van driving trees cover Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting an Apartment?
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Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting an Apartment?

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Are you considering chucking in the nine-to-five for a life on the road? One thing that worries a lot of people is the cost of van life and the question, is van life is cheaper than renting an apartment?

If you’re reading this blog post you are likely one of those people. Many times people start to wonder is van life cheaper than renting an apartment after spending a lot of time on social media where #vanlife has become synonymous with tricked-out sprinter vans and converted school buses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If you are weighing up the pros and cons, costs, and benefits of van life to help you take the plunge, or if you’re simply interested in the answer, we have some insight from our own experience living on the road.

Of course, the answer to this question will always be extremely specific to YOU. Whether or not van life is cheaper than renting an apartment is largely dependent on where you live, what type of apartment (or house) you rent, and what type of van you think you want to live in. Nevertheless, here are some general observations we have made when it comes to the difference in expenditure, renting versus living in a van.

Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting an Apartment?

Don’t let Instagram’s version of van life fool you. Van life can be as expensive or as cheap as you make it.

You don’t need to have the newest Mercedes Benz Sprinter kitted out to look like a (insert name of fancy home magazine) design. You can of course and while this type of van life may increase your comfort ratio marginally, it is not a requirement to begin van life.

Prior to starting van life, we were living in Amsterdam and spending $1,500 EUR a month on rent. We didn’t have a car and our monthly utilities were less than $50 per week. If we compare these basic expenses to the cost of van purchase, van conversion, maintenance costs, insurance, and even petrol costs over the course of our travels, how will it all shake out? Will van life be cheaper than renting?

Example 1: Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting? Basic Van Purchased Fully Kitted Out in South America

Van life chile in the Atacama Desert
First deciding if van life was cheaper than renting in the Atacama Desert

We started van life in South America with a Suzuki APV that we purchased for $6,650 USD. We traveled in our trust “Pablo Van Go” for seven months across six countries (yes, we are crazy and van life should be MUCH slower than this), and sold our van for $6,000 USD upon departure. During this time, we spent $500 on maintenance, $500 on insurance, and $350 on paperwork for a total cost of $2,000. We also spent approximately $3,000 on fuel (petrol) costs during this time.

Living in Amsterdam, we would have spent $10,850 EUR on rent and utilities compared to $5,000 USD on vehicle expenses.

Example 2: Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting in the United States? DIY Van Conversion in the United States + Travel in Mexico

Van colorado snow mountains pine trees cover Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting an Apartment?

Our van second cost $9,500 USD, $4,500 for the vehicle which was unconverted and another $5,000 USD for the materials and equipment we used to convert it ourselves. We spent $1,960 in maintenance and repairs and $300 in insurance along the way. We spent approximately $2,400 on fuel costs driving from Georgia to Colorado and then further to the bottom of Mexico.

Combined, we spent a total of $14,160 USD on the van, DIY van conversion, maintenance, insurance, and fuel. We sold the van for $10,500 leaving us with a total outlay of only $3,660 USD over eight months. We also spent $950 USD on accommodation, laundry, and showers (all things you would likely not have to pay for if living in your own apartment) making it a total of $4,610 over eight months.

During these same eight months, we would have spent $12,400 EUR on rent in Amsterdam alone without seeing all of the amazing places to visit in Mexico. Comparing this to the average rent plus utilities in four major cities across the United States, how do we shake out? Will our van life experience in the United States/Mexico be cheaper than renting an apartment?

*Prices below are in USD

Atlanta vs. Van Life

$1,760 > $576.25

Dallas vs. Van Life

$1,670 > $576.25

San Fran vs. Van Life

$3,036 > $576.25

NYC vs. Van Life

$3,182 > $576.25

Example 3: Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting in Australia? DIY Van Build in Australia + Lap of Australia

Camping by the fire with a converted troopcarrier, is van life cheaper than renting in Australia

Our third home on wheels, we purchased a Landcruiser Troopcarrier to complete a lap around Australia. We weighed the pros and cons of purchasing a Troopy over purchasing a van but ultimately decided the 4WD capacity was a non-negotiable for us while exploring Australia. We spent AUD $25,000 to purchase the van and another $5,800 on converting the troopcarrier to live in. We spent another AUD $2,000 to register than van in Queensland for 1.5 years, another $1,250 on insurance, and $7,250 on maintenance costs. If you add these all together, the total cost is a whopping AUD $41,300 before we even consider the cost of petrol prices for a lap around Australia.

We were able to sell the Troopcarrier for AUD $25,000 which was our original purchase price leaving us to bear a total cost of AUD $16,300 which comes to approximately AUD $958 per month (17 months). We spent another $1,750 on camping costs, laundry, showers, and the occasional hotel (everyone needs a bit of a break at some times from van life).

If we add in all of our petrol costs which include driving from Brisbane to Cape York, from Brisbane to Tasmania, and then even further from Brisbane all the way to Perth along Australia’s northern coastline covering approximately 40,000 kilometers, we spent AUD $8,200 in total. If you consider all of our fuel costs, we spent roughly AUD $1,500 per month to live in our van full time see a large swathe of Australia by car.

