Americans convert vehicles into homes

A few months after the pandemic, JennaLynn and Corey Self became increasingly frustrated with living in their cramped apartment near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

It was expensive and the effort to keep social distancing in a big city COVID-19 felt increasingly burdened.

“We were just incredibly restless,” says JennaLynn. “If we wake up every day in our little DC apartment and have our dog running around the block and that’s the scope of our lives, why don’t we do this in a Vermont brewery?”

That’s when they decided to make a big change. Federal government contractors joined a seemingly growing number of Americans converting vans into RVs for permanent on-road use.

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Empowered by new remote working regulations and a desire to see the country at a time when conventional vacation travel is difficult, they bought a used Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter for $ 18,000 on Craigslist and retrofitted it for the road. In total, they spent around $ 8,000 on upgrades, including bathroom amenities, shelves, linens, and water equipment.

“It looks like a completely different van,” says JennaLynn.

They have been traveling the country since October, keeping their working hours on the east coast and using a mobile hotspot for WiFi. You’ve been to Niagara Falls, Chicago, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Colorado. When interviewed for this story, they were in Denver planning to travel to Southern California, Arizona, or New Mexico to “chase the weather,” as JennaLynn puts it.

“Van Life” or #vanlife as it is called on social media has been around for years. But the pandemic charged it.

Not everyone can do it as many Americans are struggling during the pandemic. Unemployment or reduced income, Some have lost their homes and live in their vehicles because they have no other options.

But for those who can afford it, #vanlife is especially good for this crisis because it is socially distant, has a limited budget, and encourages outdoor activities that are safer than indoor spaces where the air isn’t during the outbreak well circulated.

“We felt that this is the safest way to live our lives in a way that is natural to us, that is spontaneous, that does not have a major impact on human communities, and yet is really safe,” says JennaLynn.

Car manufacturers celebrate #VanLife trend

This is a welcome development for the automotive industry. While old-fashioned passenger cars that were sold to the public have largely been discontinued, brands that sell commercial vans, including Mercedes, Ram and Ford, are celebrating the trend.

Mercedes, whose Sprinter van is the vehicle of choice for many #vanlife supporters, appears to be the biggest winner. Mercedes-Benz U.S. van sales rose 22.5% to 274,916 in 2020, despite the brand’s total sales declining 8.9%.

“Everyone is trying to get their hands on a van,” says Stefanie Doemel, who manages up-fit ​​solutions for vans at Mercedes-Benz USA.

However, much of the increase is likely due to growth in sales of delivery trucks for package delivery during the pandemic.

According to Rich Webber, General Manager for Product Marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA, sales of vans for nomadic life are increasing rapidly.

Automotive analysts at IHS Markit, a research firm that closely tracks the auto industry, have no data on #vanlife. However, IHS chief automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley agreed that the evidence suggests #vanlife grew in popularity during the pandemic.

“Anecdotally it was certainly the case,” she says. “People want to travel, they still want to go out and do things, and the current pandemic situation has changed the way we can do that.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Corey and JennaLynn Self turned a used Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter into a viable vehicle.  They have since left their Washington, DC apartment to work on destinations across the country from their van and share their adventures on Instagram @drivingourselfs.

Used vans are a popular choice

Many Americans who choose #vanlife cannot afford a new van that can cost more than $ 50,000. But they can often afford a used one.

married couple Abby and Cody Erler lived in suburban Boston and worked 9 to 5 jobs when they decided to mess things up. They headed out in September after purchasing a Ram ProMaster van for about $ 25,000 and investing $ 10,000 in upgrades.

It was a classic do-it-yourself project, made possible in large part by YouTube lessons on technical tasks like installing electrical wiring and insulation.

“We had to do almost everything twice because we messed up the first time,” says Abby. “It was a real learning curve.”

Abby and Cody Erler converted this Ram ProMaster van for use on the street during the pandemic and spent about $ 10,000 on upgrades, including a bed, electrical wiring, shelves and a stove.  They share their story on Instagram @roadtowilderness.

They have a dining area, a cooking area and a bed, but they have done without a toilet and instead found public facilities like bathrooms at campsites. Many van lifters have Planet Fitness membership so they can use showers or toilets regularly.

“In the worst case scenario, we have a shovel in our back,” says Abby.

The Erlers liked life on the street partly because they love to travel but were unable to scratch that itch very often due to limited free time.

“In most places in the US, your vacation time is three weeks, two weeks, so you don’t have much time to go out and explore,” Abby says. “We live together, but we see each other two days a week with our schedule.”

Camping without a mobile home or tent

Camping was generally popular during the pandemic. Mobile home sales have increased and could hit an all-time high this year as many Americans went on vacation instead of getting on a plane.

Van lifters, however, prefer smaller, cheaper vehicles as they can be taken anywhere and can serve as a daily vehicle when needed. RVs can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s definitely not for everyone to be in a tight space, but we can park in a regular parking lot, which makes it very versatile where to go,” says Abby Erler.

Abby and Cody Erler converted this Ram ProMaster van for use on the street during the pandemic and spent about $ 10,000 on upgrades, including a bed, electrical wiring, shelves and a stove.  They share their story on Instagram @roadtowilderness.

Yes, with typical office work it can get tight on an area of ​​60 square meters. But lifestyle has made it possible for the Erlers to visit destinations across America like Acadia National Park in Maine during fall foliage and Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

In Kansas, “we were without seeing anyone all week and stayed at a real campsite,” says Abby.

If they got onto the streets during the pandemic, they were able to escape some of their troubles.

“You feel more relieved of some of the psychological stresses others go through when you’re trapped in one place,” says Abby. “We have wheels so that we can change our landscape, and after the work day I can take a dip in nature.”

While car manufacturers offer so-called “retrofit options” through third-party companies, most new vans are still largely equipped for commercial or government use.

Automakers may be able to better capitalize on the trend by offering pre-equipped vans instead of forcing people to make changes to the aftermarket, says Brian Moody, editor-in-chief of the auto sales page Autotrader.

Mercedes recently took a step towards catering to the #vanlife community by introducing the Mercedes-Benz Metris Getaway Van, which features a pop-top for camping, a sleeping area for two and a secondary battery for extra power.

But most commercial vans are “designed as delivery vans” and have “strict interiors,” says Moody.

The married couple Abigail (left) and Natalie Rodriguez travel the country, live in their converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and present their adventures on Instagram @letsplayrideandseek.

Strange beginnings

Many of the vans equipped for life on the road had beginnings that were much stranger than delivery vans.

A couple of years ago married couple Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez converted a 2004 Sprinter van that had previously been used as a prisoner transit vehicle. They paid $ 6,000 for it and invested about $ 10,000 in equipping it for the road.

“It was pretty beaten up,” says Abigail. You spent a lot of time “ripping out the inside and fixing the rust. There was a big hole that we had to mend. “

But your investment has paid off. They’ve been on the road since Natalie, a cook, decided to quit her job and Abigail expanded her photo business.

The married couple Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez travel the country, live in a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and present their adventures on Instagram @letsplayrideandseek.

“At the time, I was a cook working 55+ hours a week and not feeling fulfilled,” says Natalie. “I was tired of it. I didn’t have many travel options. “

They got it working in part because of their inexpensive lifestyle. They pay a few overheads like insurance and phone bills, make money from Abigail’s photography, and some sponsorships tied to the Instagram account they post photos to on the go.

Destinations they have visited include California, New Mexico, Montana, and the Michigan Upper Peninsula.

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They installed solar panels paired with a battery for electricity, a refrigerator, a countertop, a fixed bed, and a water tank that would last two weeks before needing to be refilled.

Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, they set out before the pandemic but say they now have more energy to continue this lifestyle, although they are currently on a brief hiatus for additional upgrades.

“We’re just getting started,” says Abigail. “We have no plans to quit anytime soon.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.


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