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Living Small And Saving Big: The Actual Cost Of Alternative Housing

Between the rising cost of housing and a growing desire to have more freedom, economical homes are becoming the future. More and more people are finding cost-effective ways to turn everything from a van to a bus, to an airplane into a micro-luxurious dwelling.

What are the real costs of these conversions? What about upkeep and other expenses? We'll break it down and you can decide if traveling the country with all the comforts of home is right for you.


1. Retrofitting An Old Van Into A Dream Home

The most popular form of tiny home living is Vanlife. People all over the world are buying Sprinter vans and converting them into homes on wheels. Vans are small, can be purchased for relatively cheap, and can travel anywhere with ease. You can buy and build your van for as little as $3,000. You can also do it for $100,000+ dollars. While this might seem pricey for a van, it is still much cheaper than buying a house.


2. How Much For The Van?

If you want a van that has some of the luxuries of a home but is still erring on the cheaper side, you can build a very nice van for about $15,000. The van itself can be as low as $2,000 or as much as $100,000, but on average, most people spend around $4,000-$5,000 on the van. The iconic VW vans and the brand new Sprinter vans can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000. You do not need a brand new van though; these hardened road warriors are built to last.


3. Everything…PLUS The Kitchen Sink

Purchasing the van is just the beginning. You then begin the process of making the van a home. Some of the primary costs include adding insulation and amenities such as a toilet, hardwood flooring, a sink, cabinets, and a bed frame. You can build the basics for around $1,000, but it's not going to be very "instaworthy." Everyone's idea of van life is different. You might be surprised to see just how elaborate some vanlifers have made their mobile abodes.


4. The Sky's The Limit

On the flip side, there are bougie vans with toilets, showers, individual cabinets, light fixtures, paneled ceilings, generators, solar panels and more. It's possible to build a van that has all the amenities of a regular home, but it requires a decent amount of construction work (and costs) and a thorough planning to make the best use of the space. It all depends on the purpose of the van - is it a forever home or something to travel around in for a few years?


5. Recurring Costs

Also, other factors come into play besides actually building the van itself. There are groceries, gas, car insurance, phone bills, camping fees, parking and speeding tickets, and your own health insurance fees. Then, there's also registration every year and any fees that come along with car-related issues. Altogether, you're looking at around $1,200 in monthly costs, give or take incidentals. You'll consider whether these costs you can afford while on the road.


6. Compared To A House...

Still, the costs of buying, building the van and the monthly payments are still much cheaper than owning a home. While the value of a home will appreciate over time, a van allows you to change your home's "view" at a moment's notice. Many people have found ways to generate income by documenting their day-to-day experience of their van-as-an-abode lifestyle. So, it can be a two in one as it creates lots of simplicity and ease in life while allowing you to explore the world.


7. Frugality Is Key

Many websites saying you can't do van life for less than $20,000, but that's just not true. It just depends on what you're willing to give up. Plenty of people have built the cheapest van possible and made it work. If you're on a time and money crunch, then get the basics and hit the road. You can always modify things down the road when you have a better sense of what you really need.


8. Time = Money

With the van life craze happening now, there are a lot of people willing to build and sell you a van - but that comes with a fee of about $50-100 thousand dollars. The costs associated with the convenience of a pre-built van outway the benefits. You can build a van yourself for much less, and when you do, the pride of doing it yourself comes along with it. You can find lots of DIY resources online to help you get started. But what if van life feels just a little too compact?


9. #VanLife Too Small? Try This...

If you want to pursue a more nomadic or economical lifestyle, you can turn anything into a home with a little creativity and vision. And if van life sounds cool, but it seems like it might get too cramped for you, there are also plenty of other options, such as a school bus life. You might be surprised by the incredible homes people have made out of a school bus. Plus, it's the next best thing after van life and it might bring back memories of your favorite field trip.


10. Goin' Green

Living on a school bus is one of the most economical and environmentally-friendly housing choices you can make. So, go if you're thinking about making the switch. School bus life is similar to van life, except that school buses are bigger, which opens up the possibilities but also expands the costs. You should be able to fit more amenities if you so choose, and you will not have to be quite as good at Tetris to figure out how to do so. So what's next?


11. How Much Do You Need?

Turning a school bus into a tiny home sounds like the best of all the tiny homeworlds. It's big enough to be spacious and feel like a home, and it also allows you to be nomadic. They also have a lot more windows, which means lots of light and plentiful lookout points for your life on the road. Naturally, they will take more time to build and will cost a little more money. In all honesty, the added cost seems pretty worth it. But do they stand the test of time?


12. The Hunt For The Best

The greatest thing about school bus conversions is that school buses can keep trucking all the way to a million miles. So all the money you put into your conversion isn't likely to be lost on a roadside breakdown. The price to buy a bus is the same as a van, maybe even lower. They start out at about $3,000 and can go up to $10,000 at auctions, but you can get a perfectly good bus for $2,500 if you do your due diligence. So, where do you score a deal on a school bus?


13. Maintaining Your Home

Most people get their buses at bus dealerships, at online auctions, or on the classifieds. You can try your luck at Craigslist, but those listings can be pretty rare. Look around and take your time. The most important thing is to review the vehicle's maintenance records. But you don't have to worry too much about how many miles it has. Once you have found a bus with good bones, the real fun begins.


14. Building Costs

You can do a bus conversion for $30,000. This estimate includes the average price to purchase the bus, as well as all the costs of the tools and materials. It is not that much more than a van. It is possible to do it for even less than $30,000 if you use repurposed materials and do the nitty-gritty work yourself. It just depends on how much work you're willing to do and how much time you are willing to commit to bringing this project to life.


