Van Life: How much does it cost to live in a cabin on wheels?

Van Life: How much does it cost to live in a cabin on wheels?

James Tadeo checks email on his laptop, in his converted Grand Caravan pickup truck, while exploring a country road north of Brampton, Ont., on May 19.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

James Tadeo, a 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 go kayaking in these places, you always see people and their cottages and I think ‘Wow, that’s so beautiful. “In 2011 he bought a house in Brampton and thought he would start trying to save $75,000 $80,000 for a small vacation property.

But cottage prices rose beyond his modest budget, making his dreams unattainable. At the same time, Mr. Tadeo started hearing more about Van Living. As he watched YouTube videos and Instagram posts about people giving up their apartments or other homes to live in a truck full time, Mr. Tadeo thought it suited him as a budget-friendly cottage alternative where he could escape into the wilderness in comfort.

Seen as a broken hippie lifestyle, Van Life became more popular in the 2010s and took off even more during the pandemic, with social media posts promoting low costs, mobility, and freedom.

Alternate Mr. Tadeo’s shack on wheels.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

With remote and mixed-use work becoming more and more widespread, the allure of taking a few days off the road, or full-time, is becoming more enticing — and financially realistic. Besides the standard home and cottage prices, Van Life is a cheaper alternative for those on tight budgets.

Mr. Tadeo bought a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan for $1,500 in January 2020, before the first pandemic shutdown. Over the next five months, he spent another $2,000 renovating the interior, adding a small bed, heating system, solar-powered battery, electrical system, lights, shelving, and storage spaces.

Mr. Tadeo kept his costs low by using talented items, like leftover plywood from a family member, or finding items like discarded furniture and wood pallets in good condition. The electrical system was his biggest expense, at about $800. “I didn’t want to skimp on electricity,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I had brand new spare parts.”

The electronic elements are powered by a transformer.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

He bought the batteries that normally power an electric golf cart, and solar panels, which together are enough for Mr. Tadeo to use his laptop, charge his phone and power things like the crock pot and portable oven. He documents his designs and edits on a YouTube channel called Silver Cabin.

So far, Mr. Tadeo, who is in his mid-50s, has traveled around Ontario in his truck, spending up to two weeks in locations such as Tobermory, Huntsville and Algonquin Park. He has a portable toilet but prefers to use rest stations, truck stops, and camp facilities when possible. Next year, he hopes to take a six-week trip along the West Coast.

Heather Nassler is the manager of a Facebook group called VanLife Ontario that has over 3,500 members. Like many lifestyles, Ms. Nesler says truck life can be done on a budget, as with Mr. Tadeo, or in luxury.

“I’ve seen trucks that cost over $100,000 with heated floors and a hydraulic bed lift,” Ms. Nesler says. Built-in hot water showers are another luxury, as are high-end solar panel systems.

Ms. Nasler’s truck life took her across Ontario, Quebec, and the East Coast from 2018 to 2019 with her ex-husband. She estimates that their total monthly costs were about $800, including $100 on groceries, $90 auto insurance, $300 for fuel and $30 for a Planet Fitness membership, where they can shower. They have kept parking and campground costs low by staying at the Crown Land sites.

However, the roof of their first truck – the 2006 Dodge Sprinter that cost $11,000, with an additional $9,000 spent on retrofitting it – ended up leaking and causing massive rust damage. The truck was later sold, stripped for retrofits, for $1,500. “It was a wild ride,” says Ms. Nesler.

Buying an antique can help save money for a truck crane on a budget. But Mrs. Nesler’s experience is a reminder that, like buying an upper broker home, restoration work can go awry. However, living for less than the cost of owning or renting a home is not always the ultimate goal of this lifestyle.

“I think there’s a misconception that it will be cheaper to rent an apartment,” says Kaval Olson-Lepage, a certified financial planner with Affinity Wealth Management in Saskatoon. “When I look at my clients who are interested in the truck life, their goal and purpose is that they don’t want to be associated with a site.”

Ms. Olson-Lepage encourages aspiring auto workers to budget for both initial and ongoing costs, depending on where they plan to travel. Keep in mind fees such as campground, park, and parking permits, which can add up quickly.

Inflation is a major concern for truck workers, particularly the rapid and sharp increase in the cost of gasoline. As the summer driving season begins, the average national gas price is more than $2 a liter, according to GasBuddy.

While older vehicles are cheaper up front, they can have higher ongoing maintenance costs that can be expensive, especially if they require days in the repair shop. “Where would you stay if you couldn’t get to your truck?” asks Mrs. Olson-Lepage. “If you need to fix something, and you have to go to a store, you may now have hotel costs.”

For part-time Van Living workers, such as Mr. Tadeo, Ms. Olsson-Lepage will make time on the road a holiday. “You look at it from an entertaining perspective,” she says. “It’s a short-term budget rather than a long-term budget.”

Above and below: Mr. Tadeo makes coffee in his truck.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Tadeo currently provides up to purchase and refurbishment of a larger truck on a $30,000 budget. He sees his first build as a test project, of sorts, to see if he enjoyed the lifestyle before diving into a more comprehensive and expensive build.

He has since abandoned his plans to acquire a cottage. Van Life is a fraction of the cost compared to paying for a cottage and staying fixedly in one place, he says, “but for me, the same level of fun.”

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2022-06-03 18:12:41

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