,” along the way, but I stayed on course and have no major regrets, yet :).
The following six steps describe, in great detail, the entire process of my van life story. Starting with the day I decided to commit to living in a van, to the completed conversion of Vanny. It was stressful at some points, but it was mostly fun and incredibly exciting. My friends and family were very supportive and helped me in any way possible. I am incredibly appreciative of that. I am also incredibly appreciative of all those who have come before me and shared their experiences on the interweb; the van life bloggers, vloggers, and Instagrammers that provided me with the most useful information. I am so grateful that I found all these amazing people out there sharing their stories and helping others who want to live the van lifestyle. So now it’s my turn to share my van life journey and to hopefully help someone else who might be considering this lifestyle.
In short- Hey, check it out! You can live in a van in these six easy(ish) steps!
Step 1: Decide to live in a Van
Step 2: Decide on a budget and do not budge on it
Step 3: Know your Limits
Step 4: Decide on the type of Van
Step 5: Buy the Van
Step 6: Convert the Van
Step 1: Decide to live in a Van
If you are after a simplified life that allows you to travel more, have less stress, and have more adventure, van life might be for you! If you simply cannot imagine life without a daily hot shower, microwave, or wifi, then it might not be for you. As I mentioned in my previous post Why I Decided to Live in a Van, van life was a decision that evolved over time and when I finally arrived there, it just made perfect sense for what I wanted in life. Van dwelling would allow what I was desiring most at that time, more financial freedom. But ultimately, it’s not just living in a van that you have to commit to, it’s a complete lifestyle change. If a simple, yet extremely rewarding lifestyle sounds appealing to you, you might want to consider living in a tiny van!
Step 2: Decide on a Budget, and don’t budge on it
Decide what type of financial commitment you are ready to take on, or how much of your saved money you are willing to spend. If you have thousands saved and can purchase a van with cash, go for it! If you’re like me and need to finance, figure out how much you are comfortable spending. Keep your credit score in mind (credit scores run the world, I have learned) in order to have a realistic indicator of how much money you can borrow. Decide on a monthly amount you will be comfortable paying for the next 4-7 years. I decided that anything less than what I was paying for my car and car insurance (at that time), was my comfort zone.
Step 3: Know your limits.
For me personally, I was pretty much on my own living in Los Angeles when I decided to do this. I did not (and still do not) have any trade skills. I knew I would not be able to do any of the handy work that it would take to convert a van into a living space. I also bought the van the same month I gave my 30day notice to my employer, thus I was also on a very tight time constraint. So, with all those factors in mind, I decided to get most of the conversion professionally done and to do as many DIY projects as I could manage. All of this was also influential when deciding my budget.
Good news! A van conversion can cost whatever you want. You can buy a very cheap van/car and put a sleeping bag in the back and live in it, or you can spend $100,000 on a tricked out insane mobile van home. This is one of the best parts about van life: you have complete control over how much money you will spend.
Step 4: Decide on the Type of Van
Google, Pinterest, and Instagram were my best friends during this phase. My advice: research, research and do more research. I spent many lunch hours and late nights just on the computer trying to obtain as much information as possible. I strongly suggest looking around at what vans are available to start to get a feel for what is within your budget. Personally, I really like cargurus because they have “Deal Indicators” which easily lets you see if the van is overpriced, underpriced…etc. Other sites I used often were: autotrader, carsforsale, truecar, carmax, kelley bluebook and, of course, the go-to craigslist.
It seems when you bring up van living most people’s first thoughts are a Volks Wagon. When I first started considering van life, a VW Westy is what I wanted. Reality sets in, these cars are SOOOOOO awesome and have so much character, but all are at least 25 years old. From what I learned during online research, it’s not a question of WILL these types of vans break down but WHEN. Besides putting gas in my car and knowing when to bring it to Jiffy Lube for an oil change, I am quite clueless with the mechanics of a car. I just pictured myself on the side of a highway broken down and incredibly frustrated. I also felt like since these types of vans are so easily associated with van life, they might make it difficult to stealth camp. Not going to lie, I do love Vanny but I get a little jealous when I see those VW campers.☺
At first, I was looking at larger vans like a Sprinter van, Ram promaster and Ford e series. However, it seemed many couples and even families were living in these types of vans comfortably and I felt that I didn’t need that much space for just me. I then started looking at mini cargo vans (ie Ford transit connect, Nissan nv200, and Ram promaster city.) These are smaller cargo vans mostly used for deliveries and work vans. They fit in standard parking spots and most get very good MPG compared to the larger vans I mentioned before.
Things to Consider…
Since I am traveling for my job I can’t ever be too sure if I will be in a cold or warm climate. I was very surprised when researching vans how many are rear wheel drive (RWD). Originally, I wanted 4×4/AWD but finding this in my budget was like looking for a unicorn. I decided to settle on only searching for vans with front-wheel drive (FWD).
I have literally spent hours comparing dimensions of the mini cargo vans to decide which one has the most cargo space. I’m here to tell you that the 2010 ford transit connect has the most cargo room of all the mini cargo vans out there as of April 2016. Since this model is older I found it to fit perfectly within my budget.