15. Space = Time + Money

The main difference between a van and a school bus conversion is the time that it will take. A school bus is a lot bigger, so it's going to be a lot more work and a lot more time. The planning and organizing of the conversion can be more time consuming. You will want to create a blueprint of the interior and think through which amenities are the highest priority, how much space they will take up, and how they fit together with other elements.


16. Big Living In A Tiny Space

Another expense that comes into play is that there is more room for more stuff. You can have a real bed, a real couch, and a real dining room table. You may even have room inside the bus for a washing machine and dryer. Furnishing a bus can almost be as costly as decorating an actual apartment. Of course, you can also build the same sort of furniture that you would have in a van. The key is to keep in mind what attracted you to compact living in the first place.


17. Leaves Or TP?

School bus conversions also allow for full bathrooms! You can have an actual shower and a toilet and a sink in there. This adds on a little more in costs than just using the woods as a bathroom, but you can still do that, too. One of the smarter moves is the compostable toilet, and those can cost about $1,000. These toilets don't require connection to a sewer line or septic tank, and they convert human waste into compost.


18. Hard Work Or Convenience?

When all is done, it really comes down to personal preference. There are high-end school bus conversions that can cost upwards of $100,000. There are also school buses that cost only $15,000. The range is large. It all depends on what you want. If you want to only be comfortable, then go the cheap route. If you want to live in a cute house, then spend a little more. What if you want to cut costs and be cozy but don't care so much about being mobile? Read on!


19. Tiny Homes

In the range of off the grid living options, tiny houses are the perfect in-between point. They aren't quite as extreme as living in a van and not quite as bougie as storage container houses. If you don't know what a tiny house is, it's basically a small house built to allow you to live a simpler life with less stuff. In the last few years, it has turned into an architectural and social movement. How does the cost of a tiny home compare to a van or school bus conversion?


20. Big Opportunities

The price for a tiny home is still close in comparison to a van or a bus. The average cost of a tiny home is about $60,000. That's a whole house with bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen! Similar to a van or bus, a tiny home's value depreciates, but the land it sits on does appreciate over time, which brings up another point - you'll need to acquire land for your tiny home. Fear not, though, you have some options in securing just the right land for your tiny home.


21. Own The House, Rent The Space

Just like van and school bus conversions, there is a range of fees for a tiny home - and it all depends on what you want. It's possible to build the house itself for only $12,000, but it'll take a lot of time and searching for free materials to make that happen. The most significant cost factor is whether or not you have a place to put your tiny house. The price range varies depending on where the land is located. So will you make money or lose money with your tiny home?


22. Money Making Or Money Saving?

If you don't have land to put your tiny home on, you can either buy it or rent it. Some people build tiny homes to keep in their backyards and rent out on Airbnb. While that is good for some quick cash, that's not exactly living the tiny house lifestyle. A growing trend is building tiny homes as a hobby and taking them to tiny home fairs, where you can network with like-minded hobbyists.


23. Travel, Rent, Or Camp

If you build a tiny home, then you're going to need a place to put it. Your options are to buy a piece of land, rent a spot at an RV park, or rent property from someone to keep your tiny home. These all vary in cost and depend on what you're looking for. Are you looking primarily to save money? Do you plan to live in the area or in a tiny home long-term? It's also important to keep in mind that the purpose of tiny homes is to cut costs and reduce environmental harm.


24. Live Anywhere (As Long As It's Legal)

Buying a plot of land is not as expensive as you'd think it would be. You can buy land for as cheap as $100, or as expensive as $1,000,000 depending on where you want to live. You'll need to factor in whether you care more about the location or owning the land. It's possible to build your tiny home and find an affordable piece of land to still keep costs well below $100,000. Do your research and keep in mind where you'd like to live when you're figuring out costs.


25. RV Parks For Convenience

If living in an RV park sounds like your cup of tea, then most places will rent spots to tiny homes for from $500 to $1,500. This is basically paying rent, with the option to leave whenever you want. BUT you're still wasting money on rent. The cost of a spot in an RV park usually covers water, electricity, Wi-Fi, and trash. So all utilities are paid, and you're probably paying less than a standard apartment. Still, if you want even more privacy you have other options.


26. Cheap Land For Hermits

There is the option to rent land in a more secluded area than an RV park. It’s also most likely cheaper, but the tradeoff is that your utilities won't be covered in the cost of the land rental the way they would be at an RV park. You can rent land for as cheap as $200 a month depending on where you want to be and how much you're willing to pay for your location. Or if you have a friend who doesn't mind you living off their land, that works too.


27. Go All Out

There are many ways to make tiny house living happen, and that lies solely in the preferences of the builder. You can do tiny house living in a city or the middle of nowhere. You can have a Jacuzzi and spend over 100,000 dollars designing your home. It's easy to get sucked into all the added features, but those expenses can quickly pile up. When deciding how to build your tiny home, think of your initial reasons and goals, and that'll make most decisions a lot easier.


28. Channel Your Inner Interior Designer

There are so many types of housing nowadays, from vans and buses to shipping containers, to airplanes, to boxcars, to houses made out of plastic bottles. Which type of housing is right for you? The first step is figuring out what exactly you want out of a home. The next step is to do your research to see what is possible for you to create. You'll also need to determine your budget and what level of customization will be needed.


29. The New Norm

As people move away from traditional housing choices to look for more alternative options, it becomes ever more clear that cost will always be a factor. The truth behind all of these homes is that the price really will depend on the person. There is no one flat rate for these homes; it all lies within the individual and their preferences. Nonetheless, it's important to remember the guiding philosophy behind these types of homes: less is more and make it your own.


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