How a Singaporean couple saved $30,000 a year living in a DIY van in the US, Lifestyle News

In a country with nearly 90 per cent home ownership, even renting is considered unusual by some Singaporeans – but what about living in a van instead? This week, we talked to a couple who live in a van in the US and took a year-long road trip in it. Here’s their fascinating story:

Why live in a van? 

For Gracia and Yee Jia, they had the itch to travel around the world: 

“We got tired of chasing the Singaporean dream of materialism and bored of the confines of meritocracy. Coupled with our desire to travel the world, taking the leap of faith into van life was the happiest choice we have ever made.”

They found that living in a van provides the “comforts of home, wherever you go.” It’s also provided the opportunity for some unusual adventures:

“We had quite a few interesting experiences from living in a van, one of which was to stealth camp in our van while we were in New York City.

Being in the most expensive city in America, it was fun to try to find a safe and free parking spot, which we eventually did find across the Brooklyn Bridge just minutes away from the attractions. 

Another would be seeing parents live the van life in our van, when they both joined us for three weeks. Just seeing them adapt to the lack of the usual creature comforts of a house was very interesting, as they were very creative and found new ways to use what we had in our van. 

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For instance, we glamped in the middle of Arches National Park in Utah, using the tarp we had in our van and the cushions from our bed, alongside a foldable table to create a Japanese-like tatami mat set-up for us to relax.”

Given the price of housing in Singapore, we’re also certain some of our readers have wondered about the cash savings:

How much can you save by living in a van? 

Gracia and Yee Jia currently reside in the US, so the prices are in this context. They say that:

“In comparison with renting a place and living in a van, our total savings in a year would amount to an estimate of $30,000 for the both of us. Also, instead of tying ourselves down to a property mortgage by buying a house, we invested the remaining of our money and savings into the stock market. 

In the American context, given that the average cost of rent paid per renter in America is $1,326 according to World Population Review – we save almost $2,700 a month on rent for the both of us by living in the van. Also, assuming we stayed every night for 365 days, at the cheapest motel rate of $50 per night plus taxes, it would amount to $18,250.”

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There are other savings besides accommodation costs: 

“We cook in our van and store food in our freezer as we would a house; we can save an estimated amount of $700 to $800 for the both of us every month on eating out. 

Beyond that, there is no decent public transport system outside of big cities in America, thus owning a car and driving around is an essential part of life. Assuming we had rented a car for the year-long duration of our road trip, and paid the Hertz foreigner’s minimum rate of $30 per day for 365 days, it would still have been more cost-effective to buy a second-hand vehicle to drive and live inside. 

As the former option costs $10,950 and the latter option of purchasing a second-hand vehicle in our case was only $6,500 off Facebook marketplace, we found it better to own a second-hand van and live in it.”

A van as a living space

The vehicle model is a 2013 Ford Transit Connect with the following:

  • An electrical set-up comprising of 

    • 2 x 100W Solar Panels
    • 200ah Gel Battery
    • 12V Refrigerator
    • 12V Puck lights 
    • 12V Fan
    • 1500W Inverter + Wall socket for AC usage (Wall Plug)
    • Charge Controllers
    • USB Outlets

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  • An extension rack for overhead storage 
  • A pull-out bed that doubles up as a sofa during the day 
  • A set of custom hand-made cushions for the sofa bed
  • A mini kitchen with a gas stove and utensils for cooking 
  • A water storage system that allows us to be self-contained 
  • A ‘bathroom’ for a small business

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It wasn’t an easy process to build it at all, as the couple would attest. The couple had to do up their mobile home in less than a month, and their living conditions while it was being built was deplorable. From the smell of plywood, paint and sawdust, to painful blisters from cutting and sanding the wood, it was a challenging journey but the final result was one that was ultimately very rewarding.

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Besides the vans, the couple also converted a rental car for their parents to come along on the road trip. This second vehicle also acted as a makeshift home for their parents, who tagged along (for more details on the car and others, check out their YouTube video). 

Advice for picking a van as a home 

As for how to choose a van as a home, the couple had some useful insights to share.

“The most important thing would be budget. After knowing how much one is willing to spend on the van, other factors such as size (eg. how big is the vehicle going to be, what is the mileage per gallon of gas or diesel, how old the vehicle is) can then be considered. 

Other things we learnt to look out for especially when purchasing a vehicle second-hand in a country with four seasons is to check for rust on the underside of the vehicle, as rust can destroy a vehicle. Also, ask for the title deed and registration to ensure that one is not buying a stolen van. The VIN number can also be used to check if the vehicle has been through an accident.”

We’d point out that doing this in Singapore might be tougher than in the US, for the simple reason of parking (there aren’t too many places with free parking) and the cost of the COE might significantly reduce the potential savings. If you’re just seeking temporary accommodation for a year, for instance, it may be cheaper to pay rent than to pay the road tax, COE, and parking (depending on how high these costs are at the time). 

So to mitigate the parking issue, the couple seldom stay in the same place twice:

“We are on the road so every day we park at a different Walmart or Planet Fitness. Most of the time Walmart allows for overnight parking and so does Planet Fitness, a 24-hour gym franchise that can be found across the whole of America. If we are in the wild, we park on free public land.”

For those wondering about the actual logistics of it all, here’s what Gracia and Yee Jia had to share.

“The logistics of living in a van are surprisingly uncomplicated after the initial stage of figuring things out. Whenever we must receive a parcel, we send it under USPS ‘General Delivery’ to any nationwide post office, or shopping mall that accepts parcels. Renting a PO box is also an option for items of greater value. 

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of living in a van is dealing with the lack of a proper bathroom. However, we were able to get by with the use of our gym memberships to take showers at Planet Fitness branches located all around the United States.”

The couple also apply the KonMari method of not keeping things that don’t “spark joy,” keeping mainly to essentials that they use every day. 

And so while the van life might not be for everybody, it’s certainly captivating to follow Gracia and Yee Jia’s journey (@theproperpaupers) as they attempt to travel to all 50 states in the US.

This article was first published in Stackedhomes.



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