FEATURE: The Time I Lived In A Van Because It Was My Cheapest Option

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Deciding that he’d rather save money than funnel it to landlords, Tom found himself living in a van. This is his story.

No rent. Living space ownership at 22. Freedom to travel.

No rent. Living space ownership at 22. Freedom to travel. As the UK’s housing crisis gathers pace this has been the recipe for my happy life in Bristol these past three months. As we are repeatedly reminded, private rent agreements are extortionate, with many providing no guarantee of stable tenure in return. This year, as the average Bristolian spent 53% of their take-home pay on making rent, I chose another path.

#VanLife promised a romantic existence as I took to living in my car. Unsurprisingly, those insta-filters disguised the reality of what has been at times a bleak existence. But I have no regrets. Car-living was a temporary solution – a springboard into my future. When the drawbacks outweighed the benefits, I ditched the experiment and moved onto the next chapter.

Respite from greedy landlords saved me large amounts of cash, freeing me to travel and pursue my interests. Moving-in day was nerve-wracking, but I couldn’t help smiling at the £550 windfall I would now receive each month. That was half my monthly wage. Add on to that the proceeds of a merciless purge of belongings on Gumtree, and I had a sizeable wad burning a hole in my back pocket. For the first time since leaving school, I felt something approaching financial security.

For the first time since leaving school, I felt something approaching financial security.

It also offered me the chance to create a template for an alternative, minimalist lifestyle. Living in a car had meant jettisoning my worldly goods – there was no room for sentimental hesitation. The Bristol City strip I hadn’t worn since they fluffed Premier League promotion in 2008 was finally given the push. Admittedly I kept the scarf, but more on the grounds of night-time warmth than allegiance. Lacking possessions, my life was compact, ready to move off at a moment’s notice. I visited friends across the UK, who I hadn’t seen in years. One weekend I decided to have breakfast in Paris, and drove through the night to make it happen. Greeting the Eiffel Tower with an outrageously buttery croissant at 6am, I felt blessed with my new residence.

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Crucially, I took ownership of my living space. It may have been a 3 x 1.5 metre metal box, but it was mine. In my previous house share, we had to seek permission to use blue-tack to put up posters, or wait three weeks for the landlord to even acknowledge serious repairs. ‘Hector’, my sturdy Honda Jazz, was far more flexible. Living in my car also freed me from the shadow of a potential Section 21 eviction notice. These devices allow most private tenants to be forced out of our homes with just two months’ notice. I no longer had the creeping anxiety brought on by visits from my landlord, as he sized up the premises for rent hikes he knew I could not afford. Instability gave way to the security of ownership.

Such a big change meant that there were plenty of surprises along the way. Some were pleasant, such as realising that I didn’t have to clean dried skin and hair out of the communal bathroom. However, most were beginner’s mistakes which had me exploding with ever more colourful curses. The first night was quite literally an eye-opener. At 6ft 4, my experiment in micro-living swiftly became a sleepless, cramped affair, as I wrestled my long limbs into the car. Eventually, I managed to wedge a pillow and my head between the front seats, giving me the room to achieve some comfort. This also helped to counter another unexpected problem, namely the aggressive tilt of the road. A parking space that had been such a gift during rush hour, now seemed to be doing its best to tip me into the gutter. The improvised head-brace, and a couple of well-positioned seat belts were soon deployed in a bid to get some sleep.

Instability gave way to the security of ownership.

As I racked up the nights, a decent kip became my most elusive friend. Night-time disturbances were magnified by the fact that my car was simply not built to be lived in. I often slept fitfully, only too aware that an inch of steel, and some poorly hung curtains were all that separated me from the outside world. Parking near to the M32 was a serious mistake, as the hum of heavy traffic filled my head. The lack of soundproofing also meant that I’d wake up with a jolt as the night time economy of drug-users and drunk clubbers made their noisy way down the street.

Other intrusions came in the form of the cold weather. As temperatures dropped at night, I became increasingly grateful for my plush sleeping bag. Coupled with a quick blast of camping stove heat at either end of my slumber, I kept the chills at bay. However, I was never toasty – the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or blow-torched eyebrows meant that the heating was strictly rationed.

As with any alternative lifestyle, reactions were mixed. The vast majority were curious about my experience, even envious of the space I had carved out for myself. Equally, hostility simmered below the surface of some interactions. Work colleagues made comments about my appearance, suggesting that by living in a car I had somehow forgotten the importance of personal hygiene. Access to showers at a cheap gym meant that I was actually squeaky clean.

As with any alternative lifestyle, reactions were mixed.

On other occasions, local residents went out of their way to tell me that I was unwelcome. They felt that I was dodging taxes, while my presence somehow threatened to subvert the security and value of their private property. I got the distinct impression that if I had died on the road, they would only have removed my body after the stench had started to bring down house prices. I was repeatedly told that I wasn’t part of their ‘community’.  But, just like the issue of getting a good night’s sleep, careful planning pulled me through. I switched spots all the time, and people seemed to tolerate a night or two. As I was up so early, and returned after dark, they may not even have suspected that I was bunking down on my back seats.

This stealthy camping also meant that the police left me well alone. Only once did they knock in the middle of the night, shining a light inside and checking my ID. Satisfied that I wasn’t causing a nuisance, they warned me to be careful, as they’d had reports of break-ins around the area. Admittedly, they tried to move me off their patch, but they took an interest in what I was doing. One joked that if I wanted a bed for the night they’d be more than happy to nick me for a minor offence. I politely declined.

Van dwellings are a strong tradition in Bristol.

Van dwellings are a strong tradition in Bristol. Widely seen as a haven for alternative lifestyles, the city has long played host to those who call four wheels home. Boomtown Festival crews holing up over the off-season, the recently evicted — our streets have welcomed them all. Current trends may make this lifestyle more difficult. Residents parking schemes have already cleansed the inner city of many who lack an attachment to local bricks and mortar. And yet we should not predict the downfall of van living. Van dwellers break with the convenience most of us enjoy, building up resilience as they find a way to live. I found myself to be adaptable, making creative solutions for the problems I encountered.

Ultimately it was the loneliness that put me off the lifestyle. Coming back to a cold box after a bad day at work was pretty grim, and I missed living with people and pets. When your only bit of downtime is watching Netflix fail to buffer on a five inch screen, it’s time to head for home. Nevertheless, a better van conversion, or fuller participation in the nomad community may have provided the comfort I was missing. For now I’ve retreated to a shared house, but Hector is still my go-to bed and breakfast for trips away.

Young people may be stuck in a financial rut at the moment, but that’s a reason to have an adventure, not stew in a rip-off rental. Van-dwelling has its challenges, but there’s a chance you’ll sample a fine selection of Parisian pastries, and much more besides that.

Legal Disclaimer:

According to Bristol City Council, vehicles may be lived in if they are taxed, insured and are not obstructing a public highway. However, a Bristol City Council spokesperson notes that they will take action if there is ‘anti-social behaviour associated with the vehicles’ and ‘caravans cannot be lived in or stored on the highways’.

Useful sites for the would-be nomad include http://vandwellers.org/  and http://thevanual.com/ 

Be sure to search Facebook for relevant tip-sharing groups as well.

Check out Cashpointers, a finance and money management service for young people in social housing

This article was made possible with funding from Cashpointers.

What are your money-saving tips? Let us know @rifemag