Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

What’s the right mobile living situation for me? When you’re day-dreaming while looking at gorgeous images, living mobile can seem like an amazing lifestyle. Being free to travel where you want, when you want. Not having a mortgage to pay. Being able to get yourself to remote places and be self-sufficient out there with all the luxuries of a home. Bonus points in a zombie apocalypse. But once you’re really ready to put dollars behind your dream, there are A LOT of options as to what kind of vehicle or trailer to choose. Personally, I’ve lived in a car, a van, and a bus, and I’ve helped build a handful of tiny houses on trailers. I can say without hesitation that the experiences are very, very different.

The Right Mobile Living Situation for You

In this article, I’m going to break down some of the more common vehicle choices for mobile living/camping and dig into the pros and cons for each. There are many variables that will influence each type of mobile situation so be forewarned, this is a glass slipper situation, not a one-ring-to-rule-them-all situation. Think about what you want to do, what lifestyle you’re wanting to live, and balance the pros and cons to figure out which option is going to make that day-dream come to life for YOU. Oh, and if you’re in a rush, just read the “Round-Up” at the end.

Vans

Vans come in all shapes and sizes. Old conversion vans, “work vans”, mini-vans, old VW “buses”, and larger “sprinter vans”. The size of a van can offer a lot of benefits; It’s easy to park, easy to drive and navigate in a city environment, and it’s stealthy – meaning that from the outside, people might not know you’re living in it. The drawback on the size being that compared to the other options on this list, you have less living space. Think ahead to how you’ll respond when side-walk comedians yell Chris Farley’s classic line “You’re gonna be livin’ in a van! Down by the river!”. It will happen, and it doesn’t make living in a van any less cool. Be strong my friends.

VW

These old VW “buses” have a lot of aesthetic appeal, and that’s likely to earn you a lot of waves, high-fives, and parking-lot-lookers. There are newer models of these classics that come with tons of bells-and-whistles, and a price-tag to match. From what I gather, the old ones are notoriously low on power and can struggle with big hills and top speed. You can expect to be doing some impromptu road-side maintenance at some point if you go this route. The insides are often already built out as campers with beds and mini-kitchens. Safety ratings by today’s standards would be comparatively low. Some have the famous “pop top” that would allow airflow and standing inside, but others you may not be able to stand upright inside the van. I believe most, if not all, of these are manual transmission.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • Classic, nostalgic aesthetics
  • Easy parking and maneuverability
  • Some come “ready-to-move-in”
  • Fuel economy ~ 15 mpg

Cons

  • Mechanical issues due to age
  • Low power drive-train
  • Fewer safety features

Work Vans

Work vans are plentiful so if you’re handy enough to build out the inside to your liking, you might be able to do this on the cheap. Again, because they’re so common, you probably won’t draw too much attention to yourself. Some models have 4-wheel drive which can be a plus for off-road situations. There are companies who convert these into bad-ass adventure campers, but keep in mind that these will come with a price-tag to match.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • Widely Available
  • Relatively low cost

Cons:

  • Limited headroom

Sprinter style vans

Most famously made by Mercedes and also by Dodge among others are the top end of the van class for mobile living. The Mercedes Sprinter vans are regaled for their drive-train’s ability to keep-on keepin’-on well into the hundreds of miles. Another bonus is that they are available as “high-top” meaning an average sized person can stand up fully inside the van. They can also come with 4-wheel drive, and extended bodies for more interior room. You can expect safety ratings to be comparatively high. Expect a price tag to match, but as always, deals do pop up for used vans. There are also many companies that do gorgeous conversions, again with a hefty price.“Sprinter Vans”

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • Known for drive-train reliability
  • Easy parking and maneuverability
  • Some come “ready-to-move-in”
  • Fuel economy ~ 20 mpg
  • Higher safety rating
  • Cruise control, A/C etc. common
  • Headroom and interior space

Cons:

  • Tend to be more expensive

School Busses

School buses come in short (15-20 ft), medium (20-30 ft), and long 30+ ft). Many school districts have a program that retires the buses after a specified number of years hauling the kiddos, or a specified number of miles. As you would expect, the older the bus, the cheaper it will be. It’s not out of the question to be able to pick up a school bus for $1-2 thousand, but keep in mind that it is probably going to need some mechanical and/or body-work done. Speaking of maintenance, if you break down on the side of the road, it’s going to be harder to get a tow, and finding a mechanic that can work on the bus will be harder than finding a mechanic to work on a car or van. Some of the short buses can come with 4-wheel drive. Older models will likely be manual transmission, but newer models will be automatic. Most will be diesel. The drive-trains on many of these are stellar and can run for hundreds of thousands of miles if properly maintained and treated well.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

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One of the huge benefits of the school bus route is that it’s probably the cheapest way to get the most square footage that you can still drive down the road. They are also built VERY robustly, with tons of massive metal beams you can fasten to while you’re building the living area. Lots of windows offer a great view out, but also a great view in. Also, the windows are awful when it comes to holding in heat or cold.

