After living and working from his car for a year, Daniel Young was ready for an upgrade.
So he bought an old school bus.
To make it an actual upgrade, though, the Los Angeles-based photographer has been working on a full, $20,000 renovation of the bus since May to turn it into a true home on wheels.
He’s been documenting his process to his millions of TikTok fans, and is planning on working and living out of his bus full-time once it’s completed. This year’s quarantine provided him the time and opportunity to make the changes he’d previously only imagined.
“It was just so cramped in the car,” Young says. “I was always like, ‘I wish I could stand up and cook, I wish I could work from my car instead of going to a coffee shop and paying for a coffee.’”
Young said he followed the path of friends who had buses. “I was thinking about getting a van, but I was like oh well, school buses are cheaper, they have a lot of standing room.”
Young and his friends have joined a community of nomadic lifestyle converts that have traded their homes for decked-out buses, RVs, and vans. A quick look at the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram shows why these upscale mobile digs, often pictured in idyllic scenery, have people reconsidering their rent payments.
But homes on wheels don’t come cheap — they cost up to $50,000 or more — but the fixed costs are low. Plus, it’s liberating, Young and others say.
“I can live in whatever city I want and I’m not tied down financially,” the 26-year-old says. “As long as I have the bus, I’ll have a place to live without paying rent.”
While the idea of an old school bus might conjure memories of childhood field trips, the reality is quite different: Young’s upgrades include a bed, kitchen, and workspace. The old scratchy vinyl seats were the first things to go.
Young is well on his way toward the lifestyle Courtnie Hamel and her fiance Nate Cotton, both in their early 30s, have been enjoying. These TikTok-famous California bloggers have been living in a converted $30,000 2017 Ram ProMaster van for the past year and a half, and have loved their life on the road.
“Our van has all the elements of home,” Hamel says. The couple’s van fits all of their belongings, room for living, and even allows them to have a dog — something their old apartment prohibited.
Since posting about their #vanlife experience and renovation process, the couple have gotten so many inquiries about their process that they created van renovation guides, and are even helping others with custom builds.
“It’s so much more popular now than it was when we started, and there’s not a ton of information about it,” Hamel says. “We wanted to make it easier to understand so people can visualize doing it themselves.”
If you’re thinking about investing in a mobile setup for weekend adventures, or are ready for a more permanent transition to life on the road, here’s how these creators afforded and upgraded their wheels.
What They Spent
Buses, RVs, and vans all vary in prices depending on whether they’re new or used, how many miles they’ve accumulated, and other features. Young purchased his bus from Facebook Marketplace, and recommends shopping around different selling platforms like Craigslist, OfferUp, or auction sites for the best deals.
So far, Young has spent around $8,000, including the cost of the bus and renovations up to this point. He expects the project to come in at around $20,000 when it’s all said and done. The most expensive part? “Definitely the electrical system,” Young says. “It’s so expensive. Like maybe $40 for just 10 feet of wire.”
For Hamel and Cotton, the cost of their project clocked in higher, close to $50,000 total for the van and renovation together.
“I guess you’d say it’s more on the upscale side when it comes to vans,” says Hamel. Hamel and Cotton’s budgeting strategy, which included moving directly into their unrenovated van, was part of the reason they were able to afford to customize it exactly how they wanted.
How They Did It
Hamel and Cotton moved out of their two-bedroom apartment and into their van immediately after getting it so they could put their rent money toward the build. They got an auto loan for the van itself, and the cost of their monthly payment was significantly less than what they had been paying in rent, so they were able to put more money toward the build.
“It was rough going for the first eight months,” says Hamel. “We just had all of our stuff and a mattress in the van, and we’d have to move everything to build. And we were working full time.”
But now that their build is done, the couple has been enjoying the cost-saving benefits of van life. The van gets solar power, so they no longer pay electricity, internet, gas, water or rent. They’ve purchased a state beach parking pass, so they can park the van and fill up their water tanks at park facilities. For showers, the van is equipped with an outdoor shower that the couple can use when they’re in the wilderness. Otherwise, they primarily use showers at gyms or yoga studios.
“A lot of people say gas is going to be a big expense, but we honestly don’t do a lot of long distance travel as of yet,” Hamel says. “So if anything I’d say we’ve spent the same if not less on gas. Overall we’ve saved quite a bit of money doing this.”
Even for people who aren’t ready to fully commit to life on the road, vans and RVs can be great ways to save on road trips, especially in a time when flying can be a risk. Liz Fenwick, a DIY Youtuber, says her rehabbed RV has been a game changer for family weekend road trips over the summer.
The Kansas-City based mom spent a few months in the spring giving a cosmetic facelift to the family’s recently-purchased 20-year-old RV. The vehicle is unrecognizable from the original dated interior.
The RV cost around $12,000, and an additional $2,000 to $3,000 for the renovation, according to Fenwick.
The weekend RV trips have been a perfect, and safe, remedy to lockdown boredom. “It’s been so great, especially in quarantine, to have something to look forward to,” Fenwick says of the RV. “I’m so grateful we have it.”
Fenwick and her husband have marveled at how much they’ve saved on travel by using their RV over the summer. The family has already taken six or seven weekend trips to state parks. The price to stay at a campground has ranged from $15-$40 a night, according to Fenwick.
“The cost of the camper is so much less than spending $100 or more on a hotel room for a night,” Fenwick says. “And we just buy groceries like we would at home and bring them with us, so the cost is so little.”
What They Want You to Know
The road to getting a home on wheels can be bumpy. Young thought he’d be living in his bus full-time by now, but he’s predicting another three months until it’s ready for action.
“It’s so time-consuming. I have to research and learn every step of the way,” says Young. He has a mechanical engineering degree, but says it “doesn’t really carry over” to the building process. He says he’s learned mostly from YouTube.
Hamel and Cotton had to overcome a similar learning gap for their build, and wish they’d thought more about saving before they started their van journey. Hamel says they specifically wish they’d had an emergency fund before they started.
“Our van actually broke down and we didn’t have an emergency fund, so we went into a little bit of debt trying to get that fixed,” Hamel says. “When your house is also your vehicle, it’s important to have money set aside in case of emergencies.”
Fenwick has also experienced some unexpected costs. The family can’t park their RV at their house because of restrictions from their homeowners association, so they have to park at a nearby storage unit for $70 a month.
Young preaches patience for first-timers, and says frustration is easy. But in the end, “it’s a nobrainer. I think it’s awesome to be able to travel and live wherever you want.”