When Levi Joseph scored a manufacturing internship in Seattle for his last summer before graduating college, he waited a little too long to scope out a place to stay.
“I was kind of foolish — I didn’t realise what the situation was like in Seattle,” 22-year-old Joseph told Business Insider. By the time he began hunting for a place to stay in the spring, housing stock was low, and the places he saw were listed for $1,200 to $1,400 a month. Finally, the UT Austin senior found a local friend with a roommate moving out.
“He had somewhere for July through August, but I needed June through August,” Joseph said. “There was a 40-day period I didn’t have housing.”
So, inspired by a story from a friend he’d met biking across the US last year, he decided he could spend that time living in his Subaru Outback. Concerned about having a safe place to park, he booked a space at a campground in the suburbs through Airbnb for about $600.
Below, he shared with Business Insider how he balanced nights in the car with days at the office.
The campground Joseph booked was populated by both temporary and longer-term residents. The owner, Stephanie, would have a campfire when the weather was nice and the group would congregate, talking about everything from global politics to conspiracy theories.
Because he sometimes had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the office by six, he wasn't always able to join the campfire. When he did, it was memorable. 'I'm writing a thesis on an environmental topic, and one night while I was sitting at the campfire it led into this discussion of global politics into a discussion about chem trails -- basically getting in a screaming argument about conspiracy theories,' he remembers.
'It was like a little community,' Joseph said. 'They were kind of amused by someone with a corporate job.'
He kept the trappings of corporate life in a separate part of his car, and was able to dry clean his clothing at the office.
'I had lived in my car for three weeks on a climbing and fishing trip two summers ago, but it was more camping next to it,' Joseph said. 'I didn't have business suits and things. It was more 'college guy living in his car' versus 'professional guy keeping his stuff clean.''
Every morning, he'd check his shoes for mud before walking into the office. 'That was always funny to me.'
For amenities and activity, Joseph joined a local rock climbing gym for $56 a month. Aside from the locker room with a shower and wifi and the iron he'd use on the sly, there was another unexpected perk: a fringe community of other people living in their cars.
'It turns out there's a lot of people who rock climb and live in their car,' Joseph says. 'There's a whole community of people living in their cars in the parking lot. There were these vans I noticed as I hung out there, and I started spending my weekends parked there inside the city, closer to everything I wanted to do. I'd wake up and use their showers, and sometimes we would wake up and make coffee together and hang out in the lot before the doors opened.'
He said most of the other residents of the lot were young men living in vans. 'There's a bit of distinction between living in your car and in a van,' he said. 'Vans are a lot easier to customise. People were building shelving and putting down a bed platform, hanging curtains -- some have generators or fridges that make it feel like you're living in your house that happens to move versus living in your car.'
'I kind of wish I had curtains,' Joseph reflected. 'That would have been a huge upgrade. It's very hard to get your car dark. At the campground I was in the woods, so it was pretty dark, but at the gym the overhead lights were pretty bright.'
While he was there, he came up with three rules of living in your car. At all costs, avoid:
1. Getting your car stolen
2. Getting your car towed
3. Locking your keys in your car
The first two ultimately didn't pose a problem, but one night, he made a crucial mistake with his keys. 'It was 10:30 and I was getting up at 4:30 to go to work,' he remembers. 'I was changing for bed, so I was shirtless, and I didn't have my phone or wallet ... just my headlamp. I went to another person living at the campground and called AAA, and it took them two hours to come.'
The next morning wasn't a great one.
One challenge of living without a comfortable home base was the lack of space to decompress after work. You end up spending your spare time in your car if you're not careful, Joseph said.
'At first I found I was spending that time in my car reading or doing emails. Then I started going to coffee shops, but I didn't want to spend all that money,' he explained. 'I was staying in a suburb so I started going to a cute neighbourhood library after work. I befriended the local librarians.'
As far as food, he came prepared with a Jetboil, a miniature appliance that quickly boils water. In the morning, he would use it to make instant oatmeal and coffee, but at night, he found himself eating out more often than not.
That, plus the cost of dry cleaning his work clothes at the office, means he ultimately spent more money than he'd planned. Although he was earning an entry-level analyst's salary for a three-month internship, he made a concerted effort to save money where he could.
Joseph kept his living arrangements to himself for a while. 'First I told my roommates, and they were very into the idea,' he said. 'I have a lot of friends in college who lived in their cars for periods -- it's almost trendy in the college crowd to live in a van after school.'
Knowing his parents would worry, he didn't tell them until a few weeks in, with the exception of his sister, 'because I thought it was important for someone to know where I was.'
In early July, Joseph moved out of his car and into his friend's spare room. He says his stint living out of the car didn't quite turn out as he'd expect. The cost savings weren't as severe as he'd planned -- he credits food for the overflow -- and while he can't link it directly to his time in the car, he came down with a viral infection the week after moving out.
'I didn't feel homeless, but I didn't feel cosy in the same way I would if I had an apartment,' he said. 'That, combined with starting my first ever serious corporate internship, was a lot of additional stress. But I do think it forced me to be pretty resourceful for a month and to appreciate basic creature comforts. I sit on the couch in my apartment now and I'm like, 'I love this couch.''
Plus, for someone who's lived in a frat-style environment at college for years, he was surprised by the amount of time he spent alone. 'Having the time to be by myself for 40 days was very introspective and positive in the end.'
Contact Levi Joseph at [email protected]