Two years ago, the idea of owning a home wasn’t on Sylvia Torres’s radar. Not just in the short-term, but ever.
“It’s never been a goal of mine because I never thought I’d be able to afford one,” she says.
At the time, Torres was living with her family in Southern California. She was saving up to buy a car so she could commute to her job at Burbank Airport, about an hour away. Her goal was to move out on her own again.
Torres craved independence, and buying a vehicle was the first step toward achieving that.
But she didn’t expect that the vehicle she bought would become her ride to work, her home – and her ticket to homeownership.
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A decade or so ago, the idea of living in a van, or an RV, or a renovated school bus might have seemed completely out there. To many people, it probably still does.
But a growing number are embracing this nomadic lifestyle, whether to save money, get out of debt, travel more often, or simply escape the traditional 9-to-5 way of life.
“I’ve never signed a lease in my life,” Penn says. “After graduating college, I got my first van off eBay, just a soccer mom van, and converted that.”
In the 11 years that followed, he’s lived in a camper van, a motor home, and now a converted school bus, or “skoolie.”
The vehicles may have changed, but Penn’s desire to live tiny – and mobile – have not.
“Once I got a taste of this lifestyle, once I realized it was possible, there was absolutely no going back,” Penn says. “I was willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
Now, more and more people are opting for some version of life on the road, and Penn is helping them in their quest. The Tiny Home Tours YouTube channel has 963,000 subscribers and features stories of people from all walks of life redefining what home means.
And while each van, RV, and bus lifer’s motivations are personal, the benefits are universal.
Torres had heard of van life prior to buying her vehicle in 2020. But she had assumed it wasn’t an option for her.
“When I thought about van life, I thought it wasn’t attainable because all I saw were fancy sprinter vans with amazing, incredible build-outs that were pretty much smaller RVs,” she says.
Then she saw a YouTube video made by a van lifer who had bought and renovated a van for about $5,000.
“That’s how much I had saved,” Torres says. “I was like, ‘Wait, I think I can do this.’”
It helped that the YouTuber was a woman of color, which further reassured Torres, who is Latinx, that this lifestyle could be within her reach.
Van life became an ideal solution to several problems: her need for a car, an alternative to the high rents in Southern California, and a way to spend more time traveling, which had long been a passion of hers. It also offered her a chance to save money in a way that had seemed impossible before.
“It got me really excited, because I was like, ‘Wow, I could be independent again, and maybe I would be able to own a home one day by saving up,’” Torres says.
@sylviathegnomad I love my home. #vanlife #van #vanbuild #vanconversion #campervan #boostofhope #fyp #vanlifers #travel #tinyhome ♬ i’ve never been wth a baddie (beautee) – TRNrecord
“It’s given me so much independence,” she says of van life. Without costly rent, a car payment, or other high lifestyle expenses, she can live simply and spend more time traveling and in nature – the place she most wants to be.
“I feel like I can breathe,” Torres says. “I’m not living paycheck to paycheck. My mental health has just enhanced so much. I love having my home with me at all times. It’s amazing.”
We still broke tho 🤣♬ original sound – Adrian Brambila
The potential to escape a challenging financial situation is familiar to others who have chosen to forego a traditional home in favor of life on the road.
Kay Akpan and her family became RV lifers to make radical financial changes, including selling their house to get rid of their $4,200-a-month mortgage.
“We were drowning in debt,” Akpan recalls. She and her husband considered renting or buying a smaller home but decided that wouldn’t go far enough.
“In order to make the drastic change that we needed to, we also needed to drastically reduce our expenses,” she says.
So they sold their home, moved into an RV, and became permanent travelers while homeschooling their son.
@themomtrotter Saturday mornings 🥰 #rvingwithkids #rvfulltimefamily #rvfulltimers #cousinsforlife #movieday ♬ The Golden Girls – The Main Title Theme – TV Themes
Both Akpan and her husband come from African immigrant communities, and she says their families were shocked by their choice to move into an RV.
“This is very extreme [for them]. They were like, ‘Are you guys going to be homeless?’ It was sheer shock,” she recalls.
But the Akpans were undeterred.
“I always tell people, it doesn’t matter. Why do you care what people think about where you live? You do what works for your family,” she says.
