The Urban Frontier Cabin

59 thoughts on “The Urban Frontier Cabin”

  1. Hi Johnny, I’m amazed you just now noticed this trend. I’ve also been planning this as a ‘what if’ for several years now, starting with the ‘frominsidethebox’ guy who saved a fortune living in a van outside Google HQ. If only more corporations would provide ‘nanny’ services at work to include parking, 24/7 keyless entry, food services, showers, gyms, and hell-why-not, jungle gyms and pingpong tables, as well as easily available stimulating conversation with coworkers; what more social life does a person need? There was also the guy who looked at the price of a dorm room and instead bought a van, outfitted it with little more than a sleeping bag and a clothes rack, and took advantage of everything else available at the university a hundred feet away from his parking spot. IIRC, he was in Wisconsin so the winters couldn’t have been easy, but it beats the hell out of 8K a year or more for housing costs on top of tuition. At the end of 4 years since it had hardly moved and the mileage hadn’t changed, he probably sold it for near what he paid for it and in the meantime, saved himself endless dorm-room soap operas.

    I’m currently a caretaker for a 102 (!) year old man living in house for free, stockpiling both my pay and SS monies. I’ve been planning on what to do after he passes for many years now but he keeps on ticking and I’ve been able to save quite a nest egg for the first time in my life, and also had a grand adventure (he’s a bit of a local celebrity because of his history; used to work with both Gens. Eisenhower and MacArthur) and performed a much needed service. I would definitely recommend this route to anyone needing to save up some money for ‘retirement’ if the economy hasn’t treated them well. A few years of living without housing/utility costs adds up fast and the ‘caretakers’ need is great. I can’t decide if I want to go the homefree route with a tricked-out van or mini-bus, or just give up on the United States of Delusions and move to central Mexico where a $400 a month apartment plus another ~$200 in food and services would do me nicely. I may default to ‘both’, first the travel and then set down in place somewhere cheap and with near perfect weather; I’m really not much for driving… while I’d love to buy a cheap ‘no water available’ building lot in central California and put a small off-grid setup on it, the code nazis won’t let me; just this one thing would go a long ways towards ending the homeless situation but ‘freedom’ is a joke in this country. Other People’s ‘housing values’ trump (heh) what they’ll let you build on your own land.

    I’m a frequent reader of all the ‘Smart Towns’ type blogs, and especially fond of Peter Joseph’s take on the Zeitgeist movement. Truth is, if half the homeless population are severely mentally ill, alcoholics or drug addicted, in any other era that would be fatal, and quickly. They’re probably not salvageable now, either. The other half can be helped with tiny homes, shared housing and code changes. But as long as the Pentagon can keep us worried about boogiemen, and trillions of $ go to Empire, nothing will change except on the individual level.

  2. Excellent article , excellent writing, very cool topic , here in germany we got this store called Tchibo, it is actually a coffee store (thats right not a shop) and they recently started selling tinyhouses on trailers , legit tiny houses no white boxes, pretty funny for a coffee store, anyways they cost between 40.000-60.000 € 😅
    Back to the topic: I ve thought about living in a Van, problem is, i live in Berlin. Streets here are small , parking spaces are small and oh we have strict laws on emissions so you pay extra tax for large environmentally damaging vehicles , there are zones inside of the city where Diesel cars arent allowed to drive anymore… and so on
    For now i ll stay in my apartment but your article was great inspiration, thank you !

  3. 10/10 love this post. I’ve been thinking about living in my car 🚗 why spend 1k a month to rent a place, rather than live and go where you want. A year of doing it could make a major impact on my life, finances, happiness.. positive or negative

  4. It would be so cool to be able to move freely about. At the same time as much as I love to travel I do love coming back to a home base. Thanks so much for sharing! ❤

  5. I am in Auckland, and the rent and housing market here is pretty expensive too.
    People still mostly rent but a lot of people go back packing across the country. They specifically buy vans like these so that they can sleep in the vans.

    I admit, it is pretty good idea.

  6. Fascinating! I find housing very interesting as well. Looking forward to reading more here. I also love to travel and would LOVE one of those Sprinter vans. Who wouldn’t !?

  7. Good journalism. There’s been a lot of this going on less fashionable cities where the natural gas boom is bringing in more short-term workers than there is short-term housing.