Most used vans have higher mileage on them, as most vans are used commercially. From what I researched, many companies ditch vans after 100,000 miles at the risk of needing costly repairs. A decent van that has been taken care of shouldn’t give you any major problems up until at least 250,000 miles. Since I drive in between jobs that can vary from state to state I wanted to keep it under 100,000 miles, if possible under 75,000.
Decide or Don’t Decide
After all my research, I chose the 2010 ford transit connect and only began searching for this specific vehicle to purchase. I found it less overwhelming to be very specific and I found there were many options for this specific type of vehicle in my area. Someone else may have a list of 3 or 4 models, so it’s up to you; be as specific as you want.
Step 5: Buy a Van
The days of being fearful to go purchase a car as a young, single female are over! There is no longer a man in a cowboy hat, smoking a cigar, trying to sell you an over-priced car. The buyer is essentially in control now and is much more educated about the accepted value of any vehicle on the internet. Kelly Bluebook was my best friend during this phase. When I went to see any vehicle I took the print out from KBB describing how much it was worth.
As a buyer, realize that a car is being sold because the owner/dealership wants it sold. They are most likely willing to work with you (within reason) to sell it. Some places I would call and say I wanted to come test drive the car but I was not interested unless they would be able to sell the car to me at the average market value price or lower. And guess what, most people agreed to this. It’s true what they say, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”
After many long days wandering around the greater Los Angeles area test driving many vans, I narrowed it down to two 2010 ford transit connects. They were similar in mileage, condition, and price. The one big difference was one was a used car at a MINI dealership while the other was a small family owned used car lot. As much as I loved the cute 80-year-old Armenian man handwriting the terms on a blank piece of paper and his grandkids running around the run-down office, I just felt more comfortable buying from the dealership. Dealerships have much more of a reputation to uphold and any vehicle traded in that is not up to par gets sold at auction. The fact that this car passed their inspection to be sold at their dealership made me feel more comfortable buying it.
Selling the Jeep
I ended up selling my Jeep to Carmax and using the positive equity as a down payment for the transit. I loved Carmax, the whole “no-nonsense, in and out” vibe, I dug. You can get a car appraised for free at Carmax and the offer is good for 7 days. Carmax offered me $2000 more than 2 dealerships I visited including the one where I ended up buying Vanny. I walked in with my offer, license, and registration, and I left shortly after with a check that handled the payoff of my remaining lien.
So, on a day in May, after a long day of work, I said goodbye to my jeep (Cheyenne). After a fun weekend of driving around the mountains of Malibu for one last rendezvous, I purchased my newest adventure vehicle: a 2010 Ford Transit Connect, a.k.a. (affectionately known as) Vanny Devito.
Step 6: Convert the Van
As if picking the right van wasn’t enough decision making for me, I now had to decide on what type of livable set up I wanted in my new, beautiful van. There are tons and tons of options out there for van conversions. There are even so many different layouts just for my specific type of van. I spent many hours researching different types of build-outs and taking note on what other people liked and didn’t like. It was a bit overwhelming. I decided to get a very simple build out that had the potential to add on later if needed.
As mentioned earlier, due to my lack of skills and time, I decided to do as many DIY projects as possible but to have most my build out completed professionally. Since I was living in Southern California at the time there were actually a few conversion places in the area. It was shocking when I asked for quotes from these companies and discovered how much they would cost. One company went into detail on their website to explain that they were trying to complete conversions without breaking your bank and the application even asked why you wanted to convert a van. I explained that I wanted to pay off my student loan debt and all that good (bad) stuff. Only after being super honest with them did I find out that no matter how minimal of a design I wanted they had a $30,000 minimum for any van conversion (yea, super affordable guys!). I started to panic a little bit and just seriously considered sleeping on the floor of the van with no build outs until I could find someone to help me.
Luckily, before I gave up the search, I came across a company in Van Nuys, California called Alliance Van Conversions, and I am sooo happy I found them. I explained to them what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. They were seriously amazing and even gave me tips to save costs like buying my own equipment for the conversion (solar panels, noise insulation, etc). Getting the solar panels installed, insulation, wall paneling and furniture build out cost me under $5000. Now that’s an amount of zeros that I can manage. Whew!
Stay tuned for future posts that will provide A LOT more detail of the actual conversion of Vanny, including costs and materials used. For now, check out my resources page for a quick overview of products I used in my van conversion.
If your goal is to live more simply and have more time and money for experiences instead of things, then I don’t think there is any better way to jump start this lifestyle. Start by downsizing your living quarters. Whether you’re moving from a 4 bedroom house to a 2 bedroom, moving from an expensive part of town to a less expensive part of town, or perhaps even from a two bedroom apartment in Los Angeles to a tiny van in Alaska, there are small and big ways to downsize your living space in order to live more simply. Everyone has a unique situation and goals for taking on this type of minimalist lifestyle, I have had some bumps along the road but I do not regret for one minute taking the leap into my tiny van.
Would you ever live in a van full time? Have you thought about downsizing your living space?