Since they moved into their RV, “I have never once considered that this wasn’t a good idea,” she says.
A big draw for folks who take up tiny or nomadic living is being able to live on their own terms.
“I told my grandmother when I was seven that I was going to live out in the woods with my dogs and not pay rent and utilities, and she was like, ‘Oh no, you’re going to meet some girl and you’re going to get a job and you’re going to get a house,’” Penn recalls. “And I was like, ‘Nope, it’s not happening.’”
The drive to live in the woods (or at least non-traditionally) with his dogs remained. And the instinct was validated when Penn did an engineering internship in college and discovered that the traditional 9-to-5 lifestyle wasn’t for him.
He craved travel and simple living, so after graduation, he purchased a van and decided to figure it out for himself.
The early years were slim. With little money as a recent grad, he lived off canned food and parked his van in grocery store parking lots.
“I still can’t eat Chef Boyardee to this day,” he recalls.
But the sacrifices were worth it. By staying true to his instincts, he was able to build a life that is unconventional but also authentic and fulfilling.
Although much has changed – van life is much more common now, and Penn has built a career as a video and social media producer, strategist, and content creator – “I still get that feeling,” he says. “Even when I get back to my bus and I’m living off the grid with my solar, I still get that feeling like, ‘OK, this is my path. This is my direction. This feels good.’”
For other folks, the pull toward van life has come more recently.
In spring 2020, Allyson Moore and her partner, Lance Sanchez, were planning to move to Texas, where they could live on his family’s land. Then they reconsidered. Why not see more of the country while they could?
“Before we had big responsibilities, like kids and a mortgage, we really wanted to travel and explore,” Moore says.
So they purchased and renovated an old school bus during early COVID-19 lockdowns, and took their first trip, from their home in Las Vegas to the Pacific Northwest.
Initially, they planned to travel for a while and scope out potential places to settle down. Then they got hooked on life on the road.
She says she and Sanchez are passionate about immersing themselves in other cultures and ways of life. Bus life has enabled them to do that.
“Our goal has transitioned to just experiencing all that we can experience in the time that we have,” says Moore, who documents their travel and build experiences on Instagram as @allyinthebus.
The benefits of living in a literally mobile home are many: freedom, travel, more quality time with loved ones, the opportunity to save money and pay off debts.
But as with everything, there are trade-offs.
Homeownership is a building block of wealth creation, and generational wealth, in the U.S. The equity you gain in a property can be used for a number of wealth-generating purposes, including purchasing investment properties and paying for higher education costs.
And foregoing homeownership, even for a few years, could lead to missed opportunities. Interest rates are climbing, but they’re still quite low by historic standards. Homebuyers who purchase homes now with a fixed-rate mortgage can lock in a low rate, regardless of how high interest rates go in the coming years.
That’s advantageous for two reasons.
The first is your ability to buy a home. Let’s say that right now, life on the road suits your goals and priorities. But in a few years, you decide you want a permanent home base. By that point, interest rates and housing prices may have gone up considerably.
That means you may be able to afford less house, or you may not be able to buy a house in your preferred area, depending on costs in that market.
You also may not get approved for the loan, depending on your income and debt-to-income ratio. Higher interest rates can reduce the amount for which you’re approved.
The second advantage of buying now is that you’ve stabilized your housing payment. If you buy a small property with a fixed-rate mortgage at a low rate, you know what your monthly payment is going to be for as long as you have the loan.
Again, rates and housing prices may rise, but you’ve locked in an affordable housing cost.
But if you wait several years to buy, it could very well become costlier to buy a home, and you could have a higher monthly mortgage payment.
It will almost certainly be more expensive to rent a home or an apartment than it is now. And while renting gives you lifestyle flexibility, it also means you’re paying someone else’s mortgage – and building their wealth through equity – rather than your own.
None of this is to suggest that prospective van lifers should abandon their plans and instead buy a home. It is possible to have both.
That’s what Moore and Sanchez have in mind, as they expect they’ll want to buy a home at some point.
“It is going to come into play eventually, because we want kids,” Moore says. “There is going to come a time when I want to settle down and have a stable lifestyle.”