  8. My husband and I thought about doing the tiny home/van living life-style but decided against it when we discovered that a remake would require most or all of our actual hard cash savings. In doing the research to see if we really wanted to take this route, we discovered that the inconveniences of the lifestyle were too inconvenient for where we are in our careers and joys in life. One of the biggest factors that deterred us was the idea of sitting on an engine. You have to religiously run the car to keep its juices flowing. Then there is the mileage and upkeep. I follow a van lifer on IG who used to post very glorious narratives about her time doing the van life, she eventually started to show pictures of the inconveniences they face, such as the van breaking down in the absolute middle of nowhere, the cost to replace the shocks or bars in their chassis that allows for extra load on the car, the wear on tires. Not to mention, a van house is not like traditional property real estate. I want to have solace in knowing that just by my existing and breathing the air around me that my property will build value, especially when I invest in upgrades, that that will add to its value. These are my opinions and things that told me to wait on the idea of tiny living or van living. This was an informative writeup and thank you for also including the stories that are not so glorious for a more objective assessment of the lifestyle, not being in it, per se.

  9. Very interesting read. Is this what the American dream has come to? That we have priced people out of home ownership in some places? I admire their ingenuity and their heart.

  10. What a VanTastic Post, personally if it was just myself, I would love to purchase a 2016 – 2018 Ford 4×4 or 4x 6 sport van and custom rebuild it, outfit it, and include a serious bumper hitch, and purchase a Aluminum alloy rugged sport utility trailer with gtill and, water cell, and fuel cell storage, equipped for some rugged desert and wilderness roads, equipped for prospecting / metal detecting, panning, and living in trailer / camper parks, floating rivers, kayaking. I am not much of a city dweller as I have had enough of it, (six decades of it), if it were not for my incredibility low monthly rent, below 270.00 for a two bdr, / two bath, townhome with a one car garage and privet garden, huge yard. I would be going Van/ Life. Snow birding Van life even, “finger to the power companies.” go side panel solar. go roof top solar water heater, thin cell for a hot sun heated portable shower. It all doable – You Tube is your friend. Live smart live well.

  11. I lived in a van when I first moved to Portland Oregon in 1997. I was in a hurry to get a place so my wife and infant son could move up but it was a good place to start. Now in my 40s the link between this lifestyle and race/ class privilege. As a college educated white man I was able to park in nice neighborhoods and I wonder how that would have gone down if I was not white or had an accent.

  12. Such an interesting take on the situation in SF and the rest of the Bay Area. I lived there from 2013-2016 and watched as rents kept going up and up, making housing a scarce commodity. My partner and I ended up paying almost $2,400/month in rent for 500 sqaure feet, which was BELOW market price in our area. We’ve since moved away and while sometimes I miss the vibrancy of SF, I don’t miss living in a shoe box for half my salary…

  13. Thank you so much for such a great idea. I know in Boise we are working on what to do with our homeless population. Always a concern that these people are living out in the open with no facilities and no protection from the elements or predators!

  14. Really interesting read! My boyfriend has been trying to sell me on the idea of van-living, and particularly travelling across the country. I think it would be both challenging and freeing…it’s interesting to see how many are using vans not only for travel, but for stationary everyday living. If you’re interested in seeing some incredible vans, look for an Overland Expo in your area. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their homes-on-wheels just as comfortable and luxurious as a home, just as versatile as a truck for off-roading.

  15. My wife and I recently rented a Chrysler Pacifica for a trip to the Outer Banks, and we fell in love with it! And you could literally live in it, there was four of us, and we had the van literally packed from top to bottom. I was amazed at the space of the van, I’m not a minivans person by no means, but I’d make an exception in this case! I’m a bus driver at hertz, and occasionally I’ll drive their cutaway vans (Ford F-450). I’m also a professional photographer, and I’ve always wanted something to pack my gear into. Now I have some references to consider. Thanks for sharing.

  16. I’m in a place in my life where ditching most of the stuff in the house and joining the van life crowd is super appealing. After backpacking for weeks at a time and traveling with one bag it becomes apparent that the stuff we fill our homes with sucks time and life away. Not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off anytime soon, but the research is fun!

  17. Thank you Johnny for this extraordinary resource. I have added this post to my browser reading list to view some of the videos and websites. Here in Australia we have what are called Grey Nomads, mostly retired people who travel the country in groups, like on safari, for protection and practicalities, as vacation travel either in caravans or RVs. Most of them have homes to go back to, but not all. There are many aspects to doing this and it is a lifestyle I have considered as a single person no family retiree on a low income. It is enticing!

