With Whitney and I being well known throughout the travel therapy community for traveling in our fifth wheel camper for several years, we often get questions from current and prospective travelers about whether or not they should embrace some form of tiny living while on the road.
When we started out as new grad travel PTs in 2015, tiny living was a relatively new concept, but it seemed to explode in popularity soon thereafter. In addition to tiny houses and campers, living in renovated vans to save money and easily move from place to place became much more common. This naturally led to people considering the van life (#VanLife) as travel therapists as a way to reduce costs and bypass having to find short term housing while on assignments.
At first glance, this seems like an awesome idea and might be great for some, but let’s discuss some considerations that may make it less appealing to many.
Around the time we bought our fifth wheel travel trailer (camper), I did some research on vans to see if buying one could work for Whitney and I. My primary motivation, like many others, was to reduce our expenses while traveling. After all, if we could get a van and renovate it for less than the cost of a camper and then have drastically reduced monthly costs, that seemed perfect. To my surprise, vans big enough to renovate and live in can be pretty expensive, even when buying used with higher mileage. Used Sprinter vans (the most popular type) that are in decent shape with around 100,000 miles sell for around $20,000, but can be even more expensive than that. Newer vans can cost $50,000 or more, and that’s not including the cost of renovation!
Cost of renovation will vary drastically depending on wants and needs, as well as how much of the work can be done DIY. For a travel therapist planning to live in a van full time for 13 week assignments, it probably makes sense to make sure it’s comfortable and not skimp too much on amenities. Renovation costs can range anywhere between $30-$25,000, but realistically the actual cost will likely be at minimum $5,000-$10,000. There are companies that will do all of the renovations for you, but even the basics can be over $20,000!
So when you take into account the cost of the van itself, then the renovations, you could be looking at total costs of $25,000 to $75,000 or much more in some cases!
Now you might be looking at the cost of purchasing and renovating a van as replacing all your housing costs, so maybe the upfront cost is worth it in the long run, right? However, this still doesn’t take into account the housing requirements that many travelers have in order to maintain a proper “tax home.”
The majority of travel therapists need to “duplicate expenses” in order to maintain their tax home. Maintaining a tax home and meeting these requirements allows the travel therapist to qualify for tax-free stipends on their contracts, which is a major part of what makes travel therapist pay so lucrative. Unfortunately, having to maintain the tax home rules makes living off the grid while on assignment to save on housing costs very difficult. This is because one of the major tax home requirements is that you “duplicate living expenses” at home and at your travel location.
According to Joseph Smith at TravelTax, one of the three factors that determines whether or not you are maintaining a tax home is, “You have living expenses at your main home that you duplicate because your business requires you to be away from that home.” Therefore, even if you have a tax home at your permanent residence, you’d still have to duplicate expenses at the travel assignment location for it to be legit. Just living in the van that you’ve already paid for doesn’t qualify as duplicating expenses. You have to pay for a place to live, or in this case, a place to park the van, and keep evidence of your housing expenses. This likely means having to pay for a site at a campground or RV park.
Since many travel therapists consider living in a van to save money, having to duplicate expenses means that the monthly costs in the van won’t be much lower than the monthly costs in a RV or camper.
Comfort and Hygiene
While tiny living has its perks and is definitely in vogue, there are still certain basic facilities and comforts that we all need. Van life is very popular right now and seems cool on the surface, but when you really start digging deeper to understand what’s inside the van and how you’ll have to live, you might think twice.
Even the most awesome van modifications don’t alwasy have running water, electricity hookups, and a bathroom inside. It’s definitely possible to get some of these additions, at a price, but most often they do not have a fully functioning bathroom with a shower, and even if there is a kitchen, space and amenities are going to be limited. This makes some vital tasks much more difficult, including getting ready for work and cooking. Most people that live in a van full time have to rely on the amenities at an RV park or gym for things like showering and toileting. They also may have to choose to cook less often due to limited space available to cook and store food, and limitations in running water and electricity.
In addition, space is very limited in general inside a van. Depending on the type of van, you may not even be able to stand all the way up. Some vans you have to crawl around, and you have to spend your time standing outside at the back to use any cooking features. Of course, the really souped up Sprinter vans with actual kitchens will allow standing room, but you’re still going to be crammed in with limited room for living space and storage.
These comforts are things to consider before you make the leap to van living as a full time solution to housing as a travel therapist, vs. someone who just wants to have a cool van for camping and road trips.
Parking, Driving & Getting to Work
As we discussed above, you will have to consider where you’ll park the van to live in it if you plan to use it on travel assignments. While vans are easier to park in places like parking lots or on the street, if you plan to receive the tax free stipends you will have to pay for a place to park it and keep your records of living expenses, rather than just planning to park for free somewhere, like in the parking lot of your facility for example!
This brings up the issue of how you’ll get to work and get around places. Will you live in the van and use it as your vehicle you drive? Will you drive it to work everyday, the store to get groceries, the gym, to bars and restaurants, and on weekend trips? Will you take it on the road in cities, through mountains, in parks, and everywhere? Or, will you haul another vehicle with you, like a car, bike, moped, or motorcycle to be your daily driver, while you leave the van parked as your “house”?
If you do plan to drive the van as your daily vehicle, it might be convenient to park some places, but not all places, like in a busy city or narrow lots. In addition, if you have to drive it daily, it will be challenging to have to always have your belongings put away so they don’t fall and slide around in the vehicle. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to maintain a daily outdoor “camp” setup like many people enjoy, with outdoor rugs, lights, chairs, etc. Since the van is a small space, many van lifers utilize their outdoor space a lot. We know from experience that it can be tough to get your “camp” set up and then take it all down again especially on a daily basis.
Van Life vs. RV Life
Taking into consideration all of the above, it brings us to our main point. Is van life really the best option for travel therapists? Or would RV life be a better choice? This is ultimately the conclusion we came to… to choose RV life instead.
While Van Life and van conversions are definitely popular and seem cool, we feel there are so many limitations. We think that for a longer term solution for living and replacing your short term housing as a travel therapist, RVing is the way to go. Vans might be cool and convenient for short term road trips and camping, but we don’t think they’re the answer for housing for the vast majority of travel therapists.
If you’re really into tiny living and don’t want to go with a bigger RV such as a Class A motorhome, fifth wheel or pull behind travel trailer, a good option for you might be the Class B Motorhome. Class B’s are basically a larger van, already set up for you the way you’d need in order to live. They have many of the same perks as a van conversion, but with lots of amenities built in that are going to make daily living much easier.
Class B or Class C motorhomes are still relatively compact, ranging from the size of a larger van to the size of a school bus, but they are built inside the way that other RVs are, usually with a decent size kitchen, bathroom, living space and bedroom space. The big kicker is that they have running water, full bathroom facilities, a fully functional kitchen, and the hidden gems underneath- water, sewer, and electric hookups!
Plus, they’re already built for you. They’re made by the manufacturer to be a living space on wheels, so you don’t have to put in so much work to convert a vehicle (van) that’s supposed to be a car, not a house, into both. Of course a big draw for many people wanting to pursue a van conversion is the customization, but in our opinion putting in all the work (and the headache) at what can often be double the cost, is not worth it! The cost of a decent used Class B or Class C Motorhome can range from $20,000-$60,000. Plus, it’s already fully equipped with light weight materials made for moving around and withstanding driving down the road. If you end up finding a Class B or C used and at a good price, you can make some small DIY modifications and tweaks to make the space your own, while the structure and amenities are already there for you.
Saving money on monthly costs while pursuing travel therapy contracts is a common reason to go with a tiny living lifestyle. In fact, this was the primary reason we purchased our fifth wheel about 5 years ago. While van conversions seem awesome at first glance, there are some major downsides and limitations when compared to an RV. Living off the grid in a van to completely eliminate monthly housing costs isn’t feasible for most due to having to duplicate expenses to maintain a tax home which means monthly costs similar to that of a camper/RV. For about the same cost as a van and the conversion to make it livable, a Class B or C motorhome can be bought and it is already made for living in with electric hookups, water tanks, larger kitchens, and bathrooms. Having some extra space, even when living alone, can definitely be needed at times, especially when the weather isn’t ideal outside.
It’s important to note that this is just our opinion and analysis based on the factors we’ve discussed above. We know there are a lot of van-lifers out there who disagree with us. And there certainly are travel healthcare professionals living full time in a van and traveling around the country, loving life! We’ve mainly laid out some of the cons and challenges to consider in this article– while a quick search on Google, YouTube, or Instagram will show you tons of the pros/benefits of van living, laid out by those who’ve done it!
Ultimately, choosing to pursue tiny living by whatever means is a personal choice, and we’re continually inspired by seeing the amazing things other travelers do! This is just some insight for you to consider based on our journey and conclusions!
Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT