A Van Down By The River
November 20, 2010 10:00 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I live in an expensive (by non-NYC standards) NYC apartment. Recently, lamenting how much of our salary went down the rent drain, we wondered if we could save money by living in a van. (This is a thought experiment. We're not really planning on doing it.) Is this feasible economically?

Let's assume we already have a van. It's big enough for a mattress and our clothing. Parking is free. (Yes, parking is a bit of a nightmare in NYC, but if we're willing to drive around -- or park in Brooklyn or Queens -- I'm sure we could always find a space.)

I am assuming we'd keep our middle-class jobs and (other than our "home"), live a NYC middle-class existence: go out to see movies, etc. This is what interests me about this thought experiment. The people I've known who have lived in vans and cars have all been poor. But what if middle-class people did it? Would it be cheaper than living in an apartment? (Let's assume 2K a month rent, which is fairly typical in NYC.)

What would be the challenges? Would it be legal?

Okay, you'd need bathroom access. That's a bit problematic, but not impossible. You'd need to know where all the Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, etc. are. Most New Yorkers are actually pretty good at ferreting out the hidden public bathrooms in the city.

Since we'd be keeping our middle-class office jobs, we'd have to look and smell presentable. So I figured we'd join a gym. Maybe one of those memberships that gets you into gyms all over the city: more bathrooms plus showers! (And we could stay in shape, of course.) But that eats into the budget a little. That's at least $100 a month.

Speaking of eating, we'd have to eat. We wouldn't be able to cook in the van. (Would we?) Let's say we DON'T want to "just survive." We want to have tasty meals. They don't have to be gourmet meals, but somewhere in the ballpark of what we'd cook for ourselves in our old life. Eating out all the time is expensive. Would this kill the project, making it cheaper to just keep our apartment?

We'd need to pay for a P.O. box to get our mail. Hmm. Or maybe just get mail at work.

We'd need pay to do our laundry in a laundromat, but we already have to do that, as we don't have a washer or drying in our apartment.

Here's a big one: since NYC is too hot or too cold for most of the year, we'd need to keep the heater or air-conditioner in the van running a lot of the time. All night, for sure. And on weekends, night and day. Sure, I know MANY people live without heat and air conditioning, but remember that this exercise isn't about roughing it. How much would it cost to do that for a year? Would it just be cheaper to pay rent and normal utilities? Can you do that in a van without damaging it somehow?

We'd want Internet access. We would get laptops or iPads and we'd probably be able to drive around and find WiFi signals -- or we'd get by with 3G. But what about powering our computers on the van's battery? I guess we could also take them to work and power them up all day there.
posted by grumblebee to Work & Money (53 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (This question is inspired by a friend of mine who spent a year living in his office. No one knew, and he would have been in trouble if he'd been caught. He had an inflatable mattress he hid during the day. He showered in the gym, etc.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:02 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are people who have done this. I read a story about it on unclutterer.com, I think...
posted by bardophile at 10:08 AM on November 20, 2010

Would you be willing to consider living in a camper van? That would change the economics and logistics, because you'd have a bathroom and a place to do some light cooking. On the other hand, you'd have to figure out where you could sani-dump in NYC.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:10 AM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

A lot of these problems might be solved with a certain type of 'motorhome', called a class B, I think -- looks just like a normal van with an extra bit on top -- but often has a generator or propane powered fridge & stove, as well as bathroom/shower.

Big question either way is where do you put your life's collection of stuff?
posted by MeiraV at 10:11 AM on November 20, 2010

Darn, jacquilynne beat me to it.
posted by MeiraV at 10:12 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: You may be interested in reading about Ken Ilgunas, a Duke grad student who lived in his van to cut down on school debt.

Pros: cheap, got a lot of press
Cons: lonely, bad access to food, hygiene, nowhere to entertain the ladies
posted by phunniemee at 10:13 AM on November 20, 2010

Here's one link.
posted by bardophile at 10:13 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: You'd have to get a non-PO-box address if you plan on staying within the middle class/on-the-books employment system. A lot of federal paperwork required by companies to legally employ you is not allowed to be filled in with a PO Box or a non-residential address. You can get you mail in a PO Box/at work, but you'd still need an address which to use as your primary residence. This is a big problem that prevents a lot of homeless people from working. Places like C-Squat count as legal residences, though, and I bet you can pay off the residents for the privilege of using that address.
posted by griphus at 10:16 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Big question either way is where do you put your life's collection of stuff?

Let's take that out of the equation: we sell it, give it away, etc. We just learn to live with less, which isn't a big deal in NYC. Most of our possessions are books, DVDs, etc. We'd just start using libraries and iPads more often.
posted by grumblebee at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: Would you be willing to consider living in a camper van?

As-long-as it would be easy to park around NYC.
posted by grumblebee at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: (Part of the goal of this is to have lots of extra disposable cash. I mean, we live in NYC, but we rarely go to Broadway shows or concerts. We're concerned about money when we go on vacation, so we go cheap places. So the thought experiment is: would this save you enough in rent so that you could take advantage of some of the other stuff NYC has to offer? If the savings is enough, it would also be kind of funny, because people would think we were rich instead of middle class -- "wow! They keep going to that fancy restaurant!" -- because they wouldn't know about our housing situation.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:22 AM on November 20, 2010

Camping stoves/ovens and hot plates could make it pretty simple to cook, and it would be pretty easy to attach a window box to the rear door of the van and grow herbs/peppers/small veggies. In the winter, you could keep cold things cold by leaving them in a container on top of the van (my mom used to do this with beer in Ohio).
posted by SputnikSweetheart at 10:22 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: Class B recreation vehicles do what you want. I've seen a lot of Dodge Sprinter based
systems lately. Generator, batteries, forced air heating, air-conditioning, porta-potty and
graywater tank, stove, bed, couch, etc. It's a long way from NYC, but take a look at this
the SportsMobile website (out of Fresno, CA) for a good idea of capabilities of a Class B.

A Class B van, like a Ford e-250 or Sprinter, is a little bit too small for two people for more
than a short period of time.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:23 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: Another thing to think about: parking tickets. There are a few streets near where I live (in San Francisco) that are semi-industrial, and a lot of folks who live in cars/camper vans/RVs park there. But leaving the vehicle parked in the same spot for more than X number of days is a ticketable offense, you'd either need to be very good about moving it regularly, or adding the cost of tickets into your budget.

And on weekends, night and day.

You'll need to get out more. A van running its engine 24 hours a day (or nearly) on the weekends will attract attention, at least in a residential neighborhood.

And what will you do when (not if) one of you gets sick? Not go-to-the-hospital sick, but the kind of sick where you really need to spend much of the day in or near a bathroom, Or Else. Do you rent a hotel room for a couple of nights?

To me, the big kicker is food. If you're living in a van, you might be able to get by with a hot plate (can it be powered through the battery? No idea), but where will you do dishes? How will you store perishables, or will you just not have any? Cooking a big pot of something that you can live off for several days is one of the most economical ways of eating, but how do you store the leftovers?

Another non-economic consideration: being in such tight quarters with someone, even someone you love a lot, can be very stressful. It's one thing if it's temporary, but psychologically, knowing that when you're "home" you can never be more than a few feet from someone else might be very wearing.
posted by rtha at 10:26 AM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Having a car (or van) in NYC is going to be a significant cost too. If we suppose you don't already own/pay insurance/gas/parking tickets etc. on said van, then that right there's an extra couple hundred a month, even excluding car payments (i.e. you buy it on craigslist and pay in cash).

My suspicion is that it wouldn't be much cheaper to live in a van than to rent an apartment in the far reaches of an outer borough for $850 a month or something. All the reasons people wouldn't want to do that are also in play if you're sleeping in a van: no matter how small and crappy the apartment might be, it wouldn't be as small and crappy as living in a van; no matter how dangerous a cheap neighborhood in the South Bronx might be, it's probably safer than sleeping in a car parked on the street; no matter how inconvenient it might be to live far from the subway, it wouldn't be as inconvenient as not having a working bathroom, etc.

I'd be surprised if it turned out to be a good deal financially, even putting aside all the other reasons you wouldn't want to do it.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 10:30 AM on November 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Cheaprvliving.com has a lot of insight about electricity and cooking in a van, among other things. One apparent downside, van living may cause compulsive use of Comic Sans.
posted by gueneverey at 10:31 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had a university student who did this through one Canadian winter and wrote it up as part of an academic assignment. While feasible, I think her findings would be similar as what you might ultimately find in your case: the socio-economic structures of society are such that having to negotiate all of the variables of life would take a substantial amount of ongoing work that ultimately would undermine what most folks consider reasonable in terms of quality of life standards. However, if you have extremely divergent quality of life frames of reference than North American norms, OR if you are willing to move over to more of a Snowbird/RV frames of reference, quality of life may indeed be possible just about anywhere without reliance on a 'bricks/sticks' house.
posted by kch at 10:34 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

What would be the challenges?

Would actual safety or your sense of safety be a big factor? I'd feel fairly vulnerable doing this in Chicago - where I live. It's something about sleeping in a vehicle with not a lot seperating me from the outside world - even if that is just psychological distance.

Otherwise, I can't see why this wouldn't work, especially if I knew it was for a specific amount of time (six months, a year) rather than it being open ended.
posted by marimeko at 10:37 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: You would need to check on local laws. A few misdemeanors will put a cramp on your style and potentially your budget.

In this situation your biggest problems are about risk and surprises instead of constant financial outlays. What happens if your car is stolen - now you have neither a car nor a home.

I'd put out money for garage parking overnight. Especially if it's an enclosed garage; it solves some security problems and also some heating/cooling issues. For power, I'd look for some kind of secondary battery to run your laptops off of. For cooking, I'd be thinking picnic areas for the nine or ten months out of the year that it's doable. Coleman stoves are expensive, but not as bad as charcoal (which can get into the dollars-per-meal area very quickly.) Potable water is another concern. Figure on buying upwards of $4 of water per day you choose to cook (less if you buy the really large Culligan-type bottles, but those are a pain to wrangle in a van.)

Unfortunately, being in the garage means the engine running is probably unwise (realistically, on the street, people will report you for having a car engine running continuously, and there are movements afoot to make idling past a certain number of minutes against the law between various temperatures, in my city the proposal is 5 minutes if it's between 32 and 85 degrees.) There's also the problem of having to decamp to get gas, often. My car uses a little more than a gallon per hour; I'd guess a van would be closer to two gallons an hour because of the much bigger engine. Assuming you run it for 48 hours between Friday at 8pm and Sunday at 8pm, plus 4 hours overnight from Sunday through Thursday, that's 68 hours, or 136 gallons. Figure something around $2000 per month. Radically reducing your engine use, to more like 3 hours on weekend days and 2 hours per evening will take you down to $320ish. You would probably have a gas tank nearing 15 to 20 gallons, so you'd be finding a gas station at least twice on weekends if you ran the thing continuously.

I'm guessing idling isn't great for the engine, but you're hardly pushing it to its maximum capacity. You might need to buy a new engine or rebuild it pretty frequently - they don't last more than something like 300,000 miles, in my experience, which would at 40mph is 7500 hours. If you ran the thing 68 hours a week, that's two years. I suspect your "engine trouble" horizon is way sooner than that. I have no idea how long your fans and A/C components would last, but they always need replacing before the engine dies. Oil changes would be very frequent from your perspective - 68 hours at 40mph is close to 3,000 miles, and they say to change the oil sooner if you do lots of city driving, so I'm betting you'll want to do oil changes every week or two if you're running the thing all weekend plus every night for hours.

Let's say we do the conservative stuff - try to reduce risk and keep the engine happy and not spend a bloody fortune on gas. We'll be a little crazy and say you won't increase your eating out at all.

Monthly Guesstimates
Garage - you're in NYC, so I figure this is insanely expensive. $500.
Gas for keeping the engine running - $320
3 oil changes - $100
Fuel for Coleman stove - $50 (I assume you'll get a dual-fuel one that just uses gasoline)
24/Hour Gym that lets you both shower there often - $200
Data service if you're using a lot but not a ton - $100
Annualized cost of 1/2 of an engine rebuild - heck, why not say it'll cost $5000, so $208
Bottled water - $180
Mail service that signs for packages - $60

Total: $1718, right?

So, does your current rent, heating/cooking fuel, water bill, and home internet connection come out to significantly more than that?

Note, also, that speaking as a person who lined up for Star Wars for 6 weeks, twice, and has thus lived out of a station wagon on the streets for upwards of 1200 hours total, in a much better climate than yours, with lots of buddies watching her back: I would pay a hefty premium for walls, locked doors, a faucet, a refrigerator, and not having to worry about all that stuff above. For me, in a place where the garage costs would shave a good $300 off the above estimates, I'd be willing to pay $2000 to have a moderately comfortable non-van life. If I didn't have $2000 to pull that off, I'd move out of NYC before I moved into a van. Bearing in mind that my rent + fuel + water + internet is closer to $900, where I am now. And I have two bedrooms for just me.
posted by SMPA at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: There is a MeFite who is doing this right now living in his campus parking lot someplace. I think the basic answer is that of course you'd save money. The larger issue is whether you, as people, could live this sort of lifestyle both personally [with each other] and within you society. Living in a van means no friends over, ever. No guestroom. Buying almost no more possessions, ever [unless you swap them for ones you already have]. I read a zine for a long time called Dwelling Portably and there are really ways to reduce your costs super low. Here are your actual required costs, as I see it, for what you have outlined.

- registration and insurance for your vehicle
- propane/kerosene for your heater/fridge
- food
- heck I'd add in an iphone with tethering for your internet
- gasoline

Optional additions include gym, post office, netflix, dining out, batteries and/or charging solutions.

Things you don't pay for include all utilities and all other housing related costs [condo fees? trash pickup? whatever else goes into maintaining a household?] and you'll have to fake some stuff [getting rid of trash for example among other things]

Really this is a completely frugal way to live [though illegal in many major cities, I have no idea if this is legal where you are, probably not] but you have to decide that frugality is more important than comfort, socialization and a bunch of other things we take for granted. This is why more people don't do it, they decide that on balance it's worth a few hundred a month to not have that inconvenience.

For me, the lack of control over my environment would be a thing. If people were making noise outside my van, for example, I'd have no recourse, might not sleep, would have problems at work the next day. You get no sympathy when you come into work saying "hey man I couldn't sleep last night, there were noisy people outside my van"

I am answering this question as someone who has gone on long road trips [+1 month] living in a van and dated people who lived in vans. It's not for everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 11:09 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also running the engine all weekend is a non-starter. You can't do this either economically or realistically. People who live in their vehicles do NOT do this. You'd run a heater off of propane or kerosene or you could be like my uncle who had a woodstove in his van that he lived in. Either way I'd take the "running the engine all the time" option off the table, it's just not how these thigns work.
posted by jessamyn at 11:12 AM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Here's a twist on this -- put your apartment on airbnb.com, and only stay in the van when your apartment is rented out. That eliminates the permanent address problem and need for a P.O. box, the need to sell all your stuff, the threat of getting tired of sharing so much space with each other and having nowhere else to go, the need to stay in the van during the hottest or coldest parts of the year, etc. You might not mind eating out or eating leftovers or eating simply for short periods, also, so it could simplify cooking.

So now you have a new calculation -- does the average income from airbnb outweigh the fixed cost of maintaining a gym membership and working van and having to sleep in the damn thing? Does whatever you earn justify the extra hassle? I don't know the answer, but it seems like a much saner way to start -- and if it turns out you love van life, you can go full time at some point. (You also get the benefit of having a nice van to take on vacations, if that's your kind of thing.)

I suspect there are less stressful ways for two people to generate the small amount of cash we're talking about each month, but fun question anyway!
posted by jhc at 11:13 AM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

This doesn't sound very well thought out to me, for many of the reasons enumerated above

I don't mean to sound harsh here, but: if New York City is too expensive for you and your wife, then perhaps you should move to a cheaper place?
posted by dfriedman at 11:45 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're probably going to find a lot of hidden costs trying to maintain a comfortable middle-class life while sleeping in a van. The gym + prepared foods + gas (you will need heat and probably will want a/c) + insurance + parking tickets/towing fees ... I think you'd do almost as well, and certainly much more comfortably, with a tiny studio in Queens.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:50 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've considered not renting a room in order to save money, but decided that while I'm attending college, it's very helpful for me to have the stability of a place to do homework and keep things dry. I also really like having a place to entertain guests and folks from out of town. I do the cost-benefit analysis every once in a while, and still haven't been able to justify a cell phone, though.

As with many things (Do I bake this loaf of bread, or buy it from the bakery? Do I fix my own bike, or take it to the bike repair shop?), I think it comes down to how you value your time and energy. So you get to ask questions like: How much does living in a van stress me and my wife out, or give us a sense of adventure? How much money would we save, and how much time and energy would we put into saving that money? How much fun are we having now? How much fun would we have doing it this other way? There can't be a right answer. For some people, it will be worth it to pay the extra to have a place to live. For others, the trade-offs would be worth it to sleep in the van.

And of course, your van-living lifestyle could be as expensive or frugal as you wanted it to be. If you wanted to save money, you could live off fresh fruit, dinner-from-a-can, bulk dried split-pea soup plus boiled water, and spend lots of time reading library books, for instance. If you wanted to spend money, well, there are always ways to spend money.
posted by aniola at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having access to running water and a bathroom whenever you need it is a pretty big deal. As are the nights when one of you wants to go straight to sleep and the other wants to hang out in the living room and read a book.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2010

This is such an interesting question. If I weren't completely concerned about being killed, I'd totally do it myself.

If you don't mind me asking, what's your monthly nut? $6000+ including rent, utilities, building fees, etc, etc? What part of the city are you in? Some of the nicer apartment complexes on the lower west side are only $2000 a month including utilities, you know, if you're not ready to go full nomad yet.
posted by patronuscharms at 12:25 PM on November 20, 2010

Thinking more about this, it occurred to me that the safety issue is probably a bigger deal than I initially considered. Unless you're parking all over the city and moving all the time, sooner or later people will notice you're living in a van parked on the street. Even though you're a homeless couple sleeping in a van, people will probably assume you've got something of value in there. I would posit it's only a matter of time before someone breaks in, either while you're asleep (scary) or while you're at work (still a big PITA).

This might be a bit beyond your thought experiment because you're really strictly interested only in monetary costs – but you also have to consider the cost of replacing your stuff when it gets stolen. Not to mention, you're either laying out a bunch of extra money to replace your broken window or sleeping outdoors in January with a trash bag over your window.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:26 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: we'd need to keep the heater or air-conditioner in the van running a lot of the time. All night, for sure. And on weekends, night and day. Sure, I know MANY people live without heat and air conditioning, but remember that this exercise isn't about roughing it. How much would it cost to do that for a year? Would it just be cheaper to pay rent and normal utilities? Can you do that in a van without damaging it somehow?

Just to address that point of your question, no, that's not possible. The heater and air-conditioning only work when the engine is running and, as many people have pointed out above, a van that's sitting at the curb with the engine running is going to get noticed, even in NYC and the cops are going to come. This is not to mention the environmental consequences of all that exhaust and not to mention that sitting there idling for hours on end will, to the best of my knowledge, kill your van engine stone dead extremely quickly. So unless you can figure out an alternative source of heat and air conditioning - and I have no idea what that would be, a generator? They're REALLY noisy and would be unbearable in a van - you're kind of out of luck right there. The other thing is that it's either illegal or borderline illegal to live in a car in many locations. Around here usually the cops will tell people who are sleeping in their car to move on or, depending on their mood, they'll haul them in. That's at the least an inconvenience and at the worst a big giant major PITA involving courts and lawyers and court costs and fines and on and on for, probably, a year or more.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:01 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: These people did it for a while in Williamsburg. Man, that would have taken me less time to find if I had remembered it was pink, not purple.

I've also met I think...two people who lived in boats in the Gowanus canal, and some people who lived in an old water tank. Oh, I met a guy who lived on a barge in the Hudson once. New York is so crazy, there's way more people living in situations like this than immediately meet the eye. I mean, not just like people from Dark Days/The Mole People, people who have options.
posted by jeb at 1:11 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Idling an engine for more than I think 15 minutes is illegal in Manhattan, at least; I don't know how illegal it is in the other boroughs. But as others have said, the "We'll keep the engine going" thing is untenable for lots of reasons.

Living in a van is roughing it. It's worse than living in a comparably priced apartment (unless you're like the pink schoolbus people, who are youngish hippie types who also planned to travel in the schoolbus).

Try it for a week or two. You can rent an RV and do a test run. I don't think you'll like it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2010

Assuming a white collar job where you've gotta keep that collar white and smelling like roses and calculating the financial impacts of the risk involved, the hidden quant in myself (i.e. would I loan you money expecting a return on my investment) says no way is it cheaper. The risk to the sole source of positive cash flow, which is your current and future employer(s) assessment of your worth (i.e. you showing up with with a sub 100% performance at a time critical to the employers' ability to make money) will likely negatively affect your balance sheet.
posted by sleslie at 1:51 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to say, the first extra expense that occurred to me at the thought of living in a van with my husband was how much are divorces? I will kill anyone that I had to live in a van with. Maybe a really big RV.
posted by artychoke at 2:01 PM on November 20, 2010

I have a friend who lived in a converted ambulance for a while, but not in NYC. You can live in a van comfortably or you can live in New York, but not both. My friend who lived in the ambulance said he would much rather not have any kind of chemical toilet in his van because of the smell. He peed in plastic bottles and threw them in the trash, and went to public toilets and gym showers for other bathroom needs.
posted by hazyjane at 2:02 PM on November 20, 2010

Anywhere you're going to be able to park the van in NY is going to be in a crappy or far-flung neighborhood. So why not just save money by moving to a crappier or more far-flung neighborhood, where at least you'll have heat and indoor plumbing? Sure, it will take you longer to get anywhere fun, and your friends won't come and visit you, but that would have been the case with the van as well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:14 PM on November 20, 2010

You'd have to get a non-PO-box address if you plan on staying within the middle class/on-the-books employment system. A lot of federal paperwork required by companies to legally employ you is not allowed to be filled in with a PO Box or a non-residential address. You can get you mail in a PO Box/at work, but you'd still need an address which to use as your primary residence. This is a big problem that prevents a lot of homeless people from working.

Nah, there are tons of places that rent you an "address", I had one for year. And as long as you have a van with a little propane setup you can shower, cook, wash dishes, refrigerate food and stay warm without having to ever turn the engine on. I lived in a motorhome all summer for work and it's pretty easy to do. There are plenty of rich old people roaming the country in what are essentially large fancy vans, a young middle class couple can certainly do it.

I think that crime would be your biggest issue. If someone broke into your van you'd lose everything.
posted by fshgrl at 2:26 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: The Air Pollution Control chapter of the NYC Admin code restricts engine idling.
§ 24-163 Operation of motor vehicle; idling of engine restricted
(a) No person shall cause or permit the engine of a motor vehicle, other than a legally authorized emergency motor vehicle, to idle for longer than three minutes, except as provided in subdivision (f) of this section, while parking as defined in section one hundred twenty-nine of the vehicle and traffic law, standing as defined in section one hundred forty-five of the vehicle and traffic law, or stopping as defined in section one hundred forty-seven of the vehicle and traffic law, unless the engine is used to operate a loading, unloading or processing device.

Subdivision (f) reduces the time limit to one minute if the vehicle is adjacent to a school.

Others have done this in NYC with houseboats and campers. Note: the second article quotes a DOT spokesman re traffic rules that prohibit keeping mobile homes on city streets for more than 24 hours at a time, generally enforced in response to complaints.
posted by Majorita at 2:52 PM on November 20, 2010

There are plenty of rich old people roaming the country in what are essentially large fancy vans, a young middle class couple can certainly do it.

They don't want to "roam the country" though; they want to stay in New York. Parking an ordinary car in New York is a giant challenge; parking a Winnebago or equivalent in New York is pretty much unimaginable to me (if I had a Winnebago in New York, I'd probably park it in Long Island City).

Also, the kind of Winnebago things that the rich old people roam the country in cost on the order of $60,000 to $120,000, which would hardly achieve grumblebee's "saving money" initiative.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:12 PM on November 20, 2010

Note: the second article quotes a DOT spokesman re traffic rules that prohibit keeping mobile homes on city streets for more than 24 hours at a time, generally enforced in response to complaints.

That article also says that the guy threw his poo in public trash cans, which is technically not legal and could, I imagine, be a real problem if someone decided to crack down on you. (I mean, quite apart from the "I throw my poo in trash cans" experience.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:15 PM on November 20, 2010

Bathroom access in the middle of the night would be a big concern. Disposal of household waste would be another. Lots of people in Southern California live in RVs, and get tickets and citations all the time. Why not just look for a trailer park?
posted by Ideefixe at 3:24 PM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: If you don't mind me asking, what's your monthly nut? $6000+ including rent, utilities, building fees, etc, etc? What part of the city are you in? Some of the nicer apartment complexes on the lower west side are only $2000 a month including utilities, you know, if you're not ready to go full nomad yet.

I don't mean to sound harsh here, but: if New York City is too expensive for you and your wife, then perhaps you should move to a cheaper place?

Lots of great answers here. Thanks! But maybe I wasn't clear in my original question. (Perhaps my lack of clarity engendered the answers I quoted.)

NYC is NOT too expensive for us. It IS expensive -- expensive for pretty much everyone who lives here, but we're fine financially.

We love it here; we're hear for a specific career reason, and we're not planning to move. We're not even planning to move out of our apartment, which we also love, even though it's a bit pricey. We're DEFINITELY not planning to move into a van -- we're not even remotely considering it. Even if everyone here convinced me we'd save $2000 a month by doing so, we still wouldn't do it.

This is a thought experiment. It was one of those things that came up when we were musing about possibilities, and I just wondered if it was possible or not -- and, if possible, if it would really save money.

Please consider this question as being in the same category as "Who would win in a fight, a gorilla or a crocodile?"
posted by grumblebee at 3:38 PM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: Why not just look for a trailer park?

Are there any in NYC?
posted by grumblebee at 3:39 PM on November 20, 2010

The neighborhoods where you'd be able to park a van (or larger) for free, for extended times, are going to be inconveniently located. If you're willing to live in a sketchy area far from the subway, you might as well get a cheap apartment there -- it might cost less than the van and all its related expenses, and you'd get indoor plumbing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:52 PM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: If this is chatfilter, so be it; the mods can delete it. To me, it's not chatfilter, because it's an answerable question. I didn't ask if it would be fun to live in a van. I asked if living in a van would be cheaper than paying $2000 rent. That's a question that has a yes/no answer.

In my view, asking a question because you're just curious (as opposed to because your life depends on the answer or you need to know for your job) is not enough to render the question chatfilter. It's chatfilter if the only possible ANSWERS are subjective opinions, and there's no way one answer could be better or worse than another answer, e.g. "What's your favorite color?"

If this is chatfilter, then so is "What's this bug I found in my back yard?" and "Could someone explain the ending of '2001' to me."

A few months ago, I found a weird, old photo at a garage sale and I asked a question about what it was. No one suggested THAT question was chatfilter, even though CLEARLY the only reason I asked was because I was curious. Well, now I'm curious about the economics and legal/lifestyle problems with living in a van in NYC.

It's something I have wondered about, off and on, for two weeks, since my wife and I had that discussion, but I don't know how to answer the question for myself. Which is why I'm asking here. And people are doing an AWESOME job answering it.
posted by grumblebee at 4:12 PM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: (Er. The mods deleted a suggestion that this is chatfilter. I was responding to that.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:14 PM on November 20, 2010

I have thought of something like this for myself! I'm in a small town outside of Richmond, where people have chicken coops and sheds, and cabins are not unheard of. I've thought of buying some land and trying to live in one of those $3000 pre-built storage sheds that looks like a house. They make some with windows and porches! I had the same thought about the gym for showering and Starbucks for interneting. Give me a woodstove, and I can have heat and a fire for cooking. I don't think it's really feasible, more of a pipe dream of a simpler life (that would surely be fraught with unseen complications). But good luck to you both. The rent IS too damn high.
posted by shortyJBot at 4:24 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: Here is what you'd need to make most of the objections disappear: a parking lot. You find some place that is on board with your idea and is willing to rent you space in their parking lot, and perhaps let you use some of their electricity. Something light industrial, perhaps, like a bakery or something.

Hell, I'd bet you could find a parking structure that would sell you a monthly pass(*) and look the other way with plugging into an outlet. If I think about it, there are people who spend a LOT of time screwing around at the gym, doing computer work every morning at the Starbucks, reading a book at Borders, having a meal and a few drinks at the local tavern. If you did all of that, and maybe developed a stable of a couple different places, you seriously would only have to sleep in the van. If you're sick, you get a hotel room.

(I would invest in one of those conversion-van cockpit door things. One HUGE issue would be people looking in at me or my stuff.)

You would probably have to decide to only eat out for hot meals. Plenty of people do that anyway.

Clothing and clothing storage would be an issue, I think. You would have to have a VERY efficient wardrobe.

Another workable option is to do like some of the wealthier Manhattanites do, and get a cheap apartment way out somewhere that you only live in on the weekends, and use your van as your apartment in town. If I could scam a job where I could work 4 10 hour days, or 3 12 hour days, I would totally consider something like that.

(*) This assumes that monthly passes in Manhattan are like they are in the Chicago loop, which is that they are significantly cheaper than multiplying the daily rate by 30. The lot I use charges a $32 daily rate, and I think the monthly is $300. I'm sure Midtown might be more like $50 and $500, but still, that's cheap rent.

(Assuming you had to go it alone and live on-street: I bet you could cook up some kind of propane fuel cell or highly efficient generator with a good muffler that would be imperceptible on a busy-ish street. You could also set yourself up with a system of batteries and more powerful alternator(s) and charge them up once a day with a simple drive around the block. There is a lot of energy density in good old fashioned lead acid batteries. Same thing with heat- liberal applications of foam panel insulation and spray foam in all crevices combined with circulating hot-water radiant heat and you would stay nicely warm without having to build a wood stove.)
posted by gjc at 5:38 PM on November 20, 2010

I think that 90% of the men I have dated in the past five years have done this (not while I was dating them...though one did have a stationary school bus tricked out with a shower and a wood stove. But that was in addition to his house). I have decided it's a right of passage for men living in the Pacific NW to live in a VW bus or similar at some point in their lives. They were pretty itinerant though. But I have also known a guy who went to Yale for semester while living in a Toyota van. And there was that guy who was living in a van parked outside my house here in Portland for a few weeks. My neighbor Steve eventually told the dude to buzz off.

So, yes.
posted by medeine at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2010

Living in a parking garage strikes me as a horrible, horrible situation (for which one would pay at least $500 monthly anywhere in New York). Not just dreary, though it would be dreary, but also really toxic with all the exhaust. Also rats--I am always seeing rats in parking garages.

It's an interesting thought experiment, I guess (and I have always wanted to live in a caravan, tbh, specifically a Romany vardo, so do not think that I am all about harshing the grumblebees' mellow) but I think New York is probably one of the worst places on Earth to do that (Tokyo would probably be significantly worse).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:57 PM on November 20, 2010

As others have pointed out up-thread, you'd be no Friend of the Earth doing the heating/cooling via idling engine thing as stated. You'd want to insulate your van, which would reduce the useable interior space. Somewhere online I once read how to convert a chool bus into a live-in vehicle, and I've seen a few of these in California, with their little chimney from the woodstove protruding out of the rear roof.

You can also find many stories about people who live in vehicles. One such author developed huge paranoia about his vehicle's status if it wasn't in sight, so he'd never get too far away from it.

And in NYC? After nine hours at your white-coller job, imagine the dismay when you return to discover you were parked on the wrong side of the street that day, and your home's been towed away.
posted by Rash at 8:55 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: I've spent summers living out of my car, working seasonally. One of the most tiring things about living in a car is dealing with all your stuff. This is not a price issue as much as a quality of life issue. You sort of blew it off earlier in the thread, but it can be a confounding problem: if the only storage space you've got is a medium-sized van, how do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of? How do you keep it all organized? How do you get to it all?

For me, I just had to guess at the beginning of June what I would need until the end of August, and hope I was right. I usually wasn't: I forgot things or didn't anticipate correctly what I would need. I imagine if you were going to be living in your car indefinitely, that problem would be magnified. And one of the problems of living with such limited storage space is that you can't just buy something to fill a need once, because you don't necessarily have a place to put it. You might for a while, but then you might have to get rid of it so that you could store something more important. This means that you have eventually to decide between possibly buying the same thing twice, or going without a lot of things that make life pleasanter. By the end of the summer, one of the things I missed most was my toaster, as silly as that sounds.

Also, my experience of storing things in a car is like having to store everything in a single closet without any shelves. You have to keep everything in boxes or containers or duffel bags. Finding anything frequently requires digging through those things. You can't leave stuff just lying around, because there isn't the space for it. Even improvised tables aren't very big. So you have to be conscientious about putting everything back every time you're done with it, which means you also have to dig for it every time you want it. Even when you are conscientious about it, entropy gets away from you really quickly in such a small space. And once it has, it's harder to get everything clean and organized again, because once again you're confined by your lack of space. Have you ever tried thoroughly cleaning a closet without ever getting out of that closet?
posted by colfax at 10:29 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

There is an RV park just outside NYC in New Jersey. You could live there in a nice motorhome or trailer and be a lot more comfortable than in a van.
posted by Jess the Mess at 11:22 AM on November 21, 2010

Old thread, but yes, NYC has exactly one trailer park. Google Maps.
posted by zvs at 1:38 AM on December 3, 2010

« Older How to heat-proof oven mitts?   |   Mars, phones, and an old man Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.