A couple spent $US20,000 ($AU26,963) on a second-hand Mercedes Sprinter van and converted it into a tiny home.
Sabrina Mazzotta and Nick Bollen run a web design business remotely and travel around Canada.
They have used the van to foster five dogs so far and helped them to find forever homes.
Sabrina Mazzotta and Nick Bollen are a van life couple living in Canada who purchased their Mercedes Sprinter in 2020 for $25,000 CAD, or around $US20,200 ($AU27,233).
Mazzotta, 28, and Bollen, 30, told Insider they bought the vehicle online from Kijiji, a Canadian buying and selling website, a week after deciding to live in a tiny home on wheels. They have since started documenting their van life experiences on their Instagram account, Living on Breeze.
The couple said they first lived in a van during a 2018 vacation in New Zealand, but it wasn’t until they realized how expensive it was to buy a property in Toronto that they considered doing it full-time.
“I was like, ‘If we don’t buy a van this week we’re not going to do it, let’s just go look. If we find one this week, let’s just do it,'” recalled Mazzotta, who said that they binge-watched van life YouTube videos before taking the plunge.
The couple were frequently traveling between Mazzotta’s hometown in Canada and Bollen’s in Australia, so they were used to keeping personal possessions to a minimum.
“Tiny living was what aligned with our lifestyle. We don’t want to have a bunch of stuff, and we want to keep traveling and see the world, but also own something,” said Mazzotta, adding that sustainable living is also a priority for them.
Converting the van into a home took Mazzotta and Bollen seven and a half months, but they were living in it part-time after the first five months.
They estimated that the renovations cost them between $US30,000 ($AU40,445) to $35,000 CAD, or around $US24,000 ($AU32,356) to $US28,000 ($AU37,749).
“We converted it during a Canadian winter, and it was pretty intense, we didn’t have any undercover space or anything like that, so we were still renovating. It was minus 20 and snowing, and Nick was under the van installing a heater in our diesel fuel tank,” Mazzotta told Insider.
The couple said they were certain they wanted a Mercedes Sprinter because they are “reliable, run on diesel, and can undertake a lot of mileage.”
They said they eventually found one within their budget and used their savings to buy it outright, adding that there are options for buyers who don’t have a lump sum.
“A lot of our friends finance them. Some of them will go to a dealership and end up financing one, so they’re essentially paying rent. You can also finance through a used dealer as well if you find a van that you like,” said Mazzotta.
The couple, who have traveled around Canada in their van, said they were able to pursue a nomadic lifestyle because they were both working from home.
Bollen said he has his own web design business that Mazzotta has started working on part-time while she completes a holistic nutrition course.
“We’re lucky because we can choose our own hours, so we can work when we want and drive when we want,” he said.
“We finished our build in Toronto, and we just headed straight to the west coast. We had been to Vancouver before and wanted to live there, so we thought that living in a van was our best option, because Vancouver is just as expensive as Toronto is,” added Mazzotta.
Mazzotta and Bollen have plans to use their Mercedes Sprinter to travel the world once borders allow them to do so.
The couple said their travel plans beyond Canada were hindered by COVID-19 travel restrictions. They said they wanted to head to America to spend time in Seattle, Portland, and California, but have been unable to do so.
“We still have so many plans to travel as soon as the border opens and maybe even ship our van over to Europe one day,” said Mazzotta.
“When people build the vans, they either prioritize storage or living space,” said Mazzotta, who added they opted to maximize space in their van which is 19 feet (5.79m) 5 inches (13cm) long, and 7 feet (2.13m) 11 inches (28cm) wide.
“We’ve got a couch area that turns into a bed and underneath our couch, we’ve got our water tank, our batteries, our electrical system,” said Bollen. “So we really don’t have much storage in the van, we’ve got enough for our clothes for the season.”
The couple said they became plant-based two years ago, and this inspired them to live a more sustainable lifestyle in general.
They said they are more conscious of their water usage, they try to downsize their contributions to landfills, and use refillable jars in their pantry in a bid to be “as zero waste as possible.”
“We’re not perfect, we still buy plastic, and as much as we try not to, it’s just unavoidable sometimes,” Mazzotta said.
Bollen said another great way for the van life community to be environmentally conscious is to consistently use local recycling facilities in each area they visit.
“Wherever we are, we’ll research where the closest recycling facility is, and we’ll always make sure we’re breaking up our garbage into recyclables, compost, and so on,” Mazzotta said.
Mazzotta and Bollen said energy usage is one thing they wish they were more aware of before they moved into the van.
Mazzotta recalled being shocked that she had to check if there was enough energy for her smoothie blender after getting so used to plugging into an endless supply of electricity.
She added that they can only use their water heater for 15 minutes as their batteries aren’t strong enough to keep powering it. “When you turn on the tap, it’s cold water and in Canada, when we were in the middle of winter and I was washing my hands, like, “Wait a minute, where’s the hot water?'” she said.
The couple also only has an outdoor shower, which they say is difficult to use when it’s cold. For hot showers, they often rely on gym facilities.
Despite having limited space, Mazzotta and Bollen have opened their tiny home to foster dogs.
The couple said they thought fostering was the fairest way to spend time around dogs without confining one to their small home for too long. “We don’t have the commitment, but we get to have a dog with us, and we get to love them, we get to give them our home,” said Mazzotta.
She said she sent a Vancouver-based fostering agency called Furbae an application without telling Bollen until they were invited to visit a dog just an hour later. They ended up taking her home for six weeks and traveling to Vancouver Island to bring the dog to her forever home.
While the couple initially worried about not having enough space for a dog, they made it work and have since been a temporary home for five dogs and counting.
The first dog they fostered was medium-sized but the second one was a Husky Malamute, said Mazzotta, adding: “That was difficult just because he would take up the whole kitchen space so I couldn’t go to the bathroom, and I couldn’t open the fridge at the same time.”
The couple said they made sure to spend a lot of time outdoors with the dogs on hikes and long walks so that they did not feel restless in the van.
Despite having to be more spatially savvy, the couple agreed that a minimalist lifestyle suits them best.
While they aren’t sure it’s a long-term living situation, they said they have many more journeys to undertake before they move out or at least buy a bigger van.
Bollen misses being able to leave things out without his home feeling cluttered but ultimately, said the simplicity made their life easier.
“I feel like when you have more things, life feels too cluttered. If I’m looking through my closet, I only have two or three sweaters to choose from,” said Mazzotta. “We can just pick up and leave and do what we want, when we want. I just feel freer, to be honest.”