    Of course, our housing affordability issues are exactly as yours, and we are a smaller population, hence less tax income or incentives to spend on affordable housing, both for what we call public housing for the truly poor, or in the private sector for lower middle class persons. I’m not up with the govt programs, but homelessness has grown markedly in recent years. Too much talk, very little action.

  18. Thank youuu soooo much for posting this when you did. I’ve been wanting to do van life for a few years now and I’m still saving up money in my small apartment. I needed this!

  19. I have been thinking about van living for years, as a backup plan in case everything goes to hell. Being quasi homeless is way better than real homelessness. Most people would consider me financially stable. I owe nothing and I live well within my income. But all you need is one major medical problem and it’s all gone, unless you have gold plated insurance or a few million dollars handy. Recently I got into a conversation with a guy at the coffee shop who brought up this topic because he was thinking about it too. It shows you how much insecurity is below the surface.
    I think that any difficulty or inconvenience associated with van living is perceived in comparison to your life experiences. If you’ve always done backcountry camping, like me, then a van is luxury camping.
    Several basic practical issues to think about:
    A plain white work van is best. Why let anyone know you’re living in there and attract attention? Once in a while you could stay in a campground and drop the stealth but it is too expensive all the time. Where I live in rural New England there are trailheads all over the place that make excellent parking spots because people are used to seeing vehicles there overnight. I talked to a van dweller at Wal-Mart who told me that they allow overnight parking at all their stores. Not very aesthetic but it will do in a pinch.
    Another issue is having a mailing address for banking, taxes, vehicle registration, license, etc. A po box won’t work. For some people this could be a problem. I have heard that there are private po boxes you can rent that are disguised as actual addresses but I am not sure if this is true. Has anyone else heard about this?

    1. One work around for a physical postal address would be to join a co-working space. Some charge a minimal fee for a one year membership and provide a business address.

    2. Mailboxes Etc type stores have actual physical addresses you can use that will forward your mail to wherever you are – a post office wherever. There are also private mail forwarding services that will take your incoming mail and packages, sort thru it, throw out the dreck, scan the important stuff and email it to you or forward the physical copies, and so forth. Like having a personal assistant.

  20. Even in less costly areas you may see RVs parked in tech company parking lots for itinerant contractors. Unsure whether they prefer this, as I haven’t talked to any. (The ones I spoke with lived in motels sometimes partially offset by a per diem expense.) So the problem for them appears more likely to be excessive job mobility than housing.

  21. Some people are living in McMansions with five rooms filled with stuff they don’t use anymore, and others are living in vans.

    If their incomes were cheaper I’d say the people in the vans were smarter. But eventually, I hope we’ll all be smarter and allow the McMansions to be divided up in to apartments.

  22. The bay area has its own subreddit for vandwellers.
    It’s active.
    https://www.reddit.com/r/BayAreaVandwellers/

    Here’s the main vandwellers subreddit:
    https://www.reddit.com/r/vandwellers/comments/

    One influencer in the subculture isn’t young, he’s pretty unabashed about living in vehicles being the only practical form of retirement for him and many others.

    Here’s his delightfully kitsch website:
    http://www.cheaprvliving.com
    And youtube channel:
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAj7O3LCDbkIR54hAn6Zz7A

    Before finishing up grad school, I considered buying up a depreciated camper, using one of the 0% financing offers I keep getting to buy a used pickup, and saving myself both the struggles of renting a sight-unseen apartment and the overall housing crisis on the west coast.

    I ended up getting a similarly paid offer from a west coast tech company, for a position located in Austin.
    I can rent a room within walking/biking distance (i.e. .5-2 miles) of where I’ll be working for under $500 a month.
    Plus, I’ve got family and friends to stay with initially while I scope out places.

    It’s not a tract home on the edge of Houston. It’s a 30 minute walk from downtown.
    Folks complain that Austin’s got a housing crisis, but honestly- no, it doesn’t. Not yet.

    Texas is booming because jobs pay well, and housing is still legal to build.

    That is subject to change.

    1. Good for you Ian! Congrats.

      I believe Texas is a more reasonable place to live these days than California given the ability to earn money relative to the cost and availability of housing. I do warn that Texas is simply in the adolescent stage of growth similar to the California I remember from previous decades. Eventually the growth slows down just as accumulated long term obligations begin to press in. Texas will have it’s “California” moment in due time. In the meantime… enjoy!

