Living small and saving big: The actual cost of alternative housing
In the era of McMansions, bigger and better homes became all the rage. Now, between the rising cost of housing and a growing desire to have more freedom, economical homes are becoming the future. Compact living is springing up all over social media (aka #vanlife), and more and more people are finding creative, cost-effective ways to turn everything from a van to a bus, to an airplane into a micro-luxurious dwelling.
What are the real costs of these conversions? What about upkeep and other expenses? We’ll break it down and you can decide if traveling the country with all the comforts of home is right for you.
1. Retrofitting an old van into a dream home
The most popular form of tiny home living that’s sweeping social media is Vanlife. People all over the US – and the world, really – are buying Sprinter vans and converting them into homes on wheels. Vans are small, can be purchased for relatively cheap, and can travel anywhere with ease. And let me tell you, these vans are nothing like the ones that carpooled you to soccer practice.
It probably seems like it would be costly and time-consuming to do, but you can buy and build your van for as little as $3,000. You can also do it for $100,000+ dollars. While this might seem pricey for a van, it is still much cheaper than buying a house.
2. How much for the van?
If you want a van that has some of the luxuries of a home but is still erring on the cheaper side, you can build a very nice van for about $15,000. The van itself can be as low as $2,000 or as much as $100,000, but on average, most people spend around $4,000-$5,000 on the van (before conversion).
The iconic VW vans and the brand new Sprinter vans can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000, just for the van. You do not need a brand new van though; these hardened road warriors are built to last regardless of the miles on the odometer. With that in mind, even an old van will do the trick.
3. Everything…PLUS the kitchen sink
Purchasing the van is just the beginning. You then begin the process of making the van a home. Some of the primary costs that come with building out the van include adding insulation and amenities such as a toilet, hardwood flooring, a sink, cabinets, and a bed frame. Conversely, you can also very easily throw a cooler inside and hang a hammock and call it a day.
If you want it to be simple on the inside and don’t need many amenities, wood is not very expensive. You can build the basics for around $1,000, but it’s not going to be very ‘instaworthy.’ Everyone’s idea of van life is different. You might be surprised to see just how elaborate some vanlifers have made their mobile abodes.
4. The sky’s the limit
On the flip side, there are bougie vans. These are the ones with toilets, showers, individual cabinets, light fixtures, paneled ceilings, generators, solar panels and a lot of the amenities from home. Not only do all these amenities require a decent amount of construction work (and costs), they require thorough planning to make the best use of the space. They can tack on anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand dollars in cost.
It’s possible to build a van that has all the amenities of a regular home, but it adds a lot more money and a lot more time. It all depends on the purpose of the van – is it a forever home or something to travel around in for a few years?
5. Recurring costs
Also, other factors come into play besides actually building the van itself. There are still monthly and yearly expenses to be paid. There are groceries, gas, car insurance, phone bills, camping fees, parking and speeding tickets, and your own health insurance fees. Though, of course, you are giving up water, energy, trash, cable bills, and HOA fees.
Then, there’s also registration every year and any fees that come along with car-related issues. Altogether, you’re looking at around $1,200 in monthly costs, give or take incidentals. You will want to consider how that compares against your current monthly costs and whether these are costs you can afford while on the road.
6. Compared to a house…
Still, the costs of buying and building the van – and the monthly costs to pay for it – are still much cheaper than owning a home. You can build two or three vans for the price of a house. And while the value of a home will appreciate rather than depreciate over time, a van allows you to change your home’s “view” at a moment’s notice.
A lot of people have leveraged social media to turn their van-as-an-abode lifestyle into a business. These people have gained a following and found ways to generate income by documenting their day-to-day experience. So, it can be a two in one as it creates a lot of simplicity and ease in life, while also allowing you to explore the world.
7. Frugality is key
There are a lot of websites saying you can’t do van life for less than $20,000, but that’s just not true. It just depends on what you’re willing to give up and how long you’re willing to wait. Where there is a will, there is a way, so to speak.
Plenty of people have built the cheapest van possible and made it work, or have kept adding to it over time. If you’re on a time and money crunch, then get the basics and hit the road. You can always modify things down the road when you have a better sense of what you really need. After all, how many times have you planned for a trip and used only 1/3 of what you packed?
8. Time = Money
With the van life craze happening now, there are a lot of people willing to build and sell you a van – but that comes with a fee. Usually, they are about $50-100 thousand dollars and, in all honesty, that is a bit ridiculous. The costs associated with the convenience of a pre-built van outway the benefits, and, in reality, converting the van to be exactly what you want it to be is part of the beauty of van life.
You can build a van yourself for much less, and when you do, the pride of doing it yourself comes along with it. If you have the money to spare and don’t care about doing the work, then go for it! You can find lots of DIY resources online to help you get started. But what if van life feels just a little too compact?
9. #VanLife too small? Try this…
There are also plenty of other options, aside from van life, if you want to pursue a more nomadic or economical lifestyle. Nowadays, you can turn anything into a home with a little creativity and vision. That palace on wheels might be just a daydream and some elbow grease away.