They’ve contemplated purchasing land on which they can park their skoolie or van while they build their dream home. Or, Moore says, they may buy an existing house with enough space to park their vehicle so they can travel whenever they want with the stability of knowing they have a home base.
Torres and her partner have also imagined a life in which they own a house but can still travel at will.
This hybrid approach can provide a good balance. You can purchase a home with a mortgage that is low enough to allow you to save up for a van or RV and travel on weekends and vacations. If you’re a remote worker, you can use it to take extended trips, while knowing you have a place to come back to (and that’s gaining equity).
But if settling in one place definitely isn’t in the cards and you still want to benefit from owning property, there is another way.
While living in Toronto, as students and then as full-time professionals, they saw the housing market there explode. But while their friends bought properties, they sought to make a different kind of purchase: a camper van.
Bhadauria had known van life was for her ever since she read the story of Gunther Hultorf, who traveled the world for 26 years in his Mercedes G-Wagon. When she shared her dream of long-term travel with Vasan, he was on board immediately.
Their parents were another story. Both Bhadauria and Vasan were international students from India, and they felt a responsibility to honor the sacrifices their parents had made for their educations.
“Our parents had invested a lot for us to come to Canada and study, so we never had the mindset of leaving the 9-to-5 to pursue this freedom,” Bhadauria says. “We were like, ‘OK, we have to figure out a way to achieve this dream life without running away from responsibilities or having a career.’”
They came up with a multi-year strategy, during which they shifted from in-person to remote roles that they could continue while on the road. Then they bought their camper van in 2018 and gave themselves a two-year deadline for renovating it and starting their dream trip from Canada to Patagonia.
In the meantime, they worked on winning over their parents.
“We were at the stage where our parents were pressuring us to buy a house because that’s the next step after having a career in Brown families,” Bhadauria says. “They’re like, ‘Ah! Now you have a salary coming in, better put a mortgage down.’”
When she and Vasan shared their plans to live in their van, their parents balked initially.
“They didn’t understand why we would want to live in a vehicle when we could have ownership of a home,” Bhadauria says. “It was such a bizarre concept for them because nobody in India does it.”
But Bhadauria and Vasan won them over by sending pictures and videos of their renovations, along with stories of other van lifers. It helped that they had no intention of ditching their full-time jobs, Bhadauria as a digital marketing specialist and Vasan as a software consultant.
Now, a year and a half into their journey, Bhadauria and Vasan still work their same jobs, and they’ve made it to Central America. They even have plans to visit India and help their parents build out camper vans so they can travel together.
But they have no intention of stopping traveling, nor do they have plans to buy a home – at least not one they’ll live in.
“We were able to save a decent chunk of money that we never would have been able to save if we were living in Toronto,” Bhadauria says. “We are from Asian backgrounds, and having savings and investments is so crucial to us. It’s like a safety net. So we are looking to invest in an investment property to rent it out.”
This is a savvy approach to having the best of both worlds. Owning an investment property gives you access to the equity in the home, and regular income from the monthly rental payments.
The income can then be saved, invested, or put toward other income-generating properties – or more travel. It’s a way to balance the many benefits of travel with the many benefits of homeownership.
Probably – but not necessarily. If you outfit your van with a kitchen and cook most meals at home and you minimize your gas costs by parking at campgrounds and other approved locations for long stretches of time, you can keep your costs low.
But you have to factor in repairs and maintenance on the vehicle, costs for getting into parks and campgrounds if you’re traveling often, and other lifestyle expenses.
While living in a van is certainly cheaper than buying a home with a $1,600 mortgage (the median in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau), your lifestyle determines a lot of your costs. If you buy a modest house in a rural or low-cost area, the monthly expense could end up being similar. And with a house, you’re building equity and can secure a stable housing payment if you want to stay in one place for a while.
Strategically using van, RV, or bus life can also help travelers build a financial legacy.
That idea was at the root of the Akpans’ move to RV life.
“My goal was generational wealth,” Akpan says.
She and her husband wanted to pay off debt so they could save enough for retirement that they would never be a burden to their son, she says. More significantly, though, she wants to make choices today that give her son every opportunity as he grows.