Pros:

  • Built like apocalypse tanks
  • Often have strong drive-trains
  • Lower cost per square foot
  • Lots of interior space
  • Generally lower cost
  • Bigger might mean a bit safer

Cons:

  • Harder perking & city driving
  • Not stealthy
  • Fuel economy ~10 mpg or less
  • Not for off-road
  • Expensive maintenance
  • Harder to insure

Tiny Houses on Trailers

I’ve had the opportunity to help build a handful of Tiny Houses, and I’ve visited friends in many more. They can be fantastic living spaces for short or long term, and I’m happy to see them becoming more popular. The main attractions here are a house-like feel, with a heavy dose of minimalism (usually), and the allure of not paying a mortgage. In terms of frequent movability, this is not your best option. Tiny houses are better suited for moving every couple months, or years, not every week and definitely not everyday.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • House/cabin aesthetics
  • DIY = cost effective
  • Easier to insulate
  • Easier to modify to your liking because you’re not working within an existing structure (like a van)
  • More square footage than van

Cons:

  • Manufacturer = expensive
  • Not stealthy
  • Need a vehicle to tow it
  • Nor for off-road
  • Harder to insure
  • Not easy to park/maneuver

Traditional RV

Traditional RV’s are a tricky category to cover, because there are many, many variations. Old, new, big, small, tow-behind, 5th-wheel… the list goes on. These can be a great ready-made option if you don’t want to modify/customize your living space very much. Prices will vary drastically from model to model, and from old to new. For a brand new luxury RV, the sky is the limit for how much it can cost. For an older, used, livable-condition RV, you might be able to get into it for $15,000 or less. Watch out for water damage. For some reason, it seems like traditional RV’s are a bit more susceptible to water damage from roof leaks than, say – a van or a bus.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • Ready for move-in (unless repairs)
  • Cruise control, A/C common
  • Lots of interior space
  • Bigger might mean a bit safer
  • Lots of options – drivable, tow behind etc.

Cons:

  • Harder parking & city driving
  • Not stealthy
  • Low fuel economy
  • Not for off-road
  • Expensive maintenance

Airstream Trailer

Airstream trailer have a ton of aesthetic appeal and an almost cult-like following. As with the other options on this list, you can get the used for a discount (although still I wouldn’t consider the used market of this option cheap), or new for a solid chunk of change. What’s unique about them from the other options on the list (aside from tow-behind and 5th wheel campers in the RV section) is that you tow it behind your vehicle. They are aluminum construction which makes them relatively light, so you have a wider array of vehicles that you could potentially use to tow it. The insides come “ready-to-move-in”, but in speaking with friends who have gone this route – older ones will likely need moderate to significant repairs. Water damage seems to be the main enemy in the form of leaks, mold and chassis rust.

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Finding the Right Mobile Living Situation for You

Pros:

  • Classic, nostalgic aesthetics
  • Light and easily towable
  • Ready for move-in (unless repairs)
  • Design = probably better fuel economy than tow-behind trailer
  • Lots of interior space
  • Once you set up, you can unhook and drive around normally

Cons:

  • Harder parking & city driving
  • Not stealthy
  • Higher cost than bus or van (often)
  • Not for off-road
  • Expensive maintenance

Round-Up

Van

If you are moving every day or every week, and want easy parking, maneuverability, city-stealth and some potential off-road ability. You’re ok having less interior space for living and storage of items.

Bus

If you are moving every week or month+, and want more space, the ability to build your living area, and a more budget conscious option, but are willing to give up easy parking, city-stealth and off-road ability.

Tiny House on a Trailer

If you’re moving every few months to a year+ and want a house-like aesthetic, but don’t care about easy parking, city-stealth, or off-road ability. Budget conscious if you build it yourself, but a bit more spendy if you hire a builder.

Traditional RV

If you want an off-the-shelf solution. Price, maneuverability and interior space vary by age and size.

Airstream

If you want a (sometimes) ready-made solution with classic looks for a medium to high price-tag, and don’t mind limited maneuverability and off-road ability. Probably want to move it every month to year+, not every day.

To paraphrase the dude, “These are just like, my opinions, man.” I know there is a lot of pride and passion around people’s choices in this department, so remember that this is from my experience and my research. Your research and experience might be different and that’s valid too. If this article helped you out, let me know in the comments. And if you think there’s things I missed, let me know in the comments as well. Happy mobile living.

Up Next: Throwback Thursday | Midwifery: Caring For Mothers Then And Now

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