The life of a “van dweller,” or a person who lives in a converted vehicle, is nomadic and legally precarious. Van dwellers risk being found out by their employers for parking on company lots, and many keep their living situation on the down-low.
While van dwelling is an increasingly popular lifestyle choice among tech workers in Silicon Valley, it’s far from mainstream, making resources sparse for prospective or struggling road warriors.
For those who eat and sleep on the open road, Reddit becomes a second home.
The subreddit vandwellers is a safe space on the internet where 36,000 subscribers talk about what life is like living in a van, share hacks, and seek advice. Members from nearly every corner of the US appeared to be on it when I browsed the group earlier this week.
I found out about the subreddit from a van dweller who works as an engineer at a major tech company, and who says he made friends with other Bay Area-based, van-dwelling techies through the group.
Some of the most well-known cases of Silicon Valley van dwelling involve a software engineer at Google who lived in a truck in the company’s parking lot, saving 90% of his income, and a Tesla employee who paid off $14,000 of student loans by living in a van for five months.
Living in a van provides appeal to those who want to save money, either because they can’t afford to live elsewhere, or because they want funds for entertainment and travel. After the initial build process is over, the owner’s biggest expenses are gas and maintenance.
A Reddit user by the name of PM_ME_SOME_BIRDS dwells in a Jeep Liberty and claims to pay nothing in rent, utilities, or internet. When they need to charge their devices, they plug them into a power strip at the gym or library.
“Mine is barebones [sic] in the shady part of town but I’ve never had any issues,” PM_ME_SOME_BIRDS writes.
Getting started goes far beyond hiring a real estate agent. The community turns to one other for help. In the last week, subscribers have posed questions ranging from “what’s the best mini-fridge?” to “what it’s like to live in a van with a significant other?“
One San Francisco-based user, Moon_Man_Jay, offers to trade beer for help diagnosing a mechanical issue with his friend’s ’79 Volkswagen. Last year, an experienced dweller held an AMA (or, “Ask Me Anything” forum) filled with tips on the best places to park and observations on towing enforcement.
Life in a van is not without its drawbacks.
In a post on what it’s like to dwell in the Bay Area, one user named fulfilled-life says the cold weather can be a bear. “I’m living in San Francisco in a van,” they write. “When I’m ‘home,’ I wear a marmot [sic] 700-fill jacket, and have a -25 degree sleeping bag at night.”
A female San Francisco resident warns the most dangerous part of van dwelling is the risk of being broken into. “It’s a little tough at first to get used to the sounds of people walking by without getting paranoid,” badluckbritt writes. “Best advice I can give: black your windows out in some way.” She owns a knife and pepper spray just in case.
It’s unclear just how many subscribers live in vans, work in the technology industry, or reside in the Bay Area. A recent poll of the subreddit showed 36 survey participants consider themselves full-time or part-time van dwellers, while 84 people are actively preparing for the transition. The rest were just curious.
The legality of van dwelling varies from state to state, making the decision to go mobile even more difficult.
Reddit user Vanholio, who drives his van across America and blogs along the way, recently posted an overview of the laws to the group. “While living in your vehicle is a legal right, this freedom is often curtailed,” they write.
There’s no law that explicitly requires US citizens to maintain a permanent address, but failure to do so can result in a flurry of issues. Applying for a driver’s licence, registering to vote, or filing taxes, for example, requires an inordinate amount of communication between the van dweller and the government to overcome the obstacle.
It’s also illegal in a growing number of cities to sleep in your car. Even if your area protects your rights as a van-vagabond, the company that owns the parking lot you squat in is entitled to call the cops on you for trespassing or loitering.
For some, the liberation of living in the city of their choosing is worth the risk of being caught or judged by their peers.
Reddit user censorinus works in a tech support role and moved into a van about four months ago. The user currently parks in public garages, and hopes to one day drive the van into the woods or the mountains.
“I’m sure I am like many vandwellers [sic] these days who are gainfully employed, maintain a neat and respectable appearance, and am just sick and tired of being financially boxed in,” censorinus writes. If more people adopt the van dwelling lifestyle and rebel against the rental market, “it can only be a good thing.”