If van life sounds cool, but it seems like it might get too cramped for you, there is always school bus life. You might be surprised by the incredible homes people have made out of a school bus. Plus, it’s the next best thing after van life….and it might bring back memories of your favorite field trip.
10. Goin’ green
Living on a school bus sounds like your parents’ worst nightmare come true, but it’s actually one of the most economical and environmentally-friendly housing choices you can make. So, go you if you’re thinking about making the switch, and your parents are hippies, but maybe try not to bring it up at Thanksgiving if they’re investments bankers.
School bus life is similar to van life, except that school buses are bigger, which opens up the possibilities but also expands the costs. You should be able to fit more amenities if you so choose, and you will not have to be quite as good at Tetris to figure out how to do so. So what’s next?
11. How much do you need?
Turning a school bus into a tiny home sounds like the best of all the tiny home worlds. It’s big enough to be spacious and feel like a home, but it also still allows you to be nomadic if that’s what you want. They also have a lot more windows, which means lots of light and plentiful lookout points for your life on the road.
Since they are more significant than a van, they will take more time to build and will cost a little more money but not too much more. In all honesty, the added cost seems pretty worth it, if you can afford the difference. But do they stand the test of time?
12. The hunt for the best
The greatest thing about school bus conversions is that school buses are meant to last, and can keep trucking all the way to a million miles. Seriously, a million miles! So all the money you put into your conversion isn’t likely to be lost on a roadside breakdown. And I thought my Civic had staying power!
The price to buy a bus is the same as a van, maybe even lower because fewer people have a use (or parking space) for them. They start out at about $3,000 and can go up to $10,000 at auctions, but you can get a perfectly good bus for $2,500 if you do your due diligence. So, where do you score a deal on a school bus?
13. Maintaining your home
Most people get their buses at bus dealerships, at online auctions, or on the classifieds. You can try your luck at Craigslist, but those listings can be pretty rare. Look around and take your time, because the vehicle is the most critical part. You don’t want to risk investing in the renovation process if the vehicle itself isn’t in good condition.
The most important thing to remember is to review the vehicle’s maintenance records. But you don’t have to worry too much about how many miles it has. You’re most likely going to gut the inside entirely, so don’t worry about that either. Once you have found a bus with good bones, the real fun begins.
14. Building costs
You can do a bus conversion for $30,000. This estimate includes the average price to purchase the bus, as well as all the costs of the tools and materials. It is not that much more than a van, and vans can be made for the same price as well.
It is possible to do it for even less than $30,000 if you use repurposed materials and get in there and do the nitty-gritty work yourself. It just depends on how much work you’re willing to do and how much time you are willing to commit to bringing this project to life.
15. Space = Time + Money
The main difference between a van and a school bus conversion is the time that it will take. A school bus is a lot bigger, so it’s going to be a lot more work and a lot more time. Time is money in some cases, so you will need to weigh out whether you can budget for both.
The planning and organizing of the conversion can be more time consuming because there is more space, so there are more options to consider when it comes to how you go about designing your space. You will want to create a blueprint of the interior and think through which amenities are the highest priority, how much space they will take up, and how they fit together with other elements (aka, you probably want space between the bathroom and kitchen).
16. Big living in a tiny space
Another expense that comes into play is that since there is more room in the bus, there is room for more stuff. You can have a real bed, a real couch, and a real dining room table. You may even have room inside the bus for a washing machine and dryer.
Furnishing a bus can almost be as costly as decorating an actual apartment, in some cases. It can cost more if you want to upgrade certain appliances for off the grid living. Of course, you can also still build the same sort of furniture that you would have in a van. The key is to keep in mind what attracted you to compact living in the first place.
17. Leaves or TP?
School bus conversions also allow for full bathrooms! You can have an actual shower and a toilet and a sink in there if you want to. This adds on a little more in costs than just using the woods as a bathroom, but you can still do that, too. The sky is the limit.
One of the smarter moves when it comes to tiny house living is the compostable toilet, and those can cost about $1,000. These toilets don’t require connection to a sewer line or septic tank, and they convert human waste into compost. Plus, they are worth it because sometimes you don’t feel like doing your business in the woods.
18. Hard work or convenience?
When all is said and done, it really comes down to personal preference. There are plenty of high-end school bus conversions that can cost upwards of $100,000. There are school buses that also cost $15,000, just like a van. The range is surprisingly large and the types of conversions are varied.
It really depends on what kind of person you are and what you want. If you want to live on nothing and only be comfortable, then go the cheap route. If you want to live in a cute house and have extra amenities, then spend a little more. What if you want to cut costs and be cozy but don’t care so much about being mobile? Read on!
19. Tiny homes
In the range of off the grid living options, tiny houses are the perfect in-between point. They aren’t quite as extreme as living in a van and not quite as bougie as storage container houses. Although, high-end tiny houses do exist if that is what you are looking for.