“I want to put away money so that when he turns 18, he can go to college if he wants, debt-free. He can buy a house if he wants, debt-free,” Akpan says. “That was my biggest motivation. My son was the biggest reason why I was like, ‘We have to do this.’”
Torres says she and her partner are prioritizing travel for the time being, but that homeownership – likely in the form of a cabin in the woods – beckons eventually. They’ve talked of buying a cabin or cottage as a first home, then perhaps a larger property as they grow their family.
The first home, she says, could serve as an Airbnb property, or a place where they can welcome extended family and friends. With either option, they’ll establish a legacy of stability, growth, and community for themselves and generations to come – and it will have all started with a van.
“Through van life, and because I’m able to save the money that I am making, it’s given me this opportunity where I can dream: ‘Oh my gosh, that is something that I can have,’” Torres says of owning a home.
Leading the change: ‘Representation really matters’
Torres, Akpan, and Bhadauria and Vasan didn’t set out to be trailblazers for their communities. They chose van life and RV life because it allowed them to live in alignment with their values.
But in sharing their journeys, they have become beacons for what travel and financial independence can look like for people who may have thought these lifestyles weren’t available to them.
Even before the Akpans took to the road full-time, travel had always been a big part of their lives. In fact, Akpan created the Instagram account Black Kids Do Travel long before she started RV life because she found such a dearth of information for families of color.
“I started that initially when we were traveling because there weren’t a lot of families that look like us, and I also wanted to discuss the struggles of traveling while Black,” Akpan says. “I’ve had people tell me I’m racist because I have a group like that. But I’m like, ‘You don’t understand what it is to be a Black person traveling in a country and not know how to react there or what to do and where to be and where to stay.’”
She says her concerns about safety were dismissed in Facebook travel groups because people didn’t understand the realities her family faced. So she built a resource for families like hers who could exchange travel information and share their stories.
“It’s really basic: How do I get around with my family and stay alive?,” she says.
She also sees Black Kids Do Travel, which features photos and stories from families traveling all over the world, as a place where families of color can be inspired. And it’s why she continues to document her family’s travel and day-to-day RV life.
“When we’re going RVing, I looked everywhere – TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, everywhere – for other Black families that were RVing and I couldn’t find any,” she says. “So I thought, hopefully, more people will see us and get the idea that it’s possible for them to do it, too.”
Like Akpan, Torres sees her growing platform as a way to encourage other people to claim space in the travel and van life worlds.
Torres describes herself in her Instagram bio as a plus-size Latinx van lifer. She posts often about body positivity and inclusivity, and she aims to motivate other plus-sized travelers to celebrate their bodies and be outdoors.
“I get DMs constantly from people like, ‘Wow, you inspire me. This is something I now dream of because I didn’t know that was an option,’” Torres says. “Especially being in the plus-size community, really just seeing people coming into my DMs and saying, ‘I see myself represented in you.’”
Those messages are especially meaningful because Torres was first inspired to pursue van life after seeing a woman of color sharing her journey on YouTube.
“It’s really amazing to have become this person that I looked up to,” she says. “It’s definitely been my mission to spread awareness that you can live this life, too. Just because you don’t see it, become it.”
Bhadauria and Vasan also hope to open doors for van lifers of Indian heritage who may encounter pushback from their families.
“Representation really matters,” Bhadauria says. “When we were first starting out, we had self-doubt because there were literally no Brown people doing van life or building a van. Now, because we are sharing our journey, a lot of people are getting inspired, starting in van life, and they have a reference point.”
That reference point can be immensely helpful for prospective van lifers who encounter cultural conflicts.
“Our parents were like, ‘Nobody in our circle does this,’” Bhadauria says. “But I feel like other kids can show us to their parents and be like, ‘Look, these guys did it. They had a job. They were safe, and they were happy.’”
The more people who share their journeys with unconventional living and travel, the more they’ll inspire others to live on their terms as well – regardless of external expectations.
Home can be a traditional house, a van, an RV, a skoolie, or any number of other vehicles or unique structures. The point is to choose the path that’s right for you, and to follow it with conviction.
“There’s always going to be someone to have an opinion about your life,” Torres says. “You have to be sure of your choices and what you want and stick it out and be strong enough to not let those comments bother you.”