#Vanlife: how millennials are escaping the housing crisis

#Vanlife: how millennials are escaping the housing crisis

April 22, 2022

House prices and rents are skyrocketing, the real estate market is overcrowded and competitive – major economies are facing a housing crisis. But gen-Z and millennials are getting creative in their response. More and more young people are living on the road, in converted vans and school buses.

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Sabina and Michael are driving through Europe and making plans to venture into Asia. Since they started living in their van full time last September, they have driven from Germany to Turkey whilst working remotely – but not without exploring countries like Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Greece on the way.

“Living in a van is cheaper – we usually spend between €800 to €1500 a month for both of us,” they explained. Most of that is spent on food, topping up their 110-liter water tank and gas – electricity is taken care of by the solar panels on the roof of their van.

Sabina and Michael's van, parked on a Greek beach. (Credit: @sabi.and.michi, used with permission.)

Elsewhere, 23-year-old Savannah Faye and her cat George have been touring the US for the past nine months, earning a living through social media and a photography side hustle. Savannah bought herself a van – that she now lovingly calls ‘Dolly’ – as a college graduation present to herself, before spending a year renovating it and then hitting the road.

She certainly seems much happier with her living situation than many others her age. “I don’t think there’s anything that would make me leave my van,” she said. Meanwhile, many of her friends are paying high rents for badly kept box rooms.

"I don’t think there’s anything that would make me leave my van,"

"Not having to pay rent is a big advantage,” Savannah pointed out, explaining that living in her van works out cheaper even as gas prices are rising. “I just think of gas as my rent! And the gas can be mitigated if you choose to stay in places longer and travel slower, which I like” she said.

Savannah, the day she bought her van. (Credit: @noodlefaye23, used with permission.)

Unaffordable and unattainable: global housing in crisis

Sabina, Michael and Savannah are just three of the so-called ‘vanlifers’ who are trying to escape the global housing crisis. A combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, a pre-existing housing shortage, and low interest rates that enticed buyers has brought the real estate market to the boiling point, according to the World Economic Forum.

Real estate data clearly backs this up and shows the global scale of the issue. In the US, houses sold for an average of $477,900 in the last quarter of 2021 according to government data – a 31% increase compared to just five years earlier.

House price development in the US and Germany, 2016-2021

In the same time period, house prices in Germany – where Sabina and Michael started their vanlife – skyrocketed by around 40%. Buyers spent an average of €463,000 (US $501,533) on their new home in 2021, according to the country’s biggest real estate financing firm Interhyp.

The picture isn’t any cheerier when it comes to paying rent – in the US, prices are up almost 20% over the past two years, according to the most recent Realtor.com monthly report.

In comparison, a survey by leading campervan conversion company ClimbingVan showed that people spend an average of $12,400 on their converted vans - $7,800 on the vehicles and $4,600 on renovations. No one surveyed spent over $25,000 on their new home.

In the US, houses sold for an average of $477,900 in the last quarter of 2021. Meanwhile, people spent an average of $12,400 on their converted vans.

Beyond the money: the sweet smell of freedom

It's clear which is the cheaper option. But it is not just money that makes vanlife appealing. After being in lockdown, or at least under social restrictions, for much of the past few years, priorities have shifted, and wanderlust has taken over.

Living in a flat in a big city simply felt too settled, too permanent for Sabina and Michael.

“Since we moved in the van we feel more free. We meet so many great and different people along the way. Get to know new cultures and places. We expand our horizon every single day. Step out of our comfort zone,” they explained.

Savannah agrees – not being tied down to a specific place is one of her favourite things about vanlife. “It’s the freedom to go anywhere and move anytime! It’s great to decide, ‘eh I don’t wanna be here today’, and then just be able to leave,” she said.

It is not always as easy as that though. Best laid plans go wrong, vans break down, uncontrollable weather causes chaos, forces vanlifers to change their route or keeps them trapped inside for what feels like forever. The mental and physical drain that comes from moving around constantly and taking in new things can weigh on them.

Sabina and Michael argue, Savannah gets bouts of loneliness. They all occasionally worry about finding a safe place to park at night.

Morning view out of Sabina and Michael's van. (Credit: @sabi.and.michi, used with permission.)

But then they wake up to another beautiful sunrise view of the sea, mountains, desert, or forest, breathe in the fresh air and remind themselves: they’d much rather live like this than spend too much of their salaries on a small, overpriced flat, whilst desperately trying to save money to one day buy their own place.