If you don’t know what a tiny house is, it’s basically what it sounds like: a small house built to allow you to live a simpler life with less stuff. In the last few years, it has turned into an architectural and social movement. How does the cost of a tiny home compare to a van or school bus conversion?
20. Big opportunities
The price for a tiny home is still close in comparison to a van or a school bus. The average cost of a tiny home on wheels is about $60,000. That’s a whole house, complete with bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen for only $60,000! Even though a tiny home is technically a house, similar to a van or bus, its value still depreciates. The land it is situated on does appreciate over time, which brings up another point…
You will need to acquire land for your tiny home. The $60,000 estimate is for the house itself — which is the price some people pay for cars — and not the land it sits on. Fear not, though, you have some options in securing just the right land for your tiny home.
21. Own the house, rent the space
Just like van and school bus conversions, there is a range of fees for a tiny home – and it all depends on what you want. It’s possible to build the house itself for only $12,000, but it will take a lot of time and searching for free materials to make that happen.
The most significant cost factor that comes into play is whether or not you have a place to put your tiny house and if you want it to be portable. The price range will also vary depending on where the land is located. So will you make money or lose money with your tiny home?
22. Money making or money saving?
If you don’t already have land to put your tiny home on, you’re either going to have to buy it or rent it. Some people build tiny homes to keep in their backyards and rent out on Airbnb. While that is good for some quick cash, that’s not exactly living the tiny house lifestyle.
A growing trend is building tiny homes as a hobby and taking them to tiny home fairs hosted around the country. This is similar to the car shows auto enthusiasts frequent, where you peruse what others have brought and network with like-minded hobbyists. The idea behind building tiny dwellings movement, however, is to minimize your lifestyle and carbon footprint, not show off what you have.
23. Travel, rent, or camp
If you build a tiny home to be a part of the tiny home lifestyle, then you’re going to need a place to put it. So your options are to buy a piece of land, rent a spot at an RV park, or rent property from someone to keep your tiny home.
These all vary in cost and depend on what you’re looking for. Are you looking primarily to save money? Do you plan to live in the area or in a tiny home long-term? It’s also important to keep in mind that the purpose of tiny homes is to cut costs and reduce environmental harm.
24. Live anywhere (as long as it’s legal)
Buying a plot of land is not as expensive as you’d think it would be. You can even buy land for as cheap as $100. Land can also be as expensive as $1,000,000 depending on where you want to live. You will need to factor in whether you care more about the location or owning the land — unless you are lucky enough to afford the land in the area you want to live!
It is not out of the question to build your tiny home and find an affordable piece of land to still keep costs well below $100,000 for land and your home. Do your research and keep in mind where you would like to live when you’re figuring out costs.
25. RV parks for convenience
If living in an RV park sounds like your cup of tea, then most places will rent spots to tiny homes for from $500 to $1,500. This is basically paying rent, with the option to leave whenever you want. So it still provides freedom, BUT you’re still wasting money on rent.
However, the cost of a spot in an RV park usually covers water, electricity, Wi-Fi, and trash. So all utilities are paid, and you’re probably paying less than a standard apartment while enjoying a space detached from other units. Still, if you want even more privacy you have other options.
26. Cheap land for hermits
There is the option to rent land, in a more secluded area than an RV park. Most places are probably better than renting a spot in an RV park. It’s also most likely cheaper, but the tradeoff is that your utilities won’t be bundled and covered in the cost of the land rental the way they would be at an RV park.
You can rent land for as cheap as $200 a month; it’s similar to buying property, it really just depends on where you want to be and how much you’re willing to pay for your location. Or if you have a friend who doesn’t mind you living off their land, that works too.
27. Go all out
There are many ways to make tiny house living happen, and that choice lies solely in the preferences of the builder. You can do tiny house living in a city or the middle of nowhere. You can have a Jacuzzi and spend over 100,000 dollars designing your home or do you can do the bare minimum.
It is easy to get sucked into all the added features, but those expenses here and there can quickly pile up. When deciding how to build your tiny home, think of your initial reasons and goals for creating this home, and that will make cost decisions a lot easier to navigate.
28. Channel your inner interior designer
There are so many different types of housing nowadays, from vans and buses to shipping containers, to airplanes, to boxcars, to houses made out of plastic bottles. There are houses and price ranges for every lifestyle which are able to meet everyone’s needs. Which type of housing is right for you?
The first step is figuring out what exactly you want out of a home and how it will serve your lifestyle. The next step is to do your research to see what is out there and what is possible for you to create. You will also need to determine your budget and what level of customization will be needed.
29. The new norm
As people move (literally) away from traditional housing choices and start looking for more alternative options, it becomes ever more clear that cost will always be a factor. The truth behind all of these different types of homes is that the price really will depend on the person and their preferences.
There is not one flat rate for these homes and lifestyles; it all lies within the individual and the choices they make when it comes time to build. Nonetheless, it is important to remember the guiding philosophy behind these types of homes: less is more and make it your own.