Now there are more reasons than ever to consider living in your car, whether you want to travel the country, save money, or simply survive homelessness.
In October, the average cost of a new vehicle hit a record high of $34,217. Add on a bunch of fancy extras, and the average American new car buyer is spending a whopping $37,782 for their ride. These sky-high prices mean that seven-year car loans are becoming more common as buyers try to make the monthly payments “affordable,” but that can add $2,000 more in interest over the usual five-year loan. They might even be done with their cars before they’re done with their payments, since a third of buyers with trade-ins are now rolling an average $5,000 of old car debt into their new car loan. Buying a car that costs as much as a modest house at the bottom of the market less than a decade ago might make sense if you plan to be living in your car, but who does that?
Surprisingly many, it turns out. Living in your car is trending among different demographic groups for strikingly different reasons.
From Kerouac to #VanLife, desire to travel the wide-open road has smoldered within the American spirit for generations. In 2014, author Gale Straub quit her job, bought a van, and took her partner on a year-long road trip. At some point she decided not to stop, and traveling became her new job. In an interview earlier this year for Vox, Straub spoke about the rise of women living the outdoors life, the empowering feeling of solo hiking and travel, and practical tips for living the dream. “Always assume it’s going to rain,” good advice whether you’re living in your car or climbing a mountain.
Of course, traveling the country while living in your car isn’t for everyone. In 2017, Chris Wright and his fiancée Rachel bought a rusty, decades-old Econoline van in preparation for their dream trip, exploring both the beautiful vistas and sordid underbelly of America. Although they already planned to do less Instragramming and more white rice and frozen veggies for the duration of the 13,000 mile adventure, constant breakdowns coupled with relationship stress and quickly drained funds turned their dream into a nightmare. Transient living, even by choice, can be nervewracking, as one bad roll of the dice can turn the freedom of road life into an inescapable mess.
The “great Trump economy” isn’t great for everyone. For some Americans, van life is not a fun adventure, it’s the only roof available for those who would otherwise be (more literally) on the street. Stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and a shredded social safety net have pushed people into marginal living situations, with municipalities torn about how to react. Should they provide safe parking and relax law enforcement so living in your car is a stepping stone instead of a crime, allowing people with no other choice to make it through another day? Or would that only discourage layabouts from bootstrapping their way to respectability and riches, so cities should crack down and ban overnight car sleeping, as Los Angeles has, and maybe they’ll go away?
The homelessness crisis, like every other opportunity, has brought out the good and bad in people. Some churches have decided to make use of parking lots that are usually empty by opening them up as safe places to rest, clean up for work or school, and perhaps even use the kitchen and phone. On the other hand, last summer a “vanlord” in Venice, CA, was renting out non-functional vans for $300 per month to those who needed affordable places to sleep. Ain’t that America?
Whether you’re living in your car as a student to save money, to travel, after disaster struck, or because you’re bankrupt after buying a $40K SUV, it’s good to know there are resources out there to help. Here’s how one woman in the UK built her own cozy home in a van. This is how a man lived in his car for two years without anyone knowing. And if you are on the verge of homelessness, here is a list of resources that could help.