How to Navigate the Costs of Starting Your Van Life
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Of all the intriguing things about the home Dan Howson and Bo Bean share, the front door gets the most compliments. The door — white with a round knob and paned window — adds a splash of personality to the Chevrolet Express shuttle bus they live in.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down most cities in the United States, Howson and Bean, both 35, quit their jobs — Howson worked in the solar industry and Bean co-owned a restaurant — to pursue full-time travel. By the end of last summer, they had sold both of their cars and begun tearing out the interior of the bus.
“The idea was we wanted to be able to travel freely without having to take flights and go to airports and keep that dream alive of traveling for 14 months,” Howson says. “But we also kind of felt like this was a good way to not need a home, and if we were to buy land someday to build a house, we could park this bus on the land and live in it.”
The “van life” trend the couple follows has been gaining traction, especially in about the last five years as tech companies began to embrace remote work, says David Walsh, owner of the van conversion shop Vanlife Customs in Denver.
More than 140,000 boats, RVs and vans were counted as housing units by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, a jump from about 102,000 in 2016.
In movies and Instagram posts, living the van life can look as simple as selling your possessions and hopping in a van, but turning a vehicle into a home requires research and often a big budget. Here are tips for navigating the many costs of getting started.
Costs to buy and convert
The vehicle is the foundation for the entire project, so it’s worth researching and comparing options. A good starting point is deciding how you’ll use the van, Walsh says.
Howson and Bean, who consider the Denver-Boulder area their home base, paid about $14,800 for their 2012 bus, but Howson says it took plenty of research to decide it was the right one.
“Keep in mind how much space you want and how much space you need,” Howson says. “Before you even start thinking about building it or [budgeting for it], decide what kind of vehicle you want to be in.”
Kurt Bradler, general manager at Contravans, another Denver-area conversion company, stresses that prices vary, but he estimates a new small van (picture yourself potentially hunched over as you move through the van) could cost around $25,000 before conversion.
If the van is your full-time residence, getting a large vehicle that can fit enough amenities to make it feel like home may be worth it — but it’ll have a bigger price tag. Brand new large vans can cost as much as $60,000, Walsh says.
Howson and Bean started their conversion with a list of things they wanted in their bus — including an oven, refrigerator and toilet — and then researched each item’s cost and size. They trimmed and reworked the list until they had all they needed without going too far over their $30,000 budget.
The interior cost the couple about $21,000 and brought their total, including the bus, to about $36,000, Howson says.
“To me, this thing is like a house, and for $36,000 we have a home that we can live in off-grid,” he says. “As long as we have access to water we have everything we need, and that is a pretty damn good price if you think about what it would cost to live off-grid in any other condition.”
Howson and Bean did the work to convert their bus over five months. Those without the luxury of time can turn to conversion professionals.
People come to Contravans because they don’t have the time, ability, space or tools to do the conversion themselves, Bradler says.
A conversion professional can also build the van’s interior for safety. Car accidents in a van that contains a home’s worth of amenities can be dangerous if the van isn’t built correctly, Walsh says.
Walsh and Bradler say they can do partial conversions, or help with some of the more complex aspects of a DIY conversion, like electrical updates.
But the sky is truly the limit if you’re budgeting to have a professional customization. Some companies start at six figures for a high-end conversion, Bradler says.
A base conversion from Contravans costs $10,000 and will be adequate for regular trips, he says.
A conversion at Vanlife Customs typically falls between $60,000 and $100,000, Walsh says.
Funding the project
The cheapest way to pay for the van is with cash. Howson and Bean used the money they made selling their cars, plus savings. If you don’t have the cash or want to save it for the conversion, ask the dealer about financing options.
Some auto lenders, though, won’t finance a conversion van. Others may decline to finance models of vans that are traditionally used for work. RV loans can usually be used only to pay for vehicles that are classified as recreational vehicles by a state’s vehicle registration department.
» MORE: Compare the best RV loans
Converting a van’s interior is a large, uncategorized expense — it’s not a home improvement project, but it could be your home; it’s not a vehicle purchase, but purchases are for the vehicle.
Bradler says his customers pay primarily in cash, but for those large expenses, an unsecured personal loan is one of your only financing options.
Walsh's and Bradler’s websites refer customers who need financing to an online lender that provides unsecured loans.
The lowest rates and highest loan amounts on these loans go to borrowers with good or excellent credit (690 or higher FICO) and low existing debt.
If you qualify for a large enough loan, you could roll the cost of the van and the rebuild into a single loan.
Personal loans don’t require collateral, so the lender won’t typically ask for details about the van.
Financing a vehicle this way is usually an expensive option, with rates between 6% and 36% — a range that skews higher than most auto loans. But there are almost no restrictions on how you use funds from a personal loan.
Budgeting for life on the road
Once you hit the road, everyday expenses are still a reality. Here are a few expenses to keep in mind once your vehicle is converted.
Insurance: You’ll need to insure the van with auto or RV insurance. Howson and Bean had a temporary insurance policy while they worked on the van that cost around $50 per month, Howson said. They traded up for a policy that costs less than $100 when they were ready to drive it.
Taxes: A digital nomad who takes to the road without quitting their job will have to pay state taxes, which can be tricky when you live in a handful of states in a year. Freelancers can navigate the complexity alone or hire a professional. W-2 employees can check with their companies to see whether life on the road is feasible.
Incidentals: One of the more dramatic points of Howson and Bean’s initial journey was a breakdown in January near Davenport, Iowa, on their bus’s maiden voyage. Howson estimates the whole ordeal cost the couple $8,000.
They expected to have to make repairs eventually, but they didn’t see it coming in the first month of their travels. The lesson: Don’t forsake your emergency fund during the conversion; you never know when you’ll need it.
Top photo: Dan Howson and Bo Bean outside their bus with their dog, Taro. (Photo courtesy of Dan Howson and Bo Bean)
A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Dan Howson in certain instances. This article has been corrected.