      1. For most of my childhood, I remember families were getting relocated all the time from my Boston area neighborhood to then-“business friendly” Southern California.

        All the same things were said of Orange County – they will still let you build, free spirits that don’t care what color your shudders are like here in snooty Massachusetts. Remarkable how quickly it all changed.

        1. I think my family lived in SoCal in the “golden years”, the 70s before the coastline initiative and Prop 13, although the house my folks paid less than $40K for in the early 70s is worth about a million today. Their house in a tony suburb “back east” has only appreciated about half as much.

          Meanwhile, in the midwest, I have never spent more than 20% of income on housing except for about a year when I was buying on contract and property taxes spiked.

  23. For the price of that van, here in the rust belt, one could live in a lakefront high-rise condo or a 6 bedroom manse built by the best European immigrant craftsmen. The communities are still vibrant and if one is well-educated & ambitious, it’s very plausible to retire in your late 20s with a mortgage-free house and modest 4-plex to pay the bills.

    1. Ummm, I come from the Rustbelt and no. That van was 100K; for that in the ‘Rustbelt’ you’ll get a 100 year old house that needs a 15-40K roofing job, paint and updating inside and out, leaky windows, endless heating/cooling bills, little to no insulation, big ass property taxes, noisy city neighborhoods, dicey schools, crummy weather and a worn out infrastructure including an electrical grid held together with baling wire and bubblegum due to yearly ice storms. Blech. The ‘price’ of this wonder is just the starters. And godforbid you can’t make the property tax payments, it will be stolen out from under you, Granny and the dog.

  24. I got my current job because the predecessor (younger than I am) retired early and became a full-time RVer. That took me down the rabbit hole, too. My favorites are cheaprvliving.com (also a youtube channel another commenter linked to) and rvsueandcrew.net because both focus on how to live cheaply and skew to my age group. Bob Wells (cheaprvliving) covers every possible question you could have, from how to get cheap meds in Mexico to how to poop in a bucket. A typical person that Bob interviews is an older person on disability who has no family safety net and wants to keep her dog — living in a van on a Bureau of Land Management site as part of a fluid nomad community is her answer. I know some people see this as heart-breaking destitution, but I see this solution as (1) the kind of life hacks Johnny talks about and (2) a personal Kobayashi Maru. Even if you don’t plan to live in a van, contemplating such is useful for reflection — just what do you need to live contentedly and how can you get it when the universe conspires against you?

    1. Kobayashi Maru – love it. If the game is rigged so there is no way to win – hack the game.

      I’m not suggesting life in a van is good or bad. I’m observing what actually exists in the world and presenting it to a wider audience for contemplation. Ten seconds after a (fill in the blank: earthquake, fire, flood, pink slip, divorce) any one of us may find ourselves in a tough spot. Van life is one possible option.

    2. And whether one views this as simple living or destitution depends on the type of decision you made – you live in a van (broke down jalopy or ten year old Chrysler or brand new Promaster) because you have to or choose to.

      This is analogous to a comment my FIL made to my father this past weekend when visiting our house for my son’s first communion. My wife and I are very happy with the 1960’s vintage very lightly used Broyhill couch we purchased for our home from the local county hospice supporting secondhand store (ie they get households of not new, but barely used furniture from dead people’s estates). It is prominent in our living room and a very nice quality couch that I can lay flat on (I’m 6′-1″). And it was all of $250.

      My FIL expressed concern to my father that us buying used furniture is a moral or financial failure when in reality it’s a small pragmatic and cost effective solution to managing part of our five person, one income household. Thankfully, my father is a pragmatic Great Lakes native with excellently refined aesthetic tastes and a love of quality furnishings (new or used or old or antique or vintage, etc), so I don’t have to worry about any judgment from him.

      1. My furniture-obsessed friends always buy old stuff at estate sales and the like. The “bones” of an old couch or armchair are likely better quality than most new furniture today. Refurbishing an armchair is easy and cheap.

  25. Jeez has SF gotten that gentrified – you shouldn’t be able to park a van like that on the street (and hold onto your solar panels)

    1. I like to remind people that back in the early 1970s people had written San Francisco off as a lost cause of economic decline, falling property values, super low rents, drugs, crime, and sexual perversion. Middle class people fled the city and left it to fester with “Orientals and Negros.” Times change. Lets give it another forty or fifty years and see where things are. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  26. I can’t tell whether those Shelter Project people are being gutsy or having suicidal ideations; they certainly seem to be daring the cops to harass them! The moment the city and the PD change their tune they will be first in the enforcement queue.

    OTOH re. (quasi) homelessness I think a worthy goal for housing activists would be to goad cities into getting (back) into the public baths business. Having safe, not price-gouging places where to maintain basic hygiene would make a world of difference for an increasing number of people. Of course cities won’t like it because it would be tantamount to an admission that they can’t or won’t solve their housing problem anytime soon but perhaps with enough pressure they could be persuaded. On the flip side it should be a cheap measure.

    1. Plenty of government agencies and non profit groups attempt to provide bathing facilities, potable water, transitional shelter, medical and social services, etc to the homeless. Property owners inevitably freak out and shut the programs down. Such facilities are viewed as magnets that attract the homeless. No one wants their area to become a favela. The preferred solution is always to have the authorities send the homeless “away” and to spend someone else’s money for the relocation effort. And since every jurisdiction is busy playing whack-a-mole pushing the indigent from place to place the problem is never addressed. This is the reality.

  27. Most people don’t know this, but every city and county in California is given a housing quota. It is broken down by so much market rate housing (charge what you can) vs various levels of “affordable” housing (charge based on a formula around local average incomes). In the Bay Area, most of the outlying communities have pretty low quotas (though a decade ago most had greater quotas, but they’ve since been reallocated to the larger cities in the Bay Area). Under the current program (Plan Bay Area) over half of new housing units are supposed to be high density, deed restricted affordable units, which can be pretty expensive to build, and largely located in the current urban cores.

    The region has always fallen short of meeting the quotas. Since the affordable quotas are unprofitable to build they don’t get built save by a few non-profit developers or squeezed in as a percentage of otherwise market rate developments. The Bay Area Council (a business advocacy group) used to publish annual reports showing how few units were being built relative to the quotas for each community, often met with howls of protests from the various city councils and planning departments.

    A cynic might say that the system has been crafted so as to enrich current homeowners while shuffling off the young (heavily minority) into units where they’ll never participate in any equity appreciation, or even into vans.

  28. Fun fact: in the last series of photos with the construction workers, there was a proposal to include 1200 housing units with all that new office space, and it was even supported by the city council, but it was shot down by the biotech industry. https://www.smdailyjournal.com/news/local/housing-at-oyster-point-stalls/article_41bfd54a-33c6-11e8-a4b9-c301b7aefd56.html

    Presumably, they had legitimate concerns (the environment, safety, blah, blah) but I think they just have long-term expansion plans and don’t want housing to take up the last parcels in the area. Instead, they’ll just sit tight and let the Chinese developers build the office space and when the economy sours (ours or China’s or both), they’ll swoop in and get the properties for pennies on the dollar.

    So I guess van life is here to stay. Or, if Texas can figure out how to offer the residential product many people want (e.g. streetcar suburbs), at scale, then it’s game over / problem solved for the housing crisis. One can hope.

    1. Former Californians are flooding into Texas and not just Austin/San Antonio area. The city that’s probably on cusp of getting rediscovered is Ft. Worth. Older than Dallas, with amazing museums and the like. It’s real Texas in the best sense of the word. Unlike, say, Dallas.

      1. Like the old joke… What does Dallas have that Ft. Worth doesn’t? A charming city thirty miles away. Honestly, the two cities have a case of the Marsha, Marsha, Marshas. They bicker like sisters.

  29. It’s not just young people doing this — and not just people in high rent parts of the country (I live in Cincinnati). It’s people in their 50’s and 60’s, too – like us. My boyfriend has been following a number of van life groups for the past couple of years. A month ago, he took the plunge and bought a 2018 (used) Dodge Ram van with low miles. He’s researched how to fully insulate and outfit it. His plan is to turn it into a mobile studio/sleeping spac so he can travel around the country, doing his True Crime Historian podcast from the road. We’re also looking at buying s small companion teardrop-ish trailer (big enough for an all in one bath/shower) for those trips that I’m a part of 🙂

  30. Dear Johnny,

    Thank you for blogging on this topic. I found this post especially interesting because I have noticed that the line of such vehicles parked along El Camino Real in Palo Alto (notably along the side of the Stanford U stadium and across from Town & Country Village shopping center) has been growing in recent years. My Internet surfaris have not yielded many stories, and of those few providing much context beyond “rents in the region are high.” I hope you will blog more on this subject in the future.

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