For some, the modern American dream isn’t about having gobs of money. In an age when many folks suffer from “time famine,” which is when the individual has too much to do but not enough time, the ultimate dream seems to be about having more freedom – the freedom to spend your time the way you want, to spend your money so it’s in step with your values and to carve out a blueprint that’s in step with your best life.
That’s why bold, off-the-grid ways of being can be so appealing. Whether it’s living the Bohemian lifestyle, where you follow your artistic passions, seeing the world by way of a catamaran or a school bus seems so amazing.
Turning the Camper Van Dream into a Reality
Dustin Van Ells was one of those who longed fantasized about enjoying the freedom that a camper van provides. Van Ells’s dream slowly turned into a reality about a year ago. At the time, he was working as a field engineer for a military subcontractor and traveling quite a bit. “On average, I was home for 9 days a month while paying $2,000 for an apartment in Portland, Oregon,” says Van Ells, who’s 29 and the owner and engineer of The Van Plan. “It occurred to me that I could just build a sweet van and pocket all that rent money.”
When he was let go from his job in the summer of 2018, Van Ells took advantage of his free time in “funemployment” to finish converting the van, which included installing solar panels to the roof. It saved him from homelessness while he plotted his next step.
Camper Van Life
Van Ells has a fridge and running water on board that makes it fairly easy to eat simply. “I built my van to be able to enjoy the normal things that people have in their home, but just on the go,” says Van Ells. His converted camper van has one burner stove and an iron skillet which he uses most often. He also installed enough solar and battery storage to use an Instant Pot in his camper van.
The only housing-related expenses Van Ells now has are his car insurance and note, which accounts for a little over half of his monthly bills, and adds up to $540. His other living expenses includes gas for his van, food and sundry personal items – which adds up to about $400 a month. Van Ells, who’s a veteran, is able to takes advantage of fringe benefits that are offered to military service persons, such as permanent registration for his vehicles and free health care. “With a lot of careful and meticulous planning, I’ll be able to save up and invest more than half of my income without living off of rice and beans,” says Van Ells.
Turning It into a Business
Earlier in 2019, Van Ells was chilling on the side of the road, when a man came up to tell him how much he liked his van. He then asked if Van Ells was interested in being hired to add a solar panel system to the man’s own recreational vehicle (RV).
Fast forward to the present. By a stroke of good timing, luck or pure serendipity, Van Ells is now self-employed and fully booked for the next few months with jobs doing full van and RV conversions, solar panel installations, solving electrical issues and one-off builds. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Portland and now has a woodshop in Los Angeles.
If you’re considering a van camper conversion to experience your own taste of freedom, there are a few things to consider.
Know the Pros and Cons
Before you roll up your sleeves and convert a camper van — or hire someone like Van Ells to do the heavy lifting — you’ll want to be fully aware of the advantages and downsides of the #CamperVanLife. As Van Ells describes, the freedom to travel is one of the obvious perks. Other benefits include getting rid of your stuff and the potential to live on very little money.
Plus, you get to meet like-minded folks who see that there’s more to life than a rent payment and a 9-to-5 job, points out Van Ells. Not to mention that you own a unique converted camper van, which is bound to be a conversation starter.
Downsides include finding a place to park your van. Similar to RV living, you’ll have to do a bit of research to figure out which spots are optimal because “House people don’t want van people hanging around their neighborhood, especially if they have a nice view,” he added.
What’s more, you won’t have a bathroom on board. And while it’s convenient to have all your belongings packed in a small space, there’s also the risk of theft, vandalism or some incident that could damage your belongings. And of course, there’s the initial start-up costs and maintenance.
Tally the Costs
As you might expect, the cost depends on the type of van and the scope of the build. The total costs to build Van Ells’ Club Wagon was less than $7,000. He purchased it for $4,200, spent $1,200 on the electrical and solar panels and another $2,000 on building materials. It took a span of 3 months to do it all on his own and working at a steady pace. While it’s certainly not cheap, the resale value can be quite significant. Recently someone offered Van Ells $30,000 for his converted van.
Know the Process
While a lot of work and innovation goes into a van conversion, it starts with the van, he points out. Van Ells likes older models because they’re cheap, reliable, the parts are readily available, and they have a ton of character. He spent a month devising his plans for the build and scrapped at least a dozen different floor plans before landing on his final blueprint. “Once I came up with my master plan, it took me about 1 week to make it livable,” he said. “I parked in my friend’s driveway until it was finished, and just got to work.” Living in your own converted camper van definitely has its perks. Knowing what the lifestyle is all about, and what it requires to build, will help you gauge whether it’s a good fit for you. Are you interested in the camper van life? Let us know in the comments!
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