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Paying for Vanlife

Man drinks coffee in his van, sea view
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As remote work has become more and more common since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, there has been a notable increase in Americans turning to the Vanlife movement. People are converting vans, buses and RVs into livable spaces and living permanently on the road.

Automakers that sell commercial vans hae found that sales for this product have increased greatly over course of the pandemic. RV sales have also been up, as many Americans have been looking to get outside in the face of social distancing mandates. Businesses are selling personalized vans and apps to help van residents find parking have been popping up, and R.V. park conglomerates have seen a significant increase in stock value.

Vanlife comes with some significant costs that interested adventurers must be ready to finance.

Vanlife statistics

Even before the pandemic, Vanlife was on the rise. In 2019, the Census Bureau reported that more than 140,000 people in the U.S. were living in vans, boats or other recreational vehicles, 38 percent more than in 2016. This trend is likely due to the freedom and adventurous lifestyle that Vanlife offers.As Covid 19 continues to be an issue over two years later, the Vanlife movement continues to grow exponentially.

Despite the costly initial expense and upkeep of these types of converted mobile living spaces, as well as the challenges of living in such a small space, it seems that Vanlife is holding strong as a trend in post-Covid America.

According to a survey by Outbound Living, the top ten most populated states for Vanlife are:

  1. California
  2. Colorado
  3. Florida
  4. Oregon
  5. Washington
  6. Arizona
  7. Texas
  8. Georgia
  9. North Carolina
  10. Tennessee

This information correlates with the latest data on the states with the most Vanlife-friendly spaces.

How much does a van cost?

The cost of buying a van can vary dramatically. What brand/model you choose, whether you buy new or used and whether or not you will have to factor in conversion costs to make the van livable will determine prices.

Van prices can vary anywhere from $3,000 to $60,000 or more.  The average cost to convert the van into a livable space yourself ranges from $5,000 to $15,000.

Some of the most popular types of vans among van lifers include Sprinter Vans, Dodge Promasters, Ford Transits, VW Vanagons, buses and budget cargo vans.

Budget cargo vans are generally one of the cheapest options when looking to convert a van into a living space. Some popular brands include Ford Econolines, Chevy G Series, Chevy Express and Astros. These vehicles tend to be older and require some work to convert them into living spaces.

Vehicle type Average cost new Average cost used
Sprinter Van $38,300 $15,000
Dodge Promaster $34,295 $16,599
Ford Transit $36,745 $16,995
VW Vanagon $40,000 $19,807
Bus $90,000 $7,000

Preparing for Vanlife

Before deciding to take the leap into Vanlife, it is important to consider all you need to do to prepare. Aside from preparing your van to be livable and making the proper accommodations for income, you must figure out what to do with your current home and where to store any possessions you can’t take with you on the road.

Current living space

If you are renting your current residence, you only need to worry about when your current lease ends and speaking with your landlord.

If you own a house or apartment, you may consider renting or selling the home. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to rent or sell your home. Consider whether your transition to Vanlife is temporary or permanent, if you may need to tap into your home equity in the future, whether you want to take on the responsibility of being a landlord and current home values in your area before deciding to rent or sell your home.

Personal belongings

Moving into a house on wheels also involves some downsizing, and you may wonder what you should do with your personal belongings that won’t fit in your van. It comes down to how essential these items are and how likely you are to need them in the future.

You can rent a storage unit to house your belongings if you need to keep them. Selling or giving away what you do not need is likely a more cost-effective option.

How to finance a van conversion

Buying and converting a vehicle to live in is an expensive endeavor.

Paying in cash is probably the easiest route for buying and converting a van. It can be cost-effective if you sell your home and/or other vehicle(s) and use the profits. Many people do not have the cash required for a major project like this on hand. If you do not have the cash to fund this project, consider asking the dealer who sold you your van about financing options.

If the dealership is unwilling to finance the vehicle conversion, there are also RV loans and unsecured personal loans available:

  • RV loans are secured loans designed specifically for the purchase of recreational vehicles, using the vehicle itself as collateral. Lenders offer payment plans with term lengths up to 20 years.
  • Unsecured personal loans are not backed by collateral, meaning you do not run the risk of losing your van if you cannot pay off the loan. The interest rates for unsecured personal loans tend to be higher, especially for those with poor credit. You can take out a personal loan for any purpose, making them ideal for a large recreational purchase like this.

Getting and converting a van

The cost of van life is more than the initial cost of the vehicle. Converting a van includes buying building materials, appliances and features and, depending on if you plan to do the work yourself or not, labor costs.

The amount you spend depends entirely on the amenities you choose to include, where you buy your materials and the types of materials. Costs also depend on whether you choose to hire someone to help you or if you plan to do it yourself.

The overall cost of a van conversion can vary, but a modern van conversion that includes basic amenities typically costs between $5,000 to $15,000. This is just an estimate, however. Prices for top-rated van conversion companies tend to range from $12,000 to $35,000. The company you choose and how much work needs to be done will influence the cost.

The amenities you can include in your vehicle will depend on its capacity for plumbing and electrical. Solar panels tend to be the largest expense for van lifers with an off-grid solar setup ranging from an average of $1,500 to $4,000. Bigger items like fridges for campervans and working plumbing also tend to be larger expenses.

Vanlife expenses

Once you have converted your vehicle, you also need to think about the everyday expenses of van life. These expenses will largely depend on personal needs and habits.

Your weekly and monthly expenses will depend largely on your eating and traveling habits. Some are easier to plan for, such as a gym membership to shower if you don’t have one in the van. Others come up depending on how much gas is at a given time or where you go to eat.

Current van lifers tend to spend anywhere from $800 to $2,000 on their monthly expenses, including insurance, camping and recreational fees and miscellaneous expenses.

Weekly/monthly van life expenses Average cost 
Gas $200-$600 a week
Paid campsites $450-$900 a month
RV Insurance $50-$100 a month
Gym membership $22 a month
Groceries/food $600-$800 a month

Insurance

It is important to take out an insurance policy on your vehicle, adding a monthly expense to your budget. Insurance for recreational vehicles varies by provider and specific circumstances, but you can generally expect to pay between $50 and $100 a month for vehicle insurance.

Incidentals

You must plan for the worst when you are living life on the road, and that means putting money aside for vehicle repairs and any other emergency expenses that may come up. It is generally a good idea to have at least $500 set aside for emergencies. It is better if you can set aside half a year’s worth of living expenses as an emergency fund.

Taxes

Paying state taxes can be complicated when you live in multiple states throughout the year. If you are employed by a specific employer, it may be a bit easier, but freelancers who live on the road may want to consider hiring a professional to help sort out their state taxes.

Campsites

While the most economical choice is finding free campsites in your area, this may not always be feasible. Paid campsites run on an average of $15-$30 a night, meaning that if you stay at a paid campsite every night for a month, you will likely pay between $450 and $900 total.

The bottom line

Van life has become incredibly popular over the years, only increasing in popularity as the Covid 19 pandemic continues to be a reality of everyday life. People are looking to find adventure, freedom and fun in a socially distanced way.

The phenomenon of widespread remote work has given those with the financial freedom to do so a unique opportunity to hit the road permanently. However, buying, converting and living in a recreational vehicle is expensive and can be cost-prohibitive for many.

If you are thinking about taking the leap into van life, make sure that you are aware of all the costs and will be able to maintain your financial health and income along the way.

Written by
Raija Haughn
Raija Haughn is an associate writer for Bankrate.com specializing in personal and home equity loans. She is passionate about helping people make financial decisions that will benefit them long term.
Edited by
Loans Editor, Former Insurance Editor