Our van in Australia was significantly more expensive, and we knew this going in. We purchased a car that had already gone 400,000 kilometers, a car that was costly to repair, and overall vehicles in Australia are generally just more expensive than in other parts of the world we have traveled.

But even though our costs were higher, how do they stack up against living in Australia? Is van life cheaper than renting in one of Australia’s major cities? Using the cost of living guides from Numbeo.com, we have compared the cost of living (rent + utilities) in each of Australia’s major cities to our own personal van life Australia experience.

*Prices below are in AUD

Brisbane vs. Van Life

$1,875 > $1,540

Sydney vs. Van Life

$2,813 > $1,540

Melbourne vs. Van Life

$1,896 > $1,540

Perth vs. Van Life

$1,788 > $1,540

The Verdict: Is Living in a Van Cheaper Than Renting?

In each of the comparisons above, van life wins. Comparing our last “permanent residence” experience in Amsterdam as well as comparing the average cost of living to various big cities across the United States and Australia, van life is actually cheaper than renting.

It goes without saying that the figures above are averages and your actual rental expense could vary. You should compare the costs of van life to your OWN rental experience before handing over the keys to your apartment.

But, based on our experience, van life is cheaper than renting. So now the question is not “is van life cheaper than renting” but “am I cut out for van life”.

Things to Consider When Deciding if Living in a Van Is Cheaper Than Renting for You

The answer to the question “is van life cheaper than renting an apartment” depends on a lot of things and your van life may or may not be cheaper than renting. We have, however, put together a list of things to consider when deciding if van life is cheaper than renting for you.

Girl sitting in the shadow of a van watching the sunset and contemplating the question "is van life cheaper than renting an apartment?"
Contemplating the ultimate question “is van life cheaper than renting an apartment?”

Where You Live

It may seem like we are flogging a dead horse but the cost of living varies wildly based on where you live and will be one of the main influences of whether van life is cheaper than renting for you. If you live in San Francisco, New York, Sydney, or any major city in the world, van life is most likely going to be cheaper than renting. If you live in a rural town or outside of a major city, then perhaps van life is more expensive than renting.

The moral of the story is that this question is highly specific and largely depends on where you are living currently.

Your Van and Van Build Aspirations

The type of van you decide to travel in, how old it is, and ultimately what you want your van build to look like will be a deciding factor in the question “is van life cheaper than renting”. Van builds and van conversions can cost upwards of USD $100,000 if you want the latest edition Sprinter van with all of the bells and whistles available to the van dwelling community.

If you are ok going back to the basics, then you can get away with spending as little as a few thousand dollars after you buy and sell your vehicle.

You Can Sell the Van at the End

Unlike renting an apartment, when you are ready to hang up the keys to the van and retire from van life, you will be able to recoup some of your costs. With all three of our converted vans, we were able to sell them to the next vanlifer.

With our first van purchase, we only lost USD $650 selling the car seven months after we bought it. In our second van which we converted ourselves, we turned a profit of USD $1,000. And with the Troopcarrier, we managed to sell it for the purchase price some 40,000 kilometers and 1.5 years later.

You won’t be able to recoup any costs spent on renting, it’s a non-negotiable.

If You Already Have a Car

If you live in most places in the United States and Australia, you likely already have a car. This means you already pay for maintenance costs, insurance, and fuel. Switching your car for a van will likely not have a large impact on your vehicle-related expenses. When I lived back in the United States, I paid approximately USD $600 in insurance every six months for a small sedan. We paid approximately AUD $850 every six months for insurance on our last van in Australia which is roughly the same price (depending on the exchange rate at the time).

Fuel costs increased given that we are constantly on the go, but fuel costs on the road can be largely managed by traveling slower and staying in places longer.

How Often You Plan to Stay in Paid Campgrounds

An easy way to increase costs on the road is staying at paid campgrounds. We tend to seek out free campsites as much as possible in order to keep costs low. We would rather spend money on experiences and activities than spend it in a campground.

Free camping is available everywhere! Check-out apps like iOverlander or Wikicamps to get an idea of the camping available.

That being said, we do stay at a paid campground or hotel occasionally to shower, do laundry, and simply to take a break from van life.

Reasons Why Van Life is Cheaper Than Renting

+ You can sell your van when you are ready to hang up the keys (maybe even for a profit)

+ You control how much you spend each month (it’s not fixed like with a rental payment) (i.e., fuel and accommodation expenses)

+ Swapping a car for a converted van should not significantly increase your monthly car expenses (insurance + rego)

Reasons Why Van Life Is Not Cheaper Than Renting

– You need the cash upfront to purchase your van and for the van conversion which can be costly depending on your van aspirations

– Staying every night at paid campgrounds easily can make van life more expensive

– Things will break and need repairing, something you cannot control which